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Deal Me In


The Only Game in Town 

Dear Mark: I know that with strict adherence to basic strategy and a 3/2 payout for blackjack, you can cut the house edge to .5%.  Assuming that I continue to use "perfect" basic strategy, what does the house edge shift to when the blackjack payout is only 6/5?  We're going on a cruise, and I've read that this is "the only game in town." Walt I. 

One of the most legendary gamblers of all time was a Three-Card Monte dealer named Canada Bill. His gambling immortality rests not on his gambling prowess, nor his notable wins. He is remembered by but a single line he once voiced on the Mississippi, a phrase recited by gamblers ever since. Canada Bill lost his entire bankroll at Faro when a friend approached him and said, “Bill, don’t you know this game is crooked?” “Yes,” answered Canada Bill, “but it’s the only game in town.” 

And so goes it for you, Walt, sailing the high seas playing the only game in town, 6 to 5 Blackjack, where the payoff is only $6 for every $5 wagered when dealt one.

Yes, Walt, when you are on your game using perfect basic strategy, the casino edge, depending upon the number of decks, can normally be well under a half of one percent when you are getting the maximum value for a blackjack, one that pays 3 to 2. The 6 to 5 game, however, has a house advantage of 1.45%, more than eight times the advantage the casino has on a normal single deck game, and whammo!, it’s almost triple the house edge the casino carries on an eight deck shoe.

You didn’t mention your typical bet, but if you are a $50 a hand hitter, you get paid $75 when blackjacks pay 3/2. Getting paid 6 to 5 on a $50 bet gets you only $60 for a snapper.  

As I told the naked lady on the green horse, for me the reduced payout of $15 per blackjack is not worth the cost of playing the only game in town, and it gets worse, Walt, in that you could see as many as five blackjacks an hour, shorting you $75 hourly just to be a card-carrying member of the Canada Bill Club. 

Dear Mark: I play video poker from time to time mostly because I know the bartenders and get the "free" drinks when I play. I'm not an expert, and I usually play deuces wild or jacks or better quarter machines. In your articles sometimes you refer to 9/6 machines or games. What does that mean?   Glenn W. 

If you notice, Glenn, there is always a pay table located under the glass of all video poker machines. This is, or should be, first-order-of-business-important to you as a player. The pay table reveals what the casino pays for a pair of jacks-or-better, two pairs, three-of-a-kind, flushes, a full house, etc. A 9/6 machine tells you that you are getting paid 9 for a full house and 6 for a flush, with one coin inserted.

The pay table should looks like this, Glenn: Royal flush 250-for-1; Straight Flush 50-for-1; Four of a kind 25-for-1; Full House 9-for-1; Flush 6-for-1; Straight 4-for-1; Three-of-a-Kind 3-for-1; Two Pair 2-for-1; pair of Jacks or Better 1-for-1. 

If you stumble on a full-pay Jacks or Better machine that pays 9 coins for a full house, 6 for a flush, and 2 for two pair, you can expect a return rate -- free drinks excluded allowing you to play each hand correctly -- of approximately 99.5%, making it a pretty sweet machine to be playing on.

As for identifying a good Deuce's Wild machine, you want to find a machine that pays five coins for four-of-a-kind instead of four. With maximum coin play and perfect strategy, a five-coin return for four-of-a-kind gives you a slight edge against the house—a 100.76% return versus 94.34% if the machine returns just four coins. 

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "We've attempted to refute the endless stream of casino myths that turn people from competent players to superstitious gambling fools." --Adam Fine, Strictly Slots





On the up-n-up?

Dear Mark: You often talk about each pull of a slot machine having the same odds, regardless of its recent history. But somewhere along the line somebody has to make sure the machine does pay what it claims. Who does this? Richard M.

Because this column is syndicated nationwide, Richard, accept a generalized, in-a-nutshell answer to your question. Let’s begin with some givens that I have written about time and again.

Since every machine offered to the player is mathematically in the casino's favor, casinos make their moolah by paying you less than the true odds. Second, many casinos are publicly-traded companies not interested in exposing their gaming license to loss with any suspicion of funny stuff going on. For those two reasons, Richard, there really isn’t any need to cheat the general public beyond what the state allows.

Of course my narrative alone will not satisfy the hoi polloi, so every state has a gaming regulatory agency that provides casino patrons with protection from playing on a rigged machine.

Begin we must with the machine itself. Each new machine goes through roughly a six-month process to get approved. A state’s gaming regulatory agency tests the machine to make sure that it operates randomly, inspects its source code for any possible problems, and then looks at the principles behind how the random generation occurs. The agency scrutinizes how it picks the cards it's going to show you or how it selects the reel stops on a slot machine. Then the machine is placed out in the field (casino) prior to final approval.

After so many months on the casino floor, the machine then gets presented to a gaming commission for their approval or denial. If the machine is approved, the manufacturer may modify it under the each state’s regulations, and make variations to that machine. By variations I mean, pay table modifications, or in the case of video poker, swapping a Jacks-or-better for a Deuce’s Wild.

Approval isn’t necessarily needed to change a chip inside a machine to make it pay back less or more, just so long as approved chips are used, and the payback is within the minimum limit set by each state’s law.

A state’s gaming regulatory agency also conducts surprise field tests of “any and all” slot machines to make sure all the devices in use contain software programs or chips approved by their board. Randomly, a gaming agent will show up at a casino and say; "We're going to do your casino today and we want access to any machine of our choosing, now."

Agents in the field come armed with a laptop computer that has a database of all the chip signatures, and with each chip having a code number that contains all its attributes, including its percentages. They know on the spot if the chip is legit simply by inserting the chip into their specialized laptop; it reads the chip and all its contents to certify that it is an approved value chip. Hanky panky – even a slight twitch – and we’re talking the possible loss of an expensive and hard-won gaming license.

It happened in 1983 in a casino that I was working in, the famed Lake Tahoe resort that Cal Neva that Frank Sinatra once owned, and where Marilyn Monroe spent her final weekend, and where its at-the-time owner, Ron Cloud, allegedly rigged the slot machines and strong-armed debtors. Life just couldn’t get better for Yours Truly on its closure: Unemployment benefits, a season ski pass at Alpine Meadows and 155 consecutive days of skiing. Yes, every day was a picnic, every night a party, for me, that is, but not for Ron Cloud.

Take into account, Richard, that this was an all-purpose answer. With each gaming jurisdiction’s watchful eye, using different glasses, you can be assured that who’s watching whom is watching out for you.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “A wager is a fool’s argument.” - English Saying

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