You Can Lead a Horse to Water… Or Can You? . August 2000

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You Can Lead a Horse to Water… Or Can You?

by Andrew N.S. Glazer

On Sunday, April 9, I held a casino gambling seminar at the Troy Marriott.  The price ($79) was reasonable for a seminar that long (six hours), the location reasonably central and easy to find, the teacher relatively well-known and respected from his column in the Detroit Free Press, and the subject matter critically important to the thousands of Michiganders who have been losing more than a million dollars a day to Detroit's new casinos.

Given that set of circumstances, you (and I) might have expected a pretty big crowd, even if I cleverly failed to notice, in planning the event, that April 9 was not only the final day of the Masters golf tournament, but also the last Sunday before the April 15 tax deadline.

A whopping 14 people showed up (17 if you count the camera crew from WKBD, Channel 50, whose Sherry Christian did an interview with me.  I'm always glad to oblige the TV people, especially anyone from UPN, since they air all the Star Trek shows I love so much.).

The question, for this master strategist (or so my poker and chess opponents usually call me), was WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED?

Let's skip over the problems with the Masters and income taxes, and the point that one attendee mentioned, which was that most gamblers have a hard time getting up for something that starts at 10:00 a.m. on a Sunday (this fellow said he'd have rather paid the same $79 for a three hour seminar that started at 1:00, just so he could sleep in), because people reading this aren't really interested in the seminar business: they're interested in gambling.

There are some pretty important lessons about gambling that I learned here.

On the same trip, I visited and played at all the local casinos, including Windsor, and came away firmly convinced that (not surprisingly) the average Michigan gambler isn't as good as the average Las Vegas or Atlantic City gambler.  That's not surprising, because there are many more new gamblers in Detroit, and new gamblers don't gamble as well as experienced gamblers.

Detroit certainly isn't the only city where I've taught gambling seminars.  I've given them in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Atlanta, and a few other smaller towns.  With the exception of one seminar once in San Diego, this was my smallest crowd anywhere.

These two sets of facts didn't seem to fit, at first glance: I would have expected that a city that contained a higher than average percentage of novice gamblers would bring out more attendance, not less… until I realized one important fact.

You have to know you don't know something, before you decide you want to go out and learn it.

Most relatively new gamblers are ignorant (a VERY different concept from "stupid": ignorant means "I don't know" and stupid means "I don't care" or "I can't/won't learn") of the complexities and subtleties of the various casino games.  With the help of casino ads that understandably emphasize fun and glamour, they tend to approach their casino experiences in one of two ways.  They think either that they have no chance to win whatsoever, and so taking time to study is silly, or that because the games are games of chance, they will win if they are lucky and lose if they are unlucky.

The novice fails to realize that Lady Luck usually helps those who help themselves.  While a good craps (or "Dice," as they label the game in Detroit) player cannot beat the tables long term (unless he or she is a cheat, in which case s/he isn't a player, but a cheat), s/he can lose FAR more slowly than a novice, have far more winning sessions, get more bang for the old gambling buck, and even have extended periods where win follows win.

How so?  Someone who plays the pass line with full odds is bucking a house percentage of about 0.60% (depending on what odds the casino will let you bet; the 0.60% figure is for double odds).  Someone who bets the Field is bucking a house edge of more than 5%, nearly 10 times as bad, and actually it's much worse than that, because on the Field bet you get a decision with every roll of the dice, whereas with the pass line bet, you only get a decision once every few rolls.  If you favor the hard way bets, the numbers get even worse.

So you and I can be standing at the exact same craps table, with the same person rolling the dice, be equally lucky, and if I'm playing the pass line with full odds and you're playing the field, you rate to lose about 30 times as fast as I do!!!

More experienced gamblers start to sense things like this, even if they don't know the actual percentages involved, just as they start to sense that playing blackjack by "feel" doesn't work over the long run.  If you don't learn basic strategy, you should probably change your title from "blackjack player" to "major casino donor."  More experienced players realize that they want to shift from guessing what's right to knowing what's right.

So what I came to realize about my relatively low Michigan attendance was that (aside from my own scheduling errors), the Michigan audience probably did not yet have enough experience with losing to understand the need for some additional gaming education.

Please understand, I'm not getting down on Michigan folks.  I've loved Michigan ever since the days I went to undergrad at U of M.  This was just the confirmation of a phenomenon that I should have guessed from the attendance numbers in New York (close to Atlantic City) and LA (a very quick and inexpensive shuttle flight away from Vegas) compared to my other seminar sites, and it's a phenomenon I would expect to see repeated anywhere gaming is relatively new.

(And by the way, please spare me the emails saying that if I'd gone to MSU I never would have made the scheduling errors!)

Will I return to Michigan for another seminar?  Probably, although I think it won't be until 2001 (a combination of other commitments and a desire for the populace to learn more about its need to learn).  But whether you come to a seminar or not, it's important, for your gambling experience to be more pleasurable (and occasionally more profitable) for you to remember a few things:

1) Even in pure chance games like craps, there are good bets and bad bets.

2) In games of mixed chance and skill like blackjack and pai gow poker, it's critical (and not that difficult) to learn the correct strategy.

3) Money you fail to lose has just as big an impact on your trip result as money you win.

4) Luck is the residue of design.  The more prepared are, and the more you study your game of choice, the luckier you'll become.

Keep an eye peeled for my column Fridays in the Free Press, and may the Force be with you.

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Andrew N. S. Glazer, a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazinecalls a "poker scholar," is the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites. Glazer also teaches gaming seminars nationally.  His book Casino Gambling the Smart Way is available at most bookstores.