Casino Gambling Basics


For generations of Americans, casino gambling meant Las Vegas -- and the name evoked either glamour or tacky glitz, depending on the listener. In addition, a backdrop of underworld ties made the nation's gambling capital a place many were wary of visiting. But the limits are currently off. Corporate ownership of casinos and huge themed resorts designed to attract whole families have given Las Vegas a clean image.

Casino Image Gallery

people playing blackjack
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Patrons play blackjack during the grand opening of the Red Rock Casino. See more casino pictures.

Today, almost everywhere you look across the United States, it seems casinos are dotting the landscape. Casino gambling has been established in Atlantic City since 1978. In addition to the land-based casinos of Nevada and New Jersey, riverboat casinos have opened in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri while all-slots casinos are awaiting final approval in Pennsylvania. Low-limit land-based casinos are in Colorado and South Dakota, and New Orleans has one large full-service land-based casino. And Native American tribes bring casino gambling to much of the rest of the country. Tribal casinos or bingo halls have opened in Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin.

A 2005 survey found that in the previous year, United States patrons made 319 million casino visits -- about seven times the 1990 total. More people visited casinos than attended major league baseball games or any other professional sporting events -- than attended arena concerts -- than attended Broadway shows. It seems casino gambling is becoming one of America's national pastimes.

Casino-goers come from all groups of the population -- 55 percent have some college education; 45 percent have white-collar jobs, 25 percent blue-collar; 17 percent are retired. The percentages of blue-collar workers are higher at newer gambling areas.

Perhaps you are considering joining the legion of casino gamblers, but you are unsure of the rules and customs. Where do you get betting chips? How much do you tip the dealer? What exactly is a "comp?" Luckily for you, this article has the answers to all of your casino gambling questions. Let's get started with a little more background information to help you decide if casino gambling is right for you.

Can You Win?

Let's be realistic -- casino gambling is best taken as a form of entertainment. In the long run, the casinos will be the winners -- those resort hotels and riverboats aren't built to drive themselves out of business by giving money away to the players.

Except for blackjack, which has odds that change continuously as cards are dealt out, casino games are designed with a fixed mathematical edge in favor of the house. In roulette, for instance, the wheel has 38 numbers -- 1 though 36, plus 0 and 00. To use the simplest example, the player may place a bet on any one of those 38 numbers. A winning bet will bring a payoff of 35-1 -- the player gets his original bet back, plus 35 times the bet in winnings. If there were no 0 or 00, that would correspond exactly to the odds of winning, but with those numbers added, the true odds are 37-1. By paying at less than the true odds, the house builds in a 5.26 percent advantage in roulette.

Does that mean it's hopeless for the player, that the house will win every time? No, for if there were no winners, there soon would be no customers. In the long run, the percentage will hold up and the casino will make its profit. But in the short term, results vary widely from the norm. The house advantages in casino games are narrow enough to produce winners -- lots of winners, in fact -- every day.

For the best chance to win -- and to limit losses -- players need to understand the games before they start to play. A blackjack player who does not know the rules of the game, the totals on which the dealer is required to hit or stand, or a basic strategy for play might as well just write the casino a check. Likewise, a craps player who does not understand the available options might make bets giving the house a 16.67 percent edge, when bets are available at the same table that limit the house advantage to .6 percent.

Learn the best bets and stay away from the worst ones, and you'll win more often. But understand that regardless of how well you play, sometimes -- the majority of times, in fact -- the house edge is going to grind down your bankroll.

Well, they call it gambling for a reason, right? If you think your ready for both the risk and excitement, move on to the next section for the tips and guidelines that will help you blend in seamlessly with the most experienced gamblers.

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Gambling Percentages
Casino advantages in the major games stack up this way:
Blackjack 0 to 1 percent (basic strategy player)
2 to 5 percent (average player)
Craps 0.6 percent (pass/come with double odds)
16.67 percent (the worst proposition bets)
Baccarat/Mini-baccarat 1.17 percent (bet on banker)
1.36 percent (bet on player)
Roulette 2.26 percent on all bets but the five-number on 0, 00, 1, 2, and 3, which carries a 7.89-percent house edge

Slot Machines
Varies according to programming; average is about 4 to 6 percent on $1 machines, 7 to 10 percent on 25-cent machines, and 10 to 13 percent on 5-cent machines.

Jacks or Better video poker
0.5 percent with optimal play on a full-pay 9-6 machine
3.8 percent on a 7-5 machine
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Casino Rules and Customs

If your vision of casino players is James Bond, in a tux, at Monte Carlo, forget it. American casinos do not enforce that kind of formality. Casual clothing and sportswear are most common, but you'll see everything from evening wear to T-shirts and jeans in the same casino. If some of your other preconceived notions about casinos are a little out of whack, here's a guide to what you should expect on the gambling floor.

The Basics

A lot of casinos give free beverages to players. In many states it's illegal to give free alcoholic beverages to casino customers, so casinos in these jurisdictions charge for alcohol but usually give free soft drinks and coffee to playing customers. In either case, it's appropriate to tip the cocktail server -- a couple of quarters or a dollar will do.

Be sure you know the bet requirements at a particular slot machine or table game before you sit down. On slots or video poker, the denomination is either painted on the machine's glass or displayed on a video screen.

At table games, each table has a rectangular sign detailing minimum and maximum bets. Usually the signs are color-coded to correspond to the color of casino chips -- a white sign usually denotes a table with a $1 minimum bet, a red sign denotes a $5 minimum, a green sign denotes a $25 minimum, and a black sign denotes a $100 minimum, just as at most casinos $1 chips are white, $5 chips are red, $25 chips are green, and $100 chips are black. Do not take this system for granted, however; a few casinos have signs all of the same color or use different color coding. Read the sign before sitting down to play.

Table players change currency for casino chips at the tables. Place currency on the table layout and ask the dealer, "Change, please." The dealer will give you the corresponding amount in chips and will push your money into a locked drop box.

When it comes time to leave, remember that the dealer does not have access to cash at the tables. To change your chips for cash, you must go to the casino cashier's booth. If you have a lot of smaller-denomination chips and wish to change for larger-denomination chips to make it easier to carry them to the cashier's booth, ask the dealer to "color up." He or she then will give you one green $25 chip for five red $5 chips, or a black $100 chip for twenty $5 chips, for example.

Slot players usually cash out by pushing a button to print out a bar-coded ticket. That ticket can be used in another machine or redeemed for cash at the cashier's cage or cash kiosk. A few machines still pay out in coins or tokens, but they are being rapidly replaced.

Payoffs

You'll sometimes find payoffs expressed as "chances-TO-1"; other times, especially in video poker, they are expressed as "chances-FOR-1." In roulette, for example, the payoff for hitting a single number is 35-to-1. The player's one-unit bet stays on the table until the outcome is determined. If the player wins, he or she wins 35 units and gets to keep the original bet for a total of 36 units. But in video poker, the payoff for three of a kind is usually 3-for-1. The player has already put one unit down the slot and that is gone; the player who hits three of a kind gets a total of three units back for the one that has been wagered.

Bankroll

Do not go into a casino with money you can't afford to lose. Even at games with house percentages of less than 1 percent, there will be times the player just can't win. The worst thing a player can do is to start chasing losses, gambling money needed elsewhere in an attempt to win back money that's already gone.

Remember, the house percentage is in effect on every spin of the roulette wheel or slot reels. No law of averages says you have to start winning just because you've been on a long losing streak. If you've been betting on "Even" in roulette and odd numbers have shown up ten times in a row, the next spin is no more or less likely to be an even number than any other spin. Each trial is independent, and the house advantage still is 5.26 percent. Treat your gambling bankroll as an entertainment expense and budget accordingly. Set limits on losses and stick to them.

Once you've decided how much to budget for the day, play at a level appropriate to your bankroll. If you have $20 for a couple of hours in the casino, you can't afford to play $1 slots or $5 blackjack. You'll need to stick to quarter slots, and at that you risk being finished for the day in about 15 minutes.

In Illinois, where such statistics are released by the Illinois Gaming Board, the average casino customer loses about $100 in a typical day at the barge or boat. But you need to bring more than that with you. You need enough of a cushion to ride out the inevitable losing streaks that happen in any game.

Here are some recommended minimum bankrolls for a two-hour casino stay:

25-cent slots and video poker: $100

$5-a-hand blackjack: $150

$5-per-spin roulette (even-money bets): $100

$5 best-method craps (pass and two-come bets with double odds): $500

$10-a-hand mini-baccarat (table minimums are usually higher than at other casino games): $200

This is not to suggest that you should expect to lose $200 if you play mini-baccarat for a couple of hours. Your average outcome will be in the range of $10 to $20 in losses, and sometimes you'll walk away a winner.

The final bit of etiquette you should learn before you hit the casino is knowing when to expect a comp from the casino and when you should tip your dealer. Both of these sensitive subjects will be covered in the next section.

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Casino Comps and Tipping the Dealers

You've probably heard of "comps" in a casino. Maybe you saw a casino manager use the word in a movie to pacify an upset guest at his hotel, but did you really understand what the word meant? Also, tipping is an awkward subject no matter what situation you are in, but do you have to tip in a casino? Aren't they getting enough of your money already? Well, you've come to the right place. Read on to learn about both of these casino conundrums.

Casino "Comps"

Casinos want to keep their best customers coming back. Players who have shown they will give the house a shot at their money are treated like royalty. Free beverages for customers while they are playing, discounted rates on hotel rooms, and free meals are the most common complimentaries given by casinos. For high-rollers -- people who
bet hundreds of dollars a hand -- the casino might give free airfare, room, food, beverages, or limousine service.

"Comps" are most frequently distributed through player rewards clubs. Members are issued credit-card-sized plastic cards, usually with an encoded magnetic strip on the back. The card is inserted into a magnetic reader on the machine the member is playing, and the amount and duration of play are tracked via computer.

In most player rewards clubs, players earn points for play and can redeem the points for comps. When the card is inserted into a reader at a slot or video poker machine, a display on the reader might say something like, "Welcome, member. You have 42 points. Coins to next point: 24." After the required number of coins have been played, another point will be added to the player's total. A list is issued detailing the comps available for various point totals. Some clubs allow players to redeem points for cash; others offer meals, rooms, or merchandise.

Other slot clubs don't issue a point table but require the player to ask an attendant at the player rewards club booth. The attendant will check the computer, and if the player qualifies, the attendant will issue the comp.

Comps work similarly at table games. At most casinos a player may use the same card issued to slot club members as identification to be rated for comps at table games. The pit boss overseeing the table takes note of the player's buy-in (the amount of currency exchanged for chips at the table), the average bet size, and the duration of play.

It's common for casinos to kick back in the form of comps an average of 10 percent to 40 percent of the amount it expects to win from the player.

The basic formula for the player's expected loss combines the amount of time played, the number of hands per hour, the average bet, and the house percentage. So if a blackjack player bets $5 a hand for an hour at a busy-table speed of 60 hands per hour, and the house figures it has a 2 percent edge, then the player is betting $300 per hour, and the house, on the average expects to win $6, or 2 percent of $300. If the house is issuing comps at a generous rate of 40 percent of the player's expected loss, the customer's play for an hour is worth about $2.40 in comps, regardless of the actual win or loss, whether he's won $50 or lost $50.

A side benefit of being rated for comps is that the casino puts you on its mailing list for special offers. Rated players frequently get free or discounted rooms and tournament invitations from casinos. Cash vouchers by mail are an often-used incentive for players to return.

Tipping Dealers

The gambling business is a service industry, and dealers are paid like bottom-rung employees in service industries -- not very well. Many dealers' jobs pay minimum wage, and the bulk of dealers' pay comes through tips from customers.

You are under no obligation to tip, and even the dealers don't expect you to tip while you're losing. However, if you are winning and the dealer is courteous and helpful, it's customary to tip. This can be done by simply pushing a chip forward onto the layout and telling the dealer, "This is for you." However, more frequently tips are given by placing a bet for the dealer.

In blackjack, the usual method for tipping is to place an additional bet at the front of your betting box. Don't tip so much or so frequently that you significantly shift the odds of the game. If you're betting $5 for yourself, a $1 bet for the dealer once or twice an hour, or when you're on a winning streak, will do. If you win the hand, the dealer will get a $2 tip. If you lose, the house gets the money.

Some older gambling guides tell of a cat-and-mouse game in which the blackjack player uses tips to get the dealer to deal another hand before shuffling when the cards remaining to be dealt are in the player's favor. This has little or no bearing on how the game is played today. In multiple-deck games dealt from a shoe, a colored plastic cut card is inserted into the shuffled cards to tell the dealer when to stop. When that cut card comes out, the dealer may not start another hand, regardless of what the player wants and how much he's willing to tip. Even in single- and double-deck games dealt from the hand, strict guidelines usually dictate when the dealer must shuffle. Sometimes a cut card is used. Don't tip with the expectation that the dealer will bend house rules on when to shuffle; tip for service with a smile.

Craps players also often place bets for the dealers. Most often, this is done either by telling a dealer to place a specific bet "for the boys" -- bets on 11 or the field are among frequent choices -- or by placing a bet on one of the "hard ways" and telling the dealer it goes both ways. That is, a $10 hard six both ways means the player is betting $5 for himself and $5 for the dealers that two threes will come up before a seven and before any other six. If you want to give the dealers the best chance to win, place a pass line bet for the boys.

Tips seem less frequent at the roulette wheel. Probably the most common is simply giving the dealer a chip after hitting a 35-1 single-number payoff. Don't hand it directly to the dealer -- dealers are not allowed to take money or chips from a player's hand. Place it on the table and tell the dealer it's a tip.
Slot and video poker players are a solitary lot, and occasions for tipping are rare. However, if you hit a large, hand-paid jackpot, and service has been good from a change person, it doesn't hurt to tip.

The fast pace and attitude of a casino floor can be intimidating to the newcomer. The truth is, from the hotel manager all the way down to the dealers, casinos want you to feel comfortable. Now that you have an idea of what to expect in a casino, you'll be placing bets in no time.

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