I’ve mentioned in multiple articles and blog posts about gambling the importance of understanding your temperament as a gambler. Knowing what’s important to you in terms of having fun is crucial to choosing which games to play.
One of the big factors in my choice of a casino game is a sense of agency. This is just a fancy way of saying that I like to feel like my decisions have an effect on the outcome.
I want my decisions to matter.
When you’re gambling, though, only some of your decisions matter. And even those don’t matter 100%.
When you’re playing poker, you can decide whether you check, bet, call, or raise. That has a major effect on your overall results.
But that doesn’t give you total control. If it did, poker wouldn’t be gambling.
And poker is, most assuredly, a kind of gambling.
You don’t control what cards you get. You don’t control what cards your opponents get. And you don’t control what actions your opponents take.
Yes, I feel a sense of agency when I play Texas holdem, but it’s partially an illusion.
In this post, I’m going to look at the casino games available and what agency you do and don’t have with each of them.
How Much Agency Do You Have as a Blackjack Player
I love blackjack, because I have a greater sense of agency in that game than in any other. Having a semblance of control doesn’t mean you have an edge over the house, though.
I had that discussion with a gambler friend of mine yesterday. He was convinced that if you follow perfect basic strategy, you have a 1% edge over the house. Of course, that isn’t true. If you follow basic strategy perfectly, the house has an edge of between 0.5% and 1% over you.
You do get to decide whether you want to count cards or not. If you’re counting cards, you can get an edge over the casino.
But the casino gets to decide whether they let you play or not.
Most casinos will overlook card counting for a little while, or at least until you start doing well. Once you start winning some money, the party’s over.
But you get to decide how long you stay at the tables. Get a quick win and get out of their quick, and you’ve used your agency to remove some of the casino’s power over you.
Of course, just getting to decide how to play each hand gives you a type of control in blackjack you don’t have in casino games like craps and roulette.
The casino has an enormous amount of power in blackjack, still, though. They control the rules, the betting limits, and the environment.
I should speak to that last item, too—the casino’s control of the environment.
Sure, you get to decide how much you play and how much you bet. But if you’re like most people, you’re easily manipulated. (I know I am.)
By offering you credit, free drinks, and creating an exciting friendly atmosphere with no clocks, the casinos do everything they can to get you to play more than you otherwise might.
You do have agency, though. You can turn down credit. You can turn down free drinks. (Or you can just play at the Winstar in Oklahoma, which doesn’t even offer free drinks.) You can wear a watch.
Video Poker Is another High Agency Game
When I think of games in the casino where my decisions matter, blackjack and video poker are the 2 that come to mind immediately. In video poker, I’m given a 5-card hand, and I get to decide which cards to keep and which cards to discard.
That means there are 32 possible ways to play each hand. Only one of those 32 ways to play is the move with the highest mathematical expectation, though.
Like blackjack, video poker has an innate mathematical edge in favor of the house even if you play perfectly. (There are some exceptions, but such games are rare. And playing well enough to get an edge on such games is equally unusual.)
One other way you have agency with video poker games is that you get to choose which games to play. Most expert VP players choose the games with the pay tables offering the highest return to player. That RTP is only achieved when you play with optimal strategy, but no amount of strategy will turn a bad pay table into a good pay table.
You also get to decide what stakes to play for, but the casino limits most of those. Several Vegas casinos specialize in offering video poker games with generous pay tables. But they keep the limits on these games low to avoid advantage players who want to make a living playing their games.
It’s great to find a casino game where you get a 0.2% edge against the house. But if it’s a quarter machine, you’re only able to put about $750/hour into action. The hourly earnings (expected) for that kind of action is only $1.50.
That’s not a lot of money, but it’s better than losing $3 or $4 per hour on average.
Agency and Slot Machines
The slots are the games in the casino where you have the least amount of agency. You can choose which games to play and at what limits, but that’s about it.
You’ve probably made your peace with the casino’s mathematical edge at this point in your gambling career.
But at least with all the other games in the casino, you can choose a game based on what that edge actually is. If you’re willing to do even a tiny amount of research, you can learn the house edge of any casino game you play besides the slot machines.
But the slot machines don’t list their payback percentages. They do have pay tables, but those pay tables don’t include any information about the probability of winding up with any of those symbols on any given stop.
Also, the slot machines take your money faster than any other game in the casino. The rate of play is lightning fast—although you do get to decide how fast or slow you play—and the house edge is higher on a slot machine than almost any other game in the gambling hall.
It might be worth playing slot machines in Colorado or Nevada, but in most other states, the payback percentages for the slot machines are atrocious. We’re talking about a house edge of 15% or more in most states, compared to a house edge of 8% or so in Nevada or Colorado.
And even that 8% is terrible when you compare it to the house edge for blackjack, craps, roulette, or basically any other table game.
You might prefer not to have a sense of agency when you gamble. You might prefer leaving it entirely in the hands of fate or God. If that’s the case, slot machines might be the game for you.
But they’re not the game for me.
Games like Baccarat, Craps, and Roulette
Most of the table games like baccarat, craps, and roulette require no significant decisions from the player other than how much to bet and which bet to make.
Craps provides an illusion of control, though, because at least part of the time you get to roll the dice. I don’t believe what the dice control salesmen are selling, but if they’re right, you might have more influence over the outcome at the craps table than you think.
Of course, the smartest decision is always to take the bet with the lowest house edge.
But some players prefer taking long shots. In the movie Hard 8, for example, the main character is an old retired gangster named Sydney. The movie gets its title from his insistence on always betting 8 the hard way.
Of course, if you’ve read anything I’ve written about craps, you already know that the only reasonably good bets at the craps table are pass, don’t pass, come, don’t come, and the odds bet.
All the other bets are sucker bets.
Baccarat is just a game of coin tosses played with cards. You don’t get to decide whether to hit or stand like you do in blackjack.
Roulette is another game of pure random chance. The only reasonable strategy for roulette is to try to find a European (single-zero) wheel with en prison rules in effect, reducing the house edge.
The Illusion of Agency and the Power of Superstition
It doesn’t matter how many times I write about random chance and how the math behind casino games works, people still believe all kinds of superstitions related to gambling. The one thing all these superstitions have in common is that they provide the illusion of agency for the player.
Some people think that the loosest slot machines are located near the aisles. To these people, they can improve their probability of winning by choosing these machines instead of the machines in the center of the banks of slots.
Of course, there’s no credible evidence to believe that the location of the slots has anything to do with their payback percentages. This was possibly inaccurate when it was first introduced as an idea, but it’s almost certainly without merit in today’s casinos.
But people love to cling to the idea that they have some control over outcomes, so they choose to believe something like this and play accordingly.
I have a really smart friend who’s absolutely convinced that you can figure out the timing of a slot machine’s random number generator because, according to him, “it’s not really random.”
In a sense, he’s correct. The program runs through the numbers one at a time, in order, and lands on a specific number when you hit the spin button.
But for all practical purposes, this doesn’t matter. The computer program is running through those numbers at a rate of thousands of numbers per second. When a computer program is doing that kind of volume, it’s impossible to catch any kind of pattern, because you can’t control the millisecond when you hit the spin button. (That’s faster than you can think.)
The Gambler’s Fallacy is another example of gamblers wanting to believe they have some kind of agency that doesn’t exist. This is the belief that probabilities for future events changed based on what happened during previous events.
Patrick is playing roulette, and the ball has landed on red 4 times in a row. He bets on black, assuming that red is unlikely to come up 5 times in a row.
What he’s missing there is that the probability on the next spin hasn’t changed. The formula remains the same—18 black outcomes versus 38 total outcomes, for a probability of 47.37% for black. (The probability for red remains the same—47.37%.)
Of course red is unlikely to come up 5 times in a row. But you’re not betting on red coming up 5 times in a row. You’re betting on the outcome of the next spin.
Some superstitions are even sillier than this. You might have a pair of lucky socks. Thinking that the socks you wear does anything to change the outcome at the craps table sounds like insanity, but lots of people believe that way.
They just can’t seem to handle the thought that some things are outside their control and/or influence.
Your attitude about having a sense of agency when you gamble has a huge effect on which games you should play in the casino. But even games where your decisions do make a big difference, like blackjack and video poker, are still mathematically in favor of the casino.
I’d encourage you to avoid magical thinking and superstition, though. That kind of thinking leads to losses you can’t imagine.