Thursday, December 08, 2016

Eight parts of my abandoned 18-part Vegas advice series

Nine months ago, I started writing what I anticipated would be an 18-part blog series on the basics of Vegas, alternating between general knowledge and gambling basics. After writing the first eight parts, I put it aside, and at this point, it looks like I’m going to be abandoning it. So, for what it’s worth, after a tiny bit of cleanup, here’s my abandoned draft.

1: Basic Vegas geography: The Strip and Fremont Street (“downtown” or “old Vegas”)

The Strip – Las Vegas Boulevard – is a four-mile long stretch of desert roadway fronted by 26 casinos with essentially four competing owners. The big two, Caesars Entertainment (mostly center strip, with 7 properties) and MGM Resorts (mainly south strip, with 10 properties), are frequently under fire for their tendency to nickel and dime you with fees being added and services being reduced several times a year. The next two, LV Sands (Venetian/Palazzo) and Wynn/Encore, tend to follow Caesars and MGM’s lead. A few more scattered independent properties exist (Stratosphere, SLS, Casino Royale, Cosmopolitan, Tropicana). The Great Recession hit Vegas hard, and several projects on the north end of the strip were delayed or cancelled (e.g., Fontainebleu), but some have started to show some activity (Resorts World, Alon).

A couple of miles north of The Strip, Fremont Street has seen a resurgence in the last decade, in no small part due to the arrival of’s headquarters and its CEO’s quirky philosophy about employees benefiting from community. The Fremont Street Experience light show at the west end of Fremont covers most of the tourist area, but East Fremont has really become less slummy and more hipster (or gentrified) since Zappos’ arrival. There are 11 casinos on or near west Fremont (13 if you count two tiny slot machine halls), and El Cortez on east Fremont.

The Strip is where you find the glitz, the luxury, the best restaurants, the fanciest bars, the most beautiful people, and the highest prices. Fremont Street is where you find the best gambling, the best deals, and the lowest table limits. Many years ago, someone told me that if you want to feel bad about how you look, hang out on the strip. If you want to feel good about how you look, hang out on Fremont.

A final category of casinos are considered off-strip: Palms, Rio, and the Hard Rock fall into this category. The Westgate (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) could also be considered off-strip, but many categorize it as a north strip property. Unless you’re big into sports, you probably won’t go to any of these on your first Vegas trip.

2: Basics of gambling: Money Management I

No matter what you decide to gamble on or how good or bad the odds are, good money management will positively affect your gambling more than any other thing you do. I’ve heard that there’s few things worse than losing your entire bankroll on day one of a five-day trip (although compounding that by borrowing more money is still worse). Proper money management will allow you to have fun every day of your trip.

The most important rule of money management: never bet more than you’re willing to lose. I’d expand that further by saying that you shouldn’t bring more cash into the casino than you’re willing to lose. A bad session at the craps table can wipe you out quickly. A good session can turn bad as well. You should never put yourself in a situation where you look back and say, “if I hadn’t gone to the ATM, I’d be able to pay rent this month.” In the heat of the moment, you might be thinking, “I can withdraw a little more and get back to even.” That way lies madness and worse.

When you are winning – and it happens on occasion – some people bet larger: “I’m playing with the casino’s money.” Wrong. It’s not the casino’s money. It’s yours. You can pick it up, cash it in, and bring it home. It’s your money. If you’d walked into the casino with that money, would you be playing at a higher level? No? Then don’t do it.

3: Safety: Crimes and scams:

Vegas draws everyone, from high rollers with a big craving for action and very little sense, to convention attendees who disdainfully look upon the shenanigans, to college frat boys who are here to party until they pass out, to Mabel and Henry from Backwater Flats who arrive with big eyes and golly-gee attitude, to addicts with little self-control looking for their next hit. Vegas also draws the criminal element who preys on all of them.

The tourist areas of Vegas are exceedingly safe. The downtown streets back home are almost certainly more dangerous. Police are everywhere, and casinos have their own security staff (who work closely with police) to keep bad times to a minimum. After all, Vegas is dependent on bringing tourists in, and tourists quickly avoid areas where they don’t feel safe.

So, first, stay in the tourist areas. You could probably walk from The Strip to Fremont Street, but why risk it? You’re gambling enough in the casinos. Minimize your losses outside.

Secondly, realize that anybody you don’t know who talks to you is, most of the time, looking to get something from you. Costumed characters will demand tips if you take their photo. The guy handing you a “free” CD will demand payment. The guy offering free nightclub passes will also expect a tip, and the passes will probably get you in the same line to pay for admission as everyone else (if you’re a dude) or in the same expedited line you’d be put in without a pass (if you’re a hot female). You can get bottled water less expensively and probably less contaminated-ly from the drugstore on every corner than you can from the dirty cooler on the overpass.

Third, watch your stuff. Pickpockets work the crowds inside the casinos, on crowded sidewalks, and around the three-card-monte hucksters. If you set your purse down and look away, it could disappear. It happens.

Fourth, what happens in Vegas ends up on Facebook. What ends up on the internet lasts forever. Keep that in mind, Princess Selfie.

And finally, keep your wits. The people who wants to scam you in Vegas are some of the best in the world. Don’t give them an opening. Don’t engage in risky behavior. Don’t let the booze and the lights and the spectacle take control of you.

(Bonus tip: take Uber or Lyft, not a cab. Cabs are more expensive, and when going to or from the airport, they’re notorious for taking the longer route to increase their fares.)

4: Basics of gambling: House Edge

At the simplest level, the house edge is the price you pay to play a casino game. Imagine, if you will, a $1 bet on a coin tossing game using a perfectly fair coin. Heads you win $1, tails you lose $1. You have two possible results: you leave with $2 or you leave with $0. On average, you leave with $1. The difference between what you bet ($1) and your average expectation ($1) is the house edge: 0%. That means there’s no house edge. There’s no way a casino would actually offer this kind of game, because they have to pay for their employees, the free booze, and other overhead expenses.

So, say they offer a similar coin tossing game, but heads you win $0.95, tails you lose $1. You have two possible results: you leave with $1.95 or you leave with $0. On average, you leave with $0.975. The difference between what you bet ($1) and your expectation ($0.975) is the house edge: 2.5%. In other words, for every dollar you bet on this game, you can expect to lose 2.5¢.

Let’s look at a real casino game, roulette. There’s 38 spaces, you bet $1 on one space (go, lucky number 16!), and if it wins, you get $35 back (plus your original $1 bet). What’s the house edge? 37 times, you end up with $0. The 38th time, you end up with $36. On average ($36/38 spins), you end up with $0.947. If you bet $1 on one number, each spin costs you 5.26¢. There’s a 5.26% house edge to this roulette game.

Essentially, if you know the house edge to a bet (, and you play with proper strategy, you know how much it’s going to cost you in the long run. Interested in three card poker? The ante and play bets (two bets, $5 each) have a 3.37% house edge, and the Pair Plus bet (at $1) has a 7.28% house edge. Each hand will, in the long run, cost $0.337+$0.073, or 41¢ per hand. Interested in just playing the pass line in craps? A $5 bet has a 1.41% house edge, so each shooter will cost you 7¢.

So why play any of these games if it’s going to cost you in the long run? The same reason you buy movie tickets or a video game (a 100% house edge): you’re getting entertainment in exchange for your money. It’s fun. And, in Vegas, you’re also getting a little value from the free drinks being offered (but don’t forget to tip!).

There are three games and one other possibility where there can be a beneficial house edge (“player advantage,” or “+EV” as the cool kids say). Some video poker machines, when played with perfect strategy have a very minor +EV. If you play blackjack, and if keep a good count of what cards are left in the shoe, and if you bet big when it’s a +EV game, you can have an advantage (and then get backed off by casino management, and if you’re reading this, I guarantee you didn’t really count it right anyway). And if you’re a really good poker player, or at least a better poker player than 60% of the players at your table, poker can be a +EV game. Also, “free play” or “match play” coupons can make a single bet a +EV proposition.

House edge isn’t everything, though. Imagine a situation where you can bet $5 to have a 1-in-a-million chance to win a billion dollars. That’s got a 200% edge in your favor. You should bet every penny you have to win this bet, right? No. The variance will kill you, unless you’ve got millions of dollars to churn through until you hit the jackpot.  Many games with a small house edge have a large variance (like video poker).

5: Food

There are a lot of folks who come to Vegas to whom food is an afterthought – there’s a reason that the highest grossing Denny’s in the world is on The Strip – and I’ll admit that I’ve eaten a few meals from the Showcase Mall Wendy’s and the Fashion Show Mall food court. I propose, however, that food shouldn’t be an afterthought. Many of the best chefs in the world have signature restaurants on The Strip, as do many more well-known chefs. Sure, Jöel Robuchon and José Andrés’ Bazaar Meat are on many best-in-the-nation lists, but you’ve also got Gordon Ramsey Steak, deLaurentiis’ Giada, Todd English’s Olives, and more.

On the more casual side, Andrés’ China Poblano is one of my favorite meal stops at Cosmopolitan. Natalie Young’s eat. in east Fremont is one of the best breakfasts in town, and her Chow serves up a tasty blend of Chinese and American comfort foods. Top Chef Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill has two delicious locations.

And getting super casual, Secret Pizza at Cosmopolitan serves up a great slice, if you can find it. Pizza Rock downtown does the same, and also has the best meatball I’ve ever vanquished. Also downtown, DuPars at the Golden Gate is somewhat overrated for breakfast, but that just means it’s really good, not super amazing.

Buffets are a Vegas staple, but I tend to avoid them. Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan is very good, and I’ve heard great things about Bacchanal at Caesars, but I always end up trying to eat my money’s worth, and they’re pretty pricey, meaning I eat one meal there, and I’m full for the next 24 hours. I’ve also eaten at Spice Market (Planet Hollywood), Bayside (Mandalay Bay), MGM Grand Buffet, and The Buffet at Bellagio, and while I don’t regret it, there are better choices if you plan ahead. Worth a consideration: the Chuck Buffet -- if you’re going to spend $X on a breakfast buffet, why not spend a third of $X on three different dining experiences: coffee here, a pastry there, scrambled eggs somewhere else? (Tip of the hat to the Trippies 2016 editors for this suggestion.)

Please, don’t eat at a major chain restaurant while in Vegas. I know there’s an In-n-Out over there, and there’s none of those at home, but you’re missing out on better choices. Also, don’t eat anywhere at Flamingo. Trust me on this one.

6: Basics of gambling: Money Management II, the envelope system

This doesn’t work for everyone, but it sure does for me. The basic envelope system works like this: before you leave home, allocate a portion of your bankroll for each day and place it in a sealed envelope labeled with the date it’s to be used. When you’re in Vegas, that’s the only money you have to gamble with that day, and when it’s gone, no gambling until the next day. If you have money left at the end of the day, it goes into a “bank” envelope that gets brought home. Never take money from the bank envelope.

I’ve modified this system a little bit. Depending on what I have planned for each day, an envelope will have varying amounts. Lots of meetups? Maybe a little less. Nothing planned? Maybe more. Arriving late that night? Maybe only a little bit. Also, money left at the end of the day doesn’t all go into the “bank” envelope – just half of it does. The other half gets placed in the next day’s envelope.  That way, if I have a big win, I can play a little more or a little bigger the next day while still banking a notable sum.

Others, more optimistic than I, have said they allocate $0 to the final day, but take half of each day’s leftovers and place it in the final day envelope. It seems to me that you’re risking having no funds for the final day, but it works for them, so that’s an option.

Obviously, self-control is needed for this system. But if you don’t have self-control, should you really be gambling in Vegas?

7: Comps

“Comps” are stuff the casino gives you in return for your gambling.  At my low-rolling levels, the only comps I ever see from Vegas casinos are a handful of points on my players card and discounted room offers (rarely, but sometimes at the low end joints, discounted to “free”).  A typical player’s card, the Caesars “Total Rewards” card, gives you one “reward credit” for every $5 you play on a slot machine. You can exchange 200 reward credits for $1. Thus, each reward credit is worth ½¢, so you’re getting 0.1% cash back.

Never play for comps. They’re a nice side benefit, and new players especially can get some nice “bounce back” offers the first few times, but playing a game with a -EV more than you normally would, just to get 0.1% of your bet back, is dumb.

At some places, playing a table game (blackjack, roulette, craps, but not poker) for a few hours might entitle you to a comped meal. Ask the pit boss. I’ve never played long enough in one place to ask. At the poker table, the best offer you’re going to find is $2 in food credit for every hour played.

8: Basics of gambling: Table games

It’s very, very rare to find a table game under $5. The most common table games are blackjack, roulette, craps, Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em, Three Card Poker, and Pai Gow Poker.

Cameras are everywhere in Vegas, and many of them are pointed at the table games. It’s where a lot of money changes hands, and where the opportunity for fraud is high. The casino is watching both you and the dealer. When you buy in to a table game, you can’t hand your money to the dealer. Leave it on the table instead. This prevents accusations of sleight-of-hand – passing something (like a chip or a high value bill) between the player and dealer out of view of the camera.           

Blackjack is everywhere in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, in the last decade, payoffs for a blackjack in most casinos have dropped from 3:2 ($15 on a $10 bet) to 6:5 ($12 on a $10 bet).  Basic strategy cards are available for free on the internet, and you’re allowed to print out and have a strategy card at the table with you.  Playing basic strategy keeps the house edge in blackjack well under 2%.
                [and that’s where I ended]

9: Etiquette: moseying, tipping, cameras, selfies,
10: Basics of gambling: Slot machines
11: Getting around
12: Basic of gambling: The long run
13: Shows
14: Basics of gambling: Superstition and betting systems
15: Nightclubs
16: Basics of gambling: Taxes
17: What to do besides gambling, eating, and shows

18: History

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