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=========================================   Thursday, August 2, 2001

Being the House

Hello everyone,

Here is what Andrew N.S. Glazer has to say about being the house.

 In most casino games, the house has an inescapable, long-term mathematical advantage. Of course, knowledge of that fact rarely stops players looking for action. Some of us spend thousands of hours developing skills in the few games where we can win long-term: poker, video poker and blackjack. If it is to be successful, this process sometimes resembles hard work a lot more than it does most people's idea of fun.

But wouldn't it be great if you could get in there and have your rock 'em, sock 'em gaming action and a long-term advantage without having to study for months or years?   You might as well wish for world peace while you're at it, right? Well, not really. And relax, this isn't a story about how you can become a consistent winner by buying my exclusive, super-secret $10,000 roulette system, sold only to gamblers who promise to take the secret to their grave. 

Instead, this is a story about making your money the old-fashioned way. No, not by earning it. What self-respecting gambler would want to do that? And no, not by cheating, although cheating is certainly an old-fashioned way to make money gambling.

This is about being the house.

I'm not suggesting you try to buy the MGM Grand from Kirk Kerkorian, or that you start an Internet casino. In chemin de fer, pai gow and pai gow poker, you can bank the bets while someone else is paying for the building. Whether you would WANT to be the house depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is your bankroll.

You need a big one.

Just as casinos need stacks of cash to be able to withstand the inevitable fluctuations that occur even in advantage gambling, if you're going to bank one of these games, you need both a lot of money and the willingness to risk it.

Assuming you qualify on these two points (which means, I imagine, that you either inherited your cash or made it with Internet stocks, because if you'd worked hard for it you wouldn't fling it around so easily), here's how the deal goes down.

Most American gamblers have seen chemin de fer, but not in casinos: They've
seen it in James Bond movies, because it's the European version of the game we play as baccarat on this side of the pond. While American-style baccarat is a tame, triviall easy house game, in chemin de fer you actually have to make a few strategic decisions. Not many - the rules of the game are still fixed for the vast majority of
plays - but there are a few options left to the players on certain hands.

If you're feeling like a high roller, you'll get a chance to be the bank at some point during the evening. The player to the dealer's right has the first chance to call "banco," which means he agrees to fade ALL of the action at the table (gulp!). If the player to the dealer's immediate right is sane and declines, the option passes to the player on his right, and so on, and eventually to spectators.

If you call "banco" and lose, you have the right to inflict further punishment on yourself, er, I mean, recoup your losses, by retaining the bank the next deal, regardless of who would otherwise have preference. If no one wants the whole bank, partial wagers are accepted.

Unfortunately, taking the bank at chemin de fer really isn't being the house. The rules of the game, while allowing certain optional plays, still force the players to play most of their hands perfectly, and even with a perfect performance, the bank is only a slight favorite over the player.

But because someone who cries "banco" must pay the house a 5 percent commission on winning bets, the banker cannot gain an edge on the house. The banker will win more hands thaI:l he loses, and won't face as bad a percentage disadvantage as people just playing the game. But even the most skilled banker won't, over the long run, be able to overcome the cost of the commission, because the rules prevent players from playing badly enough to give the banker an edge.

The news are better in pai gow poker.  First, you don't have to fly to Monte Carlo. It's available at casinos all over the United States. It's also very popular in the vast numbers of "player vs. player" California card casinos. (California law allows card rooms where players compete against each other but not against the house, which is why so many poker rooms exist there.)

Banking paigow poker can generate a very small advantage, IF you can find the right game. The right game is one where you're able to bank as much as possible, and where during your non-banking turns you're able to bet very little compared with the other players.   The banker has a built-in advantage of about 1.3 percent over other players, but the banker must overcome either a 5 percent rake on winning hands (in Nevada, most other casino states and some pans of California) or a time
charge (in the rest of California).

The best opportunity lies in the California games with the time charge, because a table fee can be tiny in relation to the sum you can bank. Suppose you're fading $6,000 worth of action. A 5 percent rake would cost you $300.  You might be able to fade that same action in a California card room for $2 or $3. Even allowing for the fact that you're only going to win about one hand in five ( 60 percent will be ties and 20 percent will be player wins), it's easy to see that $10 to $15 in table charges
beats the heck out of a $300 rake.

Because the rake is only charged on winning hands, and because so many hands will result in either losses or ties (also known as copies), it turns out that the rake costs the banker only about 1.6 percent. The exact number is a little higher if as banker you have only one opponent, and drops slightly with each additional opponent, down to almost 1 percent with six opponents betting more than you. A little math shows you that with one opponent you're still playing a house-advantage
game, and with six opponents who are willing to give you the bank more than one time in seven, you're playing an advantage game. You can get a slight additional edge by playing perfectly. Stanford Wong, in his fine book Optimal Strategy for Pai Cow Poker, estimates that with perfect play you can add about 0.3 percent to your edge.

In pai gow poker, each player gets seven cards, and must set them into two hands, a five-card poker hand and a two-card poker hand. The five-card hand must have a higher value than the two-card hand. For example, if you were dealt A-K-J-Q-3-3-2, you could not set your cards with 3-3 in the two-card hand and A-K-Q-J-2 in the five-card hand. If you mis-set your hand as a player, you are said to have "fouled"
and you lose automatically; If you mis-set as the bank, the dealer will correct it for you.

Most of the time, the correct play is intuitively obvious if you understand the ranking of poker hands, probably even more so than it is in blackjack.  Although this means that most players will play more than 95 percent of their hands correctly (Wong estimates 98 percent) , it also leads to trouble for players who don't bother to learn the correct plays for the other 2 to 5 percent of the time.

Trouble for them, advantage for you, IF you learn the correct plays. And if you're going to be risking the sort of money that a banker must in this game, you'd have to be insane - or have a very spendthrift attitude - not to learn the correct plays. You can easily (indeed, to have the best percentage edge, you'd hope to) fade $500 or more in action every single hand, often $1,000 or more, and for that sort of game you need a bankroll in the $50,000 range.

Bill Zender, a gambling consultant and author of two of the best books available on pai gow (Pai Gow Without Tears) and pai gow poker (Pai Gow Poker), told me that, like blackjack, pai gow was a lot easier to win at in "the good old days."

"In the early to mid 1980s," Zender said, "players were so bad at pai gow poker that someone banking could probably count on winning one hand an hour just from someone fouling, and even when players weren't that bad, they still really didn't have a good understanding of how best to play their hands. These days, most players have a pretty good idea of how to play; and truly bad players are uncommon."

Nonetheless, if you find yourself living in (or visiting) an area where pai gow poker is a new game, there might be some additional edge for you.

On the other hand (although the house cenainly helps with this), you also need to keep a very sharp eye out for cheats. Some of them might exchange cards, others might cap their bets, meaning they increase them on the sly once they have been dealt a good hand. Just as the actual house has a certain cost of doing business with such players, so too will you as the banker. Hey; who said being the house
was all fun and games?

The principles behind banking at pai gow - the original Asian game from which pai gow poker descended - are the same. At pai gow you have less worry about cheaters because it's a bit harder to palm and exchange a tile than it is to palm and exchange a card (although the capping problem still exists). It's much harder, however, to leam the correct plays with the tiles than it is with cards, because the right moves are not intuitively obvious.

English speakers looking to be the bank may also have to reckon with a language barrier. The majority of players seated at pai gow tables are Asian, and a lot of the conversation will not be in English. Because being the bank as much as possible is critical to getting an edge on the game, your social skills with the other players -  both in pai gow poker and in pai gow - are critical. If the other players like you, they will be more willing to hand the bank to you. If you're an outsider who does not speak their language, it will be that much more difficult for you to hold the bank the majority of the time. If you do speak the language and understand the culture, your ethnicity probably won't matter at all.

Even if you do pass over the hurdles necessary to become good at the game, the bank enjoys a slightly smaller percentage edge in pai gow than it does in pai gow poker, and you can never benefit from a player foul, because there is fouling in the tile game.

For most American players, the most profitable casino banking option is clearly pai gow poker. But even this winning" answer is only viable for those who have an awful lot of money.

There is another "banking" option, short of starting your own casino, and that's holding some kind of home game where you are the house. In America these days, that's most commonly a poker game where the host takes a $5 chip out of each pot in return for supplying a place to play, food, etc.

As most participants in home poker quickly realize, the host usually makes out like a bandit in such games. If the game goes late at all, the host takes at least $1,000 a night out of the game, and at the end of the year, the rake is often the only winner in the game.

Although this sounds like a terrific way for a poker player to supplement his or her income, execution of the plan involves lots of problems.

First, it's against the law, which makes the game an infinitely more likely target for police action than a private game where no one is taking a profit for running it. Police tend to view the latter as social activity and the former as illegal gambling.

How could the police find out about such a game? Any losing player's spouse is a potential source of trouble. Additionally, there are usually three or four cell phones in action at any game, as well as a cordless phone in the house, and people using cell or cordless phones have the hardest time remembering that they are on the
radio. A regular congregation of lots of cars in prime parking spaces also draws attention in a lot of locales.

The person running a home poker game also invariably takes some lumps in the form of checks that turn out to be bad. "Cash only" policies can lead to other forms of trouble. For one, players run short of money and the person running the game is left to choose between a game breaking up and the extension of credit: Cries of "I can't afford to take the risk" will both alienate the credit applicant and not get much sympathy from people who've been chipping in to give you $1,000 a night.

If somehow the game's host does get away with a "cash only" policy, the game becomes much more vulnerable to robbery.

Whether you choose to bank a home game or a casino game, it's pretty clear that opting to be the bank isn't quite a license to print money: Usually, it's a high risk, high anxiety option where you're earning every dollar you make. My view is that for someone with $50,000 to invest, there are better places to put it than a pai gow poker table. But if you want to gamble, don't want to study for years and can stand
the heat, it beats the heck out of buying 50,000 lottery tickets.

Most on-line casinos offer a sign-up bonus at the time you register with them, and often it's a one shot deal.  Sands of the Caribbean, that I consider one of the best on-line casinos, has so far offered $25 bonus every month upon your $50 deposit.

Starting August 1, this bonus is doubled to $50 upon a deposit of $100.  And you can get it each and every month.  This means $600 free cash for you per year from Sands of the Caribbean.  This is a great deal.  Make sure to take advantage of it.

Wishing you all the best,
Until next week,


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