Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Little Differences Mean a Lot

If you've been reading this column for long, you know that there are little differences within games, optional rules that make a difference in your shot to win.

You know that in blackjack you're better off if the dealer stands on all 17s rather than hitting soft 17, and you know to walk away from tables that pay 6-5 on blackjacks instead of 3-2. You know that a roulette wheel with just a single zero has a lower house edge than one with both a zero and double zero.

Throughout the table pits, there are subtle differences between games. Not all Let It Ride tables are created equal, nor are all craps tables or Three Card Poker tables. There are pitfalls to avoid, little things that might send a player in the know off to a different game, or even a different casino.

Let's check out a few:

AGGREGATE LIMITS: In table games with big jackpots, some casinos put an "aggregate limit" on winnings --- no matter how much you wager, and no matter how good the hand, the payoff can only be as high as the limit. That's most common in Let It Ride. You start with three bets in that game, and have the option during play of pulling the first two back. If you leave all three in play and hit a big hand --- well, that's where the aggregate limit sometimes comes in.

The big payoff comes on a royal flush, Ace through 10 of the same suit. That usually pays 1,000-1, although other pay tables are available. So if you make three $5 wagers and let them all ride, a royal flush brings you $15,000. With three $10 wagers, a royal is worth $30,000 --- unless you bump up against an aggregate limit.

I've seen casinos put a $15,000 aggregate limit on winnings. You'll get the full payoff if you bet $5 per spot, but not with $10 wagers.

What to do? Before you play Let It Ride, check to see if there's an aggregate limit on winnings. If there is, size your bets accordingly, so you don't have to settle for partial payoffs should that miracle hand appear.

ODDS-FOR-1 vs. ODDS-TO-1: You're at a craps table, get caught up in the excitement and just have to have that Yo-leven. (I never go with Yo myself; the house edge on the one-roll proposition on 11 is just too high.)

It's a low minimum table, with $1 propositions, so you toss out a buck. Sure enough, the next roll is 11. What do you get back?

At a casino that pays odds-to-1, you get $16 --- $15 in winnings, plus your $1 wager. But some houses pay odds-for-1, and will give you $15 instead --- your wager is included in the payoff on a table that says the 11 pays 15-for-1.

House edges on one-roll propositions are high anyway, but odds-for-1 send them soaring. On 3 or 11, payoffs of 15-to-1 leave a house edge of 11.1 percent. At 15-for-1, that edge zooms to 16.67 percent. On 2 or 12, a 30-to-1 payoff gives the house a 13.89 percent edge. At 30-for-1, the edge is, yes, 16.67 percent. Ouch.

PAY TABLES: Just as video poker players have had to learn to watch pay tables for the best deals, table players are faced with pay table variations on the stud poker-based games that have flooded the pits in recent years.

Take Three Card Poker as an example. In the Pair Plus portion of the game, the original pay table brings 40-1 on a straight flush, 30-1 on three of a kind, 6-1 on a straight, 4-1 on a flush and even money on a pair. The house edge is 2.32 percent --- one of the better deals you'll get on table games introduced in the last decade or so.

But casinos have several options on which pay table to offer. Worst for the player is one that is the same as the original on all hands but one: On flushes, it pays only 3-1 instead of 4-1. That one small change more than triples the house edge, to 7.28 percent.

Nearly every poker-based table game that includes a pay table has such variations. In Four Card Poker, which has been gaining popularity and floor space in the last year, the best pay table on the Aces Up bet returns 50-1 on four of a kind, 40-1 on a straight flush, 9-1 on three of a kind, 6-1 on a flush, 4-1 on a straight, 2-1 on two pair and even money on a pair of Aces. The house edge is just 1.98 percent.

The worst pay table actually gives you a little carrot by raising two pair to 3-1, but then hits you with the stick of dropping three of a kind to 7-1 and flushes to 5-1. As in Three Card Poker, the house edge more than triples, this time to 6.15 percent. In between, there are several other available pay tables.

What's a player to do? Learn the best pay tables. If you're not getting the top of the line game, think twice, or three times, before betting your money.

By John Grochowski

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