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Best of John Grochowski
Bigger players get better games23 August 2011
My friend Jared came back from a casino trip with a question.
"Why is the blackjack different in the high-limit room than on the main casino floor?"
He'd noticed that in the high-limit room in the casino closest to his home, dealers stand on all 17s, while on the main floor they hit soft 17 — hands such as A-6 or A-2-4 in which the ace is counted as 11. Hitting soft 17 adds two-tenths of a percent to the house edge. I told him the casino was just giving its bigger bettors a slightly more favorable game.
"They can do that?" he asked. "Casinos don't have to give everyone the same game?"
They not only can do that, it's practically a casino tradition. For slot machine players, it's a way of life. Penny machines almost always have lower payback percentages than nickels, which pay less than quarters, and so on up the ladder.
That holds up in virtually every market. A quick scan of figures in the July issue of Strictly Slots magazine showed Las Vegas Strip paybacks of 89% on pennies, 91.8% on nickels, 92.2% on quarters and 93.9% on quarters. In Colorado's Black Hawk market, it was 90% on pennies, 92.9% on nickels, 94% on quarters and 94.4% on dollars. In Mississippi's North River region — basically the Tunica market — no pennies were listed, but nickel games paid 93.1%, quarters 93.3% and dollars 94.7%.
Pick a market — Atlantic City, Illinois, Louisiana. Everywhere there are licensed casinos, slot machines pay more to those who bet the bigger coins.
Other games don't ALWAYS change with the betting limits, but it's not unusual to see video poker games with higher pay tables on higher-denomination machines, and sometimes roulette tables that have the house edge cut by more than half if you go to the high-limit room.
"I think I'm going to argue with you on video poker," Jared said. "I was just out at the Palms in Las Vegas, and they had full-pay Deuces Wild on quarter machines. I didn't see anything like that on dollars."
There are always exceptions, and Las Vegas casinos that offer video poker games whose payback percentages exceed 100% with expert play are among them. Experts can coax 100.8% out of full-pay Deuces Wild. Offering that game at dollar level guarantees seats filled by video poker pros. So you rarely see it at dollar level.
In the special case of extremely high pay tables, you'll see them more often on quarter games than on dollar machines. Below that level, there's no hard and fast rule, but I often see the games that pay in the 99% range reserved for dollar play and up. One of my regular haunts has 9/6 Jacks or Better (99.5) for dollar play, but the 8/5 (97.3) and 7/5 (95.2) versions on quarter machines. That seems fairly common at casinos that draw strong high-limit play.
"I guess I can buy that," he said. "I play in one casino that doesn't have ANY quarter single-hand games, and another that has better games at dollars and $5. What about roulette, though?"
Single-zero roulette isn't common, but in Las Vegas, I sometimes find it when I check out the high-limit rooms. I don't recall ever seeing a single-zero wheel with a low minimum bet. The single-zero house edge is 2.7%, far below the 5.26 on a double-zero wheel.
"Any others? Maybe I haven't really looked, but I don't recall seeing a big difference in games like Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker, Let It Ride, or Texas Hold'em Bonus Poker."
There are variations in the games and some pay table options for casino operators to choose among, but in every case I've seen, the all of any particular game within a casino are set up the same way. But these usually aren't used as high-limit games. Take a look around high-limit rooms. What you'll find is blackjack, baccarat, sometimes craps, occasionally roulette. No Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker or other games of the type table games directors refer to as "carnival games."
"Ahhhh, baccarat," Jared said. "Isn't that the same game at high and low limits?"
The rules are usually the same, though I have occasionally seen reduced commissions on winning banker bets. But the big difference is that casinos that have baccarat on the main casino floor use mini-baccarat tables. They're seven-player, blackjack-sized tables, and the game moves very fast, often at 200 hands an hour or more.
In high-limit rooms, especially at casinos that cater to big-money play, you might find big baccarat tables, with player positions numbered 1 through 15 — normally without No. 13. The game moves much more slowly, especially when players are allowed to handle the cards.
The casino will allow slow play with the big bucks on the line, while mini-baccarat with lower minimum bets is a sprint from hand to hand.
Jared took it all in, and decided maybe the dealer hitting soft 17 on the main floor but not in the high limit room wasn't all that unusual.
"OK, I guess the house can have different rules for big players," he said. "I still wish all dealers would stand on all 17s."
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Best of John Grochowski