Las Vegas is a city with thousands of enticing options for visitors, but the main reason it exists at all is gambling. Although big profits are now generated from rooms, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, shows, and shopping, gambling is still the single-largest revenue producer for every Las Vegas resort.
Do you want to play? Sure you do – gambling is an integral part of the Las Vegas experience for most visitors. It’s also a bona fide entertainment option, and good entertainment costs money, so playing is probably gonna cost you. The trick is to keep that cost to a minimum.
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Gambling is based on mathematics, and, hence, is a complicated subject on the whole. But it’s not that complicated when you view it with entertainment as the primary goal. What’s fun? Winning is fun! But it can’t be counted on – sometimes it happens; usually it doesn’t. So, for most, the object should be to get a good run (and some fun) for your money. The gambling industry refers to this as “time on game.” The players call it “bang for the buck.”
How do you get bang for the gambling buck? There are three key components to consider: return on game, size of wager, and speed of play.
The return on game is determined by the house advantage, or “edge.” The lower the edge, the less the casino chops out of every bet. If the casino’s taking less per play, your money lasts longer.
Size of wager is the amount of your average bet and the importance of that is easy to see. If you want to bet a steady amount and you have $100 to play with, you figure it will last longer betting $5 per hand than betting $25 per hand.
Speed of play is often the most important, and certainly the most dynamic, of the three considerations, because you can do a lot to control it. You’re typically at a disadvantage when gambling, which means the slower you play, the less you’ll lose. In gambling, speed kills!
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So, where does this leave you?
One thing’s for sure, machines of any type aren’t the answer when longevity is paramount. Slots are popular because they’re easy to play and many have low minimums. Video poker games with good pay schedules have a very low house advantage. But both are machines and machines play fast, so the speed consideration eliminates them as good options.
Roulette? Nah. The 5.26% edge is too high and the spins come faster than you think.
Baccarat? Nope. The edge is just a little over 1%, but the betting minimums are usually too high.
Craps? Better, and fun for sure, but you can do better yet.
It’s blackjack, right? That’s the obvious answer and there are many reasons to go with it, but there are also complications. Chief among them is the proliferation of the evil 6-5 game, on which natural blackjacks pay 6-5 rather than the traditional 3-2. If you play blackjack, make sure it’s a game with a 3-2 payoff (it will say so on the table felt). Blackjack is good, but it’s still not the bang-for-the-buck champ.
The best way to get action at the lowest cost is with a sports bet. The casino has a 4.5% edge on a typical bet-$11-to-win-$10 sports wager, which works out to an expected loss for the player of 50¢. Divide that by the three hours it takes for a game to be played and you wind up with a 17¢-per-hour expected loss.
You’ll pay 30 times that rate just to go to a movie! Bet $22 (to win $20) and most casinos will “comp” you a cocktail. Now you’re paying an expected loss of $1 for three hours of action and a drink. Sports betting isn’t just the best bang-for-your-buck gambling play– it’s one of the best entertainment values in the world.
The negative with sports betting is that you can only do it when a game is playing, so you’ll likely want to try your hand at some of the other games, too. Regardless of what you play, there are certain simple truths you should always bear in mind.
Tables are better than machines.
The rule of thumb is, if something is easy to learn and play, the casinos will charge you more to play it. Pushing buttons on machines is easy. Learning the rules of table games takes effort. Do the work and you’ll get a better gamble.
Slow is better than fast.
This is so important, it bears repeating: Slow it down! Here’s another good reason to choose tables over machines. And try to play at full tables. Playing with other people isn’t just more fun, it also reduces the number of hands played per hour.
Off-Strip is better than the Strip.
Similar to the machines-vs.-tables situation, you’re “charged” more to play in the places with the highest demand. People hear about and want to go to the biggest resorts on the famous Las Vegas Strip, but in most cases, rules and payouts will be better, and minimums will be lower, downtown or at surrounding “locals” casinos.
Join the players club.
Players clubs are similar to airline frequent-flyer programs – sign up and get free things for your action and loyalty. It’s a 100% value-added no-brainer. Every casino has one and joining is fast and free at the players club booth. You should never play without a card. And sometimes there are perks just for joining, so sign up even if you don’t gamble.
Knowledge improves everything.
Like everything in life, knowing what you’re doing produces better results. Do some research on playing the games properly, whether through books, practice software for your home computer, or credible websites.
Places to Play
Perhaps surprising to most, the differences in game payouts from casino to casino are usually slight. However, there are differences. As indicated earlier, one reliable tenet for getting the best gambling deal is to play at off-the-Strip casinos.
The smaller older casinos in downtown Vegas are, unquestionably, “looser” than the Strip palaces, in terms of their returns per-dollar-wagered. And in many cases, the outlying casinos – those that are neither on the Strip, nor downtown – are the loosest of all. This group is led by the Station/Fiesta casinos, which consist of Palace, Boulder, Texas, Sunset, and Santa Fe Stations, Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort, plus the Rancho and Henderson Fiestas. Other local gems include Gold Coast, Orleans, Palms, South Coast, Silverton, Terrible’s, and Ellis Island.
There are a few casinos that are known for their good rules in specific games – notably the El Cortez downtown and a little truck-stop casino south of the Strip called the Alamo for low-stakes blackjack; and South Point, Palms, the D, and Eureka, among others, for 25¢-$1 video poker. But for the most part, the strategy is to play where you feel comfortable with the limits, and where the “back-end” mail you get for using your players card (offers for free drinks, meals, casino play, rooms, or more, depending on your level) are best.
On the Strip
If you’re staying on the Strip, gambling bargains are more difficult to come by. All casinos have nickel and quarter slots and video poker, but pay schedules are often poor. At the table games, minimum bets tend to be $10 and up in the big casinos. There are, however, a few good moves for Strip gambling.
At the less glitzy Excalibur and Circus Circus casinos, you’ll find $5 minimums, and even $3 at Circus. The small Casino Royale at center Strip is another good bet for low-rollers. Of the bigger casinos, Tropicana and the Mirage are best bets for finding $5-minimum tables with player-friendly rules — e.g., games that pay 3-2 on naturals and allow liberal doubling down and pair splitting.
Video poker players will find higher paying schedules at LVH (formerly LV Hilton). Check the payback schedule that’s printed on the glass. LVH isn’t on the Strip proper, but it’s serviced by the Strip Monorail and located behind the Riviera, within walking distance of Las Vegas Blvd.
Remember to join the players clubs wherever you play, but two you should make a special effort to get to are the Tropicana and the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. As a new member, you’ll get a rebate on your first $100 in machine losses at Cosmo and $200 at the Trop (this one’s distributed over three days). Play till you lose the designated amount, then get it reimbursed in “free play” (that you have to play through once more to redeem). If you’re lucky, you’ll hit something big before losing it all and keep what you win. Worst-case scenario: You break even or lose a few dollars on the free-play replay. “Free-rolls” like these represent one of the best gambles in Las Vegas.