Almost everyone lives near a casino now, but so many people know so little about how the casino games actually work. How does the casino make money? How can players get the best odds of winning? Are some games better than others? I put together a list of the 25 most interesting and surprising facts about casino games below. Read before gambling.
It doesn't matter which casino game you play, the player's club is the best deal in the casino. In fact, even if you're not going to gamble at all, you should join the player's club. That's because the casino will periodically send you free stuff in order to get you to visit again.
Here's how the player's club works:
You sign up at the player's club desk, and the casino gives you a plastic card-it looks like a library card or an ATM card. You insert it into the gambling machines when you play, or you give it to the dealer, if you're playing table games. The casino then tracks how much money you wager during your trip.
It's important to understand that they're not tracking how much you lose, though. They're just interested in how much money you put into action. They use this to calculate how much to pay you back in rebates and rewards.
Usually they pay you between 0.2% and 0.4% of your expected losses. That's based on the theoretical number, so even if you have a winning session on the slot machines, you still earn player points.
The casino rewards you with perks like free meals, room and board, cash, and entertainment tickets. The more you play, the more rewards you become eligible for.
So even if you play table games, you should join the player's club and use it every time you visit the casino.
You can categorize and subcategorize casino games in multiple ways, but the simplest 2 categories are the most fundamental:
Table games are the ones where you play at a table with a dealer and other players. Examples of table games include baccarat, blackjack, craps, and roulette.
Gambling machines include slot machines and video poker. In the last decade, video game versions of various table games have become popular, too-you can find video blackjack and video roulette at many casinos now.
Table games usually involve playing cards, dice, or a spinning wheel of some kind in order to achieve random results.
The variety of slot machines and video poker games available is staggering. No matter what stakes you play for, or what size jackpot you're hoping to win, most casinos offer a gambling machine that will fit the bill.
Everyone knows that casinos are insanely profitable, but not everyone understands why. The reason is actually simpler than you might think, though. The odds of winning and the payoffs are never commensurate.
Here's an example:
In roulette, a bet on red or black pays off at even odds. If your odds of winning that bet were even, it would be mathematically "fair" bet. But your odds of winning aren't even.
That's because fewer than half the possible results are red or black. A roulette wheel has 38 numbers on it, and 18 of them are red. 18 of them are black.
But 2 of them are green.
So you have 18 ways to win that bet and 20 ways to lose that bet.
If you wagered $100 on 38 spins, and if you saw every possible result, you'd win $1800 while losing $2000. It's plain to see how the casino has an edge in this situation.
But this is how the math works on all casino games, more or less. You have a chance of winning, but when you do win, you'll win less than you'd need to in order to make it an even game.
Gambling experts (and casinos) measure the advantage the casino has over the player as a percentage of each bet that the casino expects to win over the long run. That percentage is called the house edge. The higher the house edge is, the worse your odds of walking away a winner are.
In the roulette game described in #3, the house edge is 5.26%. This means that over an infinite number of spins, you'll lose 5.26% of each bet you make. If you're betting $100 per spin, you can expect an average net loss of $5.26 over time.
But here's the thing about the house edge:
It's a long term expectation. In the short run, anything can happen. In fact, if that weren't the case, no one would ever walk away a winner. And no one would gamble at a casino.
As an individual casino gambler, you're hoping to get lucky.
The casino, on the other hand, doesn't have to get lucky. They just rely on the math behind the games and the law of large numbers to make them a profit.
The formula for calculating how much the casino expects to win on a given casino game over time is straightforward enough. You just multiply the average number of bets per hour by the size of the average bet. You multiply that by the house edge, and that's the expected amount lost per hour.
The formula looks like this:
Bets per hour X size of the average bet X house edge = hourly expected loss for the player
Here's an example of that formula in action:
An average slot machine player makes 600 spins per hour. On a slots game where you're betting $3 per spin, with a 10% house edge, your average hourly loss is $180. Here's what the calculation looks like:
600 X $3 X 10% = $180
The truth is that both gambling machines and table games have both a payback percentage and a house edge. But when people in the know discuss these numbers, they talk about the payback percentage when they're talking about gambling machines. They talk about the house edge when they talk about table games.
The payback percentage is easily calculated, too. You just subtract the house from 100%.
For example, if a slot machine game has a 10% edge over the player, the payback percentage for that game is 90%.
This number is also sometimes called "return to player".
When regulations discuss gambling machines, they focus on payback percentages. You'll also see gambling writers on the Internet and in gambling machine magazines like Strictly Slots write about the payback percentage.
A loose gambling machine is one with a low house edge and a high payback percentage. A tight game is just the opposite-one with a high house and a low payback percentage. In the short term, a game might be loose or tight just because of standard deviation. But in the long run, a game's tightness or looseness is a function of its payback percentage.
Of course, the bottom line with gambling machines is that if you play them long enough, you'll lose all your money. That's a mathematical surety. The only difference is how long it will take.
In fact, this is true of any gambling game in a casino. If the house has the edge, they'll be the ultimate winner.
Here's something you won't see written on most gambling sites:
The house edge really doesn't matter much.
Here's why I say that:
If a game has a house edge, you'll eventually lose all your money. The question is how fast you'll lose it.
And the house edge is just one factor in the formula. If you're playing a game where you can't make many bets per hour, you could theoretically lose less money per hour even if the house edge is significantly higher.
Here's an example:
Let's say you're betting $5 per spin on a slot machine. At 600 spins per hour, that's $3000 in action per hour. If you assume that the game has a house edge of just 3%, which would be an exceptional slot machine indeed, you'll lose an average of $90 per hour.
But let's say you're betting $5 per spin at the roulette table. The house edge is 5.26%, which is almost twice as much as the theoretical slot machine game. But you might only see 60 bets per hour at this game, which means you're only putting $300 into action per hour. Your expected loss is only a little bit more than $15 per hour.
Does this mean you should always play roulette and never play slot machines?
It just means that the house edge isn't the only factor to consider when choosing a casino game.
Skill is only a factor in a tiny number of games in the casino. In most casino games, the house edge is fixed and doesn't move up or down based on your decisions. The main 2 games where your decisions matter are:
Both of these games offer some of the best odds in the casino, but only if you're consistently making good decisions. If you play with the correct strategy, you'll see a house edge on both of those games of less than 1%.
But with games like craps and roulette, the house edge doesn't change regardless of what decisions you make. It makes sense if you think about it, too. Any single number on a roulette wheel has a 1 in 38 chance of coming up on every spin, regardless of what's happened on previous spins. Each of the dice in a craps game has 6 sides, and the chances of any particular result on either of those dice is 1 in 6.
A betting system is a strategy for raising or lowering your bets to try to get an edge over the casino. In the long run, these strategies don't work, because they rely on something called "the gamblers fallacy".
This is the idea that over time, the odds of certain results change because of your previous results.
Here's an example:
You're playing roulette, and on the last 8 spins, the ball landed in a red pocket.
What are the odds that the ball will land in a red pocket on the 9th spin?
They're exactly the same as if the ball hand landed in a black pocket on the prior 8 spins.
That's because a roulette wheel has no memory. There are 38 equally likely possibilities on every spin. Those possibilities don't disappear or become less likely because of your previous results.
Most betting systems involve raising and/or lowering your bets based on what's happened previously.
One system might suggest that you raise your bets in that example, but another system might suggest that you lower your bets in that example.
The idea behind that is simple:
One betting system assumes that a certain result is due because it hasn't appeared in a while. The other assumes that a certain result has become "hot" and is more likely to continue because of the nature of gambling streaks.
The reality is that patterns only appear in retrospect.
Casino games are like life in that respect. Life can only be understood in retrospect, but it can only be lived forward.
You can find gambling games where you can get an edge, but I'm writing about casino games here. Poker doesn't count, because you're playing against the other players. Sports betting doesn't count, either, because it's a different activity from casino games.
Realistically speaking, the only 2 casino games where you can get an edge over the house are these:
And you can't get an edge over every blackjack or every video poker game, either. You have to find the best conditions. And you have to be far more skilled than the average player, too.
Some people think that you can beat blackjack just by knowing the correct decisions to make on every hand.
Even if you make the correct decision on every single hand, even the best blackjack games still have a house edge of around 0.5%--maybe 0.25% if you find a really generous casino.
In order to get an edge over the house, you have to do more than play perfect basic strategy. You have to learn how to count cards or use some other advantage gambling technique.
Only a tiny percentage of the video poker games available offer the player an edge over the house. And even those games require that you play almost every hand optimally. The edge the player has over the house is so small that even a mistake once every 10 or 20 hands would put the odds back into the casino's favor.
Most advantage video poker players use a couple of strategies to get an edge. One of those is to combine their player's club card rewards with the best possible pay tables in order to get an edge.
Here's how that works:
Assume you have a full pay Jacks or Better video poker game. The house edge on that game is 0.46%.
Now assume that the casino pays our 0.3% of your action in rebates. That effectively reduces the house edge to 0.16%.
But you still don't have an edge over the casino.
But suppose you only play during the days and times where you're able to get double rewards for your play. If you do that, you're getting 0.6% back, which gives you an effective edge against the casino of 0.14%.
Of course, that's a tiny edge, and no one's going to make a living on 0.14%. But it can make for some fun vacations which are practically free.
Generally speaking, the more one of these gurus is charging for his system, the worse the product actually is. I know this from experience, having bought several of them. In fact, almost all of these "information products" are hoping to benefit from their readers' ignorance of some simple math.
Most of the strategies and tips provided in these products are just based on the gambler's fallacy. But if you want to ignore math and common sense, don't waste $75 on an ebook you found on the Internet. You can buy John Patrick's gambling books used for pennies on the dollar, and the advice in them is the same kind of nonsense you'll see in these systems.
Most of these systems are variations of betting systems, which you already know don't work. But some of them just rely on myths, too.
One of my favorites is the so-called "zig zag" slot machine strategy. The idea is that you'll wander through the casino looking for slot machine games which have winning symbols showing in some kind of zig zag pattern. The idea is that such machines are "ready" to pay out.
The reality is that the odds on these games are all governed by a computer program called a random number generator (RNG). The results on the screen are really just for show, anyway. So near misses mean absolutely nothing.
A strategy like the zig zag might have had some validity during the days when slot machines were powered by gears and springs, but that was a long time ago. It's all computers now, and the computers don't care what's showing on the paylines unless you've hit a win.
Some people know next to nothing about blackjack and card counting. Maybe someone in that category saw the movie Rain Man, and they think you have to be some kind of savant who can memorize a deck of cards in order to get an edge at blackjack via card counting.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the real world, card counters track the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck in order to raise their bets when the odds are in their favor. Unlike roulette, blackjack has a memory. Every time a card is dealt, it's removed from the deck, at least temporarily. This changes the odds.
A blackjack-a 2 card hand totaling 21-is always made up of an ace and another card worth 10. If all the aces are gone, or (less likely) the 10s, your chances of getting a blackjack are 0.
But this hand pays off at 3 to 2.
If you're more likely to get this hand, you should bet more money. If you're less likely to get this hand, you should be less money.
The simplest card counting systems assign a +1 or -1 value to some of the cards in the deck. For example, 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s might all count as +1; aces and tens might count as -1.
Some people who have read about the basics of card counting think that sounds easy, but it's far harder in actual practice than it is in theory. Not only do you have to keep track of this number, but you have to do so without looking like you're keeping up with it. The casinos ban card counters from their blackjack tables. So you can't win if you can play.
You also have to convert the running count into a true count, which takes into account the number of decks in play.
Then you also need to make adjustments to your strategy based on the count. Some counters just rely on raising or lowering their bets, but the ones who are serious about getting an edge want to milk the casino for every tenth of a percent.
Some people think that the casino or the staff mind when you're winning. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Casino management understands the math behind these casino games well. They know that in the long run, they'll win money as long as the odds are in their favor.
But they also know that if no one ever won, no one would every play. And if no one ever played, they wouldn't be able to stay in business.
In fact, even the lowest level employees understand in a general sense that someone has to win once in a while for the casino to stay in business. In fact, they often rely on tips in order to make a living.
So in a sense, they're rooting for you to beat the odds.
Craps is an unusual game in the sense that not all of the bets on the table offer the same odds. Some of the bets on the craps table offer an extremely low house edge, but others have a very high house edge. Knowing the difference can have an effect on your experience at the craps table.
Luckily, the easiest bets to understand are the ones that offer the best odds. The pass and don't pass bets offer a house edge significantly less than 2%.
And if you take the odds bet, which is one of the only bets in the casino with no house edge, you can reduce the cumulative house edge even further.
But a more specific bet, like "any seven", has a much higher house edge-in this case, 16.7%. You can find a bewildering array of bets on the craps table with a house edge over 9%. With odds like that, you might as well be playing the keno. (Well, it's not that bad-but it's close.)
If you're looking for the loosest slot machines, you want to look for games that seem more plain vanilla than the other games. Traditional 3-reel games with a single payline generally offer a better payout percentage than games with lots of paylines and lots of reels.
Also, the slot machine games with the progressive jackpots offer some of the worst odds in the house. Those are the games with the jackpot that constantly increases by a small amount. These jackpots are fed by a tiny percentage of each bet that you place. Those amounts come directly off the payback percentage.
Finally, the higher stakes slot machines usually offer better payback percentages than the lower stakes games. This isn't 100% true of all of them, but you'll usually see a better payback percentage on a nickel machine compared to a penny machine. And you'll usually see a better payback percentage on a quarter machine than a nickel machine.
Your choice of casino makes a difference, too. Casinos on the Strip in Las Vegas offer far better payback percentages than casinos at the airport or in the local bars.
You'll find plenty of nonsense about how casinos put the loosest games on the ends of the carousels, but that's just a myth. The reality is that there's no real way of knowing which machines in the casino offer better odds than the other ones.
Remember when I said that the slot machines in the local bars don't offer good payback percentages?
The opposite is often true for video poker. Local bars often cater to the local crowd in Las Vegas, and the locals understand the pay tables better than most. To remain competitive, many of them offer good pay tables.
Also, the casinos on the Strip are often the least likely to offer good pay tables on their video poker machines. They might have better slots, but the casinos on Boulder Highway have made loose video poker machines one of their main selling points.
The vast majority of online casinos don't cheat. They don't have to. Remember how we discussed the house edge? All casino games have an unassailable house edge.
The games don't have to be "rigged", because mathematically speaking, they already are.
So when you play blackjack on the Internet, you can almost always be confident that the results you're seeing have the same odds you would see if you were playing with a real deck of cards. When you play craps, the odds are the same as they would be if you were playing with real dice. And a number on a roulette wheel has a 1/38 chance of coming up just like it would if you were in a Las Vegas casino.
You're more likely to run into an online casino which delays paying out your winnings. It would seem like owning an online casino would be similar to having a license to print money, but some unethical companies exist out there. But it's not the games you need to be worried about; it's the management of your funds.
I recommend sticking with casinos that are recommended by a legitimate online casino or gambling information portal like this one.
Slot machine designers are constantly looking for ways to keep players interested and spending time on their machines. The most popular slot machine of all time, Wheel of Fortune, is so popular that it's considered a fluke. But casinos and slot machine manufacturers would love to capture lightning in a bottle again.
IGT, the manufacturer of the game, was so interested in why Wheel of Fortune slots are so popular that it took a survey. They asked why players liked the game so much. The answer surprised them, because it was overwhelmingly the same and very specific.
A huge percentage of players said that the sights and sounds of the game reminded them of watching the show on TV with their grandmother.
So slot machine manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to establish that same connection between players and a new game.
But they don't just make new slot machines, either. You'll see new table games popping up constantly, too. Most of these are house-banked variations of poker games like Texas holdem (Casino holdem) and stud (Caribbean stud). And some of them combine other games, like Pai Gow Poker, which melds the Chinese domino game with poker rules.
Okay, so maybe you already knew this one, but it bears repeating. So many gamblers spend hours hitting spin and watching their bankrolls disappear. It would be great if they took advantage of some of the other offerings from the casinos and took a break once in a while.
Most casinos have shows of one kind or another-usually concerts, but also magicians and/or comedians. If you're going to Vegas or Reno or any other gambling destination, you should make it a point to catch a show every day while you're there. (Unless you just hate shows altogether, in which case, I guess you shouldn't.)
Many casinos offer resort style amenities like fancy swimming pools, golf, and spa treatments. If you enjoy these amenities, be sure to take advantage of them as much as possible while you're visiting the casino.
And I don't know of any casino which doesn't offer lots of opportunities for eating out. Buffets are common, especially in Las Vegas, but fine dining is also common at the better quality casinos. And if you're on a budget, you can find some of the best coffee shops and diners in the world in Downtown Las Vegas.
You might not have ever even heard of "dice control" or "dice setting". The idea is that a skilled craps shooter can throw the dice in such a way as to affect the odds of getting certain results. Since the house edge for many of the bets are already pretty low, even occasional successes might tip the odds in the players' favor.
The comparison I most often see is between darts and craps. The idea is that darts is somewhat random, too, but a skilled player can get an edge.
I'm skeptical in the extreme, and for a very simple reason:
The casinos seem to be taking no notice of dice setters.
When card counting became a thing at the blackjack tables, casinos took all kinds of countermeasures. Players who are suspected of counting cards are asked to leave or aren't allowed to play. This happened recently to Ben Affleck, in fact, who more or less admitted that he was counting cards.
But I've never seen or heard of a single instance where a craps player has been "backed off" the table because he was too skilled.
That doesn't mean it hasn't happened. It just means that I haven't heard about it. But I think if it were a real concern, the casinos would have taken action by now.
I think the most profitable way to make money from dice control is to publish a book on the subject.
It's common to see gambling experts deride bankroll management strategies on a more or less constant basis. They explain repeatedly that quitting when you're ahead (or when you're behind by a specific amount) has no effect on the house edge.
And they're right about that.
But that's not the only consideration. Yes, mathematically, we should all look at our entire lives as one long gambling session. But in reality, we're not programmed to think like this. So having win goals and stop loss limits might make gambling more entertaining. It also might help us budget our money better.
Here's how bankroll management works:
You set a win goal and a loss limit before you start playing. Once you've hit either of those, you stop playing and find something else to do.
For example, you might have a $100 bankroll for a single session at the blackjack table. Your win goal might be $100, which means that if at any point you have $200 in front of you, it's time to quit and cash in your chips.
Your loss limit might be $40. That means if you get down to $60, you quit, cash in your chips, and go find something else to do.
No, this won't enable you to beat the house more often. But it's a discipline thing. You're more likely to find other things to do besides losing all your money constantly.
Here's how online casinos motivate people to sign up and make that first deposit:
They offer free money when you make your first deposit. This amount is called a "signup bonus".
Here's an example:
You deposit $100 at a casino offering a 200% deposit bonus. You get $200 added to your account after you sign up and deposit $100. So you have a bankroll of $300 to play with.
Here's the problem:
The casino requires you to wager the entire amount of your bankroll a certain number of times before you're allowed to cash out. For example, you might have to wager 25X your deposit + bonus.
To make it even tougher to win money when claiming a bonus, the casino only counts wagers on their slot machine games for the purposes of meeting this wagering requirement.
So in the earlier example, the player who has a $300 bankroll ($100 plus a $200 bonus) has to wager $7500 before cashing out. He'll win some and lose some, but he's playing a negative expectation game, so he expects to lose a certain amount of that.
What does the casino expect him to lose?
It depends on the house edge of the game. With slots, that amount is usually at least 6%.
6% of $7500 is $450. Of course, you started with $300, so your chances of walking away a winner are slim.
It's possible you could hit a big jackpot at some point during your $7500 worth of wagering, but jackpots don't come along that often.
I did make a profit at a casino once. I hit a $6000 jackpot on my third spin of the reels. I tracked how much I played so that I could cash out while I still had some money left-I had a profit of over $5000 when all was said and done.
Don't get too excited about casino bonuses. Look at them as a way of getting more play for your money. But online casinos aren't stupid. They're not really giving money away.
You might think I've lost my mind on this one, but think about:
Playing online casino games isn't illegal anywhere that I know of, except maybe in some extreme countries in the Middle East.
It's the betting on these games that's illegal. Putting money into action is where you'll run into trouble. And even then, it's usually illegal for the casinos to offer the games-not for the players to play the games.
The risk comes from when and if the government in question is going to take action. A few years ago, the United States Federal Government took action against the largest poker rooms on the Internet-Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars. It was called Black Friday.
That was a real drag for the companies and their employees. But it was more of a drag for the players because their money was tied up for months while everything got sorted out.
I know one poker player who had over $100,000 in his account at PokerStars. He didn't miss the money, but that's a risk that you should take into account before playing online casino games for real money.
European roulette games (the ones with a single 0 on the wheel) have a house edge of 2.70%. The more common American roulette games (the ones with a 0 and a 00 on the wheel) have a house edge of 5.26%.
But there's one bet available in American roulette that has a house edge of 7.89%--it's the 5 number bet. There's no good reason to ever make this bet.
It's easy to think that all the bets on the roulette table are the same, but it ain't so. Skip that 5 number bet.
Casino games are a fascinating topic in more ways than one. The 25 things you didn't know when you started this post are just scratching the surface. I'll probably write additional posts in this series, each of which will be aimed at a specific game.