7 Casino Games and How to Play Them
I’m assuming for the sake of this post that you like to gamble in casinos and don’t have a gambling addiction of some kind. Obviously, if you have impulse control problems, an addictive personality, or little entertainment money, you should avoid ALL casino games.
But some players avoid some casino games for the wrong reasons. Maybe they’re intimidated because they think the game is too hard to play. Or maybe they’ve bought into some misconceptions about how much a game will cost them in the long run.
These are 7 casino games which you might not already know how to play. If you don’t, you should learn.
1. Video Poker
The people who might be most interested in video poker are slot machine players. Most slot machine players don’t know the crucial difference between slots and video poker:
The odds of winning at video poker are WAY better.
Gambling machines measure their odds of winning using a term called “payback percentage.” It’s the flip side of another gambling term called “the house edge.”
In short, these are percentage representations of how much of your bets the casino stands to lose or win based on the math behind the game.
Here’s an example:
You read an article in a travel magazine that says the slot machines at the Las Vegas airport have an average payback percentage of 80%.
This means that over the long run—thousands or tens of thousands of spins—the casino expects to pay out winnings of 80% of the money you run through the machine.
If you’re playing for a dollar per spin, and you play for an hour, making 600 spins in that hour, you’ve put $600 through the machine. The casino expects to pay you back winnings of $480 on that money. THEY expect to win 20% of that action.
Keep in mind that this is a long-term expectation. In the short run, you may well win. In fact, if no one ever won, no one would play.
The problem with slot machines is that no one really knows what the payback percentage for a specific machine is. The game only provides you with half the information you need to calculate the long term expectation of the game.
Video poker, on the other hand, offers a higher payback percentage than almost any slot machine game (see this article). And it provides all the information needed to calculate the payback percentage for the game.
That’s because the random number generator on a video poker machine duplicates the odds you’d see if you were using a standard deck of 52 cards.
If you know the probability of a winning combination along with the amount it pays off, you can multiply the 2 figures to get the expected return for that result. Add those together for all the possible results, and you have the payback percentage for the machine.
In the case of video poker, the payback percentages on even the worst machines are 95%. The best slot machine games top out at around 95%.
The difference to your bankroll can be dramatic.
Let’s suppose you find a video poker game with a 97% payback percentage. Let’s also say that you find a slot machine with a 93% payback percentage.
What’s your expected win per hour?
Both games move fast—600 bets per hour. We’ll assume you’re betting $1 per spin on both games, so you’re putting $600 into action per hour.
On the video poker game, the mathematically expected loss per hour is $18.
On the slot machine game, the mathematically expected loss per hour is $42.
That’s a tremendous difference.
Finally, video poker offers you the opportunity to use some thinking and decision-making while you play. You must decide which cards to keep and which ones to throw away. This affects your outcome.
Video poker is a game everyone who likes slot machines ought to try. The math is just too much better for the video poker player.
Many gamblers are intimidated by the craps table. For one thing, a craps table is usually a crowded place to be in a casino. Lots of players, enthusiastically jumping up and down and giving each other high fives, or moaning and groaning at some bad luck, in unison.
And how does the game even work?
Heck, it takes 5 dealers to run a full craps table.
That seems crazy to novice gamblers.
But here’s the good news about craps:
The most basic bets at the craps table offer 2 advantages:
- They’re easy to understand
- They offer the best odds at the table.
The basic bet in craps is the pass bet.
Craps is played in rounds. The first round is the come-out roll.
A pass bet wins during the come-out roll if the shooter rolls a 7 or 11. It loses if the shooter rolls a 2, 3, or 12. In either of those cases, the round ends.
But if any other number gets rolled on the come out roll, it sets a point.
At this point, if the shooter rolls the point again before rolling a 7, the pass bet wins. If the shooter rolls a 7 before rolling a point, the pass bet loses.
This is the basic bet in craps, and the good news is that the house edge on this bet is only 1.41%. That might seem high compared to blackjack, where the house edge is 0.5%, but you should keep this in mind:
That low house edge on blackjack only applies if you’ve mastered perfect basic strategy. Most players at the blackjack table are facing a house edge of 2% to 4% because they’re not playing according to basic strategy.
Avoid the bets in the middle of the craps table, though. They’re more complicated, and the house edge on most of those bets is terrible.
Almost everyone I know already realizes that blackjack offers the best odds in the casino. Blackjack isn’t hard to learn, either. I learned how to play from my mom when I was just a kid.
The crux of the game is that you’re dealt 2 cards, and so are the other players. The dealer starts with 2 cards, too.
Each card has a point value equal to its rank. Face cards (the jack, queen, and king) are each worth 10 points. The ace is worth 1 or 11, whichever is better for your hand.
The score of your hand is the total of the points in the 2 cards.
If you don’t like your total, you can ask for another card.
The goal is to beat the dealer in one of the following 2 ways:
- By getting closer to a total of 21 than she does.
- By still being in the hand if she busts.
A hand that busts is a hand where the total is 22 or more.
The house gets its edge because the players must play their hands before the dealer. If the player busts, he loses his bet before the dealer even checks her cards.
The game has some other subtleties, too:
If you get a natural—a 2 card hand totaling 21—you get a 3 to 2 payoff.
If the dealer gets a blackjack, she wins immediately.
You also have some other options besides hitting and standing.
You can double down, which means doubling the size of your bet and taking one (and only one) more card.
You can split a hand if it’s a pair. This requires an additional bet, and the 2 cards in your hand each become the first card of a new hand.
One of the interesting things about blackjack is that if you master basic strategy, you can take it up a notch by learning how to count cards. If you master that skill, you can play with an edge over the casino.
Roulette gets a bad rap because the house edge is relatively high. 5.26% sounds awful compared to 1.41% (craps) or 0.5% (blackjack).
But roulette is more complicated than that.
Many casinos offer a variation of roulette where there’s only a single zero on the roulette. This reduces the house edge to 2.7%. That’s not great compared to craps or blackjack, but the house edge isn’t the only factor to consider when evaluating a casino game.
You also want to account for how many bets you’re placing per hour.
Your expected hourly loss is the product of your hourly action and the house edge.
But how do you calculate your hourly action?
You multiply the average size of your bet by the number of bets you’re making per hour.
In video poker, for example, you’re placing 600 bets per hour. (That sounds like a lot, but it’s a fast-paced game.)
Even if you’re only playing for $5 per hand, you’re putting $3000 into action per hour.
Let’s assume you’re playing good games and averaging a 1% house edge. Your expected hourly loss at video poker is $30.
Let’s assume that you’re betting $5 per spin at the roulette table. You’re probably expecting to lose a lot more per hour because of that high house edge, right?
But at a full roulette table, you’ll be lucky to place 35 bets per hour. Your hourly action is only $175.
Even at the inferior double zero game, the house edge is only 5.26% of $175, for an expected hourly loss of $9.21.
That’s a house edge that’s 5 times as great for one game, but the actual predicted loss for the game is less than 1/3 of what you’d lose at the lower house edge game.
Keep in mind, too, that your temperament makes a difference in terms of what game you should play.
You might enjoy the leisurely pace and social nature of roulette. But you might be more inclined to play a fast-paced game where you’re not dealing with other people.
You might not want to worry about skill and decision-making when you gamble. On the other hand, you might enjoy the additional challenge of needing to make the right decision on every hand.
Roulette doesn’t deserve its bad rap. If you think it’s a game you’ll enjoy, give it a try.
5. Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow Poker is a little more complicated than the other games on this list, but it offers some of the advantages of roulette along with some of the advantages of video poker and blackjack.
You do have decisions to make in Pai Gow Poker. The main one is how to set your hand. In Pai Gow Poker, you’re dealt 7 cards, which you must set into 2 separate hands—one of 5 cards and another of 2 cards.
The house edge is around 2.72% if you play well, which makes this game sound like single zero roulette.
But keep in mind, too, that a large percentage of hands will result in a tie result. This slows down the amount of money you stand to lose.
If you like the leisurely pace of roulette but wish you had more thinking to do, Pai Gow Poker might be the perfect game for you.
Baccarat is a card game with no element of skill at all. It’s like betting on a coin toss every hand. The game has enough pomp and circumstance to make it seem elegant and high class. There’s a reason James Bond plays baccarat in the movies.
The house edge on the banker bet—which is the only bet you should make, really—is only 1.06%, making it almost as attractive a game as blackjack. And the magic of baccarat is that you don’t have to use any kind of strategy.
Don’t place a bet on the tie, though. The house edge on that bet is over 14%, making it one of the worst bets in the casino.
7. Traditional Poker
Traditional poker isn’t a casino game at all, but it’s played in casinos around the world. Casino games make their money by playing versus their customers. They pay off their bets at less than the odds of winning, which ensures a long term profit.
But in traditional poker, the players compete with each other for every pot. The casino makes its money by charging a rake—a 5% commission—on every pot.
The implications are clear. If you’re a better poker player than your opponents, you can get an edge over them. The casinos don’t care, either, as they’re making their money regardless of which players win.
Contrast the casinos’ attitude about skilled poker play with their attitude about skilled blackjack play (counting cards).
Poker also offers the opportunity to socialize and think while you play. It might be too slow-paced for some, but if you’ve never played Texas hold’em at a professionally-dealt table, you might be surprised at how fast the game runs.
Even though it’s not a real casino game, it’s impossible to not recommend poker.
Your choice of a gambling game depends on multiple things, including how much effort you want to put into making decisions while you play, how much you want to socialize with the other players, and how much of a house edge you’re willing to put up with.
You’ll find plenty of bad casino games in Las Vegas, but if you stick with the games and bets mentioned in this post, you’ll be okay.
I just want to reiterate that no casino game is “good” if you’re a gambling addict, though.