Smart money bets

Aug 3, 2004 6:37 AM

(This is the first in a two-part series on casino games.)

With so much happening in the casino, 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, baccarat 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.

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.

The result is that gaming machines are now the most popular casino games, with blackjack running a somewhat distant second.

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.

But serious players don’t want to sit around and simply watch their stack of chips slowly melt away. Serious fluctuations can and do occur, resulting in huge swings in the amount of money won and lost.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at the various casino games, and show how the best players use their "smart money."