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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 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 ( He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at your question to Grochowski at

Q. I have a neighbor who works for a casino, and I was bending his ear, telling him the blackjack games were getting too tight. They're still paying 3-2 on blackjacks here, but they all hit soft 17, even on a six-deck game, and some are double on only 9, 10, and 11 with some other bad rules. I guess he got tired of listening to me, because he finally said, "So play something else, or don't play." Is that what it comes down to? I thought business was bad. Wouldn't it help to make the games better?

A. Thatís probably a thought that has crossed the mind of every player who knows the games well enough to have an opinion. In a period when business is slack, when we see three Atlantic City casinos closing, why are the games getting tighter instead of looser? Isnít it backward thinking to tighten the games to put the squeeze on players who have kept coming instead of loosening them to attract additional business?

The two closest casinos to my Chicago area home both position themselves as premium properties, with high table limits, an emphasis on dollar video poker rather than quarters, and video slots that run to 40- and 50-coin forced bets at 2-cent denomination rather than penny games. Both have six-deck, hit soft 17 games, and the older has 6-5 blackjack payoffs at $10 tables that have the lowest minimums in the house.

For the newer property, the formula is a spectacular success. The older property is struggling, with revenues that are less than half what they were before the new competition arrived.

I asked an exec at the struggling property if given the new reality of the marketplace, any consideration had been given to moving more midmarket, with lower minimum bets and better playing rules. What I got in return was a blank stare. Eventually he said, "We need the games to make a certain amount of money per unit."

Later, I called on an old acquaintance and longtime source, a retired casino general manager. He said, "This business has changed so much since I was breaking in. It used to be gambling was the main business, and hotels and restaurants were there to support gambling. Now the hotels and restaurants and spas and nightclubs are expected to make money on their own, and the businesses are being run by people who understand hotels and restaurants and spas and nightclubs and donít necessarily understand gambling."

In his opinion, todayís operators are inclined to sell the sizzle of resort side of the business, try to sell the casino end of things with rewards programs and promotions, but donít have the inclination to adapt games and sell gambling.

There is another side to it. A different, current exec told me, "If I make my games looser, so will the competition, and we end up with an arms race where neither one of us makes money from the games. Iím not going to get into that vicious circle."

So for those of us who are serious about the games, we wind up with an environment in which operators would rather let weak games sit empty than use better games to sell to us.

Q. A bunch of us play poker once a month, and one of the other guys razzes me about video poker. He said it was poker lite, poker for dummies, that any good live poker player knows the strategy, and video poker players don't have to go anywhere beyond that. I tell him video poker is different, and he laughs. What would you tell him?

A. Video poker is different, and less complex than live poker. In live poker, any hand can be a winner and almost any hand can be a loser in the right situation. So we have to take measure of the situation and of the competition. Thereís a psychological game that video poker players donít face.

However, there are subtleties to video poker, itís sometimes counter-intuitive, and itís not at all true that any good live poker player knows the strategy. Video poker strategy weighs the likelihood of drawing a winning hand against the payback for that hand, and these things change from game to game and pay table to pay table. Dealt King-8-3 of hearts along with a 4 of clubs and 9 of diamonds, youíd hold just the King in 9-6 Jacks or Better, but hold all three hearts in 10-7-5 or 9-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, where flushes pay 7-for-1.

Playing live poker well requires more skill than any other common casino game. The chance element is much stronger in video poker, but really, live poker and video poker are just two different games.

Q. The new video slot games with split symbols, so sometimes there are two of the same symbol in one space --- what does that do to the games? Is there a reason to have that, and should I look for it or avoid it?

A. Split symbols help game designers add more volatility to the games. In split symbols games such as Shadow of the Panther or Dogs, character symbols at the top of the pay table come in two varieties: single symbols and split symbols. Split symbols have two of the character in the same frame.

When you get a split symbol, it counts as two symbols. If you have two single Dogs in a row, you just have two in a row. But if you have two split Dogs, you have four in a row and get a payoff.

In that format, itís possible to get 10 in a row on five video reels. That makes it possible to offer very large payoffs on rare 10-in-a-row pays. Itís one of several tools developed for penny games where player preference is for more volatile games than those favored by nickel players at the beginning of video slotsí rise to popularity. Thereís no reason to avoid these games more than any other penny slot. If the chance at 10-in-a-row jackpots excites you, go for it.

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