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Watching the pros can boost a player's chances at winning

| Friday, Jan. 25, 2013, 9:08 p.m.
Colin Jones, co-founder of the “Church Team” of card counters: 'It's not rocket science.'
Colin Jones, co-founder of the “Church Team” of card counters: 'It's not rocket science.'

When I was growing up, young baseball players learned the game by paying attention to Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider.

My dad, who played golf on a course whose “greens” were made of sand, watched Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus for inspiration. My sons, who still play hockey, followed the exploits of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretsky.

It's natural to look to the pros for ways to become better at any sport. Casual gamblers wanting to improve their game can do the same, although it's not as easy as turning on the Game of the Week.

Not everyone who writes a gambling book is an expert. No one can give you the secret to winning at slot machines or beating a roulette game. You just can't overcome the house edge.

Professional gamblers can have fun, as can all those who really enjoy their jobs. What sets the pros apart from the casual gambler is their dedication to understanding the game and figuring out how to legally give themselves an edge.

“The biggest thing is that people really (need to) understand the odds,” says Colin Jones, a leader of the blackjack-playing Church Team, which won millions of dollars from casinos over several years. “Casinos are bright and beautiful because of a calculated (house) advantage.

“There's something very deep in the American psyche where we want to be the one in a million who beats the odds and the other 999,999 people are funding that, whether it's the lottery or casinos,” he says.

Not counting on the million-to-one shot, professional gamblers calculate everything to figure out the best game — their betting range, their bankroll, even the effect of tipping the dealer. Players who want to give themselves a better shot at winning should follow that studious approach.

In blackjack, that means knowing which rules favor the player and which favor the house. In jurisdictions outside Pennsylvania, rules can vary from casino to casino, even from table to table. A savvy player should know, for example, whether it's better to play an eight-deck game where the dealer hits Soft 17 and blackjacks are paid at a 3-to-2 rate or a single-deck game where blackjacks are paid at 6-to-5. (Hint: Never play 6-to-5).

Players understand they'll have winning and losing sessions, but many don't grasp how much money they need to tide them over the inevitable bad streaks and minimize what the pros call the “risk of ruin.” Gamblers often play for higher stakes than they should and end up losing it all.

Chris Moneymaker, winner of the 2003 Main Event at the World Series of Poker, says that a cash-game player should have at least 40 maximum buy-ins before playing a game; for a $1-$3 No Limit Hold 'Em game, the cheapest you'll find in a casino, that means a bankroll of at least $12,000.

In video poker, pros study payout tables, know proper strategy for a particular game and understand how offers such as multiplied slot club points can make a game more attractive. Video poker author and instructor Bob Dancer, who doesn't blink at running $30,000 through a machine in an hour, recently wrote about choosing between a high-denomination game in which he figured he had a 0.25 percent advantage and a lower-denomination one that gave him a 0.4 percent advantage. The higher denomination game provided a larger expected return per hour, he wrote, and would be his logical choice.

Few can afford to risk the price of a nice car on video poker, but Dancer's approach is instructive nonetheless. When you know the expected return — for us amateurs, that usually means a loss — you can make informed choices. How much is a night in a casino worth to you?

“It costs something to go to a movie; it's the same thing with gambling. You need to be able to do the math,” says Jon, webmaster of the video-poker site A professional player, he spoke with Player's Advantage on condition of anonymity because he's been banned from some casinos because of his winning play.

“Everyone's going to be different. You should have spent some time in figuring out what the expectation is and whether or not you can tolerate that level of risk.”

The risk at a slot machine is about 10 percent — in the long run, slot players will lose about 90 percent of the money they put into the machines. That compares with a house edge of 5.24 percent at roulette, 1.41 percent on the pass line at craps and less than 0.4 percent for someone who adheres to basic strategy at blackjack.

Players can get an edge by learning card-counting at blackjack, playing the best video poker or becoming skilled at poker and sports betting. In general, the more effort required to learn a game, the less the house advantage a player must overcome.

Take advice from the pros: Anything else is just gambling. And they don't gamble.

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or

casino owner fined for gambling

Billionaire casino owner Tilman Fertitta was fined for playing blackjack last week.

The Press of Atlantic City reported that Fertitta, chairman of the company that owns Golden Nugget casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, was cited by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement. He apparently didn't know that New Jersey prohibits holders of a “key casino employee license” from gambling in Atlantic City and played last year at the Borgata and Revel casinos.

Golden Nugget general manager Tom Pohlman told The Press that the Golden Nugget notified regulators after Fertitta said he had gambled. He agreed to pay a $15,000 fine.

Money trail

Slot players lost $43.88 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Jan. 20, the Gaming Control Board reports. That's up from $38.47 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state gets 55 percent of that gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots are paid.

Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.95 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.95. Highest payout rate: 90.63 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.36 percent at Hollywood Penn National near Harrisburg.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $5.14 million, up from $4.88 million last year


Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.28 million, up from $3.94 million last year


Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.1 million, down from $2.38 million last year

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