A Sin City gambling guide for beginners and pros
by Basil Nestor
Planning a trip to the Neon Oasis? You’re in good company. Nearly 40 million people visit Las Vegas every year. It’s the big enchilada, the granddaddy, the iconic place where gambling is defined. Players come from everywhere to take their shot in this desert town. And for good reason. Clark County (where Las Vegas is located) has some of the loosest slots on the planet. Ditto for high-payback video poker, beatable blackjack, and other low-edge or no-edge gambling games.
But you must choose carefully. Las Vegas is also filled with a lot of bad deals and unfavorable rules.
And while you’re trying to sort it out you’ll be distracted by castles, palaces, a pyramid, a pirate ship, a replica of the Eiffel Tower, strip shows, miles of neon, wacky museums, chic clubs, and so much more. It’s all a beguiling plan to draw you in and get you playing. Frankly, being tempted is a lot of fun!
But if you give in to every sparkly thing that catches your eye, then the fun soon will be over and you’ll be just another Las Vegas cliché.
So here is a handy guide to help you keep the fun going and avoid a bankroll blowout until the plane, train, or automobile takes you back to the real world.
|Vegas by the Numbers
About four out of five Las Vegas visitors are repeat customers. That’s a lot of experienced players coming back again and again. Here is an average trip for one of those vacationers:
|Average stay||3.5 nights|
|Average gambling budget per trip/per night||$627 / $179|
|Average hours of playing per day||3.6|
|Portion of players who gambled downtown, on Boulder Highway, or North Las Vegas||38% / 9% / 7%|
|Portion of players with lodgings off the Strip||26%|
|Average room price per trip/per night (include single and multiple occupants)||$350 / $100|
|Average food and drink expenses per trip/per night||$249 / $71|
|Average shows, shopping, sights expenses per trip/per night||$438 / $125|
Dollar amounts are per person unless otherwise indicated. Source: Las Vegas Visitor Profile 2005—Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority
Obviously, the length of your trip, where you stay and play, and your other choices will be based on your personal preferences and your budget. But these numbers help you to see if you’re spending more in some areas than the average, or maybe squeezing your budget too much.
Note that most visitors stay on the Strip, but many of them spend at least a portion of their time gambling off the Strip. This is an important trend that we’ll talk about in the next section.
Also note that the national average room rate last year was $91. Most Las Vegas visitors spend a bit more ($100 on average for dancing waters, volcanoes, and such). But they spend most of their budget on food, shopping, entertainment and playing. The biggest single expenditure is gaming. After all, this is Las Vegas.
Toto, We’re not in Kansas Anymore
Even if you’re an experienced player, you’ll find that gaming in Las Vegas is very different from gaming elsewhere because casinos here are so close together. For example, with a little planning (and some strong coffee) it would be possible to visit 50 different casinos in Las Vegas and play 50 different blackjack games in a 24-hour stretch. That is simply impossible anywhere else on earth.
Aside from establishing a world-record, what this means in practical terms is that you can shop for games. You have plenty of selection. You’re not stuck with one riverboat, one casino in the woods, or a small handful of properties clustered together. You can walk across the street and find dozens of other competing casinos sitting in a row. But this also means that you must be willing to leave a game and look for something better if you want a better price.
Put on Your Sneakers and Get a Map
Specifically, the most beatable games in Las Vegas are generally not found in swankier casinos on the Strip. You’ll find better pay tables and softer games in smaller and older Strip casinos, and in properties off the Strip. These include casinos in downtown, on Boulder Highway, and in North Las Vegas.
So put on your walking shoes, take the monorail, grab a cab or a rental car, and get around to various properties.
By all means, visit palaces like Bellagio, Venetian, and Wynn. But if you want to find more beatable games, set aside time for properties such as Stratosphere, Sahara, Texas Station, Sam’s Town, Four Queens, Arizona Charlie’s, Riviera, and Tropicana (to name just a few). If you have only three days, give the palaces one day, and explore the rest of Las Vegas on the other two days.
Bankroll, Strategies, and More
If you’re an experienced player, you’ll be familiar with many of the following items, but it never hurts to do a quick review (and we cover advanced strategies in the next section). If you’re a casual player, or you’re gambling for the first-time, this stuff is for you.
Game Strategies: Every gambling game has an optimal strategy, even slots. And it pays to learn the strategy. You may not be able to erase the casino’s advantage in every situation, but knowing the right moves gives you a better shot at winning. So you should buy a good strategy book, or maybe a few. Use those strategies, and they can save you hundreds of dollars in just one trip. Of course, my favorite books are the ones I have written. These include Playboy Complete Guide to Casino Gambling, The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, and other books in my Smarter Bet series that cover slots, video poker, craps, and poker.
Here is a real-world example of how optimal strategy works. In blackjack, let’s say you make a $20 bet. After the cards are dealt, the dealer shows an ace, and you have a “hard” 16. What should you do? The right move here can pay for the price of a book (the correct play choice is to surrender, or hit when surrender is not offered).
Games to Avoid: Some casino games are extremely stingy and should be played only for small stakes; let’s say only a buck or two at most, if at all. These include the big wheel (which is a large spinning upright wheel that will remind you of a carnival attraction), live “big board” keno, coin toss machines (games where you drop a coin hoping to get more coins to drop), and slot games in airports and convenience stores. All these contests are tight. Don’t waste your money except to satisfy your curiosity.
Games to Play: Table games such as blackjack, baccarat, roulette, craps, Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker, and pai gow poker, are the best games to play from the perspective of using strategies and lowering (or erasing) a casino’s advantage.
Slots are easier to play than table games, but they tend to pay back less over time compared to tables. The essential attraction of slots (besides their convenience) is that you can bet in increments of dollars, quarters, nickels, or pennies. But keep in mind that slot games cycle through money much faster than table games, so $1 or 50 cents per spin on a machine is often comparable to $10 per hand at a table.
In many ways, video poker offers the best of both worlds. It has the convenience of slots combined with the higher paybacks and strategy options of table games.
Ultimately, you should play what you prefer, but if you want to bet in chunks of a dollar or more, then your best value will be at video poker or the tables.
Bankroll: As we noted previously, the average visitor’s bankroll expense is $179 per day, and the average play time is 3.6 hours. To be on the safe side, you should budget at least $250 to $300 per day. With that amount you can play just about any game in town at the minimum levels ($5 or $10 per hand at the tables and $1.25 or less per hand on the machines) and your money will last comfortably up to about three hours unless you are extremely unlucky. And of course, you may hit a windfall along the way. If you want to double or triple your bet size, then simply double or triple your bankroll budget. And remember, if you reach the end of your bankroll, stop playing!
Handling Money: The easiest and cheapest way to fund a bankroll is to bring cash with you from home. Be safe, and don’t carry amounts beyond your comfort level, but if you can carry cash, then do it.
The next step down in convenience and economy from folding money is an ATM/debit card. The major drawback is the fee per withdrawal. Expect about double the cost that you would pay at home.
A credit card is absolutely the worst way to bankroll your session. The service fees per transaction are exorbitant, usually about 3 three percent to 10 percent of the amount advanced. Of course, you must pay interest on the money, and the credit card company may charge a cash-advance fee, too.
If you want to wager amounts over $1,000, and you don’t want to carry cash, you can wire money to a casino or set up casino credit accounts tied to your checking account. Casino credit is free. For details, talk to someone at the casino cage (the bank-like area where money transactions are conducted).
Strategies for Experienced Players
Since you have played elsewhere, we’ll jump right into the finer points of Las Vegas game strategies, and let the jargon fly.
Blackjack: Avoid games that pay 6:5 for naturals. Look for 3:2 payouts. The edge difference is huge, about 1.37 percent. If a particular casino has only 6:5 payouts, that is an excellent reason to cross the street and try elsewhere.
Video Poker: Don’t settle for anemic pay tables. This includes anything less than 98 percent payback. The town has plenty of “full pay” and NSU machines, but you have to look for them. On the Strip, they are often in dollar denominations and higher, but good quarter machines can be found at properties such as Arizona Charlie’s, Las Vegas Hilton, and Suncoast.
Poker: Las Vegas has some of the toughest tables in the world. This is particularly true at the “legendary” rooms such as at Bellagio and Mirage. Don’t let this discourage you, but just be realistic about your competition. If a table is too tight or too wild, then change tables or change casinos. Softer tables can be found at less glamorous venues such as Circus Circus and Stratosphere. If you like playing with celebrities, check out the Palms. There are no guarantees that you’ll see a familiar face, but the poker room is popular with the glitterati.
Craps: Standard odds are 3-4-5 on the Strip and elsewhere. Take a walk if you’re getting anything less. Some off-Strip casinos such as Four Queens, Las Vegas Hilton, and Sam’s Town offer 5x or better.
Other Games: You’ll find that paybacks in Las Vegas can be as good or better than anything you’ll find at home. But again, don’t be seduced by the glitz. Keep moving like a shark.
And of course, all the standard comp tactics apply. When you find a casino you like, join the players club, use fun books, and get the most from every dollar you risk.
Remember, Las Vegas is a gamer’s paradise. And the pleasures of that paradise will last longer when you use the right strategies and a bit of discipline.
Enjoy the game!
Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.
A Sin City gambling guide for beginners and pros.