‘Cost-to-play’ helps casinos maintain edge

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Elliot Frome’s column in the Nov. 7 issue of Gaming Today offers much “food for thought.”  

 I found it quite interesting, especially as it compared various forms of gaming, including poker, my favorite game.   

 “Casinos, “he says, “are not in the business of gambling. They provide the opportunity for other people to gamble.”  

 In most games other than poker, the casinos gain their money by setting the odds in their favor – the “house advantage” – or charge a fee to play.  Basically, the same applies to the sports books that seem to be gaining in popularity.  In the long run, the casinos are bound to come out well ahead.  (If they did not, they would not be in business very long; their expenses are high, and they need to show a profit.)  

 In that regard, poker is rather unique among gaming activities. In casinos and card rooms, the poker dealer deftly takes the money (chips) out of each pot. Quietly, without attracting much attention, the dealer moves a specified amount of chips called the rake, next to a box with a slot located just to his right, into which he/she will drop those chips at the conclusion of the hand.  

 Also, usually there is a bad-beat jackpot drop that goes into another slotted box to the dealer’s left, just under the table top. Add in the tip from the winner, and that constitutes the total Cost-to-Play the game.   

 At a full table of nine players in a $4-$8 limit game, that averages out to be about $25 per hour for each player.  Play for seven hours, and the cost adds up to $175 per player. At short-handed tables, the cost is proportionately higher. That’s one good reason many smart players will take a break if there are five or fewer players seated at the table.)  

 What does that Cost-to-Play mean to the smart player?  He or she intuitively knows that to be a winner he must win enough chips to make up for this cost. All things being equal, with nine players in the game, he can expect to win, on average, one out of nine hands dealt – essentially breaking even were it not for the Cost-to-Play. It’s simply a matter of “pay to play.” 

 So, how can a player overcome that cost?  For one thing, he must have viable standards for selecting the starting hands in which he “invests” his precious chips. The Hold’em Algorithm described in my book, Hold’em or Fold’em? (See ad) offers viable criteria for starting hands, based on position, card rank (most important), whether connectors and/or suited, game texture, raises, and number of players staying in the hand to see the flop. Some poker publications also offer useful charts.

  For example, if the game texture at his table is not to his liking (I prefer loose-passive games with a modest amount of raising pre-flop), he can make a table change or take a long break from the action.  (Perhaps it’s a good time to have dinner.)  

 In addition, the smart player realizes that his hand must improve on the flop or offer a strong drawing hand with at least six good outs. Otherwise he will fold unless the betting is checked all around, so he gets a free card on the turn.  

 The smart (winning) player also knows when and how to bluff to force out his opponents (Ref. The Art of Bluffing;  see ad) so they leave the pot for him, adding to his stacks of chips. 

  When he is fortunate to flop a big hand (best is the nuts, of course), he can also use various other forms of deception – such as slow-play and check-raise – to build the size of “his” pot.  

 I have heard rumblings that some casinos are considering raising their rake. That would make the Cost-to-Play all the higher. 

 Well, you can always find a home game with little if any rake.

About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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