Experience doesn't equal a good player in the casino

May 2, 2017 3:00 AM

Last week’s column was about the “average” video poker player. Quite frankly, the column was for myself as well. I need to remind myself while average is not really a bad thing for most things, in the case of gambling, it can be really, really bad. There is no doubt over time the average player has improved – especially in games that have been around a long time. But, that still doesn’t mean that on the whole they are very good.

The game of blackjack, when paying 3 to 2 for a Blackjack, has a payback of about 99.5%. It can offer a payback that high because the strategy is a bit more complex than something like Three Card Poker. The hold for blackjack used to be in the mid-teens and has now dropped to high single digits in many casinos (which is why many went to 6 to 5).

Now, let’s not confuse house advantage with hold. House advantage is just the mirror image of payback. A 99.5% payback game has a house advantage of 0.5%. The hold is the percent of the player’s buy-in that the casino keeps. Over a short period, there are many factors that can skew this number pretty badly. But, over time, it is a reliable measure of profitability for the casino. It takes into account how the players are really playing.

So, if I go up to a $5 blackjack table, buy $100 in chips and play for an hour, I’ll wager about $565 (taking into account splits and doubles). I should (per the payback) lose about $2.85. This translates into a hold of 2.85% ($8.50 of my $100). Ironically, if I bought in for $500 in chips, the hold would be below 1%.

This is why it can be a bad measure over a short period of time. But, over time, it evens out to give the casino a reliable number. Now, 100 hands is 3-plus hours of play so that’s a pretty long time. If everyone were playing perfect strategy, played 3-plus hours and bought in for $100, the casinos would be in big trouble.

We know the hold is in the high single digits even if offering 3 to 2 blackjack. So, the hold, on average is 3-4 times what it would be for me. On average, the players are probably playing the game to a 98-98.5% payback. This is the average. If I’m sitting at the table playing 99.5% and there are three other players, the other three average more like 97-98% payback. And, this is all an improvement compared to 20 years ago!

Thanks to all the books, websites and software, the average player has gotten better in the past two decades. But, this still means the average player is losing perhaps six times as much as an Expert at a game like blackjack. With some of the newer games, it might be far worse.

A game like Ultimate Texas Hold’em supposedly has a hold in the high 20’s, but has the same house advantage as blackjack. At the complete theoretical level (which no human can likely attain), the house advantage might be half of what it is for blackjack. Admittedly, it also has an average wager of about 3-4 times as high as blackjack, so that will increase one’s anticipated loss rate. Yet, because of the average increased wager size, the buy-in should go up, which should keep the hold at something comparable.

This means the average UTH Player is far worse relative to perfect than the average blackjack player. The average UTH player may very well be playing that game at a 95-96% payback, especially if we take into account the possibility of a few really good players out there. Now, I’ll admit there are likely far more good blackjack vs. UTH players out there. Some of this is because blackjack has existed for centuries and UTH has existed for a bit over one decade.

Blackjack has been analyzed by hundreds if not thousands of people and UTH has been analyzed by a small handful at best. So, the amount of information out there is vastly different.

Quite frankly, most of this breakdown should mean almost nothing to you. Your only goal should be to not be average. If a game like blackjack has an attainable payback of 99.5%, then you should go out and become one of those players!

Nothing is more beautiful to a knowledgeable gambler than a game with a high payback and a high hold! If a game’s hold is too low, the casino is going to look to change some payouts to increase the hold (i.e. 6 to 5 on blackjack) or lower the paytables on the base game or sidebet. But, a game like UTH has a 99%-plus payback and an over 20% hold will not be altered by the casino to lower the payback.

This gives you an opportunity to achieve that 99% and be very happy the average player is making the sacrifice (of his bankroll) for your benefit.