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Comparing Apples to Oranges

8 September 2006

Last week, we talked about the difference between the house edge and hold. The house edge is the theoretical advantage the casino has over each gambling decision, whether it's a single roll of the dice, one spin at the roulette table or a hand of blackjack. But its hold is the actual dollar amount won divided by the actual dollar buy-in or "drop."

From the casino's viewpoint, its overall hold for all bets wagered in the casino is the important number; that's the number that determines if the mortgage on the building will be paid this month. But it uses its theoretical advantage, or edge, to compute what it'll give back to you in the way of comps. The formula it uses is: edge (stated as a percentage) times average bet amount times number of decisions per hour times number of hours played equals theoretical loss. Then the casino decides how much it wants to give back to you in the form of meals and/or free rooms, say 40 percent, and multiplies that percentage times your theoretical loss. And, voila, your comps account.

But for now, let's focus on the difference in hold between table games and machine games. But beware; they're not calculated the same way, so it'll be like comparing apples and oranges.

For example, the hold on a blackjack table with even the best table rules is expected to be around 18 percent, while the hold on a slot machine may be around 5 percent. That doesn't mean that blackjack's hold is typically three to four times that of slots and therefore you have a better chance at slots. Far from it.

I was thumbing through a few articles I had saved on this subject and came across one that John Grochowski had written for the Chicago Sun-Times a few years ago. He described the difference in calculations thusly: Hold percentage on electronic gaming devices measures the share of WAGERS held or won by the casino. Table hold percentage measures the share of BUY-INS held by the casino.

I can see you scratching your head. Now think about it. Both table and slot players don't play through their money once and leave; they recycle their winnings and keep playing. Let's say a blackjack player buys in for $100 and plays for a few hours. The slots player slips a $100 bill into the bill validator and plays for a few hours. They have each "bought in" for $100, and at times they may each be ahead by a little (or a lot) and they may each be behind by a little (or a lot). If the table games player knows perfect basic strategy and has settled for nothing less than the best table rules, he may win about the same number of hands as he loses and almost break even. He could easily make $2,000 worth of bets on that original $100 buy-in and walk away with $80-$90. The casino's hold for that certain player could be 10, 15 or 20 percent.

But the slots player could also make $2,000 worth of wagers with his $100 and lose the whole $100 if he's especially unlucky. Yet the casino reports a 5 percent hold because it has kept $100 out of $2,000 wagered, or 5 percent. Weird, isn't it?

So, now when you look at a slot payout percentage chart at the back of Casino Player or Strictly Slots Magazine, you'll know how they arrived at those numbers. Be sure to look at the differences in payout between areas of the country and at the differences between denominations. For example, Mississippi usually pays back from 90 to 92 percent for nickel slots and 92 to 94 percent for quarters, whereas Nevada pays back up to 94 percent for nickels and 97 percent for quarters.

But that's not all. Grochowski points out another interesting tidbit. The slots or VP player plays a lot faster than the blackjack player. If a slots player is playing a dollar machine, it may take him an hour or two to make $2,000 worth of bets. But the blackjack player that bets $5 a hand? It would take him six to eight hours to make 400 bets at a crowded table. He's getting a lot more playing time for his money.

Until next week, aces and faces to you.

Linda Mabry

Low Roller Linda Mabry lives and gambles on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She writes a weekly, general gambling advice column for the Biloxi Sun Herald, and may be contacted through her e-mail address, lnmabry@cableone.net or her web site www.thelowroller.com
Linda Mabry
Low Roller Linda Mabry lives and gambles on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She writes a weekly, general gambling advice column for the Biloxi Sun Herald, and may be contacted through her e-mail address, lnmabry@cableone.net or her web site www.thelowroller.com