When I say Las Vegas, a lot of stuff comes to mind:
- Neon lights
But before all of that—the first thing that pops into most people’s head is casino gambling.
For decades, Las Vegas was the gambling capital of the world. That title now belongs to Macau, China—that city brings in as much gambling revenue in 2 months as Las Vegas does all year.
Some of that is because of the more readily available casino gambling throughout the United States. Tribal casinos seem to be opening in new states every day.
But no matter what else you do in Las Vegas, you’re almost certain to participate in some casino games while you’re there.
This post aims to introduce you to the major games available and give you a broad understanding of what you need to know to avoid going broke in the casino.
Trust me. You’re going to need this info. Casino games are available (in the form of slot machines) as soon as you get off the airplane. You’ll also find casino games at bars and gas stations.
And the average casino has dozens of options to choose from—both table games and gambling machines.
Here’s a quick rundown of your options:
Free Gambling Lessons at Most Casinos
Most hotels and casinos offer free gambling lessons where you can learn to play the most interesting table games. Any of the customer service staff at the hotel can tell you where and when these lessons are.
You absolutely should take advantage of these lessons.
They’re usually held in the mid-morning. The only thing you’ll want to do is take any strategy advice from the dealers teaching these classes with a grain of salt.
They don’t necessarily have your best interest at heart.
And they might be knowledgeable about how to play the games, but they often don’t understand the correct match and strategies behind the games.
The House Edge
Casinos don’t have to cheat to win your money, either. All the casino games structure their payouts in a way that provides them with a small mathematical edge over the player.
This is called “the house edge.”
It’s a long-term estimate of how much of each bet the casino expects its players to lose.
If you read that blackjack has a 1% house edge, this means that the casino expects to win $1 (on average) every time you bet $100.
This is a long-term projection, only. It’s what the casino expects to average over thousands of hands. In the short run, anything can (and often does) happen.
That’s why players can sometimes come home as winners.
Generally, the lower the house edge, the better your chances of winning.
The Player’s Club
Every new gambler at a casino should join the player’s club. That’s because the casinos give free stuff to the players who gamble there.
By not joining the player’s club, you’re just increasing your effective losses.
When you join the player’s club, the casino gives you a plastic card to insert in the slot machines when you play. This card tracks how much you wager per hour or per day.
The casino then awards you free stuff based on how much you’re gambling.
The card does NOT affect your odds of winning or losing.
And you get free stuff even if you’re a winner. The casino relies on their long-term house edge to make their profits. They don’t care if you win or lose on a single game or even a single trip.
They know that in the long run, if you keep playing, they’ve got you.
This is one of the oldest and most elegant games in the casino. It’s a card game that’s also called chemin de fer. It’s played with 8 decks, and it’s basically a complicated guessing game.
You don’t need any skill to play baccarat. The dealers do everything.
You do need to check the betting limits at the table before playing, though. Baccarat is a popular high roller game.
You should always bet on the banker. There’s a 5% commission, but it’s still the best bet in this game.
Everyone knows about blackjack already. It’s also called 21. You get 2 cards, the dealer gets 2 cards, and if you get closer to 21 than the dealer without going over, you win.
Unlike baccarat, blackjack is a game of skill. On every hand, you make decisions which increase or decrease the house edge. If you play well, you can keep the house edge down to 1% or lower. If you play badly, the house edge might be as much as 4% or 5%.
You can memorize basic strategy or buy a card with basic strategy in the gift shop. Just don’t hold up the game when you’re consulting it for the correct decision.
If you learn to count cards, you can get an edge over the casino.
This is the famous dice game that seems so intimidating to newcomers. It’s easier to play than you think, though. You should attend one of the free gaming lessons at the craps table.
If you stick with the most basic bets at the craps table—pass or don’t pass, come or don’t come, you’ll be facing a house edge of barely more than 1%.
The game is entirely random, unless you believe the folks selling dice control info. I’m skeptical.
Craps is notoriously streaky. You can wind up way ahead fast, but you can lose that money just as fast.
You won’t find a more exciting game in the casino, though.
You can find 2 kinds of poker in most casinos. The traditional version isn’t really a casino game at all—you’re competing with the other players at the table, rather than with the house. This is where you’ll find the Texas holdem games.
Some casinos also offer games like Badugi, Omaha, and stud.
Casinos now offer a lot of house-banked versions of poker, too. These include games like Caribbean Holdem, 3 Card Poker, Let It Ride, and Pai Gow Poker.
These games use the standard ranking of poker hands, but you’re competing with the dealer, not the other players.
At traditional poker games, where you’re competing with other players, you can get an edge if you have the skills.
At house-banked poker games, you’re always operating at a mathematical disadvantage to the casinos.
This is another of the most famous games in the casino. Roulette features a horizontal spinning wheel with 37 or 38 pockets in it. You bet on which pocket the ball will land in.
There’s no skill to roulette, either, by the way. It’s a pure guessing game with a relatively high house edge (5.26% at most casinos).
It’s a slow-paced, elegant game, though. It can be a lot of fun if you don’t mind the house edge.
You have a wide variety of bets to choose from at the roulette table, but they’re all pretty self-explanatory. You can take a free gaming lesson, but you can probably figure out how to play without one.
If you’re like most modern casino gamblers, you’ll spend a lot of time with the one-armed bandits. These are actually the worst game in the casino, mathematically, though.
Not only do you put a lot of money per hour into action at the slots, but you also face a high house edge. Most slots have a house edge of 6% or higher.
If you are going to play slots, at least stick with the ones in the casinos in town. The slot machines at bars and convenience stores—and at the airport—have notoriously bad odds.
It’s even more important for slots players to play with their player’s club card inserted than any other gambler, too.
Most casinos in Las Vegas have sports books. There, you can legally place bets on various sporting events. Most of these sports books are comfortable and have lots of televisions where you can watch the games.
Sports betting isn’t, strictly speaking, a casino game.
But the books do have an edge over the bettor.
They usually make you bet $110 to win $100, which gives them an edge on any bet where your odds of winning are 50/50.
They usually set the odds so that this is the case, too.
You can read entire books on sports betting.
If you get good at it, you can operate at an advantage over the book, but that’s harder than you might think.
Still, betting on sports in Las Vegas can be one of the most exciting activities you can engage in there.
These games look like slot machines, but they really have more in common with solitaire than anything else.
They’re based on 5-card draw poker. You’re dealt a hand by the machine; then you get to decide which cards to keep and which to throw away.
The poker ranking of your final hand determines how much you get paid when you win.
The pay tables vary from game to game, and they have a big effect on the house edge.
But in general, the house edge for video poker—especially if you’re a skilled player—is much lower than the house edge on slot machines.
The only drawback is that the jackpots at video poker are often smaller than you’d find on a slot machine.
The most popular video poker variations include Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, and Deuces Wild. Jacks or Better is the best game to start with.
You can have a lot of fun gambling at the casinos in Las Vegas, but it’s important to understand what you’re getting into beforehand. The main thing to remember is that the casino has a mathematical edge.
If you take nothing else from this post, remember these 3 things:
- The casinos offer free gambling lessons. It’s important to learn how to play before sitting down at most tables.
- All casino games have a mathematical edge that favors the house. Stick with the games with the lowest house edge as much as possible. These include blackjack, craps, and video poker.
- The player’s club card gets you free stuff. If you’re going to be gambling anyway, be sure to get the rewards that the casino is going to offer you.
Finally, there’s a lot to do in Vegas besides gamble. Take advantage of all of it. You can eat at some of the finest restaurants in the world there. You can see some of the most entertaining shows there. And you can shop in some of the finest retail establishments, too.
Gambling is great, but it’s not the only thing to do in Vegas.