If Everyone Always Wins How Do They Build The Casinos?

So you’ve watched the movie “21” (or maybe its much better ancestor – Rounders) and now you figure it’s time to go out and make some money on this whole gambling thing.  Gambling is a weird phenomenon for human beings in my opinion.  I mean, we walk into these gorgeous casinos, full of employees, they give us “free” drinks and complimentary rooms, and yet we all believe we are going to win money.  There might be that little “angel on the shoulder” or conscience at the back of our minds that tells us the casino must be taking someone’s money if they can afford everything around us, but yet our gut tells us that we are different as a gambler.

 It’s Easy… If You’re an MIT Grad

It doesn’t help that popular culture furthers this agenda.  The going theme in hollywood’s world of gambling is that you can simply get good enough at casino games to beat the house consistently and become fairly wealthy.  Another popular theme is beating the sports bookies.  This is just flat out false.  Mathematically, it is nearly impossible to beat the house for the long term, even with games of skill.  Eventually the sheer odds just catch up with everybody.

No One Ever Loses, but The Casinos Never Go Bankrupt

We don’t do ourselves any favours either.  How often do your friends come up to you and gleefully shout, “I lost $150 in the casino last night, that’s three nights in a row where I went out, had a fun time, and lost $150.”  My guess is that it doesn’t happen that often.  Instead we all like to shout out respective success stories from the top of mountains.  If we’re honest with ourselves and just look at some lost wagers as the cost of the entertainment the gambling provided, then we would have no problem admitting this, yet few of us do.  Instead we keep re-telling that story of when the machine paid us out $500, or when that perfect 8 game Sport Select ticket put $350 in our pocket.

The Best Way To Throw Money Away

But if you do find yourself at the casino you should at least be aware of which games offer you the best odds.  If you never really thought about how casinos make their money before, every game in the place has a “house advantage.”  This advantage guarantees that over a long enough time period the casino will make money off of you. The first thing you should know is that slot machines are the most popular casino pastime and they are also one of the worst places to put your money.  In his 2005 article “How slot machines give gamblers the business” Marc Cooper reported that casinos made 70% of their earnings from slot machines.  Their payout ratios usually ranged from 80%-95%.  This means that the house advantage (or the money that the casino takes out of the pot before it is paid out) is 5%-20%, no wonder casinos are called a license to print money!  If you were wondering, the worst game to throw money at is Keno, where at least 25% of your money disappears before anything gets paid out!

So if not the good old slot machines or Keno, what gives you the best chance of winning in a casino?  Well, the odds say that the games of Craps and Baccarat usually only have between a .5% and 2% house advantage, so that is where I would start.  They are also really fun games to learn if you are drunk at 4 AM in Vegas or something… or so I’ve been told.  Blackjack aficionados will tell you that smart strategy can whittle the house advantage down to .8% in that game and that this can be further be eroded by card counting ability.  I’m skeptical of the ability to count cards affecting a 6 deck-game very much, but hey, I guess I just have to watch “21” a few more times.  Roulette is perhaps the game with the most obvious house advantage (it’s right there in green zeroes for you to see).  Single 0 roulette has a 2.7% house advantage while double 0 roulette takes it up to 5.6%.  These are the best games in the casino, and the overall house advantage is so small that is it definitely possible to beat the house over the short term.  Logically, you are a lot more likely to have odds favour you if you play 10 rounds, as opposed to 100 rounds, just because your allowing more time for the laws of probability to kick in.

 Poker – I Wouldn’t Touch’er

Finally we reach my old standby – poker.  Now poker works a little differently than other games at the casino because you are not playing against the house/casino, you are playing against other players.  This seems like a good deal right?  I mean, your odds are better that you will outsmart the person across the table relative to a slot machine right?  Except you forgot to think about the fact that the game wouldn’t be taking up space in a casino if they didn’t make money off of it.  The majority of poker games in casinos have what’s called a rake.  This is basically a small percentage of every pot that the dealer takes out of circulation.  What this ends up looking like is players competing against each other for 90%-97% of the money they put in.  Good players believe (and I would agree) that they can tilt the game enough in their favour through poker skill to beat the rake, and still make money in the long run.  I would argue that poker is the only casino game where skill actually matters.

When you look at these odds, it probably doesn’t surprise you that most personal finance guys/glas don’t like playing casino games.  We’re too logical to enjoy them.  I like to stick to poker tournaments (that most casinos will put on for free in order to get you in the door) or just playing poker with my buddies.  If you lose to your pals, at least your money is going to them and not the casino.  Fantasy Football or throwing darts at a stock list anyone?

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My parents are heavy gamblers – well, maybe not “heavy” (they only gamble on less than $100 at a time) but frequent. They go to a casino 2-4 times a month, just for an hour or two at a time. I know my mom almost ALWAYS loses, but my dad’s pretty lucky – he wins a good amount of the time, I guess making up for my mom’s losses.

I lived in Reno for 12 years. Thank you to all the gamblers who helped keep taxes low. If you are honestly looking for the best odds in a casino, it will be at the Craps table,if you understand how to bet. While MIT grads may be able to beat “the system” for a little while, you should know that casinos are like any other business and reserve the right to refuse you service. Everyone likes to think they can count cards (which is why casinos advertise single deck Blackjack) but very few people actually can. Those who can, well,… Read more »

That’s a great point about how everyone talks about the moment they won big. I avoid them because I would rather travel somewhere nice than try to win big (and be disappointed when it doesn’t happen).

Actually, a six deck shoe is better than a single deck, especially if the dealer progresses deeper into the shoe (say 5 decks in) before shuffling. In brief: Most counting systems are based along high/low lines, so you only have to keep a single number in your head. Every additional deck means there are more high and low card in the deck, so it’s possible for the count to get higher or lower than in a single deck game. I might add that a few blackjack players may have beat the house, but the house won in general. Entertainment companies… Read more »

I confess that gambling is one thing in life I have not missed…I never got in to it. Very interesting article.

I know from personal experience that you can significantly shift the odds in your favour when playing blackjack if you use proper strategy and/or count cards. I’ve seen it work first hand and in the flesh, and dare I say, guiltlessly profited from it a little bit. And as PK mentioned above, the more decks the better.

I love that movie ’21’, it was really good. The slot machines are so fun, it sucks that they’re so awful. Personally, I love to play roulette. I almost always walk away with more than I started with and can spend hours at the table having an awesome time. :-)

I had a calc professor who was obsessed with gambling strategy. Based on his understanding of pretty much any casino out there, the rules of each table, and his own calculations, it would be difficult to earn a living wage counting cards. The edge to the bettor can go as high as 1%. The problem is that you have to bet a lot over a long period of time to make that edge work in your favor. Once you start winning with regularity (as you should do with a 1% edge) you start attracting the attention of casino management, who… Read more »

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