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Best of Alan Krigman
Playing It Smart: Can you save more by betting more?14 April 2008
Some casinos are willing to trim their house advantage if you bet more money. The bosses don't offer this in a rush of generosity, philanthropy, or shameless pandering to fat cats. It's simple arithmetic. On a $1 bet with 2 percent edge, the house averages 2 percent of $1 or $0.02 per wager. If a casino attracts higher rollers, or induces low-limit folks to play for more by cutting the edge to 1 percent on $2 bets, it still averages $0.02 per wager. Assuming the 1 percent draws $5, $10, or $25 action, theoretical average profit soars to $0.05, $0.10, or $0.25 per wager, respectively. So a casino earns more by taking less, on top of the added traffic. What does this do for the players?
The phenomenon is especially common on the slots. Understanding how it works can help in selecting the best machines and modes of play. Ignorance or false notions about the effect can hurt.
As a first rule of thumb, absent any specific information about a machine, figure that edge falls as denomination rises. Representative average return percentages (and the complementary edges) might be 90 (and 10) percent on penny machines, 92 (and 8) percent at the nickel level, 95 (and 5) percent on quarter devices, 97 (and 3) percent on dollar versions, and so on.
Haplessly for heavy hitters, with rare exceptions, amounts at risk rise faster than edge falls. The bite at bettors' bankrolls accordingly increases as more money goes into play. Four quarters at 5 percent is $0.05; four dollars at 3 percent is $0.12.
The denomination rule highlights a hazard of multi-line multi-coin games. Edge on these games reflects the base betting unit. When you can play for as little as a penny on a single line, edge will be appropriate to a one-cent machine say, 10 percent. Play such a machine with 20 cents on each of 20 lines as opposed to a four-coin-max dollar game where edge is 3 percent. For the same $4 bet, edge amounts to $0.40 versus $0.12, respectively.
A second guideline is that most traditional slot machines offer a jackpot bonus when players wager as many coins as a machine will accept per pull. You may picture this as a premium you'd regret missing if you get lucky. However, raising the overall return also lowers the edge, typically by 1 to 1.5 percent. This feature leads many players to always bet the maximum number of coins.
But the "maximum coin" rule isn't absolute. A slot machine may not offer a bonus, so betting more may yield proportionally greater wins or losses but doesn't lower the edge. It's easy to tell whether a machine has a maximum-coin dividend by checking the list of returns. You might see something like three clowns paying 1,000-for-1, 2,000-for-2, and 5,000-for-3. There's a bonus on three coins because the normal multiplier is 1,000 and the expected progression would give you only 3,000-for-3. Edge stays constant for one or two coins and drops for the third.
Here again, the newer multi-line multi-coin games can snare the unwary. The payout charts on these devices are often so confusing that it's a challenge to tell whether a bonus is there or not. You'd be safe, and correct in most cases, to attribute no special benefit to playing the maximum lines, coins per line, or both.
There's another hitch. Casinos feel the impact of the jackpot, with or without the bonus, averaged over lots of action. But few individuals ever hear those bells and whistles. So most players don't hit jackpots and aren't affected by the reduction in edge they contribute. This might be 1 percent without a maximum-coin bonus and 2 percent with this extra payout. So, if you play enough and get a fair share of everything but the biggie, a game with a nominal 5 percent edge might really cost you 7 percent.
If these facts haven't scared you completely off the slots, they should at least teach you this. Decide what you're comfortable betting per spin. Then find the highest denomination game with a bonus on which you can play maximum coins at that level. Here's how the sage songster, Sumner A Ingmark, summed up the situation.
A casino that seems like it's too hard to beat owes
Its success in large part to the players who treat those
Bets as though there's no difference 'tween one-arm banditos.
Best of Alan Krigman