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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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There Are Games in Which You Don't Want to Break the Bank

2 October 1995

ould you like to sit in the casino's catbird seat? Act as banker? "Book" everyone else's wagers? Enjoy an edge over the bettors? You can. Without owning the casino. Two ways, in fact.

You can bank chemin de fer, a European form of baccarat offered at a few casinos in the US from time to time. It's a two-handed card game, one "Banker" vs multiple bettors on "Player." Fixed rules govern the action, yielding 45.8 percent probability that Banker prevails, 44.6 percent that Player wins, and 9.6 percent that they tie. These figures explain the edge: the Banker expects to win 458 and lose 446 hands per thousand. The casino doesn't participate, but takes a commission usually 5 percent from what the Banker collects.

You don't have to know the rules to play; it's on auto-pilot. But chemin de fer is a high-roller affair; solid citizens who need to ask what to do probably can't afford to do it.

Coming a bit closer to reality for most folks, you can also bank pai gow poker. This card game is offered at most casinos, with wagering limits appropriate for mid-level players.

Pai gow poker uses a deck containing the usual 52 suspects plus a joker. Participants each receive seven cards which they divide into two-card (front) and five-card (back) hands, ranked according to "poker value." Four rules apply to setting and ranking. 1) Front hands are either pairs, or unrelated cards ranked by numerical values; there are no two-card straights or flushes. 2) The joker is only used as an ace or as a wild card to complete a straight, flush, or straight flush. 3) The five-card hand must have a higher "poker value" than the two-card hand. 4) A-2-3-4-5 is the second-highest straight, below A-K-Q-J-10 but above K-Q-J-10-9.

To win, both your front and back hands must beat those of your opponent. If one hand is better and the other worse, it's a "push" and nothing is won or lost. Equally-ranked hands are "copies." When a copy occurs, the Banker's hand beats the bettor's. This is the source of the Banker's edge. With skillfully set hands, the theoretical probability of a copy is about 2.5 percent. Half the copies should win for the Banker and half should push, so the Banker's edge over the bettor is roughly 1.25 percent.

In addition to the mechanics of dealing and handling money, the casino performs three functions at pai gow poker. 1) The house acts as Banker, either in turn or when no players at the table elect to do so. 2) It acts as a bettor if the Banker so desires. 3) It takes a commission, normally 5 percent, from all winning bets; the fee charged against Banker action is on the net proceeds of the round rather than on individual winning wagers.

The benefit of banking chemin de fer and pai gow poker lies in being favored to win over the bettors. And this edge applies to multiple bets because it covers all participants in the game.

A limitation is that the bank is offered to players in turn; it's necessary to have played at least one bettor's hand before becoming eligible to bank. Also, everyone knows (but forgets) that an edge doesn't guarantee a win; one poor card at chemin de fer or weak front and back hands at pai gow poker can cost the Banker a pile.

Here are guidelines to help get the most out of banking chemin de fer and pai gow poker. 1) Don't take the bank without enough of a stake so a total loss won't knock you out of the game. 2) If your stake is adequate, take the bank as often as you can. 3) Wager as little as possible as a bettor when the edge is against you.

And, bear in mind the admonition of Sumner A Ingmark, bard beloved by bankers of bets:

You can corner an edge by banking all bets,
And win more than you ever expected,
But you need enough cash to pay off your debts,
On the hands that you wish you'd rejected.

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.