Tuesday, July 26, 2011

To Card or Not to Card

            This past week I received an e-mail from a reader who wanted to know whether the casinos could essentially reward “non-frequent” players with better hands in video poker.  As we all know, the craze of the past decade or so is to have a frequent shopper card for each store.  My keyring is lined with them.  I’ve got one from grocery stores, drugstores, bookstores and countelss others.  Casinos are no different.  When you play, you put your frequent player card into the machine and it keeps track of how much you wager and in turn rewards you with points for comps, etc…
            So the question being asked is – can/do the casinos make the machines pay more for people who do NOT put a card in the machine.  The reader who sent this e-mail was echoing sentiments he has heard from other local and/or frequent Players.  He also stated that it ‘seems’ like more Royal Flushes go to non-regular Players.
            I could probably write several pages about this topic, looking at it from a variety of different angles.  I’ll try to hit the highlights of some of these today.  As I have stated many times in this column, it is the law in most casino jurisdictions (Las Vegas certainly included) that any video game that uses what appears to be an ordinary object (i.e. a deck of cards) MUST be completely random.  This means that at any point in time, the probability of any card not already dealt showing up is the same as any other card not already dealt showing up.  Given this, it is absolutely NOT possible to favor one set of Players over another.

            This is NOT to say that you can’t make a computer do this.   As an IT professional with over 20 years of experience, I know that it would be very easy to favor Players based on such criteria.  Even if it were legal to do so, I’m not so sure that I would necessarily favor the infrequent Player over the frequent Player at casino games.  As we all well know, many tourists will joyfully lose money at a posh casino as long as they can enjoy the marble columns while they are doing it.  Locals, on the other hand, tend to look for better paytables and care less about the physical surroundings.

            It is in this very topic that the three key components of Expert Strategy collide – knowing which games to play, knowing the right strategy and knowing what to expect.  My reader did not present any true evidence that one group of people are getting Royals at a higher rate than another.  He only stated that it ‘seemed’ that way.  Nothing makes the casinos happier than a Player doing something less than optimal because it feels right.  There is only ONE way for things to swing when a Player does this.  In the long run, the casinos will win more and the Player will win less.

            While the casinos have certainly cut back over the past few years on points, comps and cashback, there is still one simple math fact.  If we go with the notion that the casinos DO NOT play favorites based on whether or not the card is in the machine, then removing your card from the machine only serves one purposes.  You get an overall lower payback by not getting your comps and cashback.

            The decision to pull one’s card from the machine would appear to be based on the notion that it ‘seems’ as if others are getting more Royals and thus it MUST be because the house is favoring someone else.  All of us who have played for hours have gone through dry periods in which we’re sure that everytime we discard a King, it is replaced by a King – especially when drawing on a 4-Card Straight or 4-Card Flush.  Or we seem to be dealt an overabundance of a certain Low Pair which never seem to turn into trips.  A significant portion of this is simply our minds playing tricks on us.

            There is only one of you.  Even if you’re playing with a spouse or a friend or two, there is still only two or three of you.  Then there is the rest of the casino, which you ‘assume’ are not regulars – especially if you don’t remember seeing them all the time.  Even if they truly are NOT regulars and they are NOT playing with a card in the machine, there are still far more of them than there of you.  When you hit a Royal, you probably don’t notice all the people around you who haven’t hit them.  When you go through a rough patch, all of a sudden you notice every time someone else hits one. 

            Of course, there IS the possibility that other Players are getting Royals more frequently than you are – but it doesn’t mean the casinos are out to get you.  Nor does it mean that the other guy is doing himself any favors.  But, I’ll save that for next week!  In the meantime, leave your frequent Player card in the machine.  Don’t make a cold streak even worse by leaving your comps and cashback on the table.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


            My recent trip to Las Vegas was more personal than business, so I didn’t spend a lot of time scouting out new games.  One game that kept popping up without looking for it much was Blackjack Switch.  I found at least one table (and fairly crowded) in about every casino I went to.  I didn’t have a lot of time to see how people were playing it either.  I find it very hard to believe that most people know the right strategy for switching, although many hands are obvious.  I’m also guessing that many people were using whatever strategy they use for regular blackjack to guide them when to hit or stick and this could be rather problematic to their bankroll too.

            To refresh everyone’s memory, Blackjack Switch requires the Player to play two hands of blackjack.  After the initial 2 cards are dealt to everyone and the Dealer’s upcard is exposed, the Player has the option to request that the 2nd card of each of his two hands be switched with one another.  So, if dealt a 10-6 and a 5-10, he can change this to be a 10-10 and a 5-6, which is quite a bit better.  The big tradeoff is that if the Dealer busts with a 22 it is considered a push to any Player’s non-bust hand except for a Natural Blackjack.  It is this rule that makes all the changes to our basic blackjack strategy.

            It is nearly impossible to describe the Switch strategy in a column like this.  With 10 possible upcards and a couple dozen different combinations of individual hands, there are literally thousands of possible combinations.  Instead, I have created a table of expected values for each combination and you need to add up the two values for your pre-switch hands and the two values for your potential post-switch hands – and whichever provides the higher expected value is the right strategy.  Again, many of the hands are obvious, so you won’t need to do this for those.

            Easier to describe is the new hit/stick strategy.  For starters, throw out most of what you think you know of blackjack strategy.  The Dealer busts with 22 a LOT of the time.  These hands becoming pushes means relying on the Dealer to bust to provide you with a win is greatly reduced.  As a result of this, we find that we Double Down and Split far less often – or more correctly, in far fewer circumstances.  We NEVER Double Down into a 10/Face or an Ace (not even with an 11).  The ONLY Double Down with Soft hands are a Soft 17 or 18 looking into a 5 or 6.  Splitting is reduced quite a bit as well.  The rule of ‘always’ splitting 8’s is gone.  Don’t split them into 10/Face or an Ace. 

            The interesting thing is that although there are far fewer conditions in which we Double Down, we don’t necessarily Double Down much less frequently.  As a result of Switching, we create the Double Down situations far more often.  We also wind up with many more strong no-hit hands – which is hardly a bad thing.

            The rules for hard hands only undergo a few changes.  Don’t yell at a Player for hitting a 12 into a 4 as that is the right move.  Hitting a 13 into a 2 is also correct.  However, 14 and above remains as per normal blackjack – only hit if the Dealer has a 7 through Ace as his upcard. 

            Blackjack Switch provides the opportunity for a Player to earn the same payback as regular blackjack – about 99.5% - while spicing up the game a bit.  The hit/stick strategy is actually probably a bit easier than regular blackjack, BUT it MUST be learned anew.  If you choose to use regular blackjack strategy on Blackjack switch, you will double the house advantage.  More critical is learning when to switch.  If you NEVER switched, you’d be giving the casino a nearly 10% advantage.  Of course, even if you just guessed at the switch strategy, you’d probably do better than that – but still far off from Expert Strategy.  Just making a handful of mistakes repeatedly could easily  double, triple or quadruple (or worse) the house advantage.

            A few months ago, I released Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch.  It is a 14-page booklet that explains the rules of the game and how the strategies (both Switch and hit/stick) were developed.  It will also give you some idea of what to expect when you play it.  It comes with a full-color business-sized strategy card for you to take with you to the casino, which includes BOTH strategies on it.  It normally sells for $6.95, but for Gaming Today readers I will make it available for $5.95.  If you’d like to order ONLY the strategy card, it is $2.95 and if you’d like additional cards (when you buy the book), they are only $1.50 each.

            Send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.  There are now about 150 Blackjack Switch tables out there.  Don’t be left behind – the Switch is ON!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

We're Mad as Hell and We're Not Going to Take it Anymore!

            Thanks to Facebook, the average person now has the opportunity to reach out to many people very easily.  Many companies have a presence on Facebook, so if you want to ask a simple question you can do so easily and probably get a quick answer either from the company itself or another customer.  Of course, you also have the opportunity to let a company know when you are disappointed in its performance in some way – although, I can’t promise that they won’t quickly delete your post if they don’t like it. 

            Of course, a single person saying they don’t like something about a particular company probably won’t be very effective at getting the company to make changes.  Sometimes, what occurred was an aberration and a company will quickly rectify the situation in some way.  Unfortunately, many times, companies simply put policies in place that don’t really put their customers first.  They somehow get the idea in their heads that they can treat their customers any way they want and they’ll just keep coming back.

            The question is did they get this idea based on past experience or are they just using wishful thinking?  It is probably a combination of both, which has always bothered me quite a bit.  Why do people allow themselves to be treated poorly by a company that they are paying to do something?  It seems like as customers we have set our expectations so low that we’ll take anything that comes our way.  We have lost the art of a good effective boycott of a company that chooses to abuse its cash-paying customers!

            No, I don’t have a particular company in mind (at least not a Las Vegas casino).  We did just finish a rather eventful trip to Las Vegas, with both highs and lows in customer service.  In the end, our rental car company (mostly) came through after a flat tire left us stranded on I-15 near Flamingo.  A very heartfelt “THANK YOU” goes to the NV-DOT worker who came to our rescue!  As a result of the way we were treated by the rental car company, we very nearly were in a position to find a new regular company to use on our trips.  Fortunately, the manager stepped up and made amends for one of his employee’s poor behavior and judgment. 

            Still up in the air (pardon the pun) is how our airline will deal with a far worse situation.  I’ll save these details for a future column (or my blog!).  The bottom line is that the airline will either make the situation right or we’ll be looking for a different airline to use when we travel.  If you allow a company to treat you poorly and you just keep using them, then the company learns that they can treat you poorly with no consequences.

            So, what does this have to do with casinos and gambling?  Casinos are companies.  You are their customers.  If you don’t get treated the way you want to, you are well within your right to ask to be treated differently.  If what you are complaining about is a specific rude occurrence or employee, don’t hesitate to speak to a supervisor or manager.  While the casinos have tightened their belts greatly recently, most do not want to be known as a place that treats people badly.  A few years ago, I complained that my non-smoking room smelled a lot like smoke and I even found a cigarette butt near the window.  A half an hour later, my wife and I were being moved to a 1 Bedroom suite on the top floor.  All I asked for was a replacement room for the one I had booked!

            Sometimes, the problem is a casino policy.  These can be far tougher to get changed on short notice.  If the casino has decided to make significant changes to their cashback or comp policy, or slashes its paytables, you can voice your dislike, but it is not as likely that a manager can just restore your prior level of either.  They might be able to do something to make you feel a bit better if you ask, but at some point you will have to ask yourself if you want to ‘agree’ to this change by continuing to go to that casino or if you want to make your unhappiness clear by going elsewhere.  Just keep in mind that if you change nothing about your habits – that is you keep going back just as often and play just as much, you will be quietly telling the casino that the change is completely acceptable to you.  On the other hand, if enough people reduce or eliminate their trips to this casino, you may just find them changing their policy again – but this time in your favor.

            The bottom line is that every dollar you play is like a dollar spent at a retailer.  You choose where you play and how much you play.  There are literally dozens of casinos in Las Vegas, and although many are now owned by the same corporation, there is still enough competition to let a casino know that you’re not going to take it anymore and take your business elsewhere.  Don’t be afraid to speak with your dollars!

            Speaking of Facebook, if you get a chance, go on over to my FB page and ‘like’ it!
(http://www.facebook.com/pages/Gambatria/153757698005564).  You can also do this from my website at www.gambatria.com.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Time for a Break

           Does anyone know why there are 4 quarters in football or basketball?  I can understand a some reasons for a halftime, but what is the point of the roughly 2 minute break that splits each half into its own half?  If they played just one 30 minute half in football, or 24 minute half in basketball would it really change the outcome of any game?  Maybe the athletes need the 10-15 minute break in the middle of the game to catch their breaths or to have the coach have a better chance of analyzing what they are doing wrong or right, but I can’t help but feel that the majority of the reason for these breaks is to raise money by selling commercials.  My argument is only strengthened by the fact that basketball has even instituted the ‘TV timeout’ requiring the game to stop at certain intervals if one of the team’s has not called a timeout.

But, the purpose of this week’s column is not to complain about the amount of commercials in our sporting events, but to question the notion that taking some sort of break after a relatively short period of play serves no real purpose in terms of the outcome of the game.  The same is frequently true of video poker.  I certainly don’t advocate playing for hour after hour after hour without taking a break.  Video poker can be mentally exhausting given how challenging the strategy can sometimes be.  At the same time, believing that setting up artificial ‘breaks’ will somehow change the mathematical outcome (i.e. how much money you will win or lose) makes more sense in the NBA than it does in LV. 

Time outs in video poker can serve essentially two purposes.  The first is that it can refresh you if you are tired.  Playing video poker properly takes more energy than many other casino games.  It is one of the reasons it is not for everyone, because not everyone wants to think while they are being entertained.  If you find that you are making mistakes or simply not enjoying yourself, taking a break can be a good thing.  How long of a break?  I can’t answer that one.  If stretching your legs and coming back in 5 minutes clears your head, than that is long enough.  For others, they may want to catch a bite to eat.  For yet others, once they reach this point, it is time to go home, whether that be for the evening or for a month.  The length of the break exists only so that you can come back ready to play, mentally.  The actual length of the break (or even the existence of a break) makes no difference whatsoever from a mathematical perspective, unless you are making mistakes in your play.

The second reason for a break is a psychological one, which itself is broken into two possibilities.  The first is that you’ve lost a significant portion of your bankroll relatively quickly, and it might be a good time to stretch your legs.  I’m not buying into the notion that the machine needs to cycle or by moving to another machine you’ll somehow increase your chances of hitting the big hand.  Rather, repeatedly losing takes a toll on your mind.  You’ll get frustrated and either make mistakes accidentally, or decide to take chances you’d be better off not taking in some hope of getting all of your money back quickly.  This just leads to larger losses. 

The other side of the coins is that it is not a bad idea to take a break when you are winning also.  Most casino games are ‘negative’.  That is, you’re going to lose in the long run.  Video poker, when played expertly, should allow a Player to walk away a winner about 40% of the time for a reasonable length session (3 hours).  If you choose to make it a 6 hour session, the likelihood of winning over that time will decrease.  It’s nice to walk away a winner once in a while.

Again, I can’t give you a specific answer as to when to take break based on how much you’ve won or lost.  This is a personal decision based on your own psychological makeup.  Professional players can stay very focused even during a very poor session because they are playing hundreds of hours per year.  The recreational Player is not as likely to be able to do this.  You’re on vacation and you hope to win back the cost of the trip playing video poker.  You start off down, you get frustrated and you start taking more chances (i.e. not playing according to the strategy).  At this point, it is a good time to remember you are on vacation.  Go hit the pool and come back later or tomorrow when you’re in the right mindset to play and have fun.

One last point, I’d like to make for this week.  Earlier I stated that in a 3-hour session you’re likely to win about 40% of the time.  I’ve covered this topic before.  It is very easy to manipulate your sessions and your bankroll so that you win 90% of your sessions.  You’ll be able to boast to all your friends how you ‘beat the casinos’ most of the time.  Unfortunately, this may give you bragging rights, but doesn’t do anything for your bank account.  Your losing sessions will simply be that much larger than your winning sessions.  In the end, the amount of money you win will be based on the cards you are dealt and the way you play them – PERIOD.  It does not matter if you take no breaks or a hundred breaks.  If you play each hand the same way, you’ll have the same results whether it takes 100 seconds or 100 days to play those hands.  But, for those who want bragging rights, I'll soon review how to ‘beat the casino 90% of the time’.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

That's Why They Call It Gambling

            I’m in Las Vegas this week, penning this column from my hotel room.  The other night, I was playing video poker at Sam’s Town, next to a guy who was playing single-line Multi-Strike video poker.  I’m familiar with how the game works, but I have to admit, my knowledge of the strategy changes for this intriguing game is extremely limited.  I know that you have to alter your strategy to increase win frequency at the expense of payback when you are on the lower 3 lines without having received a ‘Free Ride’.

            For those unfamiliar with the game, allow me to try and explain the game.  There are four ‘levels’ in Multi-Strike.  To move up to the next level, you have to get a winning hand on the prior level.  Each of the levels pay progressively more than the previous one.  Thus hands on Level 1 pay 1 times the paytable.  Level 2 hands pay 2 times the paytable.  Level 3 hands pay 4 times the paytable and Level 4 hands pay 8 times the paytable.  To play the game you have to wager at least 1 unit on EACH level.  Thus to play ‘max-coin’ you have to wager 20 units – 5 coins times 4 levels.  This means you are paying for a level that you may never reach for each hand.  On each level, you play a brand new hand of video poker. 

            Roughly speaking, a Player playing proper ‘normal’ video poker strategy will win 45% of his hands.  This can be raised a bit if you tweak the strategy to focus a bit more on winning as opposed to how much you win.  However, at 46-47%, you would get slaughtered playing Multi-Strike because the odds of winning the 3 hands at Levels 1 through 3 would not be enough to be worth putting up the extra coin each time.  Thus, the game also incorporates what is called a ‘Free Ride’.  This is randomly generated by the machine to give the Player an automatic trip to the next level.  The Player continues to play the level that gives him the Free Ride, but even if he loses the hand, he still proceeds to the next highest level.  The impact of this feature is to bring the win frequency very close to 50%.

            I’ve never analyzed Multi-Strike, so I can’t provide you with a payback of the game.  Also, there are numerous versions of the game to correspond to regular games (i.e. Jacks or Better, Bonus, Double Double, etc…).  Additionally, the game does not clearly provide the frequency of the Free Ride feature at each level which is required to calculation an accurate payback.  I have seen published numbers from IGT (maker of the game), but there is no way to know for sure if there aren’t different variations and which games are programmed for what frequency.

            Then again, the point of this particular column was not necessarily an analysis of Multi-Strike.  The Player I mentioned earlier came across an interesting hand.  He was dealt an Ace High Straight that was also a 4-Card Royal on Level 3.  The Straight paid 4 units times 4 (for Level 3) for a total of 16 units (I didn’t notice what denomination the guy was playing).  He now faced the choice of sticking with that win and guaranteeing a shot at Level 4, OR going for the Royal Flush which would pay 1000 units (250 times 4).  By going for the Royal, he would also risk not winning at all and thus, not being given an opportunity to play the Level 4 hand.

            First, I’d like to look at this as if it didn’t happen in Multi-Strike.  So, the question is, when dealt a Straight that is also a 4-Card Royal, what is the right play?  Keep in mind, in this particular case, the Player was NOT playing max-coin, so the payout for the Royal was ‘only’ 250.   To fully analyze this situation, we need to look at every possible outcome of going for the Royal.  However, even at a quick glance, we get our answer.  The Player is essentially risking 16 units to win 1000, which is more than a 60-fold increase.  With 47 cards remaining in the deck, he has a 1 in 47 chance of hitting the Royal, which means his potential winnings are greater than the risk.  This tells us that he should go for the Royal.  When we realize that he will also have an additional chance to get a Straight Flush, 7 more ways to get a Flush, 5 more ways to get a Straight and 9 ways to get a High Pair, the decision to go for the Royal becomes an easy one.   The expected value of going for the Royal is about 8.19, while holding the Straight was only 4.

            Of course, in the specific case I’ve spelled out, the decision was a bit tougher.  By going for the Royal, he still has 23 out of 47 chances to wind up a winner and get to Play Level 4.  But, by holding the Straight, he has a 100% chance of playing Level 4.  We cannot dismiss this from the equation.  The expected value for Level 4 is about 7.84 (assuming a 98% payback multiplied by 8).  However, this assumes that we definitely get to play it.  In the case of going for the Royal, we need to multiply this by 23 and divide by 47 to account for the probability of getting to Level 4.  This is only 3.84. 

            So, we need to add these amounts to the respective EVs stated earlier.  While the decision gets quite a bit closer, going for the Royal still edges out the Straight by about 0.19.  I have to admit that I didn’t exactly do this calculation in my head when the guy looked my way (not knowing who I was) and I said “I’d go for it.”  Good thing for me and for the guy playing that he hit the Royal!  Yes, folks – that’s why they call it gambling!