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PAULíS POINTERS: BEFORE YOU MAKE YOUR FIRST BET

by Paul Wilson

BJI contributing writer Paul Wilson is a quasi-Renaissance man. Some of his interests, skill sets, and hobbies include finance, consulting, travel, photography, and rock music. Heís an avid baseball fan. Paul has done freelance writing and editing for gaming publications and takes blackjack, video poker, and sports betting very seriously.

Thereís a first time for everything. Casino gambling is no different. With the widespread growth of casino gambling via riverboats and Indian casinos, thereís no shortage of gaming opportunities. However, all casinos are not created equally. This month Iím going to share some ideas on what to look for before making your first wager at a new or unfamiliar casino.

First things first; does the casino offer the games you want to play? That might sound obvious, but when you get outside Las Vegas, Mississippi, and some of the larger venues on the East Coast and in the Midwest, "casino" might just mean slot machines. Thatís no good if you are a blackjack player. Most large and even mid-size casinos have a website these days. Check there under the "gaming" tab. Steve Bourieís annual American Casino Guide book is also a good source.

Be aware that some casino destinations offer limited table game hours. Some casinos arenít open around the clock and some only offer blackjack during limited hours. Iím aware of casinos in WI where that is the case. Believe it or not, I even encountered this situation in downtown Las Vegas years ago while staying on Fremont Street and doing some exploring. I stumbled into a small place that has since closed that offered blackjack only at night and on the weekends. Iíve also stumbled into a neighborhood casino in Las Vegas far from the Strip that didnít have any blackjack tables. Check first before you waste your time. Know what games are offered.

Once youíve determined the casino youíre planning to visit offers blackjack and during the time of your visit, you should find out the playing rules. If you read Blackjack Insider (BJI) regularly, you probably know that all games are not the same. Subtle rule differences can have a big impact on your bankroll over the long haul. The most obvious is the blackjack payout. Donít play games that offer less than 3:2 payouts on player untied blackjacks. Blackjack paying 6:5 should be a red flag and an automatic no play situation for you (for more on this topic see Paulís Pointers in the August 2014 issue of BJI).

One common rules variation you might encounter is doubling down after splits (DAS). The ability to do so adds about 0.13% to your expected returns. You want the freedom to double down after splits. Another common change in recent years that hurts the player is dealers hitting soft 17. This subtracts about 0.20% from your expected return. These are two examples and there are many more to discuss in future writings. Things to look for are the number of decks being played Ė fewer the better. Also, can you split and re-split Aces up to four hands or only two? Can you double-down on any first two cards versus only on 10 and 11? The time to find out is not after youíre dealt a third Ace and canít re-split your pair of Aces or when you try to double down on your eleven count after you just split eights and drew a three. Some casinos post these rules on placards at the end of the table; for many you have to ask a dealer or pit supervisor. Learn what rules variations work in your favor and which work against you. Adjust your play accordingly.

A third item to look for before you sit down is what are the table limits? Do they support your bankroll? Generally this refers to the table minimums, but in some instances, if you are a serious player with a large bankroll, you want to know if your maximum bet is going to be capped at $500 or if you can wager $2,500 or more, should circumstances warrant. For most of us, weíre looking for minimums in the $5, $10, or $25 realm. Table limits are clearly posted in most casinos. Red-colored placards generally denote $5 minimums; yellow indicates $10; green $25; and black $100 wager minimums. Many properties offer better odds (through rule variations) on higher limit games. Thereís no point in finding a casino with a great game if you canít afford to play it. Never overplay your bankroll. If you only have $300 for your session, donít sit down at a $25 table. Thatís only twelve minimum bets. With a $300 session limit you should look for a $5 table limit.

A fourth thing I look for is what I call the SPF factor. SPF stands for "smart player friendly." This incorporates deck penetration, bet spreading, and your ability to blend in and look like a loser, even when youíre not. This factor is more important for card counters, big money bettors, serious basic strategy players, or any combination thereof. Even though it isnít necessarily for the recreational player, if thatís you, pay attention anyway; it might keep you from getting burned someday.

Deck penetration is important for card counters. Deeper penetration means more cards are put into play. As a smart player, you want to play more hands and increase your bet size when the count is positive (more 10-count cards and Aces remaining), and play fewer hands and decrease your bet size when the count is negative (more small cards, 2s through 6s remaining). Remember since the dealer has to hit until they reach a total of 17 or more, a greater number of small cards increases their chance of making a hand. More large cards remaining increases the probability the dealer will bust when drawing. It also increases your chances of being dealt a blackjack or catching a face card when you double down. Positive and negative counts have more meaning the deeper into a shuffle one plays. Many casinos only deal one of two decks on double-deck games or three-and-a-half or less on six-deck shoes. These games are to be avoided. Look for at least 65% of the cards being dealt on two-deck games and four decks in six-deck shoes. If you find better, thatís a plus in todayís playing environment.

If you want to make large bets, look for a casino that offers a high-limit room or at least a couple higher limit tables more suitable to your bet size. By this I mean donít make a habit of betting $100 black chips on a $5 table. Youíll draw plenty of attention to yourself from pit personnel. If you get on a hot streak, you might even get surveillance on you and then youíve got "heat"Önamely, your moves are being watched closely and you might be asked to leave, have your comps reduced, or have a note put by your name in their all-mighty computer that will bring scrutiny your way next time you sit down to play at this casino. Not that youíve done anything wrong, itís just a situation you should avoid.

Casinos closely monitor their black chips; some smaller joints even pay attention to their greens ($25 chips). Itís generally better to make $100 bet with four green chips on a $25 minimum table than with green or black on a $5 table. If you are betting $5-$15 a hand then suddenly jump your bets to $50 or $100, this draws attention too. Donít bring undo attention to yourself by spreading your bets too aggressively and pronouncing it to the world when you do. Look for a place with enough open tables with comparable or higher limits than what you are betting. This gives the pit boss something else to look it and he or she doesnít feel like they have to watch your play. Attractive cocktail waitresses and off-shift strippers used to help with that too, at least in Las Vegas "back in the day." Casinos expect you to lose. That shouldnít be your goal, but itís ok to let them think that. They donít have to see you win (or see you hit your soft 18 against the dealers 9 up-card).

A fifth factor I look for in a new casino is the playersí club. Does the casino have one? Do they reward table game players? Is there a sign-up bonus? Do they send out regular mailers to everyone in their database? What kind of play is required to get things like meal comps, free or discounted hotel rooms, show tickets? Are there any promotions going on that you might be able to take advantage of during your visit? These are just a few questions to ask at the playersí club booth before signing up. Other sources are the casinoís website, pit supervisors, marketing materials on display around the property, and even other players. Generally you want to play at a casino that has a players club and will rate your play. However, there are circumstances when this might not be the case.

The final things I look for in a new or unfamiliar casino are the intangibles. On top of the items mentioned above, the intangibles will probably determine if I become a repeat customer. These can be many things to many people, but for me they include in no particular order: security, dining options, staff, other players, free beverages, entertainment options, and accessibility. Iíll expound on these briefly below.

You should feel safe during your casino visit and feel confident that you can get back to your car or room with your winnings. If you have a big win, donít hesitate to ask for a security guard to escort you.

Is there a buffet, a coffee shop, steak house, or snack bar? Do their prices fit your budget? Are comps available based on your plays? Howís the food? Would you eat here again?

Is the casino staff competent and customer-friendly? Do pit personnel "sweat" their money or get too interested if you are winning? How are the other players? Are they obnoxious, quiet, and competent blackjack players? Iíve played blackjack in Atlantic City and Tunica, Mississippi. Thereís a big difference among the players and their overt hostility, err, conversations.

Are drinks free or is there a self-serve soda or coffee machine? I once made the mistake of ordering a Baileyís on the rocks at the Casino Queen in East St. Louis many years ago. When the waitress brought my drink she asked for $3. I was shocked! I inquired about drinks not being free for players and she said, "What?! Are you from Vegas or something?" I later learned they had a free soda dispenser and $2 beers at the bar.

If itís an overnight trip, I need things to do when Iím not at the tables. Is there a good lounge act or nightclub? How about a showroom? Are they free? Can I get a comp or discount based on my play or by having a playersí card? I used to enjoy checking out the music in the lounge at the old Sahara in Las Vegas and regularly visited the lounge at the back of Mandalay Bay during Las Vegas trips in the early- to mid- 2000s. Get away from the tables on longer trips. Enjoy wins and refocus and clear your head after losses.

Last, but not least, is the property easy to get too? If Iím a local, does it make sense to drive there regularly or are there better choices closer to me; same for day-trips? If Iím staying at a hotel, does it make sense to rent a car? Can I walk, take a tram, or taxi? Ideally I can play where I stay, but that isnít always the case.

Putting It All Together

In this final section, Iíll discuss an experience I had earlier this month where I put the above items to the test off the beaten path in Lula, Mississippi.

I recently spent a month dealing with family matters and found myself driving from North Mississippi to Little Rock. The usual route is via Memphis (not far from the Tunica casinos) and Interstate 40 through Arkansas. However, thanks to some earlier travels I knew there was major construction and purported delays on I-40. Not wanting to deal with that and seeking new adventures, I took an alternate route through Oxford and crossed the Mississippi River at the Helena Bridge. At the base of the bridge on the Mississippi side is the Isle of Capri Casino (Lula, MS). I knew it was there, but I was not familiar with it. I decided that I would bring a portion of my bankroll and budget some time for a quick blackjack session, conditions permitting. I arrived mid-week, late in the afternoon.

The Isle of Capri is split into two casinos. I walked both and found that the table-games pit area was closed in one. I later found out it was only open on weekend nights. During this tour I found a soda dispenser and helped myself. I passed the three restaurants on the property as well. In the second casino, I found the only open table- games area. There were only two blackjack games Ė one a $5 six-deck shoe with four or five players, the other a $10 double-deck game with no players. I made another lap in search of the players club, but couldnít find it. I did see an events calendar and found out today was free t-shirt day with 500 points. Eventually I saw a patron with one of the shirts and asked how to find the players club. Turns out I never would have found it as the casino cashier folks issue club cards and deal with promotions. Unfortunately, the cage personnel werenít too helpful and the t-shirts were hideous. According to the promotions calendar, there wasnít anything that applied to me and I didnít plan on being back here anytime soon. Based on that, I made the decision to forgo a playersí club card. Maybe if I go back someday, theyíll have a sign-up bonus going on. This is a rare case and generally I would recommend getting a card. If you play machines, then donít even hesitate!

I went back to the double-deck blackjack table and inquired about the rules. Blackjacks paid 3:2; doubling down after any first two cards and after splits was allowed; Aces could be split to form only two hands and dealers hit soft 17. Insurance was not available on this game, but was on the six-deck shoe game. The rules werenít bad and I decided Iíd play through until I saw a shuffle. If penetration was deep, this might be a good game. Turns out the deck penetration was a good 70 percent and not always uniform. Not necessarily a bad thing. I ended up playing by myself, then with one, two, and back to one other player. The other players didnít make any glaring basic strategy errors and thanks to winning a majority of my double-down opportunities I carved out a 6.5 unit profit in under an hour and cashed out.

I relate the above story about the Isle of Capri because itís an example of how I used the items in this column. I wasnít making a special trip and was prepared to walk out if things didnít meet my criteria. I found out they had available blackjack games (barely), with a playable set of rules, and table limits that met my session bankroll. I made the rare decision to forego a playersí card as explained above. The intangibles were hit-and-miss. I might have been able to get a buffet comp had I got a card and played a bit longer, but I wasnít really hungry thanks to a good lunch and more driving still to do. The casino was safe and I saw no issues with any of the other customers. The cashierís-cage-turned-players-club was a bit confusing, but I should have guessed since I have seen that before in smaller joints.

Thanks to being prepared to play (or walk away) and winning the right hands (good rules variations regarding double-downs), I was able to have a positive session off the beaten path in an unfamiliar casino. In summary, remember: games, rules, minimums, SPF, playersí club perks, and intangibles (as you define them). Iíll be attending the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas next week. Feel free to say "hello" if you see me. Thatís it for Paulís Pointers. See you next month.

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