Smart money bets for bettors

Jan 9, 2009 1:25 AM
From the Archive -- by David Stratton |

Over the years, Las Vegas casinos have evolved from gambling halls of green-felt craps and blackjack tables to incredible electronic arcades with electrified sights and sounds that relentlessly hammer the senses.

With so much happening in the casino -- at peak hours you can feel like you’re in the middle of a prison riot -- it’s hard to know where’s the best spot to plunk down your money and take a run at Lady Luck.

The short answer is, the best place to bet is where you can win. Theoretically, you can win anywhere in the casino, but the trick is doing so at minimal cost. We’ll explore the cost, as reflected in the "house edge," later.

Table games -- blackjack, dice, roulette and poker -- have traditionally been the games of choice for serious gamblers. But as slot and video gambling machines have become more sophisticated -- and their jackpots so staggering -- so has their attraction to casino players.

The obvious allure of slot machines is their jackpots, which can reach into the millions of dollars. Some of the more popular ones include Megabucks, High Rollers, Fabulous Fifties and Dollars Deluxe. While most pay their awards in installments (usually over 20 years), some of them pay the full award instantly.

While slots beckon players with lottery-like payoffs, video poker machines have introduced an element of skill that can increase the player’s chances of winning.

Moreover, the proliferation of higher denomination machines -- $1, $5, $10, $25 and higher slot machines -- has fueled a trend toward machines with higher payback percentages.

But that doesn’t mean playing slot machines is your best bet. Of course, they can be fun and exciting, but the smart money in the casino seeks something else -- a low house percentage.

The house percentage or house "edge" is the result of a combination of factors, the odds or percentages inherent in the game, and payoffs at less than actual odds or predetermined payoffs, such as those in a slot machine.

The casino’s edge may be small -- as in blackjack, craps and some forms of sports betting -- or enormous -- as in keno and wheel of fortune. Regardless of the size of the house edge, over the long run it will systematically eat away at a player’s bankroll.

So, if the casino has an edge in every game, why gamble at all? The casino’s advantage occurs over the long run, over a large number of events, bets or games. But dramatic fluctuations in winning and losing percentages can and do occur over a short time span. The winning gambler knows how to take advantage of the short winning streaks that invariably occur.

Everyone’s heard the phrase, quit while you’re ahead (though few have the will power to do so). And it’s understandable. Who wants to stop when you’re on a roll? But the house advantage will continue to eat away at any gains you make until, eventually, it has turned the tables.

Most of the heavy-duty gamblers, the so-called high rollers, play the game of baccarat. It would seem that one of the reasons is the mystique that surrounds the game — dealers are dressed in tuxedos and the tables are often roped off or in their own private salon. But the real reason the well-heeled player will toss around six figure bets is the relatively low house advantage, about 1.36 percent. This is about as low as it can get in the casino, with blackjack and some craps bets offering comparable house percentages.

Here’s how to interpret the house percentage or house edge. For the aforementioned baccarat, the player will lose 1.36 cents for every dollar bet during the course of play. In a short period of time, the player may win despite the casino’s edge, but in the long run the house advantage will prevail.

Obviously, the greater the house advantage, the faster it will eat up your bankroll. The major component of house advantage is the difference between what the odds are and what the payoff is. So don’t confuse the odds with the house advantage.

For instance, if the odds of hitting a three-team sports parlay were 7-1, and the casino paid the player 7-1, then the house advantage would be zero, a situation casinos could not exist on. So, in most sports books, the payoff for a three-team sports parlay is 6-1. In this case the casino arbitrarily gives itself a house advantage of 12.5 percent.

Even a simple bet on a football game, in which either side has a 50-50 chance to win, won’t pay off at even money, because in that case there is no house advantage. So, the casinos "charge" a percentage to make the bet. Typically, that figure is 10 percent, so a player must bet $1.10 to win $1.

Although the house percentage may not be practical in predicting the outcome of a game of chance, it is useful as a guide in deciding which games give you the best opportunity of winning. Keno, for instance, has a house advantage of more than 25 percent, while the Pass Line craps bets have a house advantage of only 1.4 percent. Obviously, your chances of winning at craps are significantly greater than at keno. But people continue to play keno with its poor chance of winning because it holds out the possibility of lottery-like jackpots.

Blackjack, or "21," is the casino’s most popular table game. The rules are simple to learn, and, if sound, basic strategy is followed, the player can greatly reduce the casino’s edge and possibly swing it in his favor.

The basic winning strategy for Blackjack, based on computer-generated studies, is not a deep dark secret. Any number of books will list the choices. But it’s important for the player to follow the strategy, and not be swayed by "hunches" or other deviants.

Craps also provides a chance to win large sums of money in relatively short periods of play. But it’s important to avoid the myriad of "sucker" bets that have a high house advantage.

As with other casino games, the goal in craps is to capitalize on the relatively short cycle of streaks that invariably occur. These are marked by prolonged passes of the dice by a given shooter. That is, the shooter continues to roll, often times for many minutes, without sevening out. You can take advantage of these hot streaks by playing the Pass Line, backing that bet with Free Odds bets and placing multiple Come bets, also with Free Odds.

Baccarat is also among the games with a low house advantage, but players don’t decide when to draw cards, so there is no skill involved in playing the game. It is purely a game of chance. However, streaks do occur, and a winning strategy can take advantage of these cycles.

A sound winning strategy calls for placing bets on the bank hands. This surprises many players because bank bets are subject to the 5 percent commission. However, the bank should win 50.7 percent of the time. And the 5 percent commission is paid only on winnings and not on losing bets. So, a player has a slightly better advantage by playing the bank.

For those who simply MUST play the machines, video poker has the lowest house advantage. The three best types of games to play are Jacks or Better 9/6, Double Bonus 10/7 and full pay Deuces Wild (the 9/6 refers to 9-1 payoff on full houses and 6-1 on flushes).

No other casino game has gained the popularity that video poker has enjoyed over the past few years. In Las Vegas , video poker machines are especially popular at so-called locals casinos, where you’ll find a multitude of choices.

There are several reasons for video poker’s popularity. The first is that people can play at their own pace, without pressure from dealers, croupiers or other players. Secondly, there’s an element of skill in video poker: Decisions must be made which, unlike slot machines, will determine whether and how much you can win. And, most important, there’s always the chance of hitting a lottery-like jackpot.

The game of video poker is basically five-card draw poker. Machines offer several variations to the game, with more being developed every day. The two that you should concentrate on are: 1) Jacks-or-better draw poker; and 2) Deuces Wild poker.

By playing these kind of machines with the maximum number of coins bet, a player who uses optimal strategy (see any video poker guide) can achieve a payback of 99.5%, 100.1% and 100.7%, respectively. The machines are usually available in most casinos, especially the locally-oriented ones, such as Stations, Coast, Stratosphere and Arizona Charlies, and they come in most denominations -- quarters and dollars are the most dominant.