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Best of John Grochowski
How to Double Your Money at the Casino10 May 2005
It was dinner time at Gary's Buffington Harbor casinos, and I was on the down escalator, headed toward Koko Taylor's Blues Café. On the escalator going up was an older man in a jacket and tie --- an unusual sight these days given that he wasn't wearing a casino ID.
From the look in the man's eye, I could tell dinner was going to be a few minutes late even before he called out, "Hey John, got a minute?"
"Sure," I said, and waited at the bottom while he finished the ride up, then changed escalators.
"I have a hypothetical question for you," he started. "My partner and I have been hashing this out for days, I think. If you needed to double your money by tomorrow, what would you play?"
I told him I hoped this "need" really was hypothetical. Gambling with money you need is bad news. Necessities of life come first; gambling money should come out of the entertainment budget.
"Of course," he said. "Maybe 'need' is the wrong way to put it. But if I wanted to double my money, what would I play? I'm thinking the game with the lowest house edge, so I'm saying blackjack, but my partner says craps would be better."
I stayed in cautionary mode. In any game in which the house has a mathematical edge --- and with rare exceptions for skilled players, that's all of them --- you're more likely to lose than to win every time you play.
"I understand all that. Chances are I go broke. But let's say this is money you don't need. If you lose it, it's no big deal. But if you double it, you can get something you really want. Then what is it? Blackjack or craps?"
It was time to answer the man's question, but first I had one of my own. Was it enough to NEARLY double the money? If he started with $100, was it OK to walk away with $195, rather than $200?
"Sure, that's OK," he said. "Close enough for me."
Then I'd play baccarat, I told him, and put all the money on one hand, betting on banker.
"Why baccarat?" he asked. "I figured it would be better to bet on one of the games with a low edge."
Baccarat has a low house edge of its own, I told him, at 1.17 percent on banker or 1.36 percent on player. That compares favorably to the 1.41 percent on pass and 1.4 percent on don't pass on craps, or the 2 to 2.5 percent edge against an average blackjack player. It's higher than the house edge of half a percent or so, depending on house rules, against a blackjack basic strategy player, or the craps combination of pass plus free odds (0.8 percent with single odds, 0.6 with double odds, 0.3 with 5x odds, 0.2 with 10x odds).
"Well, let's say I know my basic strategy, or I start with just about enough money to manage 5x odds with a $5 pass bet. Now which do you play?"
Still baccarat. It has one thing going for it that neither blackjack or craps have.
The banker bet at baccarat wins more often than it loses. That's not true at either blackjack or craps. It's close, but on any one banker bet, the more likely outcome is that you win. In the long run, bettors still lose overall because they have to pay a 5 percent commission on winning bets --- that's where the house gets its edge.
But we're not talking about the long run here. Either you double your money, minus the commission, or you lose it. You have better than a 50-50 shot.
"But still, wouldn't it be better to bet lower, and take lots of chances at catching a hot streak, that to bet it all at once?"
If I'm out for a day at the casino, then sure, it's better to keep my risk at a minimum. I've been warning people for years not to overbet their bankroll. If you bet everything at once, you risk being done for the day in one hand.
But the more hands I play, the more chances the house edge has to work against me, and the more likely it becomes that my end result will approach the long-term expectation for the game. If I'm betting $5 at a time at blackjack, I'm going to need a heck of a hot streak to double $100.
For the specific situation of trying to double your money, while being willing to leave with nothing, your best chance on any game with a house edge is to bet it all at once. Now, if you're a card counter and have the mathematical edge in your favor, it all changes. Then you want to give the math a good, long chance to do its stuff.
"One question. Would YOU play that way, betting it all at once?"
No way. I'd rather have some fun and play a while and not worry about doubling my money.
"Somehow, I knew that was what you'd say."
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Best of John Grochowski