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Deal Me In: Those Gimmick Wagers Ride the Range Again

24 April 2009

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I was playing blackjack, and this game had the Pair Plus bet. I usually don't bet these side bets, but pairs were coming up like crazy so I tried it a couple of times. Could you give me the house edge on this bet? James H.

The bet you mentioned isn't called Pair Plus, as the wager of that name you will find on a Three Card Poker table. I believe what you are describing is a wager called "Pair Square," a blackjack side bet that wins if the player's first two cards are of the same rank.

With Pair Square, you'll find a small square next to your regular betting circle, about the size of a silver dollar. Just place your side bet in the square before your hand is dealt, and if it's a pair, you win the side bet. Payoff odds differ between casinos, but at typical scale, the bet usually pays 9-to-1 odds on an unsuited pair and 20-to-1 if the pair is suited.

At those odds with a six-deck shoe, the house has an 8.5 percent edge against your play. Depending upon the number of decks and various different payoff odds, the corresponding house edge can be anywhere between 2.89% and 15.42%.

Now compare that, James, to the house edge on regular blackjack, which varies from as little as a half of one percent to three percent, depending upon your quality of play.

Many players think these attention-grabbing options with these rare but lofty payoffs make the game more enjoyable. Some actually believe they are good bets -- but they're far from it.

Keep in mind, James, that every side-bet on the layout is designed for one purpose, and one purpose only: to increase the house profits on blackjack. For that reason, I would advise you and the rest of humanity to avoid all gimmick wagers in general.

Dear Mark: Occasionally you will see an advertisement that select slots return a 99% payback. This can't be correct, can it? Does that mean I put in $100 and get back $99? Julie C.

The advertisement you're recalling is essentially correct, but I would add one qualifying phrase: 99% payback means that a machine will pay back, ON AVERAGE, $99 of every $100 played through it. That means that 99%, on average, of all money that is inserted into the machine is being paid back to players. In other words, the casino makes a 1% profit.

So will you, Julie, always get 99 cents back for every dollar played? Nope! What's going to happen, Julie, is that your individual gambling session, say of a $100, will have widely varying results based on the volatility of that particular machine.

You need to look at slot paybacks this way: The more a machine gets played, the closer its actual payback gets to its theoretical payback.

Now, if the machine which is advertised to return 99% were to get, say, a million plays, then its actual payback will get within a few percentage points of its theoretical 99% payback. Your $100 bankroll amounts to a paltry few dozen spins on a dollar slot, whereas the casino's bankroll partakes in every bet made on that same machine, 24/7, 365 days of the year.

Unfortunately, Julie, you'll never yank that handle a million times, so the actual payback to you on that machine can be many percentage points away from the theoretical payback. And yes, that doesn't mean it can't miss the theoretical mark on the positive side, either, giving you the thrill you're waiting for. So, what can I say? Good Luck!

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "For many people, the craving to gamble at sports is almost as inherent as the instinct of self-preservation." --Barney Vinson, Las Vegas Behind the Tables

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.