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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. Iíve been going nuts trying to memorize penalty card exceptions in video poker. How important are they? Would I be just as well off to use a simpler strategy?

 A. Instead of memorizing, have you tried using a strategy card while you play? It might slow you down a little, but not all that much if youíre using it only to check the close calls. Most jurisdictions allow you to use strategy cards in the casino, though there are exceptions. Illinois, for one, does not permit their use at the games.

Penalty cards do make a difference, but whether theyíre worth memorizing depends on what you want out of the game. If youíre a serious player who wants everything a game has to offer, that makes taking the penalty cards into account. If youíre a casual player whoís happy to get close to optimal play, you might not want to spend the time on the exceptions, especially if you switch between a number of games.

The cost isnít enormous. In 9-6 Jacks or Better, you need to account for penalty cards to get to a 99.54 percent theoretical return. A simplified strategy without penalty cards can get you to 99.46 percent. Per $1,000 wagered --- 800 hands at $1.25 a pop on a quarter machine --- the difference is 80 cents. If youíre a fast player, youíre losing roughly one bet per hour and a half by not upgrading to the more complete strategy. Whether thatís tolerable is up to you.

Q. I was playing $25 blackjack, flat bets. I donít count like my husband, I just play basic strategy. After a couple of hours I asked a pit supervisor if I could get a coffee shop comp. He said I didnít qualify, and I asked how much more Iíd have to play. He said, "Honey, you could sit there all night and I wouldnít write you a coffee shop comp." The rudeness aside, does that seem right to you?

 A. In a pure dollars-and-sense proposition, your value to the house depends both on the speed of the game and the casinoís perception of your skill as a player.

Letís look at two speed assumptions. If youíre playing at a full table moving at 50 hands an hour, a $25 player is risking $1,250 an hour. If there are empty spots and youíre playing 150 hands an hour, then youíre risking $3,750.

Next comes the playerís skill. I used to have operators tell me they assumed a 2 to 2.5 percent edge over average players. In an era of tightening comps, I had one operator tell me he assumed only a 1 percent edge.

With a 2 percent assumption, your theoretical value to the casino is $25 an hour at the slow table, and $75 at the fast one. With a 1 percent assumption, those drop to $12.50 and $37.50.

But if the supervisor had you pegged as a basic strategy player, he could even have dropped assumption of half a percent, giving you a theoretical value of $6.25 or $18.75.

If youíre pegged as a basic strategy player at a slow table, after two hours the house would see its theoretical win at $12.50. Casinos used to rebate anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of that in comps, but now comp levels cluster toward the low end. At 10 percent, it would see you as worthy of $1.25 an hour in comps, and it would take a LONG time to earn a trip to the coffee shop.

Q. On a slot with a mystery jackpot where youíre eligible to win regardless of whether you bet minimum or maximum, can you get an edge by betting minimum? If you can win the top award while betting minimum, whatís the incentive to bet more?

A. The jackpots are awarded randomly, but that doesn't mean every player has an equal chance of winning.

The key is in the mystery programming. There are several ways to go about it, including launching the jackpot event when a jackpot size reaches a certain amount, or total coin wagered reaches a certain amount. Let's say a game is configured so that a jackpot event is launched when total wagering on the bank of machines reaches a number somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 coins.

A random number generator would select an amount between the parameters. If it selected $383.17, for example, the player whose wager took the total to $383.17 would trigger the jackpot event. If the games have no minimum bet or side bet required to be eligible for the jackpot event, then every active player would have a chance to go to the jackpot round. But those who are betting the most money would have the most chances.

If you're betting one penny, you have that one chance per spin to take the total wagers to that magic number. If I'm playing with you, betting one coin per line on 25 paylines, then I'd have 25 chances per spin to move the wagering total up to the selected total, while my neighbor betting 20 coins on each of the 25 lines has 500 chances.

It's the same deal if the launch point is a jackpot amount rather than a wagering total. You might see a sign that says, "Jackpot must hit by $500," or some other amount. A random number generator would select an exact amount of $500 or less, and the player whose bet took the jackpot up to that level would get the mystery award. Players who bet more credits have more chances to trip the trigger.

Casinos and slot machine manufacturers are not in the business of giving you incentives to bet less. Betting the minimum canít give you an edge on mystery slots, nor can it raise your payback percentage. The results are random, but that doesn't mean the one-coin bettor and the 500-coin bettor have equal chances of solving the jackpot mystery.

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