Sunday, May 20, 2012

Taking the Kids to Vegas? Really? Part 6: Slot Clubs and Positive-Expectation Promotions

This is the sixth in the series "Taking the Kids to Vegas?  Really?"

Part 1:  Intro and Helpful Hints
Part 2:  What to Do
Part 3:  Where to Stay
Part 4:  Where to Eat
Part 5:  Deals and Finagles
Part 6:  This Page

First of all, let me get upfront about what you probably already realized:  This page covers topics you CAN'T do with your kids.  The title is very misleading and whichever blogger cavalierly posted that should be ashamed of him or herself.  Nonetheless, anyone over 21 can do the following, and any bottom-feeder worth her silt who is going to Las Vegas should know about slot clubs and positive-expectation promotions. So let your sweetie spend a few hours at the pool with the kids, and do a coupon run.  Or, since you will need a membership anyway to get the lower price on the buffet, why not just sign up while the rest of the family is waiting in the buffet line.

If you haven't already read about Don Johnson (no, not that Don Johnson), occasionally referred to as "The Beast of Blackjack," I recommend doing so.  What is important about this story, and what is relevant to the casual gambling public such as you and me, is not what you might think is important.  I don't suggest you learn to play perfect blackjack or expect to be treated like someone who bets $100,000 per hand.  First-timers can read about him in the Atlantic, and you can read a little more detail about the numbers here.

What Don Johnson got out of the Atlantic City casinos, which is relevant to the rest of us 99%, is an edge.  In his case, he was able to negotiate with desperate and naive casino managers to refund a percentage of his losses.  Blackjack has a slight edge in favor of casinos of about 1% if played perfectly without counting cards, and it may even tip in the gambler's favor depending on the rules.  (Card counters have a distinct advantage over the casino, until they are persona non grata.) If you play perfectly and you can negotiate a refund on 20% of your losses, you clearly have an edge which, over the course of a few days of playing, can and did cost several casinos millions of dollars.

With respect to comps that the rest of us would think to envy, Don put it best:  "What can they give you – a suite? Big deal. You’re not even spending any time up in the room... If they give me the right game and the right discount, they could give me an umbrella on the beach."

Be Like Don

The reason I brought up Don Johnson is that many casinos in Las Vegas will give you an edge if you sign up for their slot club.  Specifically, the casino will refund your losses in promotional play on slots or video poker, and/or give you free promotional play, just for signing up with the slot club.  You will also usually need to sign up for the slot club to take advantage of other discounts and coupons.  For example, slot club members will pay a couple dollars less for the entire party at the buffet than groups with no slot club members.

If you have never joined a slot club, doing so should be one of your first items of business on your next trip to Las Vegas, as soon as you can get your spouse or companion to agree to watch the kids for an hour or two.  The sign-up promo won't be 20% of ten million dollars, but it might be 50% of a couple hundred.  Not bad for a bottom feeder.  On a percentage basis, which is what matters, you may be offered a considerably better edge than Don Johnson received.

And you don't have to play perfect blackjack to exploit it.  However, it is worth taking a little time to learn the basics of video poker.  Then you can play a very low-risk strategy and almost certainly walk away with more cash than you came with.  More on this shortly.

Many slot clubs offer especially good promotions only the very first time you sign up for the club.  It is worth doing some research to find out what is going on, since this may be a one-time chance that you won't want to waste on a non-promotion.  Some for the latest slot club promos that I have found are:

This is Huge

As of this writing, in May 2012, the richest slot club sign-up promo I have ever heard of is going on now at the Riviera.  The Riviera is offering to refund up to $1000 of your losses at slots or video poker in promotional play!  This is such a good deal that it will likely not last very long - hopefully long enough for you and me to take advantage of it.

Note: if you have never signed up for a slot club before, you may want to try a different club before trying the Riviera promotion, just so you get some practice.  If you do not go through all the steps, you may not receive the full value of the promotion.

Be Prepared and Do Your Homework

If you are reading this, you already know the importance of research.  Given the high stakes, it is especially important to do your research before your first sign-up.  Here are some tips:

  • Sign up in person at the slot club booth, not online.  Most promos are available only when you sign up for the first time.  If you sign up ahead of time, the promos may not be available.
  • Ask questions about the promotion and make sure you understand exactly how to get your promotional play.  If you don't follow the directions exactly, you may miss out on some of the promotion.  
  • You will need to give your name, address, and email.  They may ask for ID at least for your address. On the plus side, they will usually send you discount offers once you are in the club, some of which may be very interesting.
  • If you have any coupon books, etc, check them for additional promotional coupons.  You can usually use multiple offers at the same time while you get the sign-up promo, and they may be even better when you are signing up for the first time.
  • Always ask if there are additional promotions when you sign up.  Often they will say no, but that answer is no worse than not asking.
  • Look at the rebate schedules and/or relevant promotions and establish an amount you are willing to play and a stopping rule for yourself.  Then, stick to them.
There are typically a few general types of offers that you will see:
  • Promotional Play gives you slot or video poker credits.  Once you load the machine with your free credits, any winnings will be paid in cash. You do not need to spend cash out of pocket to use the promotional play.
  • Promotional Play Refunds give you slot or video poker credits up to the amount, or a percentage of the amount, that you previously had lost playing.  This requires cash spent out of pocket, but gives you a positive expected return on your money (meaning if you play a careful low-risk strategy, you should be able to walk away with more money than you started).  Note that the slot club will not pay you cash for your losses.  Rather, they will give you credits for more slot play up to an amount equivalent to your loss, or a percentage of it.  If played carefully (see my method below), you are likely to win back an amount that is somewhat close to your slot losses.
  • Match Play Coupons are often available in coupon books and sometimes in the newspaper or accompanying your receipt in a restaurant.  You play a match play coupon on an even money bet along with the cash needed to bet, and get paid twice as much if you win.   If you lose, you win nothing and they take the coupon.  
  • Extra Credits for slot club points.  I don't play nearly enough to take advantage of these and won't be discussing them.

Avoid Giveaway Days

It probably will be out of your control, but days in which the slot club is giving away some kind of gimmick can mean long waits in the line at the slot club desk.  I've had to wait 20+ minutes because everyone wanted an Orleans teddy bear or some other useless tchotchke that will clutter up the car trunk until the next yard sale or trip to Goodwill.

Low-Risk Strategies

If you are anything like me, you find slots and video poker to be boring.  I never play slots, and I usually only play video poker for one of the following reasons: 
  • To kill time and/or get cocktails for nearly free, usually at a 5 cent video poker machine (a couple dollars can last quite a while if you are playing relatively slowly)
  • To lull myself to sleep when I have insomnia and the rest of my family is up in the hotel room, usually also at a 5 cent VP machine
  • To exploit advantageous plays, meaning that I am more likely to win money than I am to lose money.  

This discussion concerns the last reason.  In my case, the probability of winning needs to be pretty high because I know I'm not a great video poker player.  However, I'm not above keeping the American Casino Guide in my lap opened to the Jacks-or-Better strategy table, or a similar table printed from the Internet, while sitting at my machine until told otherwise.  If you are new at video poker, I encourage you to swallow your pride and do the same thing.  If you really have chutzpah, why not bring a piece of scotch tape and tape the strategy table onto the machine right below the buttons. I encourage you to remove the paper and tape and take them with you or toss them into the garbage once you are done.  Personally, I will try to shrink the table down using a photocopier so that I can keep the table in my hand.  

Slot club promotions make this happen.  Playing rudimentary video poker strategy (such as by using a strategy table while playing) without promotions should give you a theoretical return of about 97% of your money, give or take based on variations in rules and how well you can adhere to the optimal strategy.  If there is a promotion involved, that theoretical return increases to substantially above 100%.  Similarly, other promotions such as match play bets on table games have the same effect.

My understanding is that using a strategy table is not considered by casinos to be cheating.  I have done it both at blackjack tables and while playing video poker in full view of casino staff.

To take maximum advantage of the slot club, allow yourself plenty of time, at least an hour, or considerably more in the case of a rich offer such as that at the Riviera.  The first thing to do is select a game to play.  I suggest Jacks or Better video poker, because the rules are straightforward, the game has a very small house advantage, and the strategies are easiest to find in books and on the Internet.  "Jacks or Better" is a game that returns your bet if you get a pair of Jacks or higher and you actually win with two pair or better.  There are no wild cards.  Other VP variations include those with deuces wild, etc.  but these have different rules and different optimal strategies.

Make sure the game you are playing matches as closely as possible the strategy table you brought with you; different VP games have different pay structures and strategies.  The "9/6" Jacks-or-Better games have the best return among Jacks-or-Better machines, but are extremely rare, and are likely already being used by professional video poker players.  "9/6" refers to the payouts on hitting a full house or a flush:  a full house pays 9 coins for every 1 coin you bet, and a flush pays 6 coins for every 1 you bet.   More likely you will find an 8/5 or a 7/5 Jacks or Better game, with those payouts.  The only other variation is the royal flush payment on maximum coins bet.  (Actually "coins" is something of a misnomer since most machines now only take bills and payment tickets, but the denomination is the same.  If I refer to a 25 cent game, betting 5 coins means I am betting $1.25.)  If the promotion is large, such as the aforementioned Riviera promotion, sit at a table with the largest denomination you can afford.  Often, $1 or higher video poker games will offer better rules than $0.25 games or smaller.  For example, the same machine may allow you to select a denomination, and provide 8/5 if you play $1 but only 7/5 if you play $0.25.

Two Phases, Two Approaches to Cash Management

When using a promotion to play video poker, I play differently when playing my own money in anticipation of refund credits than I do when I am playing the promotional credits.  Basically, the fact that you can expect a nearly full-value refund means that you should play your own money as aggressively as possible.  However, if you are playing promotional credits (either given to you as a refund on your losses from your own money, or as a free incentive without any loss required), if you are not really into playing video poker for its own sake, you may want to take the cash-out approach.

Playing with your own money

If the offer did not provide up-front promo credits, just put your card in along with some cash to begin playing.  Be sure to put your card in the machine to play.  Otherwise you won't get the promotional value.  Also, be sure to take your card with you when you leave.  Many slot clubs will give you a coiled bungee-type cord with a locking hook on it to tether your card to your belt, absolutely free of charge.  Why not use that cord along with a fanny pack to make a sartorial statement. Let us know what you would be saying with yours in the comments. Or, invoke the "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" doctrine.  

To take maximum advantage of a refund promotion such as that at the Riviera, you will want to bet in the highest denomination possible.  When playing your own money, your goal is not to get the maximum refund. Rather, your goal is to win.  However, you can dig deeper into your pockets knowing that you will be getting  promotional play to offset your losses.  In other words, instead of playing 1 credit per hand at a 25 cent machine, this is the time to use your guts to play 5 credits per hand at a $1 machine, or more if allowed.

That is because if you win, you will get a much bigger payout.  Last year, the Tropicana had a promotion  similar to the Riviera's, although less lucrative, and I played using a strategy table and hit a 4 of a kind on $5 bet.  It paid $125, at which point I stopped playing.  Since I won, I didn't have to go to the slot club to get my refund credits.  Had I lost, I would have gone back to the slot club for the promotional play refund and played that using the cash-out approach described next.  In retrospect, I should have at least checked back with the slot club to see if I had any losses, since I played many hands that did not win before hitting the 4 of a kind.

For example:  Suppose I know I am normally willing to lose up to $50 of my own money playing video poker, but with a 50% rebate promo I'd be willing to spend up to $100.  (Your comfort level will probably be different.)  In this case I could play up to $100 hoping to hit a big payday such as a royal, by playing the maximum coin bet on a dollar machine, or greater denomination if it is allowed.  Before starting, I would give myself a stopping rule, such as stop playing if I hit a 4 of a kind or better, or stop if I reach $200, etc.  More experienced VP players may want to comment.

In any case I would need to make sure I am conforming to the rules of the rebate promotion, and then when I am done I can go to the slot club booth to claim my rebate.

Remember, even if you think you have won, it is worth going to the booth to see if they rebate the times you played and didn't win.  Also, the first-time signup promotions are only available the very first time you sign up, so try to maximize the value of the promotion if you can.

Promotional Play (Playing with the house's money)

If you are taking advantage of promotional play, after getting your instructions from the slot club desk, the first thing to do is to get your credits.  (If the promotion is a refund, such as at the Riviera, you only do this after first playing with your own money and then going back to the slot club for your refund promotional credits.)  

After you have sit down at a Jacks or Better machine and possibly ordered your first complimentary beverage, get your promo credits using the instructions given to you at the slot club.  Usually this involves putting in your slot club card into the machine, entering a pin number on the keypad, and then possibly a series of other buttons on the keypad in a specific order.  It will sometimes ask you for a choice of promo denominations to load into your account; I recommend transferring the maximum amount you are given all at once, although that probably isn't necessary.  Once you have loaded your slot club points, you can start playing using your strategy tables.

In this case, my personal strategy is no longer to play to win.  Rather, I would play to get as much cash out of the machine as possible.  That way I can come as close to getting the advertised promotional cash as possible.

The confusing part

Once you start playing, you see the number of credits you have at the bottom of the screen.  Credits are coin equivalents, for example 1 credit on a 25 cent game is worth 25 cents.  To a casual player, it is not at all obvious how much you have won in cash and what your promotional credits are.  This is how the casino tries to get you to play through all of your credits and walk away with no money.  However, there is a way around this.

The antidote

The best (only?) way I have figured out how to separate out my cash winnings from my promo credits is to press the "cash out" button after every single hand that I win.  (In this case, a "win" includes a push, such as by getting 2 jacks, since that will pay cash)   I will go to the window or a redemption machine with 15 to 20 tickets, but all are redeemable for cash and you can feed them all into the redemption machine at once before getting your aggregated payout.  Every time you press "cash out", the machine will deduct the credits that have cash value (i.e. that you have either invested in cash or have won in video poker) and keep the promotional credits in the machine, which can only be used as more bets on video poker.  You will slowly whittle down the promo credits, and accumulate pay tickets on each hand that you win.  On an 8/5 Jacks or Better machine, it would be unusual to use this cash-out approach while playing in accordance with a strategy sheet and walk away with less than $6 or more than $14 on $10 in promotional credit invested.

In this case, you may want to play a lower-denomination game to bring your expected payout closer to the promotional value.  That is, if you have, say, $25 in promotional play, playing 5x dollar denomination will give you only 5 hands, which will likely result in zero pay tickets if you have a streak of bad luck, or perhaps one or two large pay tickets that may total substantially more than $25.  If you instead play 5x 25-cent denomination, you will be able to play 20 hands, some of which will lose and some of which will win small amounts, but the total will likely be in the range of $20 to $30.

Once you have run through your promotional credits, you can take your several cash out slips and convert them into cash, which you can then use as you please.

Other Postive-Expectation Promotions

In various coupon books such as the American Casino Guide, Las Vegas Advisor, etc, you may find coupons for other promotions, such as match plays.  These also have positive expectation, meaning that it is a bet to your advantage, and as such, would be the best possible use of your gambling dollar.  These are mostly match play coupons, meaning you put down the coupon along with a cash bet, and you win 2x your bet if you win, or lose both the cash and the coupon if you lose.  You will also see other coupons occasionally, such as a free blackjack ace (a valuable card), etc. which are good plays also.

The expected value of the coupon is the match play amount multiplied by the probability of winning.  For example, on a $5 match play that you use on blackjack, the expected value is approximately $5 x 48% = about $2.40.


  1. "I will go to the window or a redemption machine with 15 to 20 tickets"
    You just re-feed all the tickets into the machine, press cash-out again, and will have ONE combined ticket.

    1. Indeed. The best ideas are the simplest ones. Thanks.

  2. Well, try playing off $100/$200/$300/$500 free play coupons.... LOL I'd wind up with 100 tickets using your method... :-) I prefer to just 'loosely' keep track of hands.


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