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CASINO ANSWER MAN

by John Grochowski

John Grochowski is a blackjack expert and a well-known and respected casino gambling columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Chicago Sun Times, Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books (www.casinoanswerman.com). He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. I've been practicing the Hi-Lo count on the computer, and the software I use shows an error rate of a little less than 2 percent. I'm not comfortable with that, and am working to improve. Still, I use the count in casinos, and have been doing pretty well, actually making a little money. I assume I probably have the same error rate in the casinos as on the computer, so why am I not losing money?

A. There are at least a couple of possibilities here. First, you didnít say how much youíve been playing. You might just be having a short-term run of good luck. Even when the house has the edge, players have winning streaks.

Second, you havenít specified what the mistakes are. Some mistakes are more costly than others are. Some hands are closer calls than others. The closer the call, the less it hurts your expectation when you make a mistake.

If your 2 percent error rate reflected that you were consistently standing on 16 vs. 7, which would hurt you a lot more than if it meant you were standing on 16 vs. 10, a close-call hand often used as camouflage. If you were a tad too slow to adjust strategies with the true count --- waiting until plus-4 instead of plus-3 to take insurance, or waiting till minus-2 instead of minus-1 to hit 13 vs. 2 --- those could show up in your error rate, but hurt your expectation by only a tiny amount.

Itís possible the error rate means youíre not getting everything possible out of the Hi-Lo count, but are still playing a winning game. It depends on what the errors are.

Q. I used to play a lot of 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker. Now the best I can find is usually 9-7-5. How much does the strategy change?

A. The drop in full house payoff from 10-for-1 to 9-for-1 doesnít change Double Bonus Poker strategy by very much. Thereís really nothing we can do to force the pace of full houses. If weíre dealt two pairs, weíre almost always going to hold them, regardless of the full house payoff.

Thereís one exception, and thatís when your two pairs include a pair of Aces. In full-pay 10-7-5 Double Bonus, where your five-coin bet is going to get you 50 back on a full house, the better play is to hold both pairs. You have four chances in the remaining 47 cards to fill out the full house, and your expected value is 8.83 coins per five coins wagered for holding both pairs. That nudges out the 8.82 EV for holding just the Ace pair.

Thatís a close enough call that dropping the full house payback to 9-for-1 leads to a strategy switch. The EV for holding just the Aces drops a smidgeon, to 8.77, but the EV of holding both pairs takes a steeper drop, to 8.40. Therefore, when dealt two pairs that include a pair of Aces in 9-7-5 Double Bonus, we hold just the Aces and toss the other three cards.

Other than that one play, strategy in 9-7-5 Double Bonus Poker is the same as in the 10-7-5 version. There are bigger strategy changes should you find yourself playing 9-6-5 Double Bonus Poker, where the drop in the flush payback to 6-for-1 means we stop holding three cards to a flush and are less aggressive with three-card straight flush opportunities. In my neck of the woods, Iím even seeing 9-6-4 Double Bonus, where the drop to 4-for-1 on straights means the player has to rein in the urge to draw to inside straights without at least two high cards. However, if youíre in a market that has 10-7-5 or 9-7-5 Double Bonus, thereís no reason to even think about playing the lower-paying versions.

Q. Why aren't there more sports books? When I started playing in casinos, Nevada and New Jersey were the only places to go. I always went to Las Vegas, and got used to the sports books being there. Now there are casinos everywhere, and I mostly stay home in Louisiana, but there are no books. Do you know why books havenít expanded along with casinos?

 A. A federal law was enacted in 1992 banned sports betting in all states where it was not already legal. Nevada already had full-scale sports betting, while Oregon, Delaware, and Montana had sports-based lottery games. Those remain the only states where sports betting is legal in the U.S.

Bill Bradley, the former Princeton basketball All-American and NBA star who served three terms in the U.S. Senate, representing New Jersey, sponsored the bill that led to the federal ban. When enacted, the law gave New Jersey a grace period in which it could consider adding sports betting to its casino options. New Jersey did not pass a sports betting bill, so it remains illegal there today.

Times change, and today New Jersey would like to bring sports betting to its casinos. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed into law in January an act that would legalize sports betting at Atlantic City casinos and at New Jersey racetracks if the federal ban is lifted.

The federal ban remains the rub. Lifting it would mean either Congress repealing the act, or a successful court challenge. Two New Jersey congressional representatives have introduced measures to repeal or alter the ban, while the New Jersey attorney general has declined to say whether he would challenge the ban in court.

During the expansion of legalized gambling in the 1990s, I asked an attorney friend what he thought of the ban. He doubted it would hold up in court because the ban treats states unequally, and restricts a stateís right to regulate commerce within its own borders. That has not been tested, so sports betting remains illegal through most of the United States.

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