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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 play mostly in Tunica, and had gotten used to six-deck blackjack games, dealer hits soft 17. I was shocked, though, to go to Las Vegas with my brother, and find the same thing at the low-limit tables. Does no one stand on all 17s anymore? What would it take to get our game back? No one playing?

A. A while back, I wrote that Iíd been playing a $10 game where the dealer stood on all 17s, and an Illinois reader wrote to ask where in the world Iíd found such an animal. As it happened, Iíd been in Delaware, working on a story for one of my magazine clients, and one of the racinos had the game. I donít know if itís still there --- the racino would be bucking a nationwide trend if the game hasnít been toughened.

Few casinos today offer "stand on all 17s" games at tables with minimums under $25, and many are hitting soft 17 even when dealing to bigger players.

It looks like part of a larger trend, where weíve seen a downward slide in video poker pay tables. In my home market of Chicago, five years ago we had 9-6 Jacks or Better, 9-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, NSU Deuces, 8-5 Bonus Poker and other 99 percent-plus games, from quarter level on up. Today, those games are scarce even on $5 machines. Even in Las Vegas, it takes some looking around to find the full-pay Deuces and 10-7-5 Double Bonus opportunities of yore.

So it goes with the toughening of blackjack rules, and Iím not at all optimistic of reversing the trend. Casinos have toughened their games in the midst of difficult economic times and slackening revenues. I keep waiting for someone to decide to try to win players back with a better shot to win, but I havenít seen anyone step up. I asked one exec who has been a source of mine for many years, and he said any casino that tried it would have to promote the hell out of it or players wouldnít notice. And if they did the hard promotion, competitors would step up and match the games, negating any competitive edge.

As players, all we can do is patronize the casinos that give us the best deal, and avoid the ones with tougher games.

Q. Didnít there used to be more companies making video poker games? Is IGTís control of the market the reason pay tables are going down?

A. IGTís dominance of the video poker market isnít driving video poker pay tables down at all. In fact, IGT would prefer that casinos put higher-paying games on the floor. Higher-paying games mean more winners, and more winners attract more customers to the games.

That pay tables have been dropping is solely an operator choice.

You are correct that more game makers used to be involved in video poker, though IGT has been dominant ever since the game was created. Sigma Gaming used to have a share of the market. It tried to go toe-to-toe with IGTís Double Bonus Poker and Double Double Bonus Poker by creating Double Jackpot and Double Double Jackpot Poker, with increased pays on four Jacks, Queens and Kings instead of four 2s, 3s or 4s. Casino Data Systems tried to get a foothold with Reel Deal Video Poker. That one had a bonus event with tiny video slot reels on the screen.

However, Sigma and IGT are both out of business, and the fourth major manufacturer involved in years past, Bally, has backed off on video poker. It continues to put video poker games that include its creation, Pickíem Poker, on Bally Game Makers, but hasnít introduced a new video poker product in several years.

WMS Gaming, which had a brief run of success with Multi Pay Poker more than a decade ago, is about to re-enter the video poker market. Its Poker Life machines will debut at Stations Casinos in Las Vegas late this year. Casino operators would love to have another manufacturer give IGT a little competition, but that doesnít mean theyíll out pay tables on the machines that are any higher than those on their existing games.

Q. My wife likes the single-player video roulette games. I watched her play for a while, and saw she was getting paid only 32-for-1 on a single number. I was shocked. I told her it was awful that she should go to a roulette table if sheís going to play, but she likes the machines. Is there anything in it for players?

A. You really have to think of these as slot machines, rather than trying to compare them to table games. Whatís in it for players is the chance for inexpensive play. The single-player roulette games that have claimed a niche on casino floors are from Bally Technologies, and are available in coin denominations as low as a penny.

No casino operator is going to offer a penny game with a 94.74 percent payback --- the equivalent of the 5.26 percent house edge on nearly all bets at double-zero roulette. And heís certainly not going to offer a 97.3 percent game that corresponds to the 2.7 percent house edge on single-zero roulette.

But operators have put both single-zero and double-zero versions of Ballyís Roulette on their floors. The odds of any bet winning are the same as on table versions, but Bally made the games palatable to operators by offering a variety of pay tables. When the payoff on a single number is only 32-for-1 --- the same as saying 31-to-1 --- the payback percentage is 86.5 percent on a single-zero game and 84.2 percent on the double-zero version. Those are numbers right in line with what operators offer on penny slots.

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