Fair play essential to online gambling
Amid the stampede toward legalized online gambling across the United States, lawmakers need to keep one imperative in mind: The games must be fair.
Thanks to rules and practices developed over decades, U.S. gamblers have faith that slot machines, card shufflers and other devices in land-based, government-regulated casinos operate on the up-and-up. With remarkably few exceptions, they're right.
The next frontier of gambling is the Internet. Experiences in other countries show online gambling carries disturbing elements of a Wild West mentality where almost anything goes.
A recent incident involves a card game in at least two online casinos licensed in Gibraltar, the British territory at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The Gibraltar Gambling Commissioner's Office, which licenses and monitors 25 widely known online gaming operators, is investigating, but after two months, it has not released any findings.
The complaint surfaced in late December on www.Casinomeister.com, which bills itself as a watchdog of online casinos. A player supplied bet-by-bet documentation of his action. Independent mathematicians determined the results could not be from pure chance.
Then, a wrinkle developed. The player admitted creating multiple online identities to take advantage of sign-up bonuses. The person complaining of being cheated was not so forthright himself.
In a Feb. 8 email to Player's Advantage, Gibraltar Gambling Commissioner Phill Brear called the initial allegation “substantially incorrect.”
“There was no reason to believe any game had been ‘rigged' or any operator had made unfair or unwarranted gains, or customers made similar losses,” he wrote. “That said, we are close to concluding our own full investigation into the matter and will provide fuller comments in due course.”
On Feb. 27, Brear said the office's final report should be ready in “a matter of days.” This week, he wrote: “I cannot give a specific date (for the report) as other entirely separate issues also have to be dealt with.”
The complaints involved the games HiLo and ReelDeal dealt at Betfred and NordicBet casinos. Betfred declined comment and referred questions to Gibraltar licensing officials. NordicBet told Casinomeister it not only would refund money that its players lost but also pull all software by the companies that made the games.
Gaming mathematician Eliot Jacobson of Santa Barbara, Calif., whose company Certified Fair Gambling audits Internet gambling software, voluntarily examined the complaint.
The games use a virtual deck of cards from which the 10 of each suit has been removed, leaving 48 cards. The computer exposes one card. In the simplest bet, the object is to guess whether that card will be a red suit or a black suit. The long-term results should be 50-50, like flipping a coin.
The player documented more than 19,000 games, with a bet on red most of the time. Red came up 9,282 times and black came up 10,074 times. Jacobson determined the chances of a difference that large were about the same as being dealt two consecutive pat royal flushes in five-card stud poker.
Even with the poster's later admission of using multiple identities, the documentation of the 19,000 games remains credible, Jacobson says.
Jacobson says he “reversed engineered” how the program might have been written and found that if a player bet on red, the software would give black a 52 percent chance of showing up. If the player bet on black, then red would have the 52 percent chance.
In every U.S. jurisdiction, a virtual deck of cards must work exactly like a real deck. Each card must have an equal chance of appearing.
In fall 2011, Jacobson and Michael “Wizard of Odds” Shackleford documented a similar software problem with a craps game used in some online casinos based in the Caribbean. In 2005, online poker sites Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet admitted some players were able to see others' hole cards.
Top officials of two gaming-software suppliers tell Player's Advantage that online operators often ask their firms for software that manipulates results in the house's favor. Both say they refuse that business.
Large gambling jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, test software for each slot machine and other devices used in traditional casinos. States that approve online gambling must take similar steps to ensure all Internet games play fairly and that the house edge is clear to players, not hidden inside a software program.
When states institute online gambling, regulators must investigate complaints aggressively and have authority to impose meaningful punishment. Casinos, players and taxpayers at large have a vested interest in guaranteeing fair play.
For everyone's sake, don't stand for software that deals off the bottom of the deck.
Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
N.J. to appeal ban against sports betting
New Jersey intends to appeal a judge's ruling that blocks the state from legalizing betting on college and professional sports, officials said.
In a Feb. 28 ruling, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp upheld a 1992 federal law that prohibits sports betting in all states except Nevada, Oregon, Montana and Delaware. Nevada permits the widest range of betting, reaping millions of dollars from daily games as well as events such as the Super Bowl or the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Slot players lost $194.5 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during February, a drop of 9.2 percent from last year, when the month had an extra day because of leap year, the Gaming Control Board reports.
Valley Forge Resort Casino, which had $5 million in slot revenue last month, was not open in February 2012. In the 10 casinos that were open in February 2012, slot revenue fell by 11.5 percent.
The state gets 55 percent of gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots are paid.
Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of 89.94. Highest payout rate: 90.61 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.37 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.
Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:
Rivers; February slot revenue of $24.44 million, down from $25.34 million last year
Meadows; monthly slot revenue of $18.16 million, down from $21.11 million last year
Presque Isle in Erie; monthly slot revenue of $10 million, down from $13.92 million last year