Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Chasing the Dragon

It's not a sucker bet when it hits!
-- Eddie B, 2001

Sitting across the table from gamblers in the casino for the past year and a half has been an education that one can't easily put a price on. I can read faces and hands so well at blackjack that when I'm dealing a single- or double-deck game, about 95% of the time I know exactly what cards people are holding before I ever turn them over. Of course, blackjack isn't poker, and people aren't trying to disguise their hands, so I don't have a practical application for this particular skill just yet. But the same thing carries over to the Pai Gow table, which is much more like poker. Every night I manage to read a few hands blind, much to the amazement of some of my players. Of course, it's nothing like Mike McD at the Judges game, but still, it's a handy bullet to have in the arsenal for when I'm trying to pick up a toke or two.

While gambling is supposed to be a fun activity, unfortunately, most of the players in the casino do not give themselves a chance to win. And not winning is not fun.

Blackjack players are the worst offenders. So many people sit down to play 21 with the self-fulfilling expectation that they will lose, and of course the casino is more than happy to oblige. Because of poor bankroll management and cluelessness about basic strategy, the casino hold is much much higher than the house edge which statistically hovers around the 2% mark. People follow hunches, they embrace the 'well, it just worked this time, so I'm going to stick with it' philosophy, they refuse to hit stiff hands against a big upcard, and they also martingale themselves into financial oblivion.

As much as I'm tempted to go off on an hour-long diatribe about common mistakes I see at the blackjack table, I will not. Scribes more gifted than I have been addressing those issues for years. I simply cannot help it if some horses refuse to drink. As a shareholder of Station Casinos, I welcome them with open arms, and if there's anything I can do to make their visits more enjoyable, well, I'm doing my best.

However, as much attention that has been given to the proper ways to play blackjack, very little has been shown to other popular casino games like Pai Gow Poker and Three Card Poker.

I deal those two games almost every night, along with some other poker variations that my bosses refer to as carnival games. Since the carnival games are mixed in with all of the Pai Gow tables at my house, we just refer to the whole area as Chinatown. And since I spend more time in Chinatown than a tea snob shopping for Oolong, I've seen thousands of people playing those games incorrectly, and only a handful of players managing their bankrolls like they've given it a second thought.

Let's talk about Pai Gow first. It is probably my favorite game to deal and to play. First of all, the pace is nice and relaxed--the bosses aren't concerned with the dealer getting out 400 hands per hour. And unlike blackjack, if somebody next to you plays their hand incorrectly, it doesn't affect the outcome of your hand in the least. The house edge is low, and with so many ties, it's a great way to spend your casino time sipping on free drinks while avoiding the peaks and valleys that can sometimes plague your bankroll on other games. And with the advent of the Fortune Bonus, along with it's Envy Bonus counterpart, the players are happy for each other when somebody makes a big hand.

It's almost the perfect game.

The problem, however, is created by the very existence of the Fortune Bonus.

As much fun as plain old Pai Gow is by itself, the opportunity to get paid off on a big hand adds another level of excitement. Unfortunately, the Fortune Bonus also has a huge house edge--as most side bets do.

If you want cold hard numbers, I would refer you to the Wizard of Odds website, but that's not my purpose here. The Wiz is all about telling people how to make save the most money. That is not my goal--I want people to be able to survive long enough to be around just in case that once-in-a-lifetime hand makes an appearance. Getting a Royal Flush at 150-1 odds is nice, or picking up your cards and seeing five aces staring back at you is even nicer, but it does you no good if you've gone broke after only an hour at the table and aren't around to collect when the big hand lands on the empty spot where you used to be sitting.

The bottom line is that the Fortune Bonus is not really a great bet--just like playing the lottery isn't a great bet. But when the Powerball cracks $100 Million, millions of people who otherwise would never play are lining up at the Circle K to buy tickets, while the self-proclaimed sophisticates repeat their tired mantra that it's just a tax on people who are bad at math. Yes, we know the odds are ridiculous. But for a buck, it's worth a little What if... escapism. The Fortune Bonus works much the same way, if only on a much smaller scale.

One thing that players don't realize, is that you'll get a hand that qualifies for a Fortune Bonus only about one out of six times. Remember that.

When I deal Pai Gow, the majority of the time I'm dealing at a $10 table. Most of the people at the table are playing the $10 minimum on their regular Play bet, and about 90% of them are betting $5 on the Fortune Bonus in order to be eligible for the Envy Bonus.

A quick sidebar for those of you unfamiliar with the game:

Everyone gets 7 cards, and you use them to make your best 5-card poker hand and your best 2-card poker hand. The 5-card hand must be better than the 2-card hand. If both of your hands beat both of the dealer's hands, you win. If both of the dealer's hands beat both of your hands, you lose. Any other combination is a tie.

The Fortune Bonus is a side bet, $1 minimum that pays you extra if you get a Three Of A Kind or better with your seven cards. Due to the Joker being an extra ace or a wild card to fill out straights and flushes, the payouts are as follows:

Straight : 2-1
3Kind : 3-1
Flush : 4:1
Full House : 5-1
4Kind : 25-1
Straight Flush : 50-1
Royal Flush : 150-1
5 Aces : 500-1
7 Card SF w/Joker : 1000-1
RF w/Royal Match : 2000-1
7 Card Natural SF : 5000-1

While two pair is a very strong hand in Pai Gow, it's also the most common winning hand, so there is no bonus for two pair. Three pair is even stronger--yet no bonus for that either.

The Envy Bonus just means that if you're playing at least $5 on the Fortune Bonus, and somebody else at the table gets a four of a kind or better, you'll get some extra money--anywhere between five bucks and $5000, depending on what they have.

I have seen five Aces at my table twice, royal flushes about once every three weeks or so, straight flushes almost every night, but I have yet to see a seven-card straight flush since I've been dealing-HM.
So most people I see every night have $15 in action on every hand. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the Fortune Bonus hits only about once every six hands on average, those people are bleeding off chips at an astounding rate, yet they don't really notice. (Notice how the most common payoffs top out at 5-1, not 6-1. There's your house edge!)

Think about it. They lose five bucks on almost every hand because they get no bonus. Even if they win the hand, their net profit is only $4.50. A winning $10 hand pays $9.50, due to the 5% commission, so $9.50 minus $5 is $4.50. Even if they win two hands in a row, but don't get a bonus with either hand, they're still down a dollar.

And all of those dollars add up over the course of the evening.

Even when they win that $9.50, what's the first thing most players do?

Anyone have a guess? Anyone? Bueller?

I'll tell you what they do--they add $2 worth of silver to the top of their Fortune Bonus, taking it up to seven bucks for the next hand.

What I suggest to my favorite players is to do this--leave their Fortune Bonus bet at $5, but increase the level of their regular bet to either $15 or $20. Why? Because they'll win a helluva lot more hands straight up against the dealer than they will ever get that wins a Fortune Bonus! So why not use the proceeds from those straight-up wins to fund that bonus bet, keeping you around long enough just in case the magic hand with a straight flush or better lands in front of you.

I see it several times a week--somebody goes broke (after donkeying away most of their chips chasing the bonus), gets up and leaves the table, and just two or three hands later, another player at the table gets something like a Royal Flush, paying $50 to everyone still sitting there playing the Envy Bonus. And unlike every other card game in the casino, a player joining the table or sitting out does not affect which cards you get each hand--all seven positions are dealt out regardless of if the table is full or not. So if you leave too early, you've absolutely missed a chance to pick up some extra cash due to someone else's good fortune. Hell, that someone else could even be you.

Of course, with any 'system' (which this isn't, it's more of a bankroll management tool) there are exceptions. You can catch a wickedly bad run of cards and go broke anyways, like I've done twice at Mandalay Bay--one time I bought in for $350 and was wiped out before the cocktail waitress delivered my first only beer. Or people can play the table minimum and get extremely lucky, catching a few good bonuses early on--where they then fall back into the previously mentioned blackjack-style It worked before, so I'm sticking with it method.

Remember, you only get the bonus just less than every sixth hand, so wouldn't it make sense to make your regular hand bet at least five times your bonus bet? As in, put five bucks on the Envy, and twenty-five on the regular bet. Of course, that takes a bigger bankroll, and if you don't have one, you are much more susceptible to a bad run of cards. So if you can't bump it up to $25 on your hand, at least take it to $15 or $20 so those times when you do beat the dealer, the wins will subsidize all of those five-dollar Fortune Bonuses.

Think of it this way, and I know it's an extreme stretch. The Fortune Bonus is the lottery, while the regular hand bet is a mutual fund. If you keep playing the lottery with too big a share of your paycheck (bankroll) you'll soon be broke. You might win a buck or two here and there, but not enough to keep you at the table very long. If you invest more in the boring mutual fund, while there is still the house edge--I know, it's a stretch--you'll have more cash lying around to keep you in the game and buy more lottery tickets with.

And winning lottery tickets are fun. Isn't that why you're there in the first place?

That is the Big Obvious Secret that nobody seems to know about. Now you know.

Now that you have that little piece of information at your disposal, I'm going to give you another one less obvious but much more valuable.

If you're playing Pai Gow, especially at a table that is less than half full, you should BANK every time you get the chance. Why? Because the house edge when the house banks is 2.73%. If you're playing one-on-one against the dealer, and you bank, the house edge goes all the way down to .20%. If there are more players at the table, it goes down further and even goes negative with the addition of two other players.

Of course, the downside of banking is that you must have a bankroll--because you're on the hook for all winning hands. However, all matched hands go to you, and all the losers pay you, not the house. (And the house still pays any bonuses). Unfortunately, nobody ever wants to bank unless they've been on a bad losing streak, thinking that they're going to get the dealer's 'good' cards.

So to get maximum enjoyment and to utilize your bankroll to the fullest while playing Pai Gow, this is my bottom line advice:

Find an empty Pai Gow table with a $20 minimum. Make sure that most of the seats are taken up by your friends--and ideally all of the seats would be filled with players you know. Play $5 on the Fortune Bonus, and $20 minimum on your hand. When it's your turn to bank, take it, and have an agreement in place with your buddies that when you're banking only two of them play against you, everyone else sits out. (Unless you have a bigger bankroll and can take a hit in the event that you get a crappy hand that loses to the rest of the table).

The house has to bank every other hand at a bare minimum, plus twice in a row after everyone else has had a chance to be the banker. And even sitting out a hand or two while your buddies take a turn banking won't stop the free drinks from coming, and oh by the way, sitting out a hand minimizes risk to your bankroll, as in, there is none.

That's it--that's all there is to it. Armed with this knowledge, and the ability to set a hand, you should be able to get the maximum enjoyment out of a day spent chasing the dragon.


The next part of the discussion involves the proper way to play 3-Card Poker. It's a much simpler game and the discourse won't be nearly as lengthy.

3-Card Poker is an easy game to play, with a potential for a big payoff every now and then. Basically, you put up an Ante bet--usually $5 minimum, then everyone gets three cards, dealer included. On the strength of those three cards, you can either fold and lose your Ante, or make a Play bet for the exact same amount as your Ante bet.

The dealer will then turn over his hand, and arrange them in order, highest to lowest. In order to 'Qualify' the dealer must have at least a queen in his hand. If he doesn't have a queen or better in his hand, the Play bet is a push, and the Ante bet gets paid even money. If the dealer has at least queen high, then he qualifies, and if the player has a stronger hand, the player wins both the Ante and the Play bets for even money. If the dealer has a stronger hand, the player loses both bets.

Easy enough, but like the Fortune Bonus in Pai Gow, there is an additional optional bet that must be made before the cards come out, known as the Pairs Plus. At my table you can bet anywhere from $5 to $100 on the Pairs Plus bet--it doesn't have to be the same size as the Ante. Where the Ante and Play are the even money 'mutual fund' bets, the Pairs Plus is the big payoff 'lottery ticket'.

The Pair Plus payoff schedule goes like this:

Any Pair : Even Money
Flush : 3-1
Straight : 6-1
3 of a Kind : 30-1
Straight Flush : 40-1

If you don't have a pair in your hand, the PP automatically loses, seperate from the Ante and Play bets. And for instance, if you have a flush, but the dealer has a straight, you'd still get 3-1 on your PP bet, but lose your Ante and Play bets.

In case you're wondering why the Straight pays more than the Flush, it's because with any three-card combination, there are only 720 ways to make a Straight, but 1096 ways to make a Flush.

Of course, you can see just how big the house edge is with the Pairs Plus bet. There are 5660 ways to get a winning hand of a pair or better, but a whopping 16440 ways to lose that bet. That's almost a 3-1 advantage overall, yet you only get even money for turning over the most common winning hand--any pair. As you can imagine, the big payoffs from the three-of-a-kinds and straight flushes don't fill in the gap. If they did, the casino wouldn't offer the bet.

But as poor of a bet as the Pairs Plus is, we're here to have fun, right? The Wiz says the proper way to play 3-Card Poker is to skip the Pairs Plus bet altogether and just grind it out on the Ante and Play, getting even money on all wins. Yeah, that's one way to do it. But gambling is supposed to be fun. If you wanted to grind out max profits at all times, learn how to count cards and go waste your life away tracking the shoe at a blackjack game. You don't need piss away all of your money with sidebets on carnival games, but if your goal is to go MIT on the casino, then your experience is going to be more like work, and a lot less enjoyable. They're called carnival games because they're supposed to be fun. Giving yourself a shot at winning a big jackpot is fun. Getting even money just less than every other hand is not. And don't tell me you wouldn't be pissed if you got a three-card straight flush and missed out on a $200 payoff because the Wizard said that It Was The Right Thing To Do.

So how does the casino get an edge outside of the Pairs Plus?

It comes from the fact that some players fold their hands when holding junk cards--a low queen or jack-high, or even worse, a bunch of low unconnected cards. And if you throw away those cards, you lose your bets. And even if you fold, the dealer still might not qualify, but by then it's too late. It's kind of like busting in blackjack, if you bust, you lose immediately. If the dealer busts, it's always at the end, after you've already lost your bet.

It's a very small edge, but unfortunately, just like blackjack, the reality is even worse than the cold hard statistics indicate.

Most of the players I see every night play one of two ways: Either 5-5-5 or even worse, 10-5-5, meaning $5 on each bet--Pairs Plus, Ante, and Play, or $10 on the Pairs Plus, and $5 each on the Ante and Play.

Those people are what is known as the Stockholders Best Friends. They pay the light bill, the labor costs, and the dividends to shareholders.

Again, they are chasing the big payoff with little regard as to the consequences to their bankroll. What they don't understand, or refuse to believe, is that they will win the Ante and Play bets at even money many many more times then they'll hit the big payoffs on the Pairs Plus. Yet they keep digging into the wallet after they burn through a hundred bucks in less than ten hands, chasing that big payoff. Sometimes it doesn't come until it's too late, if it comes at all.

I have one crochety old broad that plays a couple of times a week, and she's the absolute worst about it. She'll play $40 or $50 on the Pairs Plus each hand, with a nickel on the Ante. And after every hand, she gives me a running commentary on how much she is down for the evening.

Mikey, I'm down $600 and I've only been here a half hour. Do you think you could give me at least a flush?

Mikey, I'm down $650 now. You're killing me!

I swear I'm gonna have to pay a thousand dollars to see that first straight!

Finally I'll deal her something like a pair of Kings.

Well, it's about time. But I'm still down $700!

It's all I can do to keep from turning to her and yelling Well if you wouldn't play like such a jackass, we wouldn't have to listen to you bitch the whole time!

But I don't, I just stare straight ahead and hope she either goes broke quickly or that I hurry and deal her a monster just so she'll shut the hell up. As big a pain in the ass as she is, she's a decent tipper when she wins, so more often than not, I'm hoping she wins. But damn, do I ever earn that toke!

So what's the answer? What's the happy medium between playing like a doofuss and throwing your money away like Grandma from the previous paragraph, or grinding it out like the Wiz and having no fun?

Here's what you do. Plan on playing $25 per hand--$5 on the Pairs Plus, and $10 each on the Ante and Play.

So what happens when all three bets are the same size and the dealer doesn't qualify? If you don't have a pair, you lose the Pairs Plus, but get even money on the Ante, resulting in a push.

If your Pairs Plus is half the size of your Ante like I'm suggesting, say $5 and $10, then you'd actually make $5 per hand when the dealer doesn't qualify.

But no, most people push, or even worse, have ten bucks up front and five on the Ante, and, if they have no pair, they still lose $5 per hand even when the dealer doesn't qualify! I see it every night, and I can't believe that people haven't figured it out.

And lets take my advice to it's natural progression. If the dealer qualifies and you win without a pair, you make $20. Of course, if they beat you, you're out a green chip. But every now and then you'll pick up a straight or a flush, and win the hand at the same time for a $35 or $50 profit. That'll keep you in the game.

The object of the game, as far as I see it, is to last long enough to get a big payout on a monster hand. If you piss away all of your money chasing it and go broke, you've missed it completely. But people are greedy and stupid, and play themselves broke chasing the elusive three of a kind or straight flush with too high a percentage of their bankroll.

Again, this information is all for naught if you catch a bunch of real shitty cards early on, but I think it's the best method for maximizing your time at the table. And that's not just hanging around waiting for a jackpot.

If you're sticking around betting $25 per hand, you will get plenty of comps, and you'll definitely have more hours logged with the pit than the jerkoff sitting next to you who bets $15 on the Pairs Plus, and $5 each on the Ante and Play bets. He has $25 per hand in action just like you do, but his ass will go broke long before yours does.

So even if you never catch that big hand, at least let the casino buy you breakfast for your efforts.

Thus endeth the lesson.


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