The rules of the game are fixed. When you play a casino game the house has its edge and that’s final. You cannot change the theoretical return to the house.
Or can you?
I’ve said before that the house has a “hidden edge”. This is the difference between theoretical return to player and actual return to player based on poor gaming.
But there is another house edge. Call it the “secondary edge”. You run up against this when you’re given two choices of the same game.
Should you play 6:5 blackjack or 3:2 blackjack?
That’s a no-brainer but if there is more than 1 version of a game in the casino, why do people play the version that pays less often?
When the table rules are posted and you can compare the terms of the game variations, curiosity should be the only reason to consider playing a game less likely to pay you. Satisfy your curiosity but go into the game with your eyes open.
You may have heard about a “zero lounge” where the games have little to no house edge. Most people will never find one so I’m not going to include it in my list. You need to be your own zero lounge as much as you can.
What the House Edge Is and Why It’s Acceptable
Every casino game is designed to pay the players out of their own wagers. The rules are set so that over time the house should retain a percentage of those wagers as a sort of commission for running the games.
I like to use roulette to illustrate how this works. If you bet on a single number and win the casino pays you 35-to-1 odds. That sounds like a great return. But in the three types of roulette the probability of the ball landing on any single number is less than 1-in-35:
- European roulette (37 to 1)
- American roulette (38 to 1)
- Sands roulette (39 to 1)
Even without the green slots on the wheel the house is already committed to paying you less than even money on a single number bet. But they do pay even money on outside bets like even/odd or black/red. That’s why they need the green slots, so they always have a statistical advantage.
Also known as single zero roulette, European roulette offers a house edge of 2.7%. If the table uses the la partage rule that refunds half the player’s outside bet when the ball lands on 0, then the house edge drops to 1.35%.
The house edge in American roulette is 5.26% or almost twice the best edge in European roulette.
The house edge is important. As players we want to pay the house as little money as possible. But the casino needs to pay its bills. They make their money from running games that allow them to retain a percentage of wagers.
The table games with the lowest overall house edge are baccarat and blackjack, but the casinos can change the rules for these games.
Now, how do we lower the house edge if we can’t change the rules?
We have to work on the “hidden edge” and the “secondary edge” in all games.
1 – Memorize the Basic or Standard Rules of the Game
If you don’t even know basic strategy you’re not going to do well in any game. Baccarat has the simplest choice in strategies (bet on the banker for the lowest house edge). Blackjack strategy is complicated because there are so many possible combinations of cards.
The more complex a game is the more people are drawn to it. Baccarat is probably popular only because of James Bond. Most people who play table games stick with blackjack, craps, and roulette.
Chuck A Luck and its variations offer more complexity in player choices than baccarat but the house edge in those dice games is worse than the edge for many slot games.
When you know the basic game strategy well enough you’ll avoid making the most common mistakes. This reduces or eliminates the “hidden edge”.
When you know the basic rules of the game you’ll also recognize unusual table or house rules right away. If the casino changes how the game is played from the standard version, it’s almost always to make more money from the game.
You might wonder why they need to do this since casinos make most of their money from slot machine games. It doesn’t matter. If they change the payout odds, limits, or minimums the change probably benefits them more than you.
Choosing to play only basic games over house variations reduces or eliminates the “secondary edge”.
2 – Play the Odds in Craps
I know of only one truly even money bet in standard table games: playing the odds in craps.
And like all sweet deals in life, there is a catch. To play the odds in craps you must make a Pass or Don’t Pass bet. Your Odds bet is limited by the amount of your Pass / Don’t Pass bet.
Since the house has an edge on the first bet Taking or Laying the Odds flattens that edge a little bit. Craps experts recommend playing the Odds for that reason.
Most players start with a Pass bet. Pass bets are made on the come out roll, when the black marker on the table reads “Off”. You win even money if the Pass roll is 7 or 11. If the come out roll is 2, 3, or 12 you lose your bet. Any other result sets the the point and the croupier flips the black marker to say “On”.
You can make a Pass bet after the come out roll but it doesn’t pay as well.
Once you’ve survived the come out roll you can Take the Odds, which is an even-money bet that the point will be rolled again before 7 turns up. The payout odds match the probability of any winning number being thrown.
If you make a Don’t Pass bet on the come out roll then you’ll win if the dice tally 2 or 3. You push if the shooter rolls a 12. You lose if any other number is rolled.
Some casinos push on 2 instead of 12.
If you bet Don’t Pass on the come out roll you Lay the Odds, which means you’re betting the shooter rolls a 7 before rolling the point.
The house edge is slightly better for Don’t Pass than for Pass but gambling writers caution people that “most players” don’t like it when someone bets against them.
On the other hand, this is why people in movies and TV shows shout “come on 7!” when playing craps. They bet Don’t Pass and Lay the Odds (assuming the script follows anything like real craps rules).
3 – Leverage the Dealer Disadvantage in Blackjack
A friend recently told me the house has an edge in blackjack because the player goes first. If you bust out then it doesn’t matter what the dealer’s cards are.
Blackjack experts advise against taking insurance and making progressive bets. These are options are like putting extra money in the casino’s pocket.
The whole game of blackjack is designed to make you pay before the dealer plays. That hardly seems fair.
Blackjack players hurt themselves by helping the house’s “hidden edge”.
The one disadvantage the dealer has that helps you before the cards are played is a table rule where the dealer must stand on a soft 17. Unfortunately casinos are beginning to replace this rule with the opposite: their dealers must hit on soft 17.
The dealer has slightly better odds if he hits on soft 17. It’s a small percentage difference but if you have a choice between a table where the dealer stands on soft 17 and a table where the dealer hits, consider the 1st table.
Of course, other table or house rules may offset the slight disadvantage in standing on soft 17.
Although there isn’t much a player can do to improve their chances of winning, there is much we can do to hurt our chances of winning. The casino counts on that.
And as many “tell all” articles about casino secrets point out, modern casinos create a relaxing environment and keep the alcohol flowing so their players lose track of time and start making mistakes.
In my opinion the “hidden edge” is where the casino makes most of its money. Eliminating that edge won’t guarantee you’ll win but it improves your chances considerably.