In the United States, slot machines and other gambling machines dominate the casino’s gaming space. When I started writing about the casino gambling industry, the prevailing wisdom was that 65% to 70% of a casino’s revenue came from slot machines.
That number is now nearing 80%, so slot machine play is clearly on the rise.
The casinos know how profitable slot machines are per square foot, and if you pay attention to their advertising materials, you’ll notice how much of their advertising focuses on gambling machines.
Table games, on the other hand, are shrinking as a percentage of casino market share. Less floor space is dedicated to table games like blackjack, craps, and roulette than ever before.
Some of this is because slot machines afford the casino the opportunity to offer higher jackpots than would ever be possible at a table game. Of course, the odds of winning one of those huge jackpots can be infinitesimal, along the same lines as winning the lottery in some cases.
I think this is a trend that would be good to change, but I’d need an army of committed table game players to join me in making this a reality. Are you up for this mission?
Skill vs. Chance in Table Games and Gambling Machines
For the most part, skill doesn’t play a big role in table games OR gambling machines. You’ll find exceptions in both kinds of gambling, though.
When you talk about gambling machines, the two biggest categories of games are:
- Video poker
Video poker, on the other hand, requires distinct amounts of skill. The house still has an edge in most video poker games, but if you play skillfully enough, you can shave that edge to practically nothing.
You still have to choose the right video poker games with the right pay tables, though.
When you’re talking about table games, you have quite a few more categories:
- Poker-based games
Of those, blackjack and poker-based games are the only ones that have a skill element. Baccarat, craps, and roulette are entirely games of chance.
The poker-based games are the newest table games in most casinos, and sometimes, they include a skill element. Other times, they don’t.
You can’t get an edge at these kinds of games most of the time, but you can have some fun playing them. Examples of these games include Caribbean Stud, Three-Card Poker, and Ultimate Texas Hold’em.
How the House Measures Its Mathematical Advantage
With table games, the house measures its edge mathematically using a metric called “the house edge.” That’s the statistically predicted amount of each bet that the average player will lose on average over a long period of time.
For example, when I say that roulette has a house edge of 5.26%, it means that the casino will win an average of $5.26 every time I bet $100 on the game.
That’s just a long-term statistical average, though. When I bet $100 at the roulette table, I either lose $100 or win some multiple of $100.
With gambling machines, the casino measures its edge mathematically using a metric called “payback percentage.” You’ll also see this called the “return to player” or the “expected return.” This is the statistically predicted amount of each bet that the game will pay back to the player in winnings on average in the long run.
It doesn’t take the brightest bulb in the batch to figure out that the return to player and the house edge are flip sides of the same coin, so why do they use a different metric for the games?
The main reason lies within how the payouts are structured.
In a table game, most bets are paid off at X to Y odds. For example, in blackjack, if you bet $100 and win, you win $100 to the $100 you risked. You show a $100 profit because you only lose your $100 bet if you lose the hand.
But in a gambling machine, like a video poker game or a slot machine, the winnings are paid off at X for Y odds.
The same even money payout on a gambling machine results in no profit or loss for the player. The casino takes your wager when you bet, and anything you get back is on top of the amount already deducted from your balance.
So, if you bet $100 on a hand of video poker, you’d show no profit at all on a payout of $100. You already lost the $100 when you placed the bet.
Why This Makes a Difference
One of the things to keep in mind when playing any casino game is how much you’re mathematically expected to lose during an hour of play. That number is easily calculated by multiplying the size of your bets by the number of bets you’re making per hour and multiplying that by the house edge.
Slot machine and video poker players tend to make 600 bets per hour. Just for the sake of example, I’m going to assume you’re betting $5 per round, or $3000 per hour.
An average slot machine game probably has a house edge of 8%, which means your expected loss on that game is $240/hour.
An average video poker machine might have a house edge of 4%, which makes your expected loss $120/hour. (You can also find video poker machines with a really low house edge if you play well. You just need to be able to recognize the pay tables for the best games.)
Now, let’s compare those average loss numbers with what you might lose at a table game. Blackjack is a good example. At a fast table with only a single dealer, you might see 250 hands per hour. If you’re betting $5 per hand, that’s $1250/hour you’re putting into action.
Let’s assume you’re lousy at basic strategy, so the casino has a mathematical edge of 2.5% against you. This means your expected hourly loss at the blackjack table for a lousy player is only $31.25. If you take the time to learn the correct basic strategy, that number drops to about $6 per hour.
The main reason you see such a huge difference in earnings when you contrast gambling machines with table games is the speed at which you play.
No table game that I know of can get you more than 200 bets per hour in action. In fact, most games offer you far fewer bets per hour than that.
You could easily double the amount of money you’re betting per round and still lose less money on average per hour than you will at the gambling machines.
Slot machines are more entertaining and complicated than ever before. They’re so much fun that they’ve widely been described as addictive, including by people who are addiction experts.
And there’s nothing wrong with having some fun playing the slots either. You just need to temper your tendency to get addicted to gambling machines. I think the best way to do that, while staying in action, is to play some of the table games in the casino.
Playing table games alone, though, isn’t enough to minimize your losses. Even though the house has only a tiny 0.5% edge on most blackjack games, they actually win closer to 2.5% to 4.5% of each bet on average. That’s because many players are unsophisticated and don’t use appropriate strategy when playing.
In fact, the harder a game is to play well, the lower the house edge is when you DO play well. For this reason alone, it might make sense to stick with games you have to learn how to play.
Also, have some fun getting to know some other gamblers at the casino tables. Most of them are as social and friendly as they can be.