The black-haired woman nervously thumbed through her purse as she took the end seat at the blackjack table. She pulled out three $20 bills and gingerly placed them on the felt, confessing to the dealer this was her first time playing the game.
“No problem,” he assured her. This was a friendly table, he said, and he or the other players would be happy to help a novice. She put out the $10 minimum bet and was dealt a two-card 20 for her first hand. Her blackjack fling started with a victory.
“You know what you should do now?” the dealer asked, barely suppressing a smile as he prepared to deliver the punch line. “Run! Run for the hills while you're ahead!”
Many people making their first casino trip or trying out a new game are like that uneasy blackjack player. They want to gamble but they’re not exactly sure what to do.
Finding yourself amid the thousands of games, dealing with the noise, lights and other casino distractions, and ogling the vast amounts of money and chips can intimidate anyone.
Just bear in mind that you’re there to have fun. Casinos have evolved into one of the country’s premiere entertainment options. About 27 percent of Americans visit a casino at least once a year, according to the American Gaming Association, and that number grows as legalized gambling continues to expand beyond the traditional centers of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Casinos offer a variety of games to entice everyone from those dreaming of a life-changing jackpot to people simply enjoying a night out.
Whether you’re a beginner or a veteran, the most important fact about a casino is this: The house always has the edge, no matter what game you play. Sure, some players will win big. The vast majority won’t. Over the long run, the casino will win because of how the games are structured.
When you enter any casino for the first time, head to the players club booth and join. Use your players club card whenever you gamble there. The card makes you eligible for offers of discounted or free food, hotel rooms or other amenities based on the amount of your play. Slot players put their cards into the machine; table game players present their cards to the dealer.
The challenge for bettors is to find a game that they enjoy and that has a house edge they’re comfortable with. As a rule of thumb, the easier a game is to play, the higher the house edge.
Slot machines are the easiest and most popular form of casino gambling. The process is simple: Push a button; win or lose; repeat. Casinos make more money from slots than from any other game. Slots can account for 70 percent or more of the money casinos make from gambling.
The house advantage on slots can vary by casino, but typically it’s about 10 percent. In other words, for every $100 put into machines throughout the casino, the machines return an average of about $90 over the long run. In the short run, anything can happen. You could hit a big jackpot or you could lose your buy-in within a few minutes.
Regardless of what you might hear elsewhere, there is no strategy for winning at a slot machine. It’s all pure luck, as opposed to skill games such as blackjack and poker. With slots, the outcome is determined by a computer program called a random number generator, or RNG. The RNG’s sole function is to spit out groups of numbers. Each number corresponds to a specific symbol on the display. The number combination generated at the instant you hit the spin button determines what symbols will be displayed and whether you win or lose.
Before you put money into a slot, check the machine’s display to see how much one credit is worth. That can range from a penny to several hundred dollars. Some machines let you choose the value of a credit, such as 25 cents, 50 cents, $1 or $2. A rule of thumb is that the higher the base denomination, the less the house advantage. Dollar machines pay out more than quarter machines, and quarter machines pay out more than nickel machines.
A penny machine is a misnomer. Although each credit is worth only one cent, players can wager as much as $3 a spin by playing multiple pay lines and more than one credit per line.
Slot machines appeal to people looking for a pressure-free way to pass the time. Slot players don’t have to worry about making the “right play” or doing something that could affect other gamblers. The machine itself is the entertainment. Slot manufacturers spend millions of dollars to make machines that entice people play longer. Many are tied to popular movies, TV shows or musical artists – think “Lord of the Rings” or “Pawn Stars” or Dolly Parton – or even games such as Wheel of Fortune, Monopoly and Battleship. In some games, all the players on a group, or “bank” of machines might share in a bonus round. Some games have surround-sound chairs for what manufacturers call “immersion” gaming.
Games with a low house edge include:
- Blackjack, if you take a few minutes to learn the basic strategy of when to hit or stand.
- Video Poker, if you make the effort to look for good pay tables and learn simple guidelines for which cards to keep and throw away.
- Baccarat, including the “mini” form found on the main casino form.
- Craps, a game that looks more complicated than it actually is.
Blackjack is the most popular card game by far. Those who follow basic strategy can reduce the house edge to 0.5 percent or less, making it the closest thing to an even-money game the casino offers. Many players mistakenly think the object of blackjack is to get a hand as close as possible to a total of 21 without going over. That’s not right. The goal is to beat the dealer. Players have the option of hitting or standing, while the dealer must follow specific rules — generally, he must hit if the total is 16 or less and stand with a total of 17 through 21. If you “bust” by going over 21, you lose even when the dealer also busts, because the dealer is the last to act. So if the dealer’s up-card is weak — especially a Four, Five or Six — it’s better for a player to stand on a “stiff” hand of 12 through 16 than trying to hit and get closer to 21.
One of the built-in advantages for a player is that blackjacks traditionally pay 3-to-2, or $15 for a $10 bet. Some casinos offer games that pay 6-to-5 for a blackjack. Never play them. At that game, the player with a blackjack gets paid only $12 for a $10 bet. Since blackjacks will come at the same rate at each type of game — once in about every 21 hands — playing at 6-to-5 table costs you about $6 an hour.
Casinos also offer a variety of “carnival games” that are variations of poker and blackjack. Those include Three Card Poker, Let It Ride Blackjack Switch and Spanish 21. They’re generally easy to learn and play.
Poker is popular, but it differs from all other games because you play against other gamblers rather than against the house. The casino gets its cut by collecting a “rake,” typically $4 or $5, out of every pot.
One question all casino visitors ask themselves is how much money to take. The answer depends on your own assessment of how much you’re willing to spend for a night at a casino. If you go out for dinner and a show, you know how much that’s worth to you. Some folks are comfortable eating at a chain restaurant and catching a matinee. Some want a four-star restaurant and a live musical.
When you plan a casino trip, figure out how much you’re willing to spend for that night’s entertainment. A cynical adage holds that casino executives figure that whatever you bring through the door is theirs – you just happen to be holding it for the moment. Take what you are comfortable spending. Never bet with money you need for the mortgage or medical bills. You should be mentally prepared to lose it all.
However, that doesn’t mean you should just throw your money away on long shots. Smart gamblers find a game they enjoy and learn the strategies that reduce the house edge as much as possible.
If you find yourself ahead after a couple of hours of fun, then remember the dealer’s advice for the nervous blackjack player: Run for the hills!