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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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The Tables or the Slots?

10 January 1994

In those halcyon days when the mob skimmed the cream from the top of the cash and casino cafeterias didn't serve quiche, gambling meant tables. And your station in life dictated what you played.

Craps was for men, roulette women, blackjack eggheads, and baccarat playboys. Slots were for spouses of real players, honeymooners, and Ma and Pa Kettle from Nebraska on their way to retire at the Arid Acres Trailer Park in Azusa California.

Today it's changed. Ladies shoot craps. Flo and Mo from Gooberpea Georgia count cards at blackjack. The masses teem at mini-baccarat. And solid citizens flock to the slots. More than respectable, the machines are dominant. A survey by Harrah's pegs 69% of Atlantic City's faithful as coin droppers. Casinos offer slot fans comps, clubs, and whatnot. Someone even writes books and articles saying you've got a better chance to make a day's pay at video poker than craps, although you couldn't prove it by me.

Which is for you? Say you're not already committed to one gamble or another. You've played reel and poker machines, love the action, but wonder whether tables might be more your style. Do you give them a shot? And, if so, which do you try?

In general, slots offer longshots where most players lose it all and a few hit it big. Tables give disciplined and knowledgeable gamblers a better chance at a modest gain, along with more personal interaction. Here are some more specific guidelines:

Baccarat is easy. Bet on Banker or Player, not on Tie; the dealer does the rest. You need a stake of at least $300 to ride the downswings and get a good shot at a reasonable profit at a $10 mini-baccarat table. In the baccarat pit, where minimum bets are higher, you need proportionally more.

Roulette is also easy. Put chips on the layout to bet on individual numbers, combinations of numbers, or pre-established groups of numbers like red or black, odd or even, or high or low. The free booklet offered in every casino tells you enough to play like a pro. At a $5 table, with $5 on an "outside" bet like red, and $1 each on five individual numbers or pairs, $250 affords a fair chance at a profit.

There's a right way and many wrong ways to play blackjack. The right way, "basic strategy," uses laws of probability to dictate when to hit or stand. "Card counting" is a refinement beginners can ignore. To play, get a book and memorize basic strategy. Otherwise, you're giving money away... and risk insults from other players who'll blame you for their losing cards. A $300 bankroll is minimum for $5 blackjack.

Craps is a casino's most exciting game. It confuses novices because it's fast and allows so many bets. Before trying, read a book or get someone to explain line bets, odds, and place bets. Then, watch a game to see how the bets are made and paid. At a $5 table, you'll probably want to start with one line bet, full odds, and one place bet. Forget everything else until you're comfortable with this action. Buy in for at least $500 to play this way. Some people prefer two place bets rather than one; this level of play at a $5 table calls for a $700 stake to ride through typical cold spells.

Pai Gow poker can be fun. Minimum bets are high, but the pace is slow and there are lots of ties or "pushes." Read a book to learn how to split your hand into two- and five-card sets; it's mostly common sense, but a few situations are tricky and may spell the difference between gladness and sadness. A $300 stake should be enough to play $25 Pai Gow poker if you don't bank the other players' bets. Banking is where you win or lose the big bucks in this game, but requires a large poke. As a neophyte, pass the bank.

Let It Ride and Caribbean Stud will be immediately familiar to anyone who's ever played poker. Each has simple rules, essentially indicating whether to stand or fold. Other players at the table will help you, but a $5 or $10 investment in a book and a half hour of reading time shouldn't be too high a price to pay if you're going to risk a few hundred dollars at these games. As a rule of thumb, you'll need at least $150 to play these games at $5 tables.

Avoid all the other tables. They're "house games" where the casino has too much edge.

Remember the immortal words of Sumner A Ingmark, the poet laureate of the casino scene:

Drop your money in the slot,
You may win an awful lot.
Place your bet upon the table,
Double it, if you are able.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.