Monday, August 31, 2015

Up Close and Personal - Electronic Blackjack

Last week I wrote about the newly installed electronic blackjack machines at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway. Although stories in the local newspapers alluded to the fact that these machines were long-awaited and that gamblers would be falling all over themselves to get a seat, the reality is a very different story. My wife and I, who visit this racino infrequently but we do, stopped by on a mid-afternoon Sunday. While the place was not crowded there were plenty of patrons playing the vast array of slot machines available. Very few were playing blackjack machines.

The craps, roulette, and baccarat machines were full but not crowded - a normal state of affairs. Although there was some indication in the newspaper stories that there would be a bank of blackjack machines on the first floor, we couldn't locate it. On the smaller second floor however there were at least three banks of blackjack machines, none with more than a couple of people playing.

The machines are manufactured by IGT, no stranger to the gaming industry. The one we eventually played on had a "magic" theme and a headless, bodyless, white gloved dealer dispensed cards, paid off winning hands, and sucked up your "chips" if you lost. The machine itself is pleasant enough - not too many loud noises, beeps, and honks. Pretty clear prompts. The terminal itself took a little getting used to but once you realized where the dealer's cards were displayed and where your cards and the other players' cards were, it was fairly easy even though I inadvertently pressed an incorrect button 3 times in this first foray! I'm thinking that's more my fault for not paying attention than anything to do with the machine's design. My wife had no trouble at all navigating the screen.

The nitty-gritty details serious gamblers want to know about this reincarnation of what was always a table game where people faced people are as follows:

* The game is played with 6 decks that are continuously shuffled. There were never more than 4 players at our table at any one time and only twice did I see identical cards come up so, for all it's worth, without a sign clearly saying the game used 6 decks, it could have been two for all I could tell. The continuous shuffle clearly dissuades any inkling of counting anything - card sharps take note!

* Blackjacks pay 3 - 2. It's only a matter of time before the New York guys catch wind of what has been going on all over the country, so collect on these 3/2 payoffs while you can. I am sure they will soon be 6 - 5.

* Double Downs are only allowed on a first two-card count of 9, 10, or 11. Eliminating the double downs with a soft hand to a break card is a distinct casino advantage. I'll leave it to you readers to Comment on exactly what percentage that advantage is.

* Dealer hits soft 17s, a now almost universal adjustment also in the casino's favor.

* Insurance is offered but there is no surrender - a sucker bet for one and another option taken away from the player for two.

* Splitting Aces is allowed for the normal one card on each Ace - standard rules.

* Non-aces like cards can be split and hit multiple times - standard rules again.

And that's pretty much it except for a dizzying offering of two different types of side bets both designed for suckers only. An entire placard beside the blackjack layout is needed to explain these side bets and since I was not going to play them ever, I didn't read them. One side bet is called the Hot Streak and the other is called the Upcard. Use your imagination about how these bets seek to separate you from your bankroll one dollar at a time.

And then we come to stakes! Although I do not agree with this direction casino stakes are going in, the minimums keep going up. I can almost understand that playing with a live dealer $2 or $3 blackjack bets do not even pay for his/her salary, never mind the casino's upkeep and overhead. And, I have heard that the $5 game is a just about break even game in this regard. Nevertheless, when the stakes go up, the players go down and I can never understand why the casinos do not see this. Twenty people playing $5 blackjack is a bigger casino overall edge than 5 people playing $15 blackjack. There are no $5 electronic blackjack tables at Empire City Casino; at least there weren't any there when we visited. Half of one bank of machines had a minimum bet of $25 and all the others were $10 minimums.

I'm sure the casinos are not anxious to be in the education business, but for every player who learns how to play in real-life situations the casino earns another life-long player. I'm guessing that many more new players will attempt to learn the game playing at low stakes than at higher ones. There were no new players at these tables and I don't think there will be many unless they lower the stakes.

We enjoyed ourselves though. We walked away winning $305 between us, stopped for a drink on the way out and studiously avoided all the other electronic gizmos on the way out.

If you like blackjack these machines are worth a try. If you do not know how to play, try not to learn here. Get some practice at home or on your SmartPhone before risking a few hundred bucks.

Friday, August 21, 2015

When is a Racino Not a Racino?

Question: When is a Racino Not a Racino? Answer: When you can play table games there in addition to slot machines! Well, electronic table games at least.

The two New York State racinos in the New York City Metropolitan area - the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway and Resorts World Casino in Queens - have offered electronic versions of Roulette, Baccarat, Craps, and Sic Bo since they opened. Those tables get a fair deal of play although the customer trust factor for electronic craps and roulette is far less than the confidence that players have in the Baccarat games since Baccarat is and always has been a game of pure chance. Nevertheless, the racinos make money on these layouts. 

This past week both racinos made good on a legislative enhancement that went into effect last April that allows racinos to offer electronic games of "skill," which, presumably, includes electronic Blackjack tables. While not what I would call a "game of skill," in the same vein as poker or backgammon, blackjack does have a basic strategy which, in the long run, separates the good players from everyone else. One way or the other, the electronic Blackjack tables have been installed and have met with immediate success. 

 According to an article in the Journal News this past week, writer Matt Coyne ( reveals that Empire City already has two banks of blackjack terminals yielding 24 seats. Another 50 or so seats were in various stages of readiness and the short term goal is to have 200 seats very soon and up to 500 as soon as they can get the machines from the distributor. 

Resorts World has at least 60 seats in operation with another 300 or so planned this fall.

With blackjack the question always is what are the payouts, how many decks are being used, and how often are the cards being shuffled. While I do not have any information at this point if the machines are hitting or standing on soft 17s (the trend has been to hit these since the odds of improving and winning are better than not doing so for players and for the house), or on how many decks are being used and how they are being shuffled (card counting or even card estimating is almost out of the question with electronic blackjack layouts since casinos often do not reveal how many decks are in play), I do know that naturals 21s are being paid at 3 to 2 and not the nefarious 6 to 5 that has been adopted in almost all brick and mortar casinos these days. 

That's good news and if those payout odds on blackjacks remain, playing these machines will be a fair deal for decent players. One way or the other, it's a good start.

Since the legislature has approved games of skill for racinos throughout the state and since poker is almost universally regarded as a game of skill, the big question is if and when these racinos will install electronic hold 'em tables that allow players to compete against each other? Although I am not sure if they are still there, the Plaza in downtown Las Vegas had a few of these machines going and they were given fairly positive reviews. 

The Aliante Casino, a small former Station casino in North Las Vegas, has had the machines on the floor since last fall but the last time I was there (March - April 2015) they were not up and running. Many cruise ship lines use the PokerTek Website machines since they are inexpensive to operate and monitor. Review on CardsChat These kinds of tables would be an extreme improvement for New York racinos which, until recently, have had very few options for sensible, intelligent gamblers. Another Review

Although true table games have been approved for three casinos around the state, and although there are a few Indian casino options in what we New Yorkers call "upstate,"  the chances of a real Las Vegas type casino operating in the New York Metropolitan area in the near future are slim. Electronic blackjack tables are a step up; electronic holdem machines would be a giant leap for all of us.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Chip Off the Old Block

The atmosphere inside the walls of a casino is unreal, at times surreal. Very few casinos, especially older casinos, have windows that allow day light in and none have clocks in view. The idea is to block out reality and allow patrons to forget whether it’s night or day, or what time of the night or day it is.

And the tinkering with reality doesn’t stop there. Gambling in a casino means turning in your real currency for a time and using a substitute currency while you are there. What we call chips or checks/cheques or even tokens date back to the early 19th century and there a many reasons why they are still used today. Most of the reasons are for the casino’s benefit, of course. When you think about it, this subterfuge is not a whole lot different from substituting “paper” money for gold and silver and getting everyone to agree with the ruse.

 The primary characteristic of the casino chip is its uniformity. While each casino may emblazon their chips with their own distinct decoration, (casino name, location, emblem, or logo) they all are mostly of uniform shape (round), size (about the size of an old half-dollar), and weight (lighter than a silver coin but heavier than a modern one). Clearly stamped on each chip is its denomination - $1, $5, $25, and $100 – for the vast majority of chips in play. Other higher denominations are available and the highest value chips may even be larger or in a completely different shape than the common ones.

 Chip uniformity includes color and casinos basically all agree in this area - $1 chips are white or blue, $5 chips are red, $25 are green, and $100 chips are black. Values above these can be of varying shades of yellow and pink, mauve and puce, lavender and lilac according to each particular casino’s whim.

Uniformity leads to convenience, especially when it comes to counting chips. Chips are stacked in piles of twenty, each of the same denomination. In a blackjack table “rack” every twenty chip stack is separated by a clear marker. A security guard or a pit boss can easily tally the worth of the chips on any given table – stacks of $1s equal $20, stacks of $5s equal $100, stacks of $25 chips equal $500, and a stack of black $100 chips equals $2000. Higher chip values are generally separated out, kept to the center of the rack and tallied separately.
One of the advantages of this uniformity among gambling chips is that players can easily determine the worth of the chips in their neighbor’s stacks. At a poker table, especially a tournament poker table, players are cautioned to display the stacks of their larger denomination chips so that others can easily determine the value of their stacks.
 Of course, casino chips are not valued for their intrinsic worth alone – they make great toys! Watch just about any experienced gambler fiddle with his/her chip stack and you will see a demonstration of some of the best digital acrobatics ever imagined – the twirl, the thumb flip, and my favorite, the butterfly.

But, the main reason for using chips instead of legal tender is that research has proven that people gamble more freely with substitute money than they do with real money.

Our friends in the gaming industry have recently gone a step further in their quest to separate us from our money while we are still smiling. Once upon a time if you put good old American quarters into a slot machine, good old American quarters came out when you lined up the 7s. These days you insert bills, any denomination will do, and when you win the counter records your winnings – nothing tangible, nothing to hold, just wealth held in abeyance. If you are smart enough to stop playing while the counter is recording sums over and above what you first put in, you may be lucky enough to get to the cash-out machine and turn your ticket into winnings. Or you can just put it back into another machine because even though it represents money it doesn’t really look and feel like money.

 And before I leave the subject of one-armed bandits (now, of course, they have no arms, just buttons!), what about the penny machine. Years ago fun loving slot players always knew where the banks of penny and nickel machines were. At one time or another we all made that journey to the furthest corner of the casino floor where all the unluckiest players gathered to slowly recoup a grub stack after having lost the rent money at higher level slots. These days the penny and nickel machines are right out in front, rows upon rows of them. Why the change of heart on the casino’s behalf and the proliferation of low denomination slots? Once again, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. 

The 1cent and 5cent labels attract players as do the relatively huge jackpots that are offered. So what’s a few pennies? Actually, in many cases the jackpot is only available to those who press enough buttons to register 250 or so of those pennies per spin. A great many people play at this level regularly but would never think of playing a dollar machine where the jackpot is available for only 200 pennies! But, we keep coming and we keep playing so it’s not really strange that they keep changing reality for us. God only knows what’s coming next! God and Steve Wynn!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mojo, Voodoo, or Just Plain Luck!

Walk through any casino in the world and the air is pungent with superstition. Gamblers are, by far, the most superstitious group of human beings you will ever meet. They believe, contrary to every mathematical formula built into every game of chance on the casino floor, that they can influence the outcome of their play. And, don’t try to convince them otherwise! The only logic to all of these gambling antics is no logic at all.

Start at the slot machines. How many times have you seen a player, man or woman but in this case mostly women, talking to the machine they are playing?

“Come on now! Pay off! You know you want to!”

 All the while they pet and pat various parts of the machine to create good vibes. If the machine hits only once during, or soon after, this elaborate ritual, the player’s system is reinforced and will continue unabated. If nothing happens, excuses are easily manufactured and the practice continues anyway. For some slot players the charm is to play an entire bank of slot machines instead of just one. Back and forth, pulling handles or pushing buttons, this slot machine dance is well known and rather common place. Every time one machines scores, the need for the ceremony is fortified.

Craps tables are a haven for superstitious types. Read just one book about dice and the math is very clear – over time more sevens will come up than any other number followed by sixes and eights and then fives and nines right down the line. Snake eyes and box cars pay 30-1 because the odds of them hitting are a mere 1/36 or about 3%. Patterns in the short term can be very different but unadulterated dice land randomly and observant dealers and pit employees are always on the look out for scammers who attempt to physically influence the way the dice land.

 Nevertheless, the number of gamblers who throw dice in every conceivable odd manner, hoping to influence the outcome, defies logic - high in an arc, straight down and banging off the rear wall, setting the dice on the table before picking them up, pre-shakes and mini rolls. None of it makes any difference but don’t try telling a gambler that. For the shooter, his or her technique is what works and no one will ever convince them otherwise.

I once observed, and won a little money with, an old fella at a craps table in the Golden Nugget downtown in Las Vegas. He was hot, having two impressive rolls one right after the other, so much so that after he sevened-out on the second string of rolls the players around the table willingly passed the dice back to him. After another spectacular series of passes and after winning a bundle he turned to walk away and I naively asked him as he passed by if he always rolled like that. He looked at me, seriously, and said, “Only when I have my underwear on backwards!”

I tried. Didn’t work for me! Did make me kind of uncomfortable, though!!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Catching Up - Again!

Blogger's nightmare. I just spent an hour and a half writing this post and another hour and a half trying to recover it since I was writing it on an iPad and neglected to hit the "SAVE" button before I exited. Many recovery programs out there but none did the trick so here are my choices. One, quit and never write another blog post in my life or two, start all over again. How's that for "black and white" thinking! I'm starting over!!

New York Casinos - Very little new has happened since the January announcements of the three out of a possible four casinos selected to be built in NY. The reopening of bids for another Finger Lakes area casino has proceeded with very few takers and no decision as of this time. The impact of the final decision is important for the Finger Lakes region but will have very little, in any, impact throughout the rest of that state.

Interestingly enough the tribal entities in NY are not to be out done. The Oneida Indian Nation, owner/operator's of the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, NY (read Finger Lakes Region!) has announced a planned Wizard of Oz themed casino in Tyre, NY (read Finger Lakes Region as well!). To be called the Yellow Brick Road Casino, it pays homage to the hometown hero, L. Frank Baum, author of the classic "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz."

Baum was born in nearby Chittenango and the Oneidas plan to muscle in on the annual festival, called "Oz-Stravaganza" that attracts fans for all over the world. Whether or not another casino in an already crowded market can survive on festival goers remains to be seen. Certainly the closest cities, Rochester and Syracuse, do not have nearly enough people to support all the casinos that may end up there - Turning Stone, Lago (being built), Yellow Brick (proposed), and a possible fourth. If all of that does indeed come to pass the Oneidas have the edge judging from their very successful Turning Stone location.

@JGPretlow notwithstanding, the voices for online poker in NY are not being heard and any chance of this even getting to an Assembly committee is dead for 2015. Maybe 2016 will be a better year.

New Jersey Casinos - Atlantic City is breathing its last breaths. The only casino with its head above water is the Borgata which has cornered the millennial market and does a better job than most in the poker arena. The Tropicana has shown some signs of life of late but as soon as Labor Day is gone it too will sink back into the doldrums. As always, AC has more safety issues than any other kinds and as long as that remains gamblers will choose to go elsewhere.

There are still rumors of building a mega-casino at the Meadowlands. This, not rehabbing AC, is the answer to New Jersey's gambling issues but there is too much money at stake for this to be an easy decision. Once they sort out just how much of a very big pie each stakeholder ends up with, we may have a decision. Until then it will be politics as usual. Nevertheless it is hard to believe that the writing on the wall is escaping most. A casino at the Meadowlands is a complete game changer for most of the northeast. Once build, the worries about gambling dollars switches to those in Pennsylvania, New York, and even Connecticut.

Online gambling in NJ seems to be leveling off with the coming of nice summer weather. Unlike their teen and pre-teen counterparts, adults who gamble online can easily drag themselves away from a computer screen in the summer months when there are better things to be had out-of-doors. Online gambling other than poker seems to be enjoying more of a following. Time will answer any questions in this area.

WSOP 2015 - The poker tournament of tournaments has seen another successful run come to an end in Las Vegas. A mecca for poker geeks the world over, spending June and July in Vegas is a must for any serious poker player and a bunch of novices as well. This year's winners came from both camps although it seems to be getting more difficult for seasoned pros, except for Phil Helmuth that is, to come away with a bracelet.

New this year is the clamor that pros are putting up regarding input on tournament practices. Up for debate were payouts as well as structures and regular players see no reason why the WSOP hierarchy refuses to allow them some legitimate input. Worst case scenario is that the officials say "NO" to every suggestion; best case scenario is a lot of good will spreading around.

For the first time in a long time the WSOP sponsored a mid-level buy-in tournament. The Colossus was staged within the first few tournaments and with a very reasonable stake of $565 it attracted a record crowd necessitating tables being put up in very unlikely places - the kitchen for one! The game drew 22,373 players according to PokerNews and was won by a small time circuit grinder (PokerNews' words) named Cord Garcia. Garcia walked away with in excess of $600K, enough of a stake to buy back into a few other tournaments I am sure. If the WSOP people are smart they will hold this again and maybe even stage a similar tournament toward the end of the series to hold regular players around. What's good for non-pros is good for the game, right? Which brings me to the always controversial topic of women and poker . . .

Women and Poker - The likes of @KaraOTR, @katehall, and @KristyArnett and so many others have said it all, some recently, on this topic. The pathetic thing is that it has to be said at all. Poker is no more a men's game than any other game that does not have a foundation in pure physical strength. That's the difference between men and women for the most part and even that's not always true. Yet, men have a distinct advantage when it comes to strength. In competitions that involve primarily physical strength it makes sense to separate men and women so that the playing field is level. Poker is not one of those activities. Neither is chess, scrabble, backgammon, or a slew of other activities that get our competitive juices flowing. So why the sexism, and it is blatant sexism, in poker? 

The game developed in places that were not considered to be spots where decent women congregated. Saloons, bars, back rooms were all the haunts of men who, instead of pitching in and sharing the responsibilities at home, chose to go out and play cards. The modern game, the one played in casinos world-wide, grew out of this atmosphere and cigarette smoking, cigar chomping, dirty talking men were more likely than women to sit down at the few tables available. Women got their first break in poker with the internet craze since they could easily play and, if they wished, not identify themselves as women. The internet days came and went leaving behind a sometimes up and sometimes down but rather healthy face-to-face poker environment these days - a poker environment populated in the vast majority by men.

 Men are insecure; don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Some women are too but men are more likely to suffer from this character defect. The fact that a statement like that will raise the hackles of many men is the proof of the pudding. We like what is ours and we want to keep it that way at all costs. So when a woman sits down at a poker table, no matter how well she plays, no matter what she looks like, no matter if she is old or young, we resort to small talk, innuendo, and often outright insults. We don't really want them playing poker and our behavior says so. Instead we drive women away from the game just like we attempt to drive them away from the board room or any leadership position, anywhere except where we think they belong. We want to keep what is ours and we want to keep it at all costs.

It's a shame but that's the way things are. Most men will behave at a poker table in a way that tends to exclude half the human race and, unfortunately, all the assets they might bring to a game of poker. Short-sighted? You bet. It's mostly about egos, weak egos and, I'm afraid, there's little that can be done about it. 

Poker rooms I have been in are generally sensitive to the issue of women playing poker. Room managers and tournament directors, both male and female, know that a fist of hundred dollar bills in a woman's hand is just as good as the same fistful in a man's hand. The trouble usually starts when a woman sits down. The best behaved and savvy male players I have seen are what I call "regulars." These are guys, yes they are usually guys, who sit and play in the same card room day after day grinding out a small win percentage. When a new player walks up, usually a tourist, they go out of their way to make that person comfortable. If they are comfortable, they will stay. If they stay they almost always lose some dough. Sometimes these "walk-ins" are women and, for the regulars, that rarely matters. A woman's money is just as good as a man's money and if they have to set aside their petty biases and their hard nosed prejudices, they will for the sake of a few bucks. Unfortunately many men won't!

Making it difficult and sometimes impossible for women to enjoy playing poker in public is unacceptable and thank goodness there are those who speak out. What gets me is that those who speak out are usually women. Although there may be more than a modicum of male support behind the scenes, there is very little displayed publicly. When was the last time you read a male pro ranting on Twitter about inequality in poker? I didn't think so! And it's not that many prominent male poker pros aren't sympathetic to this cause. What's more likely is that they refrain from speaking out in deference to the corporate entities that pay their salaries and insist that the pros make very few, if any, waves. That's too bad because in the end this game will not survive on any level close to its pinnacle without the support and participation of women.