{{NOTE: All odds in this article were borrowed from the website, WizardofOdds.com, and the book, Gambling 102, both by Michael Shakleford. We couldn't very well plagiarize all Michael's calculations, so our numbers are passing references to his comprehensive findings. Please read Shakleford's book and webpage for more detailed analyses.}}


(1) STANDARD TABLE GAMES

Blackjack, Roulette, and Craps -- the staples of casino gaming...

Blackjack
Step inside any casino and look past the slot machines and the hookers. The first thing you'll notice will be the plethora of blackjack tables. BJ is easily the most popular table game in the casino. And luckily for you -- it's easy. Spend twenty minutes playing at the table and you'll be splitting your 8s and making lame jokes just like the rest of them. ("17 is the mother-in-law hand... You want to hit it but you can't!")

Every player is dealt two cards and the dealer shows one of his cards. The object is to come as close to 21 as possible without going over (busting). If your hand is higher than the dealer's, you win. There's a basic strategy chart that tells players what decision (hit, stand, split, double, surrender) is mathematically best based on their cards and what the dealer shows. The chart is intense and every variation on the rules produces a different chart, so we've opted not to list it here. Standard Vegas rules (six decks, dealer hits soft 17, double after split allowed, split aces only once, surrender available) and perfect basic strategy yield a house edge of merely .53%.

However, your average person doesn't know perfect basic strategy. Peter Griffin estimates the average player misplays one in six or seven hands, brining the house edge is closer to 1.93%. He says Las Vegas players make more mistakes than average, adding another .25% to the house edge. Based on what we've seen at the tables, we think Mr. Griffin was being generous.

See our comprehensive blackjack article: Blackjack Lessons: Mask Your Stupidity and Protect Your Wallet for further guidance.

Roulette
Roulette is easy and dull -- it's the perfect game if you're too timid to sit at the blackjack table. All you do is guess what number the spinning ball is going to land on next. If you don't think you can accurately guess the number, you can guess clumps of numbers. All inside bets yield a 5.26% house edge. (The exception is the five number split with a 7.89% edge.) European roulette has a single zero, rather than a single and a double zero, and inside bets on that game have a 2.7% edge, but those tables are rare in Vegas. You can also make an "outside" bet and predict whether the number will be even or odd, black or red, high or low, etc.

Craps
The busy layout on the craps table has intimidated many potential players, but the game is actually quite simple. Each shooter (person rolling the dice) starts a new round beginning with a come out roll. If the pair of die land on 7 or 11, every player betting the pass line wins. If the dice land on 2, 3, or 12, the pass line bet is a loser. If the dice land on any other number (4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10), the number becomes the point. Let's say the point is set at 8 -- if the shooter rolls another 8, the pass line bet wins and the shooter begins another game. If he rolls a 7 before rolling the 8, the pass line bet loses and a new shooter begins a new game.

Craps is often dubbed "the best game in the casino" because you're allowed to lay odds on your bet and the house pays true odds. This results in a 0% house edge. This hype is misleading because you must make a pass line bet with a 1.41% house edge before you're able to lay odds. If you take full odds on a standard Vegas game with 3-4-5x odds, the entire bet yields a .37% house edge. The best you can do is a 100x odds game Casino Royale where the house edge sinks to .02%.

In craps, you're allowed to bet that a shooter will "7 out" before he rolls the point. This bet is placed on the don't pass line and you're allowed to lay odds there as well. The bet is slightly better for the player (1.36% edge) than the pass bet, but at a boisterous dice table it's not nearly as fun. The come and don't come bets are the same as the pass and don't pass -- the difference being they're placed in the middle of a game and set the point on the next roll.

You can place a variety of side bets on a craps game, and none of them have particularly good odds. The field bet is reputed to be a sucker bet, but it's actually one of the best. If a 12 pays double on the field bet, the house edge is 5.56%; if it pays triple, the edge is 2.78%. Betting the hard ways is very popular and it ranges from 9.09 -- 11.11% house edge. Your worst bet is "any 7" with a 16.67% house edge. (The fire bet is available in some houses and it's the new worst, yielding a 24.7% edge.) Oh, and most players don't request their odds stay working during a come out roll, but doing so lowers the house edge by .05% based on 5x odds.


(2) CARNIVAL GAMES (GATEWAY)

The gateway carnival games offer low minimums and low entertainment value and are typically placed in the main entrance. They're either your stepping stone to bigger, better, more expensive table games or they're the casino's last chance to milk you for a couple more bucks. It depends whether you're headed in or out.

The Big Six
This game is nothing more than a spinning wheel offering six different payouts. (1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 40) The minimum bet is typically $1. Let's say you think the wheel will land on twenty, so you place $5 on the twenty spot. If it hits, you make $100. (Payout 20:1) Odds on the Big Six aren't good, but your best bet is the one spot with a house edge of 11.11%. Forty is the worst with the house edge at 24.07%.

Casino War
You get a card and the dealer gets a card -- whoever has the highest card wins. (Yes, it's the same game you played as a kid.) In the case of a tie, you have the option to surrender and take back half your bet or to go to war and bet again for a rematch. When you go to war, the house does not pay your original wager, so essentially you're betting two units to win one. Going to war on ties is to the player's advantage because a second tie goes to the player. (Some casinos pay double.) If you surrender every tie in a six deck shoe the house edge is 3.7%. Going to war on every tie reduces the edge to 2.88%. (Casinos that pay double on a second tie have a 2.33% house edge.) The odds don't seem so bad -- especially compared to the Big Six -- but the game moves quickly. You'll place so many bets per hour that the house edge will eventually swallow you.


(3) CARNIVAL GAMES (POKER DERIVATIVES)

The majority of carnival games are a new twist on an old classic and they typically have the lifespan of a fruit fly. A few poker derivatives survive trial periods in obscure casinos and make their Vegas debut. The list below is a sample of poker derived carnival games you're likely to find in Vegas.

[The word "qualify" is used in some of the games. This means that the dealer has a minimum hand or else he won't pay the player's bet in full. For instance, in Three Card Poker the dealer needs at least a Q high to qualify. If not, the player is paid on the ante but not the bet. If the dealer has J-8-7 and the player has 10-6-5, the player wins. Yes, the dealer's hand is superior, but he did not qualify, so the player wins the ante bet and pushes on the play.]

Three Card Poker
TCP is simple to play but a little tough to explain. I'm going to walk you through a sample hand then tell you what happened. Okay, there are three betting circles -- pair plus, ante, and play. The table minimum is $5, so you (the player) place $5 in the pair plus circle and $5 in the ante. You get three cards: Kh-Kd-6d. You like your cards so you place $5 in the circle labeled 'play.' The dealer turns over his hand: Jh-10h-4h. His flush beats your pair of kings so you lose the $5 play bet and the $5 ante. The pair plus is a side bet, independent of the dealer's hand. A pair pays 1:1 so you win $5 on your pair plus bet.

------------------------Pair Plus ----- Ante Bonus
Pair----------------------1:1
Flush ------------------- 3:1
Straight ---------------- 6:1------------- 1:1
Three of a Kind ------ 30:1------------ 4:1
Straight Flush -------- 40:1------------ 5:1

Most players bet all three spots, but you may elect only to bet the ante and play (house edge 3.37%) and always play against the dealer or only the pair plus (house edge 7.2%) and never play against the dealer. A dealer needs a queen high or better to qualify. No qualify means no pay on the play. Basic strategy dictates the player should fold any hand that's worse than Q-6-4.

Caribbean Stud
CS is five-card stud with an optional high hand jackpot and you're allowed a peak at one of the dealer's cards before committing to your hand. If you decide to play you must double your ante bet (meaning a $10 minimum CS game is really a $30 minimum). Your play bet is paid odds (three of a kind is 3:1, straight 4:1, flush 5:1, etc.) as long as the dealer qualifies with a minimum of an ace and king. The game can be frustrating if you receive a good hand and the dealer doesn't qualify. Let's say you're betting the $10 table minimum and receive a flush. If the dealer qualifies, you receive even money on the ante ($10) and 5:1 on the play ($100). If the dealer fails to qualify, you're only paid on the ante ($10).

There is a chart with over 2,000 cells dictating whether to play or fold based on your cards vs. the dealer's up card. Perfect basic strategy yields a house edge of 5.224%. Shakleford offers a simple strategy that gives the house a 5.23% edge. Your minimum starting hand is A/K as long as you a) have a Q or J; b) the dealer shows a Q or lower and it matches one of yours; or c) the dealer's up card is lower than your forth highest card. If that's too much to remember, playing every A/K yields only a 5.68% house edge.

CS offers a progressive jackpot for a $1 side bet. A royal flush pays 100% of the jackpot and a straight flush pays 10%. A regular flush is at the bottom of the list and it pays $50. Because it's progressive, the bet doesn't have a fixed house edge. Playing the bonus is typically a poor decision, but in the unlikely event that the jackpot goes unclaimed for a long stretch it can reach a level high enough to warrant betting the $1 bonus.

Let It Ride
In LIR you make a five-card poker hand using three cards you're dealt and two community cards. You begin the hand with three equal bets. After receiving your hole cards you elect to take down bet one of three or "let it ride." Then the dealer shows one card and you have the option to take down bet two of three or to "let it ride." Bet three has to stay and you need a pair of tens or better to win the hand. Each bet is paid odds (pair of tens or higher 1:1, two pair 2:1, three of a kind 3:1... all the way to a royal flush that pays 1000:1).

The house edge on a perfectly played game of LIR is 3.51%. (The edge on the optional $1 bonus is 13.77% - 36.52%.) With three cards, you should "let it ride" if you've got a pair of tens or better, three to the royal, suited connectors at least five high, suited one gaps when at least one card is ten or higher, or suited two gaps with at least two cards ten or higher. With four cards, "let it ride" if you've got a pair of tens or better, four to the flush, an open-ended straight, or four to the inside straight if all cards are at least ten high.

Three Five Seven
3-5-7 is a combination of Three Card Poker, Stud, and Texas Hold'em -- each with its own betting circle. You receive three hole cards and those play like the pair plus circle in Three Card Poker. On this bet, however, a flush pays 4:1 rather than 3:1 so the house advantage is 2.32%, compared to the 7.2% in TCP. (Scratch the praise if three of a kind pays 25:1 instead of 30:1.) On the second bet, the dealer flips two community cards and you need a pair of sixes or better to win. Two more community cards for the third bet and you make your best five-card hand from the seven available. You must have two pair (one must be tens or higher) to be paid on the third bet. (In some casinos the third bet is optional and/or surrender allowed.)


(4) ASIAN GAMES

The majority of Baccarat and Pai Gow players in Vegas tend to be wealthy, superstitious, adorable Asians.

Baccarat
Baccarat is a simple game, similar to flipping a coin and betting heads or tails. There are two hands dealt -- player and banker -- and the closest one to nine wins. Each hand starts with two cards and based on the rules, they may get a third card. So, a ten and a three is really a three. (10+3=13, drop the one in the ten spot because there's no going higher than nine.) If the player receives this hand, they'll always take an extra card. Whether or not the banker hits his three depends on the player's third card. You as a player may bet on either the banker's hand or the player's hand. The house edge when betting the player is 1.24% and it pays 1:1. Betting banker has a 1.06% house edge and it pays 19 to 20 (1:1 minus a 5% commission). You can also bet the hands will tie and be paid 8:1, but the house edge is 14.44%.

Pai Gow Poker
Pai Gow can be dealt with dominos or dealt with cards. We don't understand the crazy dong, wong, gongs in the Pai Gow Tiles game, so can only teach the card version. You're dealt seven cards in PGP and you have to make two separate poker hands. The bottom hand consists of five cards and must be higher than the top hand. A joker may be used to complete a straight or a flush or it is an ace. So, if you're dealt A, K, J, 10, 9, 6, 6 with a mixture of suits, the best way to set your hand would be: 6, 6, J, 10, 9 on bottom and A, K on top. You play your hand against the banker's and must win both hands to win the bet. 41.48% of the time the player and banker will each win one and the hand is a push. Wins are paid 19 to 20 (1:1 with a 5% commission).

Each casino has differing rules about when the dealer should split two pair, but Shakleford offers a strategy that works best against all house ways. He says always split two pair unless a) the total value is 9 or less and you have an A or K singleton or b) the total value is 15 or less and you have an A. (The value of a pair of sixes and a pair of twos is 8.)

Pai Gow offers an optional bonus bet and like all other bonus bets, the odds are dismal. The standard Vegas bonus whose top payout is on five aces often has a house edge as horrendous as 42%. The side bet with the envy bonus has a house edge of 5.85% if you're playing alone against the dealer, but shrinks to 1.2% with a full table.

Pai Gow is an interesting game because players may opt to be the banker. Taking the opportunity to bank is in your favor because a) the banker wins copy hands and b) the house charges commission only on your net win. If you're playing alone against the dealer, the house edge for the player is 2.73% and only .2% for the banker. If you're sitting at the table with at least one other player and you're banking, the house edge is actually negative. If you bank at a full table, the house edge is -.21%.


(5) VIDEO GAMES

If you're gambling solely for the free drinks and you want them fast and frequent, sit at one of the bars and hop on a machine. You'll be served faster by a bartender than a waitress.

Slots
Slots are the biggest mystery in Vegas because no one seems to know how the machines work. People believe a slot machine that hasn't paid out for a while is waiting to burst or one that just paid a large amount has gone cold. There are rumors that machines by the bar and bathrooms are tight because people don't sit at them for great lengths of time and that slots in highly trafficked walkways are loose so people passing are likely to see customers winning. (Aren't slots by bathrooms in highly trafficked walkways?) Shakleford ran analyses in various casinos and discovered no correlation between a machine's location and its payout rate. The biggest determinate of payout potential was the casino itself. Nevada law states that slots can't have more than a 25% house edge and there's a huge house to house variance. Check out Gambling 102 for Shackleford's list of the casinos' average edge.

Slot machines run on a random number generator and one spin is independent of the next. Numbers corresponding with stopping points on the reels flash at random and whatever number happens to pop up when you press 'spin' seals your fate. You can't be angry if some guy sits at your old machine and wins a jackpot on the first spin -- it wasn't your jackpot. You wouldn't have pressed the 'spin' button at the exact fraction of a second that he happened to press it.

Be wary of "participation slots" (progressive jackpots and themed machines). They tend to have a larger house edge because casinos run an 80/20 split with the endorsing company. Also, smaller denomination machines have a larger house edge. It makes sense, doesn't it? Casinos need to skim more off a penny player than a $5 player to turn a profit. For this reason, you should always play the highest machine denomination you can, not the most number of coins (progressives excluded). Even though the payouts get sweeter the more coins you play, the odds are better on the bigger machines. So, don't bet four credits on a $.25 machine, bet one credit on a dollar machine.

Video Poker
Good luck finding a bar or a gas station in Vegas without a video poker machine. There are a variety of games (such as bonus, double bonus, double double bonus) and depending on their payout table their return is between 91.77 -- 101.73%. Betting max coins increases your return by 1.4%.

Shackleford devised a basic strategy list for video poker and we regenerated the bottom half of his list below. Play the hands as high on the chart as possible.

- Three to a royal
- Four to a flush
- Low pair
- Four to an open-ended straight
- Two suited high cards
- Three to a straight flush
- Two unsuited high cards (pick the lowest two)
- Suited 10/J, 10/Q, 10/K
- High card
- Discard all

If you like to find out more about poker? Read article at the bottom of the page about "what is the best online poker sites" here.

Keno
Keno is the Las Vegas lottery. Many casino cafes, sports books, and sometimes even the bathrooms have keno boards, reminding you to stop by and purchase a ticket. Just grab a card, mark some numbers, and see how many you hit. Each casino has varying payout scales; the Vegas house edge in Keno averages 29.77%. The Silverton reportedly has the best odds (20.15%) and the Palms the worst (33.76%). Harrah's introduced a game called Millionaire Keno and it's possibly the worst bet in town with a house edge of 60.01%. Video Keno has better odds than regular Keno, but the rounds go very quickly. The only keno advice we can give is to stay away from progressive meters that have a ceiling.

   

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