I am off to Las Vegas this weekend for four nights and five days at Caesars Palace. Regular readers know that I play there regularly and have written a number of posts on my trips – primarily on the health aspects of dining out for several days and nights. This time I am writing about playing there. You won’t find much in this post about healthy eating, just what I do that passes for fun in my life.
At 78 years old, I have been playing gambling games for most of my life. I grew up on the west side of Chicago. My father owned a pool room with a poker game in back. So my earliest recollections were playing cards. To this day the only thing I do left handed is deal cards because I was so little when I started that I couldn’t hold the cards in my left hand. I had to hold them in my right and peel them off with my left. My family always played games together, including Monopoly and all the card games. So, I grew up experiencing the vicissitudes of probabilities in cards and dice.
Growing up in the ’40’s my friends all gambled. I remember pitching pennies in grade school. We would stand behind a line on the sidewalk and try to toss our penny closest to the line two sidewalk squares (about 10 feet) away. Although we were pretty much uniformly poor we always ‘played for keeps.’
Cut to – the late 1960’s I am in my late 20s working for Reuters covering the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. I wrote about what were then some of the hottest markets in the world – pork bellies, live cattle, shell egg futures. In the course of my job, I spoke to traders every day. It didn’t take long to make friends and acquaintances among my regular contacts. Many of them went to Las Vegas often on junkets. Although I was only making about $17,000 a year with a wife, child, mortgage and car payments, a trip to Las Vegas seemed like visiting the Promised Land to me. A friend explained that the junkets included free flights, comped room and food. All I had to do was give the casino $3000 worth of play. That was about what I had in the bank at that time.
I read Gambling Secrets of Nick the Greek and learned that the best bet in the casino (at that time) was on the craps table betting against the dice and laying the odds. This bet carried only a 1.43% negative return. I thought that I could cover the $3000 requirement and not lose a horrible amount of money doing that. So, I started going to Las Vegas. For the next few years my wife and I went to Las Vegas about five times a year and by sticking scrupulously to the betting play I never got hurt financially. I also got to see Ike and Tina Turner, Helen Reddy, Totie Fields, Bill Cosby among other entertainers live. Later, I expanded to card counting in blackjack with similar results.
Cut to the present. I no longer play craps or blackjack. Craps is a very social game and I found that players took it personally when I bet against them. Blackjack counters simply can’t succeed to any extent because of numerous casino counter measures, including facial recognition algorithms. I will primarily be playing video poker on the upcoming trip.
Video poker is a slot machine game in which the player chooses which cards to play in a five card hand dealt. The object is to create the best poker hand. It differs from regular slot machines in that the player gets to make decisions on each hand. Unlike regular poker, there is no bluffing and no opponent. There are no other players. You just choose the cards to hold and hit the DEAL button. The machine then flips your cards and you win or lose according to the cards that fell.
This pay table also demonstrates the basic difference between video poker and regular slots. Because you can see what the hands pay, you can figure out the odds. (Or look them up in a book or on the web.) I know that this pay table pays off 99.54% to the player. There are lots of VP games and the payoffs vary on them. For example, if the Full House payout were reduced to eight and the flush down to five, the payoff would fall to 97.3%. Once again, here is a game that can be played with a minimum of negative odds.
For the record, video poker has been called the crack cocaine of gambling. There have been people who lost everything playing it on gambling boats and in casinos. I think the seductive aspect of the game and part of its appeal to me is the order out of chaos aspect. That is, the initial deal is the chaos and the player seeks to create order by finding a winning hand that pays off and rectifies the chaos. Clearly, I am not a psychologist, just a guy who likes the game and has given its appeal some thought.
The variation of VP I play now offers five hands and if you get a winning hand, there will be a multiplier on the next hand. This makes for some very exciting draws. For perspective, a Royal Flush turns up on average once in 40,000 hands. So, they are rare.
Herewith some of the agony and ecstasy of video poker.
One last couple of ecstasy(s):