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Having a Super Vegas weekend

Jan 21, 2003 1:19 AM

CASINO ACTION reaches a feverish pace on Super Bowl Sunday as slot and table game players challenge Lady Luck.

When you come to Las Vegas, especially for an event like the Super Bowl, don¡¦t buy into the "Disneyland of Nevada" pitch. Las Vegas has one reason for its existence ¡X 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 Strip 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 lounges ¡X 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.

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 ¡X 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 ¡X as in baccarat and sports betting ¡X or enormous ¡X as in keno and the wheel of fortune. But collectively it generates billions of dollars a year in gambling profits.

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.

Most visitors come to Las Vegas with the intention of making their bankroll last as long as possible. They do this by finding a game in which they lose at a slow pace. If that¡¦s entertainment, fine. But why not play the games, and if you get lucky and win a jackpot or two, take a break from the casino. Do some shopping or sightseeing or find a magazine and relax by the pool. You might find your trip more memorable if you come home with money in your pocket.

Sports betting

If you¡¦re in town during the Super Bowl, you¡¦ll probably want to place at least one bet on the game (see related section on this year¡¦s Super Bowl). 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.)

Sports books also set up a point spread to balance the betting between the favorite or underdog. This year, Oakland has been made (at press time) a 4-point favorite; that is, it must win by more than 4 points to win. If the Raiders win by less than 4 points, or loses outright, you lose the bet. If the final score falls on the number, say, 21-17, 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 ¡V1.80 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.

During the Super Bowl, you¡¦ll also find tons of "prop" bets. These propositions can be straightforward wagers, such as which team will kick the most field goals or recover the most fumbles, to outlandish propositions such as will the Raiders score more points than the UCLA Bruins basketball teams.

While these bets can be fun, don¡¦t get carried away. Some sports books in town make two- to four-times as much money on prop bets as they do the game itself.

Slot machines

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, High Rollers, Fabulous Fifties and Dollars Deluxe. While most pay their awards in installments (usually over 20-25 years), some jackpots pay the first million 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 The Three Stooges. The latest slot machines also incorporate 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

Because the Super Bowl lasts only a few hours, you¡¦re going to have plenty of time to spend in the casino, which can be a cornucopia for any gambling gourmet. A good place to start on the menu is with the table games, Blackjack, craps, roulette and others.

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 gain an advantage and multiply your winnings when doubling down or splitting cards. You should always double down on any 11, no matter what the dealer shows. You also double down on 10 when dealer shows anything except a 10 or Ace, and double down on a 9 when dealer shows 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. You should always split aces and 8-8. But you should never split 5-5 or 10-10.

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.

It is also one of the least understood games, mainly because of the complicated table layout. The game, however, is very simple. A player or "shooter" rolls a pair of dice that determines the outcome of his and other players¡¦ bets.

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. If you¡¦re experimenting, do it on the lower-limit tables downtown.

Baccarat

Baccarat is the most glamorous, if not mysterious, game in the casino. The playing tables are usually roped off, and the croupiers staffing them are typically dressed in tuxedos. Because of the Monte Carlo aura surrounding the game, most players are intimidated from participating.

The object of the game is surprisingly simple. Players can bet one of of two dealt hands ¡X one for the "player" and one for the "bank." The object of the hand is to score 8 or 9 points with 10s and face cards valued at 0. It¡¦s that simple.

Because players cannot decide when to draw cards, there is no skill involved in playing baccarat. It is purely a game of chance. However, streaks do occur, and a winning session usually follows one of these cycles.

Roulette

Roulette bets can pay handsomely. Pick the right number and your $5 bet, at odds of 35-1, is worth $175. But coming up with a winner takes tremendous powers of intuition, or blind luck. Neither lends itself to a sound betting strategy, but the game can be fun.

If you can find a casino with a European-style roulette wheel ¡X just a single 0 rather than a 0 and 00 ¡X the house advantage drops by almost half to 2.7 percent. Besides betting numbers, you can bet groups of columns of numbers, even or odd, or black or red numbers.