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Deal Me In with Mark Pilarski

Read Mark Pilarski's Deal Me In Column every week right here at Gambling Website. A recognized authority on casino gambling, Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos.

Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audio book series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.

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Never busting never works

Posted: 08.08.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: What do you think of a blackjack player who always stands with 12 or more, no matter what the dealer is showing? The player therefore never busts and wins all of the times when the house does bust. You would still use basic strategy for splits and doubling. Since the only advantage the house has is the player gets to bust first, wouldn't this simple approach favor the player? Peter C.

I am glad, Peter, you mentioned those two words, “basic strategy,” since basic strategy advises hitting plenty of those stiff hands. When using a never bust strategy, you are giving the casino a 5% advantage, whereas when you use strict basic strategy, you are only giving the casino about a half of one percent edge.

Without considering depletion of the deck, let’s take the player 12 hand as an example. With a 12, you have a 9 out of 13 chance of not busting if you take a hit. Likewise, if you decide against hitting, your only chance of winning with a 12 is for the dealer to bust, and he has the same exact as you (69.2%) of not busting hitting his her hand. Granted, Peter, many times you will not win any additional money by hitting, but basic strategy does what it’s supposed to do. Keep you from losing more of your hard-earned cash than you should.

Losing players, Peter, employ a never bust strategy. The cost: the greenbacks in their wallets.

Dear Mark: After all this talk about getting thrown in jail for finding and using money and vouchers in a casino, IRONICALLY, I found myself in that same situation this past weekend.

I was walking thru the Ho-Chunk Casino in Wisconsin Dells, WI and noticed a cash-out voucher on the floor. I bent over and picked it up thinking it would be 5¢ or something similar. I was shocked when it said $65 on it! Now here I was holding a ticket that wasn't mine, and I had just read all this stuff in your column. I gingerly carried it over to the cashier holding it out in front of me -- in plain site -- the entire trip. I got to the cashier and told her, “I found this on the floor. Maybe you can still find the rightful owner.” She then stated, to my amazement, “Nope this is a finders keepers casino. You're now $65 richer.” She then proceeded to count out the money to me. I was shocked! I guess it always pays to be honest. Jean H.

The deluge of feedback from my column “Finders Keepers” was overwhelming. Most went the other way. The wrist slap, plus, and plus more. No one ended up wearing orange, yet. The gist of the response was that those who had found and played lost winnings, and were subsequently caught, wrote that the hassle wasn’t worth it. Interestingly, Jean, the top amount stumbled upon was your $65, so congratulations, and as the winner, you get the ink.

Let’s get real here. There are plenty of 5¢ tickets that find their way to the trashcan or litter the floor. Furthermore, it is a rare occurrence for a slot player to leave umpteen credits on a machine or lose their grip of a $25 voucher on the way to the cashier’s cage. We need to ask ourselves if there is there a need for shackles for the 50¢ petty thief.

Where I do NOT believe in the “spirit of the law” is game integrity. The fairness of all games, played in any casino, should be above reproach. Players deserve an honest game.

No casino, Jean, is interested in exposing its gaming license to loss through any inkling of cheating. The gaming industry is probably the most-regulated business in America, chock full of rules and regulations that would close down a casino for defrauding, or appearing to defraud, the public. However, a shakedown over a found $3 voucher, to me at least, is unwarranted. Just sayin’.

So, folks, there you have it. It goes both ways, finders keepers or the hoosegow. Which is why, again, I highly recommend “you get to know the state law along with the temperament of casino management where you play.”

Gambling wisdom of the Week: “My old pappy always used to say "Don't put the chicken in front of"... no, wait "Never cut the cards before"... no, wait, "Don't put all you eggs in one basket" – Brett Maverick



Two Examples of the Illusion of Winning

Posted: 02.08.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Do you believe a player can identify patterns in the game of craps? For example, I was playing next to a player – who, by the way wasnt winning a tremendous amount of money, but was winning none-the-less – and he bet according to the spacing of rolls between the 7’s appearing. You have always stated that each toss of the dice is a random event and that there is no way of knowing what the next roll will be. But still! Care to comment? Bob H.

I believe your comrade in arms on that crap game is wasting his time trying to identify a pattern in a sequence of rolls. Superstitious gamblers believe there
is a surreptitious relationship between rolls that determine which numbers will come up next, and only they, through the trial and error of 200 simulated rolls at the kitchen table, are all-knowing and can predict the winning outcome of the next roll.

Every outcome is an independent event based on the process of
random selection, and no pattern can influence that.

Myths and superstitious beliefs in gambling are usually false, and, unfortunately, can be dangerous as well because these irrational beliefs can
give a player the illusion that they have the ability to control the outcome. They believe they possess clairvoyant math skills above a 6th-grade level, and will keep on gambling and gambling, falsely believing that if they follow a specific pattern of when the 7 appears, their luck is bound to change.

When someone happens to win it is because, by chance, winning rolls occur and not because of reliance on a pattern system. Finally, if the player in question was on the Pass line, taking odds, or just placing the 6 or 8, which are wagers that have a low-house edge, with 7’s few and far between, you can’t help but rack up some chips on the rail.

Dear Mark: Although this question has nothing to do with casino gambling, it is nevertheless a question about chance. When I am at social activities like a Fish Fry, high school basketball games, Knights of Columbus dinners, etc., I inevitably purchase at least $10 worth of 50/50 raffle tickets. Although to date I have not won anything, I have multiple times had numbers which were next to the winning number. It is uncanny how many times that has happened. Am I getting close, or is there nothing to this? Marilyn C.

A 50-50 raffle fundraising event simply involves the sale of raffle tickets, usually as low as a $1, with the proceeds split evenly between the winner and some organization.

Personally, Marilyn, I find nothing wrong with donating a little something to an organization in support of a worthwhile cause. Consider me guilty as charged for chasing that same pot. Moreover, I am all in for a platter of cod and cheesy scalloped potatoes during Lent.

That said, far too many raffle ticket holders think that they were this close 
to having a winning ticket – their ticket was number 2524, but the winning number was 2525.

They may think they had a near win, but they are going home like all the others, with zippo! Like most gambling scenarios, your almost winning multiple times does not mean you are any closer to sharing the pot with the K of C. That is because future gambling outcomes are in no way influenced by
previous ones.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: Mike, theres two things a gentleman does not discuss - the ladies hes known and poker – Brett Maverick



Finders Keepers? Not in the Commonwealth

Posted: 26.07.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Regarding your finders keepers column, relating to how casinos deal with and handle misappropriated credit vouchers left on the slot machines, I bet I can top that.

A casino here in Pennsylvania seemingly has made a fervent pastime of catching miscreants employing the finders keepers theory of credit conniving. And, if caught, which happens uncannily too frequently at this location, one is arrested and charged with a felony, besides being 86d from the premises!

Now you talk about good, ethical customer relations that turn patrons off. These actions are key in their many, recent laments as to why casino revenue, at this location, is alarmingly off. Perhaps they need to be told of the long-held compact between patrons and owners as to how to win trust and friendship of the paying customer, as you have already commented on in a previous column. John Q.

That old phrase, John, “finder’s keepers” seems not apply in Pennsylvania, with many players learning the hard way after cashing a winning voucher found lying on the casino floor.

Both the Gaming Control Board and the State Police have a tough love policy that is more than a wrist slap for someone finding and keeping money, playing credits someone left on a slot machine, or cashing in a voucher someone left behind. All are illegal.

Technically, John, keeping anything someone lost without making some effort to return it is illegal anywhere in Pennsylvania. Under PA criminal law, if you unlawfully take or otherwise deprive another of move-able property including theft by property lost, mislaid, or delivered by mistake, you can be charged. (I wonder if it’s illegal to use the time left on a parking meter.)

It is relatively easy to get caught because, within the walls of a casino, the whole joint is monitored by cameras, making these venues not a smart place for those with sticky fingers. With more than 2,000 cameras providing a view of every square inch, surveillance will catch you picking up a discarded voucher, even if it’s only worth a nickel.

On the other hand, we are talking about a voucher than could be worth mere pennies. There needs to be some gray area here. There is a huge difference between someone who purposively circles the casino looking for orphan credits and Hey, Marge, look what I found.

Across state lines in New Jersey, they also do not have a finders keepers law, although police in that state say the most a person will traditionally get is a phone call to return the money.

Yours Truly, always managed by the spirit of the law, and not the letter of it. Go with a wrist slap on the first offense, recoup the money when possible, and with the habitual offender, step up the severity of punishment, including, yes, filing charges and the permanent heave-ho.

It is also a bit different where I live. Under Michigan law, the first person that finds abandoned property has superior title to everyone else, except the actual owner.

Case in point: Years ago a jury awarded Stella Romanski five cents for the nickel token the casino took from her, $9 for her bus trip and lunch, $270 for compensatory damages for being detained, and $850,000 in punitive damages. The 6th Circuit upheld the verdict, although they reduced the punitive damages to $600,000.

Now for those who think the above is a bit over-the-top, try stiffing a casino in Connecticut. Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods for years placed liens on the homes of patrons with gambling debts. The liens accrued 12 percent interest a year and would cloud the title to said properties, which would affect a homeowners ability to sell or refinance.

The bottom line, John, get to know the state law along with the temperament of casino management where one plays. If you choose to patronize a casino in Pennsylvania, use your own money and not someone else's. Otherwise, your visit might lead to room, food and beverage as a ward of the state. For breakfast, expect runny scrambled eggs, cold hash browns, and NOT a Dennys Grand Slam. Gentlemen, its CHOW TIME!

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: By the way, I don't cheat at cards. I don't have to. There's no one easier to beat than a card sharp if you know his twists - and in most games, there's usually one. – Bret Maverick (RIP James Gardner, the classiest of all gamblers)



Winning will come at a steep price

Posted: 18.07.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I love your column in the Biloxi Sun Herald. It is the number one reason I get the paper. Keep up the great work. Anyway, I was curious, when you hit a mega-jackpot, are you paid the full amount all at once, or does it come in yearly installments. Not that I think I am one day going to hit a super-sized jackpot, but I do like to plan ahead. Steve P.

Okay, Steve, you hit a Big Kahuna, say $25,000,000, so what happens next?

Today, most slot manufacturers offer winners two ways of receiving their newfound wealth. You definitely want to seek accounting and/or legal advice as to your tax implications, because how you receive your payout will determine exactly how much you will net and how much will go to the government. On the positive side, winners typically have between 60 to 90 days to decide whether to take a lifetime payment or all of it, up front, in one-lump sum.

So, Steve, you’re young, and you don’t want to appear on Dr. Phil two years from now telling 4PM viewers how you pissed away your $25 million bonanza. Let’s say to avoid that humiliation, you decide to take a set annual payout for a specific number of years. From IGT (just recently gobbled up by GTECH for 4.7 billion), maker of the Megabucks machine, you are looking at a payout over 25 years.

On a $25 million jackpot, that means an annual payout of $1,000,000 and an annual tax bill of around $400,000, which equates to about 10 million in taxes over the duration of the payout.

Let’s say instead you decide to take it all up front. Going the lump sum route initially nets you approximately 60 percent of your jackpot from the casino. In addition, you still owe Uncle Sam. From the 60% of your $25 million jackpot ($15 million), the IRS will demand another 40 percent, a cool $6 million, leaving you with about $9 million in walk around loot.

So, with the annual payout approach you net $15 million over 25 years and with the lump sum approach you net $9 million immediately. What you do with that $9 million, spending and/or investing it, will determine its value over 25 years. At this point in my answer, I have moved above my pay grade, so, Steve, I would strongly recommend that you consult your CPA or legal advisor as to your overall tax consequences if Fortuna (Tyche), the Greek goddess of fortune, shines her light on you.

Dear Mark: Who determines the hold of a slot machine, the casino or the maker of the machine? Nicolas R.

Each slot manufacturer has a book that contains all the available hold percentages for the specific models and denominations of their slot machines, so, Nicolas, the casino simply selects the make, model and the return they want.

Say for instance, the casino wants to order a quarter machine with a 93% payout, giving the house a 7% hold.

What the hold means is that over a “period of time,” the quarter machine ordered is going to pay back to the gamblers 93% of the amounts wagered. And what do I mean by a “period of time?” Typically, it is about 10 million handle pulls.

The reasoning for 10 million yanks of the handle is because it is the number the manufacturer has determined it would take a particular machine to achieve that overall 7% hold calculation.

Before that many whirls of the reels, the machine is going to go through countless hot and cold cycles. When the machine first hits the floor, it could easily run negative for the house, spitting out coins making for a hot machine. But as the slot closes in on that 10 million mark, the machine will tighten up, and at the end of that cycle, it is going to hold at 7%. This is not to say that a new machine is any more likely than an older one to hit jackpots. Unfortunately, Nicolas, only Nostradamus can predict hot and cold runs.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: Losing as much money as I can get hold of is an instant solution to my economic problems. – Lucian Freud (1922-2011)



Where did they go?

Posted: 11.07.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: With apologies to General Douglas MacArthur, the question still remains, what happens to old slot machines that have outlived their usefulness? I have noticed that some of my favorite machines mysteriously disappear, one casino at a time, until they are just a fleeting memory of spinning reels and flashing lights. Gone, but not forgotten. Is there a graveyard for our dearly departed friends? Leigh H.

Any time you see a slot machine disappear from the floor, from the casinos point of view, that machine was misbehaving, or better stated, under performing.

All machines, Leigh, need to show reasonable results or their replacement is inevitable. A gaming machines performance is measured by two factors: the amount of coins wagered daily (“coin in”) and the amount collected daily by the casino (“win”). If a machines performance falters ever so slightly, a slot manager could decide a change is needed in the slot mix, meaning the placement and positioning of machines on the casino floor.

My guess here, Leigh, is that you might also be inquiring about those 20th Century antique machines from manufacturers like Mills and Jennings or some of the later IGT or Bally machines from the 70s or 80s. Their resting places have a variety of possibilities. The first being, as with any slot machine, they are usually sent to a facility that strips them for usable parts and sorts the rest for scrap.

Also, stored in the basement of many casinos is that slot graveyard you speak of, where they live out their lives collecting dust.

Some machines might go to a private collection, but, depending on local law, they may have to be rendered inoperable. Many a Man Cave has one sitting in the corner to pilfer quarters from the owner’s friends. A collector like Yours Truly, would never part with his 1934 Mills Star Firebird QT nickel machine, as it pays for the FREE Guinness or PBR, their choice, offered when some sucker is yanking its handle.

Then there are retail establishments specific to the selling of older slot machines in gambling towns like Reno and Las Vegas, where selling gambling equipment is legal. Some of these stores have a decent sized collection on site. If you are a want-to-be buyer of a dearly departed friend, it is important to check state and local laws before you pull the trigger (handle), although, generally speaking, antique slot machines are legal in most states if they are over 25 years old. You can also do a Google search on old slot machines for sale, or, go to eBay, where a plethora of slots is always for sale.

Even though Nevada may be the gambling capital of the United States, the slot machine was actually born elsewhere, in San Francisco.

The first mechanical slot machine, the Liberty Bell, was invented in 1895 by Charles Fey, a San Francisco mechanic. Feys machine housed three spinning reels, each decorated with diamonds, spades, hearts and one cracked Liberty Bell per reel. When the bells lined up, they produced your biggest payoff: 10 nickels. The original Liberty Bell used to be on display at the Liberty Belle Saloon & Restaurant in Reno, but since its closing in 2006, it is now exhibited at the Nevada State Museum.

Back in the 40s and early 50s, those older mechanical slots were chock full of springs and gears that were powered by a player pulling the handle, which started the reels spinning. The problem with these early machines was that they were limited in the size of the jackpots because they could only accept one coin, which restricted the number of coins they could pay out. Once the electromechanical machine appeared, it allowed multiple-coin play, which included electrically powered hoppers that could pay out much larger jackpots.

When the computerized slots were introduced in the 80s, machines with progressive jackpots linked among different machines hundreds of miles apart, offered huge jackpots starting in the millions. Essentially, Leigh, slot machines keep advancing and getting more complicated, necessitating new homes for the older ones. I will write in a future column about some new 3-Reel mechanical slots with the feel of a traditional slot that are now hitting the floor.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: Slot machines are the cotton candy and the McDonalds of the casino. Everyone knows that they're bad for you, but few can resist their junk-food appeal. – Andrew Brisman



No loopholes at this location

Posted: 03.07.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I read you column religiously and always find it very informative. You recently wrote a column regarding taxes and stated, Even a Super Bowl bet won from Uncle Louie is taxable. Does the same apply to winning at an Indian Reservation casino? I have read that Indian land operates as a sovereign nation, so wouldnt I be excluded from paying taxes? Ron R.

Every time I mention casino winnings and taxes, gamblers predictably make inquiries about money won at an Indian casino. You, like others, assume that because Indian reservations have a unique tax arrangement with the federal government and are on sovereign land, this somehow excludes your obligation to pay taxes because your windfall happened on their self-governing property.

I am sorry to say, Ron, but Uncle Sam still expects you to buck up. In the eyes of the IRS, whether a cruise ship in the Bermuda Triangle, at an illegal cellar casino in Shanghai, or at the Odawa (Indian) Casino where I live in N. Michigan, any winnings, from whatever form of gambling worldwide, are taxable and must be reported as Other Income, on Form 1040, of the U.S. Individual Tax Return.

Dear Mark: In your response last week to Charlie P., you suggested some software to learn how to play video poker. For those of us without access to a computer, or, in my case at 84 years old and not at all interested in learning how to use one, what do you suggest on how to improve my video poker skills? Margaret C.

Thank you, Margaret, for your handwritten correspondence, and speedy quick it was as the column you mentioned ran just a few days ago. Who says the Post Office isnt on their game. Oh, and I must mention, such beautiful, suitable for framing, penmanship.

I do contest your trepidation of learning how to use a computer. The video poker machine you are playing on is really nothing more than a computer, using the same chunk of binary code that crunches 1s and 0s with its sole purpose of extracting your money. Yet, who am I to chastise anyone? At my father’s house, the VCR still blinks 12:00, with a DVD player absent because they are not perfected yet.

I am glad to see that you want to improve your video poker skills. Video Poker is a game that requires skill to win, with each specific game having a set strategy that will give you the maximum return if you play every hand correctly.

You, Margaret, can still create a Las Vegas experience with a handheld video game. Just purchase one of those, dare I say it, small hand-held computer games at Wal-Mart as inexpensively as $5. Along with a basic strategy card, you can sharpen your playing skills and be an expert in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

Have the hand-held computer – okay, l will soften the description by calling it an electronic souvenir game for casino play – deal you hands while you consult a strategy card as a quick reference for the correct decisions based on the video poker machine that you are on. Gamblers Book Club has a slew of strategy cards for games like 9/6 Jacks or Better, Full Pay Deuces, Double Double Bonus, 8/5 Bonus, and many more of the most popular machines.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: It's ruthless. Completely ruthless. The cards terrorize you. Seconds stretch. It's like having the worst flu you can imagine for twenty seconds. – Frederick Barthelme, Bob the Gambler (1997)



The casino returning lost loot is a no-brainer

Posted: 27.06.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Your recent column about someone who found credits in a slot machine brought to mind an incident that happened to me a few weeks ago at the MGM Grand in Detroit. I accidentally left my $97 voucher on the bar. When I came back from the restroom, it was gone. I reported my loss to security. Within an hour, they caught someone on the eye in the sky cashing the ticket in. This is one time that I lost my money at a casino and they gave me my money back. James B.

Contrary to some mailbag response that didnt quite believe what a casino does with the left behind credits or vouchers, I must reiterate, it really is’t smart customer service for a casino to pocket lost loot. Returning player winnings to its rightful owner is one of many ways a casino builds on customer loyalty. Heck, handing a player $97 that justly belongs to him can keep him yanking handles in their casino for life.

From the casino’s perspective, customer loyalty comes through having a strong relationship with its players. When a player sees them as a friend and ally, they are reluctant to jump ship to another casino, even if it means they can get a sweeter deal elsewhere. Given the competitive nature of the gambling business, casinos protect their customers as a mother bear does her cubs.

Customers will decide whether to trust a casino based upon their day-to-day behavior. Handing you back your $97 builds on that trust. Make that type of behavior consistent over time – and here is where many casinos fall short – and the management knows you can be counted on as their patron. If their behavior becomes unpredictable, you, the consumer will find another joint to take your money. You, James, getting your $97 back was a no-brainer for the casino.

Dear Mark: Are you aware of a good video poker program that will run on a Macintosh laptop? I had Bob Dancer’s program on my old PC, which I liked a lot, but it is not available in a Mac version. I would like to find a similar product, but I am not having any luck. Charlie P.

Unfortunately, Charlie, though I have been in the Mac world since its infancy, I too have yet to find software comparable to Dancer’s Video Poker for Winners!. It is specifically for that reason that I keep an old PC laptop lying around, as you should too.

Besides using VP for Winners! as a video poker game that replicates the IGT machines you see in a casino, you can also use it as a tutorial, create strategies, focus on problem areas, check unusual hands, figure slot club paybacks, and a whole lot more.

A few of my favorite features of this software program is the capability of printing out game-specific strategy charts that you can take to the casino with you. The money you save by never having to pay for another strategy chart alone will more than pay for the cost of the $50 program. In addition, I like that VPW allows you to change pay tables and then analyze that game’s overall expected return. Finally, I like the ability to determine what your bankroll needs are to avoid going broke.

There is no better way to master video poker than with this software program. I recommend, Charlie, that you stick with it.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: To be a winner, you have to really want to be a winner. – Avery Cardoza, How to Play Winning Poker (1987)



Different win amounts trigger traceable paperwork

Posted: 21.06.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I saw your column about getting a tax form whenever you win $1,200 or more. Does that also apply to sports bets? I am thinking it is easy to win more than $1,200 on a sports bet, or a 6-team NFL parlay. It would seem wise to make sure that your bet doesn't pay more than $1,200. Don C.

The technical answer here, Don, is that any winnings, from whatever form of gambling worldwide, are taxable and must be reported as Other Income, on Form 1040, of the U.S. Individual Tax Return.

This includes a sports bet, slot jackpot, even beating Uncle Louie at a game of tiddlywinks. Failure to correctly report your haul can result in serious penalties and headaches, that, believe me, you don’t want any part of. Never, Don, underestimate the desire of the IRS to get its hands on your moolah. It is a settled point of tax law that all income – whether legal or illegal – is taxable unless specifically excluded by statute. So, yes, even when Uncle Louie eventually pays you from the Super Bowl bet you had with him last year, technically, you must report that as income.

In spite of what I just stated, we live in the real world. Reality says that 99% of people who win a few bucks here and there never report it. Furthermore, I haven’t met a person in the 35-plus years that I have been in the business that declares every nickel that dribbles out of a slot machine. Of course, there are individuals who keep meticulous, verifiable records to support their winnings and losses pertaining to gambling. This, by the way, is imperative if the IRS serves you with an audit.

So, Don, what size of a gambling win triggers traceable paperwork? According to Uncle Sam, the payer must issue you a W2-G form if your winnings are $600 or at least 300 times the amount wagered. This would be representative of winnings from sports betting, dog racing, horse racing and state lotteries.

Casino winnings are treated a little differently, as a W2-G must be issued and filled out by the casino if a bingo or slot machine win is above $1,200, or the net proceeds from a keno win are greater than $1,500, less the cost of the tickets bought on the winning game.

Not all gambling winnings in the amounts above are subject to IRS Form W2-G. W2-Gs are not required for winnings from table games such as blackjack, craps, roulette, baccarat, pai gow, etc., even if you won a decent chunk of change. Instead, the casinos are subject to the Money Laundering Rules, and must report to the IRS, using a Cash Transaction Report (CTR), aggregate cash transactions of $10,000 or more by any player, in any one given day.

So how do you completely avoid taxes? Stop gambling! Wait! Hold that thought. I just noticed that the current odds on the Detroit Tigers winning the World Series are 10/1. I’ve got to get me some action on that.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: The pure sensuality of the betting moment... It is a neurological jolt made up of greed, lust and excitement mixed together with a strong dose of fear. – Edward Allen, Penny Ante (1992)



Shifty, this player is not

Posted: 13.06.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: What are your thoughts on pulling your Players Card when dealt a natural royal flush? You would show money deposited, but not the money actually won. Because I use a win/loss statement for tax purposes, the natural royal flush wouldn’t show as a win, which in turn, should allow me to avoid paying taxes on it. Kyle S.

Don’t think, Kyle, you can game the system just because the coin-in meter has registered your play, and although you haven’t pressed the hold buttons yet, your natural royal wont be recorded anywhere if you cleverly pull your card. I am sorry to disappoint you, Kyle, but there are two problems with your tax avoidance scheme.

The newer machines now have player-tracking systems integrated directly into the slot machine's operating system. So when you strategically snatch your card, its removal does not record like that anymore. Slot manufacturers got wise to that chicanery years ago.

Furthermore, Kyle, with a payout of $1,200 or more on any slot/video poker machine, you will automatically be handed a tax form (W2G), so there is no benefit to you yanking your Player’s card before an outcome. Besides, the use of a Player’s card has no effect on your tax liability. If you win $1,200 or more in a single spin (including the original bet), the casino will report your win to Uncle Sam along with issuing you a W2G, whether you used a Players card or not.

Lets leave for another column the potential consequences of deliberately manipulating or falsifying gambling records.

Dear Mark: Have you ever heard of a casino that allows the use of the joker in blackjack? My friend said that he once played on a game that had a joker included in the deck, and it was favorable for the player when you got one. Dan L.

Although I have never dealt a game where a joker was intentionally added, or seen it used in such a way, I have heard that some casinos, as a bonus to players, have one or more jokers inserted into the deck that can be used as an any-value card. One game that does come to mind is called California Blackjack. It is a player-banked blackjack variation played at a few poker casinos.

The game of blackjack can vary from casino to casino and locale to locale. It is incumbent upon you before you play to check any and all of the rules, which are customarily displayed prominently at the table. Like I said, Dan, I haven’t been to a casino that offers the added joker as a variation to the game of blackjack, but probably some of my readers have crossed paths with this rule. I am sure I will get some mailbag response (hopefully with rule changes) and will convey further details in a future column.

Furthermore, a joker showing up in your hand may be favorable for that particular hand. What I can guarantee you is that the casino is probably tacking on some interesting rule variations elsewhere that will increase the house edge, like, for instance, altering blackjack payoffs. So, Dan, imparting conclusive wisdom on the mathematics of the game without getting a clear explanation of the rules in full, I cant.

All that said, I have witnessed a joker that made its way onto the layout. But it inadvertently got there because of carelessness on the dealer’s part – yes, include Yours Truly when it came to sloppy dealing – when the joker was not discarded, but instead left in the deck when new cards were introduced on the game.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: If Ive got action, anything is possible. If I haven't got action, nothing is possible. – Sal the Dice Man, Easy Money: Inside the Gambler's Mind (1987)



This rule offers a distinct advantage to the player

Posted: 05.06.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Another player on blackjack game roundly chastised me because I doubled for less. It was a $20 bet, and I only put out $10. You would have thought I was responsible for all the bad luck he was having. What are your thoughts on doubling for less? Gary P.

For starters, Gary, it’s your money on the layout, so you ought to be able to play your hand, and bet, any way you choose. How you play your hand only affects the overall outcome of the hand you were dealt, and not that of some buffoon having a bad day hurling insults your way. Your play has no effect on he game in general, especially his misfortune. That said, unfortunately, it does influence the outcome of your hand.

Doubling down allows you to double your initial wager and receive one, and only one, additional card for your hand. An example of a doubling opportunity is when you are dealt 11 (6-5, 7-4, 8-3, 9-2) against a dealer's up-card of 6. In this instance, you now have a very good chance of winning the hand by drawing one additional card. Therefore, Gary, I would always recommend that you increase your bet in this advantageous situation.

Personally, I am a big fan of doubling down. Here is an opportunity where you now know what the dealer’s up-card is, and the casino is allowing you to bet more money. When it comes to blackjack, Gary, you need those natural blackjacks, and the ability to both split pairs and double down to bring your bankroll from the negative to the positive. These proper decisions are called basic strategy and have been arrived at by computer simulations of millions of hands.

Always think of doubling down as an offensive strategy that you should use when the chances of winning the hand are better than that of the dealer’s. By betting more when the casino is at a distinct disadvantage, you will increase your potential return more than if you were to just hit your hand. Why, Gary, would you want to shortchange yourself when you have this advantage?

I believe the only time you would ever want to double for less is when you are down to your last chips and can’t afford a full double down. I wouldnt call this move any kind of an optimal strategy. Still, you will at least know you are doing it when you will win more often than you will lose.

Dear Mark: In poker, why a dealer is always burning a card? Don L.

In poker, a burn card is a playing card dealt from the top of the deck, discarded ("burned") and not to be used by any of the players. Burn cards are typically placed face down next to the discard pile.

Burning a card is done between each betting round and before dealing the next community card(s). Burning a card is a security measure used to prevent any player from catching a glimpse of the next card up.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: His hands become nervous when he picks up their cards, exactly as if he were holding live birds instead of inanimate pieces of cardboard. – Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) describing Leo Tolstoy at cards



The choice between losing, or losing really fast

Posted: 23.05.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I like to play the keno machines and would like to know about the payouts. Does the machine pay out after so much money goes into the machine, or is it based on picking random numbers? I have noticed that sometimes I will play a string of numbers, and when I get off those numbers, they will start lighting up. Can you shed any light on this? Pat H.

Just as with all the cards displayed in video poker, or the symbols of a slot machine, a random number generator determines all numbers drawn in video keno. All 80 numbers on a keno game have the same chance of being drawn, whether you are playing them or not.

The medium casino advantage on all video keno games is 7.5%. That�s very high by my standards (2% or less), but compared to approximately 28% on a live keno game, it�s considerably lower. And why lower? It is because video keno has better paytables.

Now, Pat, even if on paper, it looks like video keno is the better deal and you should be hauling in some serious ka-ching, it�s really not. At $1 a pop, the most you could lose on a live keno game is about $15 an hour, as that is the average number of games called per hour. A typical video keno player can easily burn through $15 in quarters in under three minutes. The fact of the matter is that the choice between keno and video keno is the choice between losing, or losing really fast.

Allow me, Pat, to dole out some advice for playing the cybernetic version of keno. First, think about switching to video poker instead. Your hourly loss to the house will end up being much, much lower.

If you are not going to listen to me, that�s fine. It�s only an advice column. Be that as it may, you do want to search for the highest-paying paytables. The higher the payouts for the spots you play, the lower the house edge. Play fewer spots so the odds against hitting a winning ticket are not so astronomical. Deliberately play at a leisurely pace, because the slower you play, the less of your hard-earned money ends up in the casino�s coffers. Finally, use your Player�s card to offset the losses you will experience on this negative-expectation game.

Dear Mark: I am glad to see you mentioned the El Cortez being the place to play when it comes to gambling in Las Vegas. Although I usually stay at the Rio, I always make my way downtown and play there. By the way, you forgot to mention that they offer eating and gambling at the same time. It is actually kind of fun, with two of my favorite pastimes together. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Jeff F.

Who hasn�t, Jeff, sat on the counter in a casino coffee shop scarfing down a 99� breakfast special and playing keno at a buck a game. Oh, and it used to come with free cocktails too. If those weren�t the good old days, I don�t what were.

Actually, eating and gambling has a historical backdrop. Did you know the origination of the sandwich is directly related to gambling? Thank the Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792). He loved to gamble so much he had his cortege bring him meats, bread and cheese so he would not have to abandon the gambling parlors, from which comes the sandwich.

The El Cortez figures you can�t win if you�re not playing. So, Jeff, like you stated, you don�t have to decide between your hot streak and a hot pastrami on rye. With their Gambling Gourmet, you can enjoy an El Cortez dining experience without leaving your table. They will bring you grub game-side, so you can have at it gambling nonstop.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: �The trick always, in taking a sucker, is to get him to suggest a bet.� � Marty Reisman, The Money Player (1974)



Simple rule change squashes chances of winning

Posted: 19.05.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Is video blackjack the same as a live game? Is each new hand dealt a new game? Is the strategy the same as live blackjack? I have tried playing the casino’s blackjack machines and I don't seem to do very well. Dave S.

Your problem, Dave, is that the rules of the video blackjack machine in the casino where you play might have one little deviation that will definitely turn a winning visit into a losing one: what you get paid for a blackjack.

Most video blackjack machines that you will find in a casino pay even money on natural 21s instead of the true value of a blackjack (3 for 2). Because you can expect a blackjack every 21 hands, the loss of that bonus will cost you an additional 2.3%.

Considering that blackjack has a house advantage of less than .5% to a knowledgeable player – which possibly, Dave, could be another problem you have – your losses are more than likely tied to this tricky rule change. With an even money payout on blackjack, you are giving away the farm here.

Other video blackjack machines round down on blackjack payoffs. If you do happen to locate a machine that does pay the bonus for a blackjack, make your bets in even amounts so that you can get the maximum value of a blackjack (a payoff of $3 for every $2 wagered). With a $1 bet and rounding down, the theoretical payout of $1.50 for a blackjack would be rounded down to just $1!

Additionally, Dave, you are probably playing more hands per hour on a video blackjack machine than you would on a live table game. With any casino game that has a built-in advantage, and blackjack even with perfect play is certainly one of them, the more hands you are exposed to, the more the machine will eat away at your bankroll.

As to your other two questions, yes, each hand is dealt randomly from a newly shuffled virtual deck. Also, the basic strategy on a video game is comparatively the same as that of a live game, so, Dave, don’t forget your blackjack strategy card to use as a reference for those hands that you are not quite sure of.

Dear Mark: Do you find it easier, or harder, to save winnings with these new ticket machines versus the older coin ones? George R.

Setting aside winnings from yesteryear meant you had to carry buckets of coins to the cashier to be counted. Today, it’s ticket-in ticket-out technology, which pays players in bar-coded tickets. Casinos love these ticket-in ticket-out machines because they reduce the labor costs of slot personal, jam-up repairs, hopper fills, emptying the machines of coins, and the hard counting of those coins.

Cashing out your tickets and squirreling away vouchers instead of playing credits is a convenient way of preserving winnings, unless of course, you reach in your top left pocket for them. Coins nestled in a metal tray are just as easy to grab at.

Be it coins, or vouchers, you always want to cash out following any significant score so you can see those winnings converted into cold hard cash. The convenience of not lugging 50 pounds of coins to the cashier is a benefit of TITO machines. The discipline of not spending winnings, with whatever method, is all on you. I can’t help you there.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: The Stickman at the crap table should be a Mary Poppins optimist, delight in his voice when he calls out a winner. – Mario Puzo, Inside Las Vegas (1976)



Prosperous gaffes do happen

Posted: 02.05.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I enjoy your column very much, mostly because you spent a lot of time on the inside. Here is my question. I was wondering if you have ever given away money to a player that did not deserve it. A dealer on a blackjack game once claimed it never happens, and yet, he overpaid me twice in two hours. I was wondering if you could share your thoughts on this. Ralph I.

Have I, Ralph, ever given away money to a player who didn’t deserve it? Oh, gosh yes! I have made my fair share of blunders, once involving a $7,000 overpayment. Aided by the eye-in-the-sky, the casino caught it and recouped their seven grand. Still, I received a non-paid week on the streets. A few more bloopers to come below.

First off, dealers can and do make mistakes. Whoever told you otherwise is full of it. True, most dealers get quite skillful at reading the patterns on the cards with proficiency. So counting errors, with experience, become rare. But these guys and gals deal more than a half million hands a year, so they will make unpremeditated errors over the course of that time, both on the player’s credit and debit side of the ledger.

Casino management is supposed to be on the lookout for dealers making paying errors, and it is their responsibility to correct these transgressions. It is “their” job to monitor “their” pit and make sure that “their” dealers are following the right dealing protocols and paying off bets correctly, not yours.

So, Ralph, you got away with a couple freebies. That’s fine. From a retired blackjack dealer’s perspective, I was always appreciative of the player who corrected my pay mistakes and handed back the money. I still play by those principled rules to this day.

Now those two dillies I promised.

I taught myself blackjack by pitching cards into a hat, and practiced shuffling, dealing and the pay and take on an ironing board. On my first shift, I made the dim-witted decision that if you split aces and got two face cards, you just got yourself two blackjacks, so I paid accordingly.

I was actually paying this unmerited royalty on spilt aces for most of my first shift until an old-time pit boss noticed my generosity and corrected me at the break. Some joints might have sent me packing, but perchance he probably thought that I had the potential to do the job a chimp could do.

The other was where I wittingly over or under paid a player.

Dealing 10c roulette in downtown Reno, we would get a lot of Chinese players via a charter bus service out of San Francisco who would jam up a game with chips as nothing you could ever imagine. As 8 is the most prosperous of numbers in Chinese culture, it is considered a highly lucky number and is worked into daily life as much as possible. The roulette table was one such place, times ten. It was always mathematically interesting when a kazillion chips would appear on the 8 from all the corners, split possibilities, and straight up bets towering what seemed like a foot high.

This required drastic measures to avoid a possible mathematical misadventure, or my job, so I once called over a pit boss – actually it was a shift manager passing through the pit – and in order to not look too much like a sap, I asked what he thought a particular payoff was. Pretending to know the correct payoff, he said, “Send out a dozen stacks, plus put a $5 chip and a 50¢ piece on the top.” I paid the bet as instructed.

Although a patented move by another, not a bad “go to” action when this frazzled dealer of ten minds couldn’t figure out a ginormous payout. No harm, no foul, is what he figured, plus, we always seemed to get back all the chips in the end anyway.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “I cheat my boys every chance I get. I want to make ' em sharp.” – William Avery Rockefeller (c. 1850) (John D.'s father)



Chasing champagne wishes and caviar dreams

Posted: 25.04.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: My wife plays slots only one way. She chases a high-end jackpot. If that does not happen - which it has not in over 20 years since she last won $20,000 - she always ends up going home broke. Any chance you can write a column on her playing style. I hope that it will help change her ways. Norm L.

All players who enter the friendly confines of a casino have but one incentive: the expectation of winning some money. For most players, it usually involves just coming out ahead. For others, like your wife, winning money only means hitting a substantial jackpot.

The problem with her style of playing is that her expectations are set far too high, hence, she ends up walking empty-handed. Sizable jackpots, Norm, are not easy to hit. When you start chasing them, the consequences are coming home tapped out, and an unhappy camper to boot. When it comes to winning, your wife has arbitrarily upped the ante to a significant jackpot, and nothing else.

Your wife could have more fun if she would change her mindset to that of, if you win a little, or only break even, then that�s a win. Let the jackpots come when they may. Going for broke every time you visit a casino will result in just that, going broke.

The determination to preserve profits from a gambling session requires discipline. One strategy is to always set loss limits and REASONABLE win goals. You do this through control and learning to walk with $200-$300 in winnings, meager as that may seem in her El Dorado theory of winning.

It is crucial to never allow the casino�s biggest ally, greed, to dictate your gambling character. Greed will never allow you to quit when you are ahead. Winning $200, $300, or even a bit more is possible, but prudently walking with it is far more difficult. When you are ahead against the casino, the house doesn�t beat you, you end up beating yourself.

Lady Luck, Norm, is very fickle. When it strikes, it means that for that one moment, someone just happened to be in the right place, at the right time.

Dear Mark: Why does my friend always think that she wins at slots in the casino? Personally, I think she loses far more often than she comes out ahead. Anne C.

Within the casino, Anne, you see it all the time, the slot player who filters win-loss information. Your friend seems to be focused only on her wins and is losing track of how much she is actually spending. This creates a skewed view on the amount that she has won, compared to what
she spent for actually playing.

Walk up behind many a player and they will vociferously proclaim �I�m up,� by simply pointing to the credit meter. Yet, if this were
true, then how could you explain the huge profits made by casinos, especially with their highest return coming from slot machines? In reality, far too many players are very surprised when they find out just how much they have actually invested into a machine versus what they actually won.

A simplified, verifiable accounting method is this. I walked in the casino with X number of dollars, and I walked out with this amount. Guesstimating, Anne, always makes for poor bookkeeping.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "I don't believe in hunches. Hunches are for dogs making love." Amarillo Slim, Fast Company (1975)



Luck be a Lady Tonight

Posted: 18.04.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I am glad that I didnt purchase a season ski pass for the slopes at Tahoe last fall. I am taking what little I had saved and will try to grind out a kitty for a 14/15 pass. Sometimes a shooter will ask me to blow on the dice and even give me a chip, which automatically goes to a fund for next year’s pass. Any idea when/where this got started? Ski Bunny – Tahoe

Plenty of skiers at Lake Tahoe have chased, with little success, a season’s ski pass from the rail of a crap table or on a blackjack game. Here, Ms. Bunny, is perhaps a better way to go: Buy your ski pass directly from the resort in the spring, as it’s usually at a 30% discount off fall prices.

I do feel for, and acknowledge your lack of snowfall, as seldom a day goes by that I don’t check the Alpine Meadows web cam. In my 20-plus years of skiing in the basin, I don’t recall anything close to the lack of snow that you experienced this past season. In fact, I actually remember skiing as late as July 4th.

Anyhow, as to your question, you would be surprised how many players perform the blowing on the dice ritual before throwing them. I am familiar with two theories as to its genesis. The first being, in the early days, charlatan gamesters would try to cheat the game by coating one side of the dice with a sticky substance that would become active when blown upon. The other originates from early street games, where by blowing on the dice, you were cleansing them of debris before tossing them. I am sure there are many, many more.

Today, gamblers blow on the dice for luck. Some gamblers think they will have even better luck if an attractive woman like you, Ms. Bunny, blows on the dice, believing your breath will lead them to a "hot" roll. Their false-premise gambling belief is based on an illogical point of view.

When the shooter thinks he can improve his luck and influence over the outcome of the dice game when something fairylike happens on the game, this player is under
the illusion that somehow he, or in this case you, can control the outcome of the roll. Many grass-roots gamblers have this mistaken view. They think that if they do certain things, it will influence the outcomes
of the game in their favor. In gambling, such beliefs are called superstitions, which are nothing more than irrational beliefs that a certain act (like
blowing on the dice) can bring about good luck.

Certainly, the casino will allow you to perform this ritual just so long as you make it quick – remember, there is money in play on the layout – but no gambler can exercise some supernatural control over the outcome. In other words, as long as the dice are fair and thrown randomly, there is no connection between what you do and the number that appears.

I part, Ms. Bunny, with a few lyrics from Frank Sinatra’s hit, Luck Be A Lady.

A lady never leaves her escort It isn't fair, it isn't nice A lady doesn't wander all over the room And blow on some other guy’s dice.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Going to the bathroom during a dice game is a mistake. You might miss a hot hand worth a hundred thousand, and nothing in the bathroom is worth that much.” Nick "The Greek" Dandalos, King of Gamblers (1969)



Howd he do dat?

Posted: 11.04.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I witnessed something interesting once while I was playing blackjack. The dealer, about every 15 minutes or so, would yell out a card, and low and behold, that exact card would appear. I am not kidding. He must have done it three times in an hour. Once it was a seven of diamonds, later the three of clubs, and I cannot remember what the third card was, but he guessed it right. What do you think was happening here? Any chance the deck was prearranged so he could call out a specific card. Neil K.

What you witnessed, Neil, was a bored dealer, with a delusory belief that he can call up a card at will. I was one once, delusional that is, with my go-to card being, Athena, the queen of spades, the Greek goddess of war. I would dumbfound players, but their selective memory only remembered when I called out a card that helped or hurt their hands, and not the 98% of the time that I was dead wrong. So, Neil, no Carnac the Magnificent here, nor with your clairvoyant dealer.

Nevertheless, any dealer shuffling a deck of cards has to ensure the cards get as mixed up as possible. Even if it were a sloppy shuffle, you would be surprised to know the staggering number of ways a deck of 52 cards can be arranged.

There are 80,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (67 zeros) ways to arrange a deck of 52 cards. Shuffle any deck of cards at the kitchen table, Neil, and you now have an arrangement that possibly has never existed before, anywhere.

The casino will do any and everything to avoid a dealer jeopardizing game security. Topping that list is avoiding having a dealer who can physically pull out a particular card at will, or even thinks he can.

Dear Mark: What do you think of Free Bet Blackjack? Stephen S.

Free Bet Blackjack, Stephen, is sort-of what it sounds like, since, after your initial wager, you can split pairs and bet your double-downs, for FREE!

Played with a standard deck of cards from a six-deck shoe, traditional blackjack rules apply, along with table minimums and maximums, and a blackjack pays 3:2.

So, Stephen, what constitutes FREE? Well, anytime you have either a pair, or a hard total of 9, 10 or 11, you are allowed to split or double-down on the house's money. If you end up winning your hand, you are paid as if you had made a traditional split or double, even though you did not put any of your hard-earned money at risk.

Free Bet Blackjack plays much like traditional blackjack, with the following standard rules:

Played with 6 decks
Dealer hits soft 17's
Blackjacks pay 3:2
Double on two cards only
Double after split allowed
Re-split pairs up to four hands
Re-split aces allowed (one card only)

Yes, Stephen, as to be expected, there is a small catch to playing FREE. All dealer hands that total a 22 become a push instead of a win for the player. Even so, the house edge is approximately 0.8%, which is relatively small for a 6-deck shoe game, making this game a recommended play from Yours Truly.

Note also, Stephen, that with this FREE wager opportunity there comes a variance in strategy. I recommend doubling down on any 9, 10 or 11, plus, you will also want to split any pair except 4's, 5’s and 10’s. If you have 4’s, split only against a 5 or 6 up-card. With 5’s, double instead of splitting. Finally, never split your 10’s.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Mathematics... are a good servant to the poker player but a bad master.” – Hubert Phillips, Profitable Poker (1960)



Dealers are not paid enough to spar with players

Posted: 10.04.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I have been a dealer for almost 20 years. Blackjack players love to argue about what the correct strategy is to be played. This can result in intimidation and even violence if someone at the table isn’t going by “their” rules. As a dealer, I try to keep the peace by telling them to play their own cards. Does what other players do really have any effect on one’s own odds? They claim their odds are increased when everyone at the table plays “right.” What are your thoughts on this? Danyelle D.

Probably, Danyelle, the same as yours. It doesn’t make one iota of a difference.

It is a mistaken belief that incorrect play by someone at third base, or any position for that matter, always takes the dealer's bust card, or gives the dealer a card that always seems to beat the table. Statistically, it makes zero difference to that tetchy individual over the long run. Far too many players hold accountable others for giving the dealer an advantage by “supposedly” misplaying their hand and hitting or standing in a manner they wouldn’t.

For you as a dealer in the line of fire, it’s hard to block out the grumbling from the know-it-all who thinks a misplayed hand always takes the dealer’s bust card. Unfortunately, your paycheck doesn’t include combat pay for refereeing those petulant players you have to deal with every night. Personally, I have always thought that the worst part of the job dealing blackjack was settling squabbles of players who have spent hours gulping for effect, barking both at you and fellow players with that pretentious voice they get when they are a bit ... expansive. Then again, they could be jerks all the time.

You don’t have, nor do they, any knowledge of the cards remaining in the deck(s). When someone hits a hand that deviates from basic strategy, his or her poor play is just as likely to take a card that might have benefited the dealer’s hand as one that would have busted it. The only hand influenced by the outcome of their play is "their hand," not others.

Dear Mark: On some video poker machines, they offer suggestions on what cards to hold. Do the machines use perfect basic strategy? Would you ever follow the advice that the machine is giving you? Dave F.

I have found Dave, the results to be somewhat mixed. Most video poker machines in land-based casinos in the US do follow, for the most part, the proper strategy for that machine. Plus, the guidance offered on machines where they highlight which cards to hold, even if slightly off, is a far better way to play each hand than the Average Joe just winging it, cocktail in hand. Get my point?

What I have noticed, though, on a machine with a positive expectation, particularly with the better paytables, is the absence of any assistance from the machine. You are on your own, hand-by-hand, on what cards to hold, so it’s up to you, Dave, to know that machine’s perfect basic strategy.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “To gamble is to risk, to approach the "ruin factor." When I was poor the ruin factor was not important. Hell, I was ruined anyway.” – Mario Puzo, Inside Las Vegas (1976)



Reader catches discrepancy in blackjack basic strategy

Posted: 28.03.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I noticed on your audio that you advised standing on nines versus a dealers two. However, your strategy card that was included with the audio shows splitting (SP) nines against a two. Please clarify. Also, is always hitting, and never splitting fours, the appropriate play? Rita C.

I believe, Rita, you are referring to a 15-second segment on my Hooked on Winning audio where I gave some simplified rules if you were not in possession of a blackjack strategy card. I stated that adhering to those few simple rules can bring the house edge down to approximately one percent. One was a tip where I suggested you should “stand on 9’s against a dealer 2.”

When I first recorded Hooked on Winning 18 years ago, I initially worked off a blackjack strategy card that recommended splitting them 9’s except when the dealer shows 2, 7, 10, or an Ace. I later found that view of standing on 9’s against a 2 in the minority on the multitude of cards I possessed when it came to splitting 9's. Subsequently, when creating my own strategy card to go along with my audio product, I changed the advice to split those 9’s to go along with the majority rather than stand in this situation.

Nice catch, Rita, although I did make a correction in a column more than a decade ago when but one other reader, like you, caught it.

As for hitting and never splitting 4’s against any up-card, you are correct. I recommend just whacking it every time.

Dear Mark: When playing on a slot machine, does it make a difference if I put in a $100 bill instead of in increments like $5, $10 or $20? Sylvia L.

It doesn't matter, Sylvia. The odds remain the same regardless of the amounts or the denominations of your deposits in the machine. This holds true for all video machines. That said, Sylvia, if you are always reaching into your purse for a $5 bill, you are not physically engaged with a one-armed bandit that has a huge built-in house edge against you. As a result, feeding a machine constantly stops, at least for a mere moment, the casino from keeping “up to” 20¢ of every dollar you circulate through it.

Dear Mark: We always learn something when we read your column and very much appreciate what you pass along. Thank you! We enjoy video poker, so, is there a better way to play smarter? Bob and Lois

Because video poker can be a positive expectation game, it is the one video machine offered that really gives the player a chance to get the best of the casinos. A caveat to that statement is that you must select the best machines, and, just as important, know which cards to hold.

What you never want to do, Bob, and you too Lois, is let the casino floor be your classroom. So, allow me to recommend my favorite book when it comes to video poker.

For the average player struggling to understand and apply the proper strategies for video poker, my pick for an easy-to-grasp, straightforward book is Victory at Video Poker by Frank Scoblette.

Once you learn to distinguish the decent paying machines from the dogs, and then apply the proper strategies for the hands that you are dealt, you will watch, with pleasure, the direction your hard-earned money starts flowing.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “The first rule of poker, whether you play by western or eastern rules, is put up or shut up!” – Henry Fonda, A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)



Loose slots and loads of goodies

Posted: 21.03.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Do you have a favorite place to play quarter slots in Las Vegas? What casino has the best returns? I am going there next month. Meri W.

Unfortunately, Meri, when it comes to slot machines, there is no definitive return for slot paybacks at any one particular casino like those for video poker just by using ones noggin and analyzing a paytable. Luckily, the grind joints in downtown Las Vegas are competitive and liberal with their returns.

In Las Vegas, The Strip theoretically returns 91.37%
on 25¢ slot machines, whereas the Downtown casino slots return 94.77%. As you can see, Meri, the quarter slot machines downtown pay out slightly more than those located on the Las Vegas Strip. Not only are those returns among the best in the Las Vegas area, they are among the best payback percentages anywhere in the US.

Playing quarters, Meri, puts you in the category of the low roller. So, what you want to do is not only play downtown, but choose a casino with liberal player benefits.

So, what is my favorite? I believe the best cluck-for-the-buck can be had at the El Cortez. The El Cortez is the longest continuously-running hotel and casino in Vegas, widely considered by locals as a decent low-end comp house, has a slew of the Las Vegas Review BEST OF LAS VEGAS AWARDS, and yes, some of the loosest slots in town.

Being the “old schooler” that I am, I find El Cortez to be one of the few places in Vegas where patrons can still enjoy classic coin-operated machines. There is nothing better than the sounds of winning as quarters hit the drop bowl.

Dear Mark: Any chance you can share with us your Final Four picks and the eventual winner of your NCAA Bracket. Jason K.

This year, Jason, was the first that I have not filled out a bracket in over 30 years. I certainly wasn’t induced by Quicken Loans billion dollar grand prize, where filling out a perfect bracket and predicting the correct result of all 63 games was one in two to the 63rd power, which just happens to be one in nine million trillion (1/ 9,000,000,000,000,000,000).

So picks here, sorry Jason, I have none. I decided this time to just root for teams where I have paid/pay my son Nick’s tuition: University of Cincinnati, University of Michigan and Duke. Currently he is on the long road to a Ph.D, so I just may need to reconsider and take a shot at that Quicken Loans bracket.

Dear Mark: I do not play poker, let alone gamble, but someone where I work said that there is a poker hand named after me. My name Joe Bernstein and you can use my full name in your column. Have you ever heard of it? Joe B.

I have, Joe. In Hold' em, a Joe Bernstein is when one's first two cards is a 6-9. It was named after a famous gambler of the 20s-30s.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Winning isn't going to change your life. So don't bet so much that you can get hurt. If that's what betting is all about for you, wear dog tags so they know where to ship the body.” – Larry Merchant, The National Football Lottery (1973)



Slot machines are rigged mathematically, and not with a screwdriver

Posted: 08.03.2014
By: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: No matter what you write, you will never get me to believe that slot machines are rigged. That said, I still enjoy your column, so keep trying to convince me. Chet H.

Hey, Chet, here’s the deal. The likelihood of winning is less than the likelihood of losing when playing slot machines. Thus, slot machines are “rigged” in favor of the house. To illustrate, say you and I (the house) flip a coin, a dollar a pop. Every time you lose you pay me $1, but when I lose, I only pay you 80¢.

All slot machines are set up the same way. For every dollar inserted, the long-term return to the player can be as little as 80¢. The premium the casino rakes in is the cost of you playing the game. All the risk here is on you, Chet. You put up money; the casino gladly takes it simply in return for providing you the action of yanking a handle.

All casino games, Chet, operate in this same manner. Most casino games though give you a whole lot more in return than when you happen to get a lucky pull.

Dear Mark: Can you please explain how the table limits, both minimum and maximum, work at roulette? Dave P.

Have a seat at any roulette table, Dave, and you will notice that each roulette game carries a placard describing the minimum and maximum bets at the table. It might read something like, “$1 minimum - inside bets, $5 minimum - outside bets. $100 maximum inside, $1,000 maximum outside."

Outside bets include red, black, odd, even, 1-18, and 19-36 which pay even money as well as column and dozen bets that pay 2 to 1. Inside bets are the individual numbers which pay 35 to 1 and groups of adjoining numbers which pay variously from 5 to 1 to 17 to 1.

Table maximums usually are lower on inside bets because of the higher payoffs offered. Although the odds are exactly the same as an outside bet, 5.26%, the last thing the house wants is a player walking up and taking one shot at the casino with a $1,000 bet, making for a $35,000 payday.

Although the listed minimums for inside and outside wagers can be the same ($5 and $5), the rules are different. A player betting the $5 minimum on inside wagers is allowed to spread five $1 chips around on different bets on the inside. However, the minimum for outside bets means the player must wager the entire $5 on an individual outside bet. Betting $2 on red, $1 on the first 12, and $2 on the second column does not satisfy the minimum.

Also, Dave, you cannot combine your inside and outside bets together to meet the table minimum requirement. If the minimum bet is five dollars, you have to bet $5 on the inside and/or $5 on the outside. The croupier will not allow you to wager $3 inside and $2 outside.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “Lying in wait is the secret of success in poker.” R. A. Proctor, Poker Principles an Chance Laws (1880s)


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