Getting Comped

Dennis E. Quillen

WE’VE ALL HEARD the expression, “the house always wins.” Does it? The evidence suggests that some casino players can consistently come out ahead. Hard to believe? Pick a casino game that has a definite element of skill and a low house “edge,” and you, too, can be paid to play a game you enjoy. I know what I’m talking about: I have enjoyed free vacations at the expense of casinos for almost two decades.

The opportunity to win more—or lose less—is available to everyone. Most casino games are “sucker” bets with a house edge of over 2%, meaning gamblers recoup less than $98 for every $100 they bet. Such games include slots, roulette and a majority of poker-like games.

Instead, you need to focus on the “good” games—the ones with a low house edge. These include blackjack, craps, baccarat, Pai Gow and a limited number of video poker games. More important, look for games of skill, as opposed to pure luck. Aside from real poker—that played in casino poker rooms—the casino game that combines both a low house edge and an important element of skill is blackjack. The house edge averages around 0.6%. Thus, for every $100 bet, a player would likely lose 60 cents over the long run. An acceptable loss, I think.

To succeed at blackjack, you need to learn the game thoroughly. Read, study, memorize and practice. During games, minimize conversational diversions and the consumption of alcohol. Pay attention to the cards and table action. Learn what’s called “basic strategy,” the ultimate playing strategy first employed in the late 1950s. Some correct plays are counterintuitive. Ignore gut feelings to the contrary. Just follow the correct play, as specified by the basic strategy card.

Casinos are expected to win in all games in the long run—and that includes blackjack. The built-in edge cannot be overcome with conventional play. So how can a player actually come out ahead?

The answer lies with “complimentaries” or “comps.” To attract and retain players, casinos can be generous in providing comps for free rooms, food, beverages, concerts and other amenities. One of the very best comps is the providing of free bets by chips or coupons. The value of these comps can easily offset a disciplined player’s modest losses.

To consistently receive casino benefits, you have to spend time playing. Casinos reward the players who risk the most. The basic formula is “playing time” multiplied by “average bet per hour.” This is how casinos measure a player’s value. Comps are based on a percentage of player value. To become eligible for comps, obtain a player’s club card prior to playing and use it for each playing session.

I’m now in my 18th year of casino blackjack play. If I subtract my very low table losses from my accumulated freebies, I am about $10,000 ahead. A fifth of my benefits include actual cash back. The remainder are the value of rooms, food and other benefits I’ve received. Result? I’ve had the opportunity for free or heavily subsidized vacations for years. I look forward to many more.

Dennis E. Quillen is a retired economic geographer and university professor. In addition to blackjack, he loves long-term investing.

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