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Best of Donald Catlin
Gambling Down Under6 May 2006
G'day mate! Do you know what a bison is? It's what an Austrylian washes his fyce in! Yeah, it's a different language, that's for sure. I discovered this on a recent three-week tour of Australia and New Zealand taken by my wife, Mary, and me. The misunderstanding involved slot machines, of all things, and I'll give you the details, along with other information about gambling in these countries, later in this article. Gambling, however, was a small part of our trip (and you'll see why) so I'd like to share with you some of the really interesting other things we encountered.
To begin with it is a 13 - 15 hour trip from Los Angeles to east Australia depending upon where you land. We decided to fly to Brisbane four days before our tour started in order to get our bodies accustomed to the time changes (Brisbane is 16 hours ahead of our home in the USA). We spent a couple of nights in Brisbane and the day between them we took a bus trip up to a town north of there called Beerwah to see the Australia Zoo. This is the attraction that is run by Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. It is an impressive facility with lots of animals (including some nasty reptiles - crikey, not a beauty in my book) and a staff of over 500 employees.
After our last night in Brisbane we flew to Melbourne, Victoria to begin our tour and to meet Mary's relatives who live near there. Mary's family originally came from Llanidloes, North Wales (England) but some of the family emigrated to the United States and some to Australia. Before his death Mary's father, Manuel Higgins, did some research and discovered the names of his relatives in Australia. They are Doug and Beverly Higgins and they live about 70 km west of Melbourne in a town called Sebastopol. We have been in touch with them via email for several years but had never met them. The day before our tour was to start, their son Mark Higgins picked up Mary and I at our hotel and drove us to Ballarat where we met with Doug. The four of us then went on to Sebastopol, met with Bev, and the five of us spent the day together. There is no doubt in my mind that Manny found the right folks; when I first saw Mark I noticed a close resemblance between him and my brother-in-law Jim Higgins. Anyway, they are a really nice family and we spent a delightful day together and saw a lot of the south Australian countryside.
The following day our tour officially started. This was a Collette Tour that started in Melbourne, then Cairns, then Sydney in Australia and then went on to Queenstown and Christchurch in New Zealand. Our tour director was a lady by the name of Sarah Swanney, who was well informed, entertaining, and seemed to have boundless energy. The tour was jam packed with interesting sights, so much so that it was exhausting at times, but enjoyable nonetheless. I don't have the time nor space to relate everything to you but here are some of the highlights.
In Sydney we not only toured the famed Sydney Opera House but actually attended an opera (The Magic Flute). Folks in Sydney must take their opera seriously because every seat in the place was taken. The Sydney Opera House is actually five different auditoriums, an opera house, a symphony hall, and three playhouses. It is an impressive structure both inside and out.
The next day we flew to Queenstown, New Zealand, a town located in the "Remarkables" mountain range and on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. The scenery in and around Queenstown was spectacular, especially our bus trip to Milford Sound. Mountains, canyons, and spectacular waterfalls were the order of the day on our trip to Milford Sound. While we were in Queenstown we also had the opportunity to have dinner with a New Zealand family in their home. We, along with another tour member from Indiana named Dan Skinner, had dinner at the home of Garry and Raewyn McRichie. Their home had a beautiful view of Lake Wakatipu and the "Remarkables" mountain range. It was a delightful evening and fun to have a typical New Zealand dinner featuring (not surprisingly) roast lamb.
Finally, after three days in Queenstown we flew to Christchurch. In one of our tours in Christchurch we were bused out to a sheep and dairy farm and this turned out to be much more interesting than I had imagined. First of all, shearing a sheep is a major job. So much so that most shearing is done by professional shearers; most farmers themselves cannot handle the job with the efficiency to make a profit selling wool. And while I think of it, if there was ever an example of a domesticated animal it has to be a sheep. If a sheep isn't sheared periodically, the coat becomes so heavy that the animal ends up on its back like a turtle, unable to upright itself, and it would starve to death if left in this condition. So save a sheep - buy wool.
I can't leave this topic without mentioning sheep dogs. Watching a sheep dog work is like watching poetry in motion. A couple of sheep dogs can take a herd of sheep and move them en masse to the exact spot the farmer tells them and leave no strays behind. They are amazing. After seeing them work it didn't surprise me to learn that a good sheep dog is worth $4000 -- $5000.
Okay, I know this column is not supposed to be a travelogue so what about the gambling? Well, to begin with both Australia and New Zealand have national lotteries. Both have a game called Powerball so I used this as a comparison to USA lotteries. In Australia Powerball is a 45/45 game, which means that the chances of hitting the jackpot are 1 in 54,979,155. The New Zealand Powerball is a 40/8 game with 6 numbers chosen from the 40 so that the chance of hitting the jackpot is 1 in 30,707,040. The current USA Powerball is a 55/42 game with 5 white balls and the chances of hitting the jackpot are 1 in 146,107,962. For details on calculating these numbers you can refer to my book The Lottery book, The Truth Behind the Numbers, Bonus Books 200, pp 69-72 (available on Amazon or Barnes and Noble).
I visited two Australian casinos, the Crown Casino in Melbourne and the Star City Casino in Sydney. I had expected that the Sydney casino would be the larger of the two but this turned out to be wrong. The Melbourne casino is very large and is attractively located on a river that runs through Melbourne; the Sydney casino is attractive but not nearly as attractive (nor large) as the Melbourne casino. I would have visited the Cairns casino but true to the town's reputation (300 inches of rain per year) I opted to stay dry inside my hotel.
Blackjack in Australia was originally called Pontoon; I have no idea why. As globalization advanced the name was changed to the ubiquitous term Blackjack, however the term Pontoon was not lost. Pontoon morphed into the name for the game we call Spanish 21 in the USA. Regular Blackjack in Australia is dealt from a continuous shuffling machine (CSM) using four decks. Doubling is only allowed on two-card hard totals of nine, ten or eleven. Players can split twice for a total of three hands with the usual exception of Aces; Aces can only be split once and receive one card. Insurance is offered but not surrender. There is a side bet called Perfect Pairs and, like most all side bets, should be avoided. All in all, Blackjack in Australia is not a very attractive game.
Craps in Australia is the generic game one sees almost everywhere in the USA; Australia offers double odds on Pass or Don't Pass wagers. Roulette is all single zero, but does not feature en prison, making the house edge 2.63%.
I had asked my relative Mark and several other people if there were Video Poker machines in Australia and was assured that there were lots of them. Well, all I could see in any casino were Australian-style slot machines (not surprisingly) meaning video displays with four or more simulated reels and those strange broken pay lines. Finally I saw a sign that cleared up my confusion. These machines are referred to as Pokie machines and are found not only in casinos but in private clubs, pubs and hotel bars. Damned American accent!
There were two small casinos in Queenstown and one moderately sized casino in Christchurch; I visited all three. The games were all similar to those in Australia with a couple of interesting exceptions. First the Blackjack game was dealt with eight decks and from a shoe rather than a CSM. Splitting, with the exception of Aces, was allowed three times for a total of four hands. Doubling was marketed in the following interesting manner. The rules stated that the player could double on any two-card hand not containing an Ace. This sounds more generous than the Australian rules but, of course, playing this game using optimal strategy produces the same doubling strategy as one would use in Australia.
The next interesting thing I saw was in the wharf casino in Queenstown. When I entered this tiny casino the first thing I saw was two touchscreen machines similar to the Multi-Game machines here in the US. One of the choices was Draw Poker and sure enough one could play Jacks or Better Draw Poker. Unfortunately, it was a 6/5 game (95% return) so I wasn't inclined to play. Oddly enough, though, this is the only Video Poker I saw throughout my entire trip to Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, when I entered my first casino in Queenstown I did not see a Craps table so I asked one of the female floor persons if there was Craps in New Zealand. I got the strangest look. I quickly realized how that sounded and was probably only saved by my American accent and the stupid expression on my face. Anyway, I quickly explained that I was asking about a dice game and learned, as I had already figured out at that point, that there is no Craps in New Zealand.
Australia and New Zealand are wonderful countries to visit but, as you can see, I wouldn't travel there expecting to have a great gambling holiday. The best I can say is that the Roulette games are better than most USA casinos offer, but if you look carefully you can still find single zero games in Las Vegas so this is no big attraction. The real lure here lies with the people, the culture, and the scenery. My best advice? If you visit these countries make sure you include the Opera House in Sydney and Queenstown in New Zealand; you won't regret it. See you next month.
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Best of Donald Catlin