In a previous article I explored how to mathematically evaluate the results of any given casino game that the player is attempting to gain an advantage over. In that discussion I explored how one can relate their theoretical win with their actual win. From this we were able to determine whether our results, good or bad, were in range of the standard deviations of gaming theory. The application was then able to be spread across any game in the casino. It was a universal approach.

The purely mathematical evaluation is vital to determine whether or not we are a consistent winning player, yet it is only one variable in a multivariable equation, or when you ask yourself “Am I truly beating the casino?”

Here I will review some additional factors that need to be considered when asking that question. Some will be obvious, while others are not so straight forward. 

What to Review

Here are just a few important things you should ask yourself when doing a postmortem of a trip. 

●    What are the financial advantages and disadvantages of the game besides the theoretical edge?
●    What is the casino offering me to come and play there?

These can take the form of comps and promotions associated with playing at a particular venue. There is nothing theoretical about getting $100 cash in a promotion. These promotions will come via mailers after your first one or two trips and usually within 90 days of visit.

When the mailers come will vary from property to property and what they offer will also vary. Some properties offer a complimentary room and a food allowance, while others will give you a room and promotional chips. In some cases they may even offer you show tickets. The point is that the comp system varies for each resort. 

Another aspect to consider is how friendly are the dealers and the pit? Are they consistently searching for advantage players or are they relaxed? What is the aesthetic experience?

You have to put a value on "fun" and "pleasure" because you would otherwise spend time (and money) doing something else like watching a movie, going to a club, or traveling to another destination. These are the things that the casino marketing team thinks about, so you have to think about them too.



The Costs of Playing

Next you have to consider the expenses of playing. What are the real costs? This includes travel, lodging, food and other incidental expenses besides the cumulative price of the house edge.

Usually the proximity of the casino plays a huge role in determining whether or not a game is worth playing. Driving more than an hour or staying in a non-complimentary hotel often negates a game’s theoretical advantage. An edge of less than 1% at moderate stakes is oftentimes swamped by the value of a promotion or the simple advantage of playing in a casino that serves great but expensive food.

This means you shouldn’t ignore edge calculations and just play without a strategy. Should you accept whatever rules are forced on you by the greedy casinos? No. But don’t base your decisions entirely on theoretical advantages. Be honest with yourself about the real peripheral costs and advantages of giving a casino your action.

An extreme example of this occurred when I was playing blackjack in Europe. The house edge was 0.62%, but that didn’t include the fee of €10 for getting into the casino, or the 12% conversion fee charged by my bank for changing dollars into euros and then back into dollars (about 6% each way).

Strictly speaking, I would have been better off going to a local casino and running my money into a Wheel of Fortune slot machine. On the other hand, I was in Europe for business anyway. And a casino just happened to be close by. 

For a more local example consider this; If you had to drive two hours to play at a casino near San Diego then the following would have to be considered. Drive 150 miles one-way or 300 miles round-trip at 30 miles per gallon, and each gallon costs $6. That’s $60 in gas, not including the value of my time, nor food, nor wear on my vehicle.

If my average bet was $200, then after four hours I might be able to squeeze out $240 in average gross profit with a 0.5% positive edge. Or $200 net, assuming the tap on the shoulder never came. Or it would be -$40 if … well … you get the picture.

If we stay in our home base near Los Angeles, all the games use continuous shufflers and casinos charge a vig (fee) per hand. Sounds awful, right? But wait, you can play/bank the dealer’s hand! That’s right. You can bank the blackjack dealer!

So, the effective edge can be solidly positive, up to 2%. It varies depending on the skills of the players, the size of their bets relative to the vig, the size of your bets when you play against the dealer, and how often you bank. Let’s be conservative and say the positive edge is effectively only 0.5% and my bets are $200. Then L.A. beats Barona. No counting required. Even if it’s 0%, L.A. beats San Diego in some circumstances.

In other words, basic edge calculations are just the beginning. Those numbers are only one factor to consider when you choose to play or pass.

bj play


A Quick Review

Now that we have an understanding of the numbers are away from the game, let's quickly review what to look for at the blackjack tables. Ideally you should scout the tables before you sit down to play. Make sure the game you are playing pays 3:2 on player blackjacks. Rare as it may be, there are a few casinos that now vary the game from table to table (the Four Queens in downtown Las Vegas is an example of this).

Know the rules and seek out the best combination you can possibly find. Stick to games that allow DOA and DAS. Ideally you should be able to split and re-split Aces up to four times. If you have a choice, stick with S17 versus H17 and play games that offer late surrender and use it when necessary. 

Be sure you know the table minimums before you sit down to avoid overplaying your bankroll and to save yourself some embarrassment. Know how many decks are offered. Most casinos offer a choice; generally two or six decks. Know which one you want to play before-hand. If there are only a couple of tables offering the number of decks you want to play, be prepared to play the other game or to walk-away.

These are decisions to make before you enter the casino. Assuming equal rules and payouts, the fewer the number of decks the better. Play in manually-shuffled games rather than games dealt with an automatic shuffler or the uncountable, speed-demon, continuous shufflers. 

There you have it. These are the basics on what to look for in evaluating a casino for blackjack play. As discussed other factors like geography, whether pit personnel will rate your action (and how accurately), players' club promotions, comps, future mailers, loud music, and comfort level with other patrons are factors too. I'm sure you can probably think of a few others to add to the list. 
Here I have covered many of the factors I take into account when evaluating my play. You may have more or less but, each variable of the multivariable equation needs to be evaluated and combined.

The object here is to get things down to one number. The higher the positive number the better it is. The easiest way to evaluate the total play is through a spreadsheet. Make a column for every variable that adds to or takes away from your trip totals. And then simply use a sum function to determine where you stand.

As you take more trips to various casinos your totals will increase not only because your number of hands increase but because you are also learning how to play the comp to a higher advantage. 

Nicholas is a 17 year veteran of the casino gaming industry. He is former player manager with the infamous MIT Blackjack teams and is a regular attendee of the Blackjack Ball, a gathering of the world’s top professional gamblers.

He is the Managing Director of the Alea Consulting Group, a leading gaming consultant company with a focus on gaming economics and, is a frequent contributor to world class business publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines’ and over 15 gaming trade publications. He is also the founder of Casino Exploits a player centric casino gaming site.