Maybe you ve had a good night or two at the casino sometime in the past decade, but it s the house that s really hit the jackpot. Visitors gambled and lost more than $34 billion at U.S. casinos in 2006, up from about $17 billion in 1996 not that the casinos are passing much of that growth on to consumers. While the odds always favor the house, some casinos are changing the odds and payouts on table games to be even more in their favor.
Take blackjack. Instead of the traditional 3-to-2 payout which means a player betting $20 would get $30 some casinos are now paying 6-to-5, effectively reducing the payout by 20 percent. And almost every casino now uses multiple decks, stacking as many as eight in a single sleeve, which makes it harder for gamblers to keep track of which cards have been played. In perhaps the most significant shift, an increasing number of casinos don t allow the dealer to hold on soft 17, the term for a 17-point hand that includes an ace. Continuing the hand improves the house s odds by about 0.2 percent. It doesn t sound like much, but on a table that sees $100,000 in wagers on a given day, that adds $200 to the house s take.
Comp cards have become increasingly popular at casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere. They work like frequent-flier miles, offering customers a chance to earn free lodging, food, and other extras each time they spend money at the casino. For casinos, the cards are a valuable tool in building brand loyalty, says Gary Loveman, chairman and CEO of Harrah s Entertainment. But the spending bar is usually high for most of the rewards, and since the games favor the house, odds are a gambler will lose money while racking up points.
On a recent visit to Vegas, SmartMoney signed up for an MGM Mirage Players Club card. After 90 minutes on a Treasure Island casino 5-cent slot, we had enough points for a free T-shirt woo hoo! but we spent $85 in the process.
While ATM fees are creeping up everywhere, perhaps nowhere are they higher than at casinos, where access to cash is king.
At Atlantic City, N.J., casinos, many cash machines double the average usage fee for most out-of-network ATMs. It s roughly the same at Vegas casinos. And if you want to use a credit card for a cash advance, the fees are even higher: Some machines charge a $2.95 fee and 3.5 percent of the amount withdrawn, while others charge a flat fee ($29 on any withdrawal between $401 and $500, for example). That s anywhere from a 5.8 to 7.2 percent tax on your withdrawal on top of any interest your credit card might charge.
How to avoid the fees? Obviously, try to fuel up before entering the casino. Or bring your checkbook: Many casinos cash personal checks for free.
Taking a cue from retailers, casinos often circulate oils and scents through their ventilation systems to try to put gamblers in a good mood. At 500,000 square feet, the gaming/hotel section of the Mohegan Sun complex in Uncasville, Conn., is the largest scented building in the world. It has more than a dozen different smells circulating within its walls, says Mark Peltier, cofounder of AromaSys, the firm that installed the system. And The Venetian casino in Las Vegas, also an AromaSys client, circulates an array of herbal scents, including lavender, throughout the casino floor.
Why the olfactory overload? It s generally believed that people will stay longer and therefore spend more in a place with a pleasant smell, says Peltier. The scents have no known harmful side effects, but be aware that it might be more than just the free drinks making you feel so happy-go-lucky.
Casinos often advertise that their slot machines pay out a very high percentage of the money they take in, 95 percent payback being a common claim. But the numbers can be misleading. Advertising 95 percent doesn t mean that all the casino s slot machines are paying out at that level all the time. While it s true that each slot is programmed to return a percentage of the money players feed into it anywhere from 83 to 99 percent over a long period of time, says Jeffrey Compton, a gaming analyst at Compton Dancer Consulting not all pay out the same percentage. So at any given point, some machines pay out nothing while others pay out much of their take. To arrive at the 95 percent figure, casino management simply limits the scope of its claim to a subset of slot machines that will deliver a 95 percent payout.
State gambling regulators will punish any casino they discover advertising a particular payback on its slot machines and returning less. But again, the regulators are looking at a very long time horizon. So don t be fooled by the casino s marketing efforts. If you feed $100 into a slot machine on any given day, there is no guarantee that you will get $95 back.
Think you re saving money by playing the penny slots? Think again. Slots and video poker machines with lower denominations have lower payouts than their more expensive cousins. The reason? The house takes in a lot more money on higher-value machines and wants to draw customers to them, says Rick Santoro, executive vice president of asset protection and risk management at Trump Hotel Casino Resorts.
The Argosy Casino in Lawrenceburg, Ind., is typical of many gambling houses in the U.S. In July 2007, for example, Argosy kept almost 12 percent of the $34.3 million that customers wagered at its 345 penny machines. But at its 84 $5 machines, the house kept just over 4 percent of the $52.4 million that was wagered, paying out the balance in both cases. So customers, on average, got a much better payout percentage at the $5 machines than they did at penny machines.
Contrary to popular belief, you are perfectly entitled to keep track of how many aces are left in a six-deck blackjack game by using just your brain. If you re good at card counting, you re a casino s worst nightmare. Nonetheless, There s nothing against using what God gave you to make you a better gambler, says Cory Aronovitz, founder of the Casino Law Group.
Still, while a casino can t have you arrested for counting cards, that doesn t mean it can t make things extremely uncomfortable for you. Casino employees have been known to change the rules in the middle of a blackjack game or even spill drinks on players to deter card counters, according to I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law expert at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif. In some states such as Nevada and New Jersey, casinos can also ask a guest to leave for any or no reason. If you refuse, they can have you arrested for loitering.
At many casinos, employees can legally detain anyone if they have probable cause to suspect a player is cheating or causing a disturbance. If the police get involved, the law often takes the casino s side, say lawyers and civil rights advocates, even if it appears that the casino has overstepped its rights.
In October 2002, Raymond Cagno was having a field day playing blackjack at Las Vegas s El Cortez casino. The dealer was inadvertently showing both her cards (only one of the dealer s cards should be visible), increasing the odds of winning at her table. When casino personnel noticed the error, they asked Cagno to stop playing. It is not illegal to profit from a dealer s mistake, but when Cagno got up to leave, the security guards grabbed him, handcuffed him, and took him to a security holding office. After some heated back and forth between Cagno and the guards, police were called. The officers arrested Cagno for disorderly conduct based, they said, on a complaint from an El Cortez security guard. Cagno was initially convicted, but he appealed, and the conviction was overturned. Later, Cagno s civil suit against the casino was settled for an undisclosed amount. (The El Cortez declined to comment.)
Although most casinos today are run by corporations, the business has a lingering reputation for attracting shady characters, and sometimes it s not hard to see why. Consider what happened in Rosemont, Ill. In 2001 state gambling regulators stopped Emerald Casino from opening a riverboat casino in the Chicago suburb, claiming that some of the contractors being used to build the facilities were affiliated with organized crime. Worse, the board alleged that two friends of Rosemont s mayor who were minority shareholders also had mob ties. The mayor denies any organized-crime connections, but Emerald s gaming license was revoked, and the firm went into bankruptcy.
In 2004, when the license came up for auction, the political appointees on the gaming board once again awarded it to a company planning to open a casino in Rosemont, despite objections from the board s professional staff. Wary of the mayor s alleged connections, it recommended the license not go to any Rosemont project, and in 2005, the state gaming board revoked the sale of the license to the casino.
Casino executives and groups donated more than $10.8 million to political campaigns in the first half of 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That s in addition to millions more that get contributed to state and local politicians who have gambling issues in front of them.
In Pennsylvania, the relationship is even cozier. When the state legislature passed a law in 2004 legalizing slot machines in the state, it included a clause allowing Pennsylvania s lawmakers to own up to 1 percent of any company with a casino license which included everything from a casino to a slot machine manufacturer. The ruling s many critics say it has created a conflict of interest for politicians, who may be tempted to act in their own financial interest instead of their constituents on gaming issues. But as far as Pennsylvania lawmakers are concerned, such complaints are a day late and a bucket of quarters short.