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Deal Me In: Fellow asked me once if I recommended winning

4 June 2010

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Would you recommend playing slots when the casino is crowded? It seems more jackpots are hit when I play in the evening than during the day when it is less crowded. Jan B.

Yes, Jan, you are more likely to see and hear jackpots hit in the evening when the casino is packed full of players, but it's not because a Wizard behind a curtain throws some secret switch to instantly loosen their machines because the joint is hopping.

More jackpots are hit at peak times in crowded casinos simply because there are more people playing. But even with the increased number of players gaming, that still has no effect on whether or not a machine will pay off.

Let's say it's a Saturday night and you're in a casino that offers 3,500 slot machines, each programmed to pay a decent sized jackpot every 25,000 yanks of the handle. With a casino full to capacity, and players spinning those (their) wheels 400 times per hour, from eight to midnight the slots will collectively whirl 5,600,000 times over that four hour period, creating 224 hand-pay jackpots.

Compare that to Thursday morning with only 200 players playing slots. The pulls remain the same at 400 per hour, but those players will collectively spin the reels only 320,000 times, averaging only 12.8 jackpots.

Side-by-side, 224 jackpots on a busy night versus 12.8 on a slow day you can easily say yes, more jackpots are hit in the evening. Yet, your chances of being one of those to hit a jackpot remain the same, be it slow day or a busy night.

Dear Mark: Just reading your column, I now do two things religiously. Play on games that have less than a two percent house advantage, and always use basic strategy. The two games I play the most are $1 Jacks-or-better video poker on a 9/6 machine, when I can find it, and $5 blackjack. All things being equal, would you advise playing video poker or blackjack? Ted M.

First, Ted, congratulations on employing basic strategy when doing battle against the casino. A blackjack player who knows basic strategy narrows the house edge to less than half of one percent, while the average player bucks more like a 2 to 2.5 percent house advantage. Yet with video poker, even with keen play, minus the royal, which happens once every 40,000 hands and accounts for approximately two percent of your overall payback, you're up against a 2.5 percent house edge.

Next we need to figure out the overall cost per hour of play. Video poker is a much faster game than blackjack. You'll conservatively play 400 hands an hour at video poker versus 60 at a blackjack table, so in an average one-hour session, minus a royal, you'll lose a whole lot more money at video poker ($50) than at blackjack ($1.50). Then again, you don't have the opportunity to win $4,000 (a royal) betting $5 a pop at blackjack.

So, Ted, all things being equal, I would personally lean towards blackjack, but not based exclusively on the math, but also on the fun factor. I just happen to enjoy blackjack more than video poker. My recommendation, though, would be to play the game you have the most fun at, and if it is video poker, and you get your fair share of royals, then there is no need to fret the up-front house edge.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "To be a poker champion, you must have a strong bladder." --Jack McClelland, poker pro

Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.