JR Swift’s Blog

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Twas the night before Vegas… (Gambling 101)

Posted by jrswift on April 8, 2007

…and, all through the house, not a creature was stirring.  Ahhh…forget about it.  You didn’t think I had managed to come up with a full Las Vegas version of that little poem, did you?  On the other hand, tonight is the night before Vegas.  I really hate the day before a trip begins.  You have to actually pack things and make sure you remember to do certain things and the next 18 hours or so will be filled with far more tedium than fun.  Not only that, but the anticipation associated with any event is essentially gone.  I find that I get almost as much pleasure planning a vacation as actually going on it (maybe I should have been a travel agent) and the weeks of fun counting down the days are now over.  And tomorrow I have to get up relatively early (which I don’t like), drive to airport (which I don’t like) and then deal with the hassle of flying all the way there (which I don’t like) and that is going to take the better half of 6 or 7 hours.  Oh well…better than taking the bus.  In any case, I should be in sunny Las Vegas in about 17 hours so don’t expect any clever banter on this site for a week or so.  I will attempt somewhat of a “trip report” when I get back and maybe I’ll get around to that next Sunday.

I did actually want to talk about a Vegas-related topic for a bit tonight: gambling.  I guess that is the one thing that Las Vegas is known for more than anything else, though it hardly differentiates it from most of the rest of the US,  as most of us now live within a reasonable driving distance of a casino.  Still people do imagine going to Las Vegas and winning a lot of money.  A few do.  I never have,  though I suppose at some point I could.  (This week would be a nice time for that.)  Frankly most people who win a lot of money are usually the same people who also lose a lot of money.  In general you have to bet big to win big and I won’t be doing that.  On the other hand, I do enjoy a bit of wagering and tonight I share my personal secret for making your money last and getting the most out of it.

First of all, ignore everything else you’ve ever seen written about gambling.  OK, maybe not all of it since most of it is technically true, but that doesn’t mean that it is going to be remotely relevant to you on your Las Vegas trip or your trip to any other casino.  The most important thing to remember is that you aren’t going to win.  OK, you might win but will you win enough money to just stop playing and go home?  Probably not.  Most gamblers have at least a few nice hits on a machine or a good run or two at the tables but then they turn around and give it all back.  The question you need to ask yourself is at what point you would be satisfied with what you won and stop.  Be realistic.  Now figure out the odds of winning that much money playing the games you normally like to play.  Now your chance of “winning” drops from maybe 30-40% to much less than 5% or at least that’s the way I’m spinning this.  And for you veteran gamblers, honestly, what percentage of the time do you leave a casino feeling ecstatic about how much you just won?  I think that 5% number is a lot closer than the nearly 50/50 shot most gambling books seem to try and sell you.

Once you realize that you aren’t very likely to win, the question then becomes how can I lose slowly and still enjoy the perks of playing and free drinks, etc.  That is a very different question than the question of how can I win.  It has a very different answer.

Most gambling books will tell you to play Blackjack and will teach you all the proper ways to play your hand.  They will tell you that, if you chose the right game, your odds of winning are nearly 50/50 and they are technically right.  Of course finding that game may be difficult or impossible.  These casino bosses aren’t idiots.  They’ve introduced all sorts of “enhancements” that make most blackjack games a good deal worse than the ones described in the books.  Worse yet is the “card counting” scam.  The number of people who can learn to do this and learn to cover it up properly while playing under the bright lights of a Las Vegas casino is very low.  And, if they catch you, they’ll ban you from the game.  Besides, that sounds like a lot of work.  Unless you are planning on gambling for a living, why would you want to do that much work.  And, if you are going to be a professional gambler, why would you want to spend your vacation in Las Vegas.  You should already live there.

But you say, in the long run, Blackjack is still a good game.  Even if I have to play with a continuous shuffle machine and only get paid 6/5 for a blackjack, it is a lot better than playing slots or roulette or keno.  Well, yeah.   If you play long enough, you can get a pretty close approximation of those good odds.  But what is “long enough?”  Is it a couple of hundred hands a couple of times a day?   If you believe that, go ahead and invest the bankroll and try it.  Now you will break even some percentage of the time but you’ll also have days you lose everything and days where you win quite a bit.  The “long run” is an awfully long time statistically and it isn’t a 3-day junket to Sin City.  And, if you chase your losses time and time again, figuring that the “law of averages” is on your side, you’re a damned fool.  Now, to be fair, blackjack is a pretty good game as far as “volatility” goes.  Volatility is how wide the swings of variance are in a particular game.  It is better than the nickel slots…no question about it.  Actually it is better than any slot machine or video poker machine that anyone would actually drop on a casino floor.  But you can still drop a couple of hundred pretty fast at a $5 or $10 table if you aren’t careful.  In short, blackjack isn’t a bad game if you have the bankroll to play at the table stakes you’ve chosen.  But, again, you will lose all of it a much larger percentage of the time than you will turn it into a small fortune.

(That reminds me of a good Vegas joke:  How do you come home from Las Vegas with a small fortune?  A:  Go there with a large fortune.)

Craps and Baccarat are also sold as really good games if you want to have a “fighting chance” to “beat the casino” but these games are even more volatile and are usually going to involve putting a lot more money at risk to get those “good odds.”  Baccarat is usually a minimum of $25 a hand and, even at a low stakes craps table, most gamblers will have at least $15-$25 riding on each throw of the dice.  You can win a good deal of cash fast in these games and you’ll do it more often than playing Roulette, but you are still more likely to suddenly lose $250-$500 than you are to win big.   If you are fortunate, you will be able to grind away for quite a few hours and a lot of times you can.  But you will also get wiped out a significant percentage of time so keep that in mind.

Now let’s turn to slot machines.  They are usually awful bets.  The big sell on most of these machines in how you can win a $1 million or a new BMW.  In order to subsidize those huge prizes, those machines are going to have to take a little bit of money from a lot of people.  They aren’t going to pay out as many small jackpots, the kind that keep you playing for a while.  If you must play, play a low denomination machine that has a small jackpot.  But, you protest, that is boring.  I want to win big!  I think we already covered that.  If you want to try and “win big,” be my guest…but expect to lose big a lot more often.

I frequently play video poker and, while it is far from a perfect game and simply bores some people to death, it isn’t a bad choice.  It does help to learn the strategies and the the pay tables to look for,  as it will improve your odds of hanging in there and occasionally winning a bit.  If that sounds like no fun to you, feel free to skip it.  Again, a video poker machine that advertises a lot of really big payouts for four aces or any unusual hand is not very likely to be the one you want to play.  It will be more volatile than other more boring looking machines which aren’t as exciting.  You can still lose quickly at video poker but it is less likely than playing slots and you can frequently get some nice little payoffs to keep you going for a while.

This brings up another rule that I use that seems to conflict with much of what I’ve said so far:  always play the number of coins (or credits) that you have to play to win the jackpot.  This is the “avoid kicking yourself” rule.  Even if you are playing a low denomination, low volatility machine with a relatively small jackpot, you could conceivably hit it and you don’t want to be kicking yourself because you didn’t play max coin.  Better to step down to a lower stakes machine and play max than play one at a time and miss out on your “once-in-a-lifetime” win.

Now we reveal the secret to losing small in the casino and it conflicts with every expert you’ve ever read before:  hit the keno lounge.  What you say?  Keno has absolutely atrocious odds and you’ll never hit those big jackpots.  Are you nuts?  All of those things are true.  But you can also play a game of keno for a $1 most anywhere in Las Vegas.  Even if they squeeze in 15 or 20 games an hour, the most you can possibly lose is $15-$20.  You’ll get your money back or win a few bucks often enough that you won’t lose that much.  And you get to set down in a relatively comfy chair and relax a bit.  Oh…and the cocktail waitresses hit the keno lounges most places like clockwork.   In most cases, you won’t be able to drink fast enough to keep up with them.  Oh…and those huge jackpots you want to win?  They have them in keno too.  So you can keep playing your 7-spot all night for very little risk, with great cocktail service and still have a (remote) chance of hitting for some big bucks.

Other interesting choices for people so inclined might be bingo or betting on the horses in the race/sports book.  Again, for a fairly small investment you can play a long time and have at least a small chance at a nice prize.

In conclusion, you aren’t going to win so you should figure out how to lose slowly to maximize your gaming time.  You play at relatively low stakes (how low will depend on how much gambling money you have), you play games with fairly low volatility and games with fairly small “jackpots,” more or less insuring a number of smaller hits.  You play games that move slowly (keno, blackjack), not games that move fast like slots.  You accept that you are spending money to be entertained by the experience and the small chance of a big win, not “investing” in some scheme that will make you big money.  People who sell those schemes are the only ones who win.  Well…they, and the casino who take big money off the suckers who try it.

So that’s my final thoughts on Las Vegas.  I hope that you all had a wonderful Easter and will have an enjoyable week.  I’m certainly going to try.



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