A Casino Player's Survival Kit
By John Grochowski
In the game of survival, casinos arm themselves well. The mathematical edge that’s built into each game is plenty of ammunition to make sure house bags its share of the wagers.
Players would do well to put together a little survival kit of their own. It can’t guarantee you’ll be a winner - only a handful of blackjack card counters, video poker pros and other advantage players are going to come out ahead in the long run. But you should have enough in your own bag of tricks to ensure the good times will be worth whatever you spend in pursuit of fun and jackpots.
There are a few tangible items in the smart player’s survival kit, but it must include a large dose of knowledge that you can’t reach out and touch any more than you can close your fist on the house edge. No matter. The knowledge you need is easily available.
Let’s open up the survival kit and see what’s inside.
CASH - No shock here. Any survival kit for a day, or even an hour, in the casino has to start with enough money to cover whatever games you plan to play.
The amount required depends on what you plan to play. If you’re just planning to pass an hour on the penny slots, betting one coin per line, a $20 bill will take you a long way. But on a nickel video slot or a quarter three-reel game, $20 can disappear in 10 minutes flat, and on dollar games, a $100 bill can be history just about that fast. The same goes for video poker - slots and video poker move so fast, with 500 or more plays per hour, that a cold streak can gobble up the cash almost as fast as you can get it out of your wallet.
Table games don’t move as fast - figure 50 or so hands per hour on a full blackjack table - but minimum bets are higher. Even at a $5 table, $100 can go fast in the bad times.
The amount in your survival kit depends on your entertainment budget - no siphoning off funds needed for real-life, every day survival. And if you find the cash disappearing faster than you’d anticipated during a casino trip, be prepared to take time out from gaming or to switch to a less money-hungry game for a while. There’s nothing wrong with a dollar slot player on a cold streak who bides time on pennies for a while to preserve a little cushion in the survival kit.
PLAYER REWARDS CARD - Wherever you play, be sure to sign up for the player rewards card. It won’t bring you freebies every time out, but as you play, you’ll compile points that can bring cash back, free meals or discounts or other perks. In some casinos that charge admission, the cards can bring free or reduced admission, depending on your level of play. Some Native American casinos that don’t give cash back on their cards give complimentary sessions in their bingo halls - and if you’re a bingo player, that’s almost as good for cash. And some clubs give automatic discounts on meals or gift shop items just for having the cards. You may not get your lunch for free, but a discount of 10 or 15 percent off the price helps stretch the cash in your kit.
If you find yourself in a casino where you’ve never played, be sure to find out if there are bonuses for signing up. Some will give logo merchandise, others give buffet comps, still others have been known to reimburse losses in the first hour of play, just for signing up for their cards.
Do keep in mind that comps and perks are not worth digging beyond the budgeted amount of cash in your survival kit. Take what’s offered at your normal level of play, but increasing wagers in pursuit of comps can leave you wishing you’d bought your own lunch.
The benefits make the player rewards card a vital part of your survival kit. But there’s more. The reason casinos give out the perks and bonuses is to keep you coming back. They want your name and address and data base in their computers, so they can send you offers by direct mail to encourage you to return and play again, leading to our next survival kit item …
COUPONS - All that direct mail that results from your signing up for a rewards card brings offers and coupons. Refresh those in your survival kit each month. There are eight casinos on my regular rounds, and each sends me mail each month - some send more than one mailing a month. In those mailers are coupons for cash, 2-for-1 buffets, discounted hotel rooms, free admission, invitations to parties and tournaments, and more, all without using up whatever perks I’ve already compiled from previous trips. Each month, I weed out expired offers and replace them with the new ones. Then, when I’m off on a casino venture, I take along those that are valid where I’m playing.
If you have a coupon for a free buffet, use it instead of redeeming points from your rewards card account. Use the points for something else. You can have your points, and eat free too.
COMPUTER SOFTWARE - Blackjack and video poker are games at which your skill and knowledge of strategies make a difference. Software that will test that skill, warn you when you are making mistakes and help you take your game to a higher level definitely belongs in your survival kit. For video poker players, there are two outstanding programs: Frugal Video Poker, with tips from Queen of Comps Jean Scott, and Bob Dancer Presents WinPoker, by Dean Zamzone. Either one will correct your play as you practice, and both come loaded with games while enabling the player to change pay tables to match the ones they actually see in their local casinos. Frugal Video Poker, the more expensive of the two, has more extras - a comp calculator, a strategy generator that will produce printable strategy tables for any pay table, and an option for the user to choose to have play corrected for perfect play - as favored by WinPoker - or for play against a strategy table.
There is a good deal of instructional software available for blackjack players. One recent, inexpensive program that I really like is Blackjack 6-7-8 from StickySoft Corp. It’ll drill you on basic strategy and counting cards, will show the effect variations in rules have on the house edge, run high-speed simulations --- there are a host of extras. For survival purposes at blackjack, learning basic strategy is fundamental, so whatever software you choose, be sure basic strategy drills, with warnings for mistakes, are part of the package.
STRATEGY CARDS - Think you know your blackjack basic strategy, but are unclear on a few fine points? Or are you just a little fuzzy on how to play certain video poker hands? Maybe strategy cards should be part of your survival kit.
In some jurisdictions you can take your strategy card right to the blackjack table or video poker machine, and use it to help make your decisions. Some states - Illinois, for instance - do not permit you to use strategy cards while you play.
If you’re in an area where cards are permitted and would like a little “tip sheet” while you play, laminated, pocket-sized blackjack cards are readily available in casino gift shops. Nearly all inexpensive cards will show the same basic strategy. StickySoft’s Blackjack 6-7-8 cards are a bit pricier, but have some extras that make them worth considering if you don’t already have a strategy card. There are four cards in the series - one each for single-deck, double-deck and four-to-eight-deck games, and one with a four-to-eight-deck strategy adapted for card counters. Each is a tri-fold piece with six panels - four with basic strategies adapted for common rules variations, and two panels with discussions on playing decisions, basic strategy and the house edge.
Video poker strategy cards are a little less common - one won’t find them in every gift shop - but there are some good ones out there. Frugal Strategy Cards, by Skip Hughes, are easy to use. Five cards - one each for 9-6 Jacks or Better, full-pay Deuces Wild, 10-7 Double Bonus Poker, Kings or Better Joker Poker, and Pick-‘Em Poker - are available individually or as a set. Bob Dancer also has strategy cards developed with Liam W. Daily on nine different games. These are six-sided cards with strategies at four skill levels, from beginner to advanced.
AN INSTINCT FOR SURVIVAL - Here come those intangibles mentioned earlier. Part of the instinct for survival is taking the information in the magazines, books, software and strategy cards, learning the strategies and applying it to your play. Part of it is having the discipline to stick with your survival plan, sticking to the games for which you’re prepared and not overbetting your bankroll. Another part is knowing yourself well enough to know what you want out of your trip to the casino. Your goals and expectations make a difference in your game choice. For instance:
** The house edge at table games tends to be lower than the house edge on the slots. In the Midwest, where I’m based, we’re seeing casinos keep about 5 to 7 percent of everything wagered on dollar slots, 7 to 10 percent on quarters, and 10 percent or more on nickels. A “loose” slot is still keeping $5 per $100 wagered. That puts the house edge on slots on a par with or higher than the table games with the highest fixed house edges - the 5.26 percent house edge at roulette, for instance, where the casino keeps an average of $5.26 per $100 wagered.. There are table games wagers with even higher house edges, such as the one-roll propositions at craps and the tie bet at baccarat, but both craps and baccarats also offer wagers with very low house edges.
House edges at table games can be much lower - a half percent or so, depending on house rules, against a basic strategy player at blackjack, or 2 to 2.5 percent against an average player; 1.41 percent on pass and come and 1.4 percent on don’t pass and don’t come at craps, and even lower if you take advantage of free odds; 1.17 percent on banker and 1.36 percent on player in baccarat.
The combination of high house edge and rapid speed of play on the slots means that the house can expect to win more money per hour from a quarter slot player wagering 75 cents a spin than from a $5-a-hand blackjack basic strategy player.
That doesn’t mean you should never play the slots. If chasing the jackpots, watching the reels and playing the bonus rounds is your idea of casino entertainment, then let ‘em spin. Just have your bankroll and your expectations in order.
** Different types of slot machines will give you a different experience. Video games with second-screen bonuses are designed to give players extended “time on device,” with long bonus rounds and frequent “winning” spins with paybacks less than the amount wagered. Big winning sessions on these games are rare, with few jackpots large enough to insure walking away with a profit - the paybacks are tied up in the bonuses and small wins rather than jackpots. Traditional three-reel slots, on the other hand, will pay out more big hits, but also will have more long cold streaks that’ll eat into that cash in your survival kit a lot faster than the video games will. Deciding what you want - a chance at a big jackpot with a high risk of rapid losses, or extended play with less chance of a big hit - is one of the keys to a slot player’s survival.
** Likewise, different table games will provide different experiences. Craps is the ultimate social casino games, with most players betting on the same side and winning or losing together. Blackjack is a quieter game, with a very low house edge if you play basic strategy. It’s a even-keel game, with wins or losses mounting slowly. Newer table games such as Caribbean Stud, Let It Ride and Three Card Poker are decidedly not even-keel games. Winning hands are less frequent than in blackjack. The potential is there for bigger one-hand wins, but also for faster losses. Just as on the slots, you have to decide what you want out of the game.
** Understand that the majority of gambling sessions will result in losses for the players. The games are designed to make money for the house. Even blackjack card counters who have a mathematical edge on the game have losing sessions, and the majority of sessions are losers for video poker pros who can gain small edges in the long run. Enjoy the wins when they come, but be prepared for the losses. With preparation and a little discipline, you can do more than survive in the casino. You can have a whole lot of fun.
"The Slot Machine Answer Book."
You can find his weekly column at www.scoblete.com.