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Anatomy of a casino

Jul 9, 2002 2:41 AM

When you come to Las Vegas, especially on a summer vacation, don’t buy into the "Disneyland of Nevada" pitch. Las Vegas has one reason for its existence ”” gambling. Everything else, no matter how tantalizing and delicious, is a supporting act. Gambling is the star attraction.

Luckily, gambling can be a compelling form of entertainment, if you learn a bit about the process and stay within your limits. Most tourists play for pleasure and the excitement, but you can also win a few dollars along the way . . . maybe even a few million dollars! And if you’re clever, your losses don’t have to be catastrophic.

While Las Vegas casinos can be characterized as sanctuaries of fantasy, luxury and utter madness, they have evolved from halls of green-felt craps and blackjack tables to incredible electronic arcades.

Pick any casino and inside you’ll find dozens of craps and blackjack tables, roulette wheels, baccarat pits, Big 6 wheels, Caribbean Stud, poker parlors, race and sports books, Pai Gow poker, keno and bingo lounges ”” and acres and acres of slot machines! Pick any casino and you’re sure to have an enjoyable time, especially if you keep a few guidelines in mind.

THE HOUSE EDGE

All Las Vegas casinos deal in the same basic commodity: a chance to beat the odds. But one thing every level-headed gambler understands is that winning is a hit-and-run proposition. Because the casino enjoys a statistical advantage in every game, the longer you play, the greater your chance of losing.

The house advantage is the result of a combination of factors ”” the odds or percentages inherent in the game, rules tailored to favor the casino, payoffs at less than actual odds, or predetermined payoffs like those in slot machines. The casino’s edge may be small ”” as in baccarat and sports betting ”” or enormous ”” as in keno and the wheel of fortune. But collectively it generates billions of dollars a year in profits.

If the casino has an advantage in every game, why gamble at all? Well, gambling can be fun and exciting. In rare instances it can be profitable. The casino’s advantage plays out over the long run, over a large number of events, bets or games. But dramatic fluctuations in Lady Luck can occur over a short span, and people actually win.

The trick is winning in the short span, but that’s not always easy to do. It’s difficult to leave the blackjack or craps table in the middle of the evening, even though you’ve doubled your initial bankroll. It’s also difficult to stop playing a slot or video poker machine, especially after you’ve hit some pretty substantial jackpots. There’s excitement in the air and no one wants to be a party pooper.

SPORTS BETTING

Sports betting is big business in Las Vegas, but it doesn’t generate the huge profits the machines and table games do. Therefore, sports books do everything possible to tilt the odds in their favor.

The first thing they do is charge a commission or "vigorish," usually 10 percent, on your bet. This means, for example, you must risk $110 to win $100 on a straight bet. (If your team wins, you get back $210.)

During the football (and basketball) season, sports books also set up a point spread to balance the betting between the favorite or underdog. If your team is favored by 7 points, it must win by 8 or more. If it wins by less than 7 points, or loses outright, you lose the bet. If the final score falls on the number, say, 21-14, it is a "push" or tie and the bet is refunded.

In lieu of betting against the point spread, you can bet the team’s "money line," which is simply a decimal version of odds. For example, a team with a —1.80 money line means you must risk $1.80 in order to win $1, which, added to your original bet gives you a payoff of $2.80. If the team’s money line were +1.80, a win is worth $1.80 for every $1 bet for a like payoff of $2.80, but at a risk of only $1. Baseball bets use the money line (rather than point spread), and many astute bettors believe betting on baseball is the player’s best chance to win. Of course, you have to know which team to bet!

SLOTS

The proliferation of slot machines in the casino has created a sort of high-tech fairyland with electrified sights and sounds that relentlessly hammer the senses, and beckon visitors to defy the odds and take a shot at becoming a winner, if not an instant millionaire.

Instant millionaires? As slot machines have evolved, so has the size of their jackpots. It’s not uncommon for slot jackpots to reach into the millions of dollars. Some of the more popular ones include Megabucks, Jeopardy, $1 Million Pyramid and Quartermania. While most pay their awards in installments (usually over 20-25 years), some jackpots such as the Addams Family pays the jackpot instantly.

The types of slot games have also changed dramatically in recent years. While you can still find your favorite Wild Cherry, Double Diamond and Red, White & Blue slot machines, new games with more pay lines and whimsical themes have become the rage.

For instance, you can play games using characters ranging from Betty Boop to Elvis to Playboy’s bunnies. The latest slot machines also incorporate bonus games within a game, such as Wheel of Fortune and the wildly popular Monopoly. Enhancing these and other slot games are the bonus or free play concept. No matter which machines you succumb to, always read the pay tables to understand what you’re gunning for. You don’t want to line up all the symbols and miss being a millionaire because you failed to drop that third coin into the slot.

TABLE GAMES

The foundation of any casino is its table games, even though the casino rakes in more money through its slot machines. A good place to start on the menu is with blackjack and craps, the top two games.

Blackjack

Blackjack or "21" is the casino’s most popular table game. The rules are simple to learn, and, if sound basic strategy is followed, you can greatly reduce the casino’s edge and possibly swing it in your favor. The basic winning strategy for blackjack is published in dozens of guides, many of which are available in the casino.

One of the basic tenets of blackjack is to take a hit until you reach at least 17 when the dealer has a 7 or higher showing. But if you’re up against a dealer’s 4, 5 or 6, it’s best to stand on a 12 or higher; if against a dealer’s 2 or 3, you hit the 12. You can multiply your winnings when doubling down or splitting cards.

Craps

Craps is one of the most exciting and fastest games in the casino. And, because of its low house percentage, it provides a chance to win large sums of money in relatively short periods of play. Craps is complicated by the myriad of bets available to the players. A good plan of action calls for playing the Pass Line, backing that bet with Free Odds bets and placing multiple Come bets, also with Free Odds.