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Best of Donald Catlin

Gaming Guru

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Odds and Ends Plus G2E

3 January 2002

A few months ago I deviated from my usual article about the mathematics of gambling and wrote a piece called Odds and Ends. It was an article containing a few of my thoughts on the then current state of Las Vegas and its casinos; I'll undoubtedly write similar articles in the future. In it I noted that one of my favorite casinos, the Santa Fe, had been purchased by the Station chain and I wondered what lay in store for the property. I also had some nice things to say about the Rio. My how things can change in a few months!

The Station folks completely revamped the old Santa Fe; new carpets, new fixtures, new layout -- the works. It is now called Santa Fe Station. Among the changes was the demise of the Atrium. Let me explain. The Atrium was a beautiful area next to the rear of the casino that was done in marble with suitable floral appointments. In the middle of this was a large circular bar. Off of the Atrium were three nice restaurants one of which, Suzettes, was one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas. In the evening a live combo would assemble in the Atrium and one could have drinks at the bar, listen to cool jazz, while waiting to dine at one of the three restaurants. It was a class act.

Today, gone is the circular bar and gone is Suzettes. What is there? Slot machines! Oh yes there are a couple of restaurants but the atmosphere is, nevertheless, gone. Tacky! But that isn't all. The old Santa Fe boasted the most full pay Video Poker machines in Las Vegas and it certainly seemed to me that it was true. The Blackjack wasn't bad either but the Video Poker was excellent. Not any more. I could not find one 10/7 Double Bonus, one 9/5 Deuces Wild, or even one 9/6 Jacks or Better on the floor. The old 25-cent 9/6 Double Progressive, a great game, was gone. Now maybe the locals will send this property a message as they did with the Fiesta (also owned by Station but not advertised as such). The Fiesta got the same clean sweep as the Santa Fe and lost its shirt in the process. The Station owners had to reinstate some of the previous management's policies (the Fiesta was run by George Maloof, more on him later in this article). Anyway, good bye to the old Santa Fe and, as far as I'm concerned, good bye to the Santa Fe Station as well.

Now for the Rio. I stayed there in June and walked through again in October. The original Rio was a smashing success. The Video Poker was nothing to write home about but the Blackjack was decent--double after split, dealer stands on soft 17, surrender, and resplit Aces. Yes, it was 6 decks but it was okay and the dealers were friendly. The real attraction, however, were the rooms. Each one was a well-equipped suite. They still are. But the Blackjack stinks. No, they haven't changed the rules but now even $25 tables are equipped with continuous shuffle machines (CSMs). I hate playing at tables with those. Why? Well, for one thing, you get no break, no time to relax and talk with other players or with the dealer. They rob the game of its human touch. On some tables they have installed automatic shufflers and the dealer gives the cards one final hand shuffle when the cards are removed from the machine. This is better than the CSMs but is still a far cry from the old hand-shuffled game.

Why did they do this? According to Arnold Snyder's article Who killed the Rio? in his latest Blackjack Forum magazine, the Rio got hit, or thinks it got hit, by a Blackjack team last year. Their paranoia is running out of control. It is now a place where players are afraid to win for fear they will be listed as a counter. The locals are shunning the Rio and it certainly shows. As you may know the Rio was bought by Harrah's. Rather than Harrah's moving toward the Rio's style, it seems that the momentum is in the other direction. That is a real shame, in my opinion, because the Rio is a very nice property and could easily return to the days when it was the place to go in Las Vegas.

Here is something that casinos should consider when thinking about installing CSMs. Earlier this year I was writing an article about the effect of CSMs on Blackjack frequency; the article appeared in the Summer issue of New Chance and Circumstance. Although I confess to not knowing the inner workings of CSMs, it seemed reasonable to me that some of the cards in the machine have to be in a queue ready to deal. Rather than just assuming an "off the top" deal, I thought it would be nice if I could at least approximate the percentage of cards fixed at the beginning of the "shoe" ready to be dealt and those being mixed with the flow of discards. I asked a dealer about this and her reply was interesting. She said that she didn't know how many cards were fixed to be dealt but she knew that it wasn't very many. She told me that when she dealt from a CSM that she had to "slow my dealing down by 1/2 or I run the machine out of cards and have to wait for the machine to catch up to me." Interesting. I realize that a sample of one does not a statistic make, but I can't imagine that this dealer had any reason to toy with the truth. At G2E (more later) I had lunch with a casino executive and asked about this. This person thought the remark was credible and, what is more, pointed out that CSMs contribute to the overhead of the game. Maybe they aren't as profitable as the marketers indicate. If anyone has some information about the validity of this phenomenon, I would like to hear from you.

So where am I going to take my business now? I'm not sure but I can tell you that I am going to give the new Palms Casino a try. The owner George Maloof (mentioned earlier) promises lots of full pay Video Poker and a slot club that is better than the one at the Fiesta (see Anthony Curtis' November Las Vegas Advisor for an interview with Maloof). Blackjack? Well, I'll just have to wait and see, but you can be sure that I'll give you a full report.

The very first Global Gaming Expo (dubbed G2E, for short) was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center October 1-3 of 2001. I thought it was a good show. The keynote address was given by Whoopie Goldberg and was very funny. Why Whoopie you may ask? Probably because WMS Gaming was introducing their new slot machine Hollywood Squares; Whoopie, you know, is the center square of the Hollywood Squares. I gave the machine a try and admit that it is amusing (for a slot machine) but I think there are better choices around. Mikohn has, in my opinion, some of the best slots around. Their Yahtzee and Battleship slots have now been joined by one called Clue and another called Ripley's Believe It or Not. Why do I like these? All of the bonus plays on these machines require some skill on the part of the player. The Ripley's machine requires players to answer a trivia question and I am told that a player skilled at answering such can increase his/her overall pay back by one to two percent. Anyway, I got an informed tour of these machines by my friend Olaf Vancura (KO Blackjack) and did indeed enjoy playing them.

The only other machine to catch my eye was a game called Chase the Royal. It is standard Jacks or better Video Poker unless you are dealt a pair of Jacks, Queens, or Kings that are not part of a better hand. In this case you're given the choice of folding these and receiving a random "Three to the Royal" hand and a generous pay schedule. The three-card Royal appears on the screen before you fold the pair. I played this for several minutes and it appears that the Three to a Royal doesn't contain either of the paired cards but I could be wrong about this. If so, I don't know if this means that these five cards are withdrawn from the remaining deck or if only the Three to the Royal are removed (assuming you take the Chase the Royal option). Needless to say I couldn't find this information from the folks hawking the game. It appears from the generous pay schedule that one should always chase the Royal, but I would like to get the above issue cleared up before saying this with certainty (Straight and Flush frequency could be affected).

As far as table games there was the usual array of Blackjack variations, most of which are not as good as the original game, in my opinion. One of these did catch my eye though. It is called Blackjack Switch and is based on the frequent desire of adjoining players to wish they had the option of exchanging their second cards with each other. In this game each player is dealt two hands and has the option of doing exactly this with the two hands. The rules of the game are changed somewhat (no splitting, for example, but doubling is allowed on anything, Blackjack pays even money but beats 21, dealer takes 17, 18, 19 ties). The developer, Customized Casino Games Ltd., claims that with optimum play that the game is nearly even and I'm willing to believe this. The problem, of course, is that I have no idea what optimum strategy looks like other than to say that it sure isn't normal Basic Strategy (obviously, one would hit a soft 18 versus an 8, for example). Should this game make it to the casino floor I'll delve into this problem and give you a report in this column.

Another table game that I liked was Derek Webb's new game of Three Hand Pai Gow (Prime Table Games of Las Vegas). I'll confess that I was familiar with the game prior to the show because I was one of the two persons who analyzed the game for Derek, the other being Stanley Ko. The player and dealer are each dealt five cards and then use them to form three Poker hands, a two-card high hand, a two-card middle hand, and a low single-card hand; the hands must be set so that the rank of Hand 1 is greater than or equal to the rank of Hand 2 and the rank of Hand 2 is greater than or equal to the rank of Hand 3. Same for the dealer. The player's and dealer's hands are compared and the higher hand in each case wins, the dealer taking ties.

Although I was familiar with the game having analyzed it, I had never played it until the show. It was fun and I think the game will catch on. In terms of strategy, the house (dealer) always sets his hands using the same procedure, called the House Way. A player mimicking the dealer faces a house edge of just over 4%; that is a bit high. This can be almost cut in half, however, by setting some hands other than the House Way. The bad news is that of the 6175 types of hands one faces, there are 1708 hands that, when optimally played, are set other than the house way. It is very likely that many of these are close calls and the deviation from optimum play can be ignored. Anyway, I have all of the data and should this game catch on I'll set my sights on developing a simple but near optimal strategy for the game. We'll see.

Next month it's back to the mathematics of gambling and a return to the sport of driving my gracious editor John Robison crazy with all of the equations and symbols. See you then.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers