You’d think that gambling and the gaming industry are very mysterious things. Many people seem to be totally uneducated about the simplest things that make up gambling.
For example, don’t casino customers know the odds are stacked against them? Don’t they realize that casinos worth millions or billions of dollars can’t be built on the backs of winners? There’s a built-in casino advantage—house edge—to gambling that makes it a very lucrative business.
Do people win sometimes? Sure, they do. That’s what makes it so thrilling for those who enjoy gambling. But there seems to be a blind spot for many people who think casinos can’t survive unless the house wins a hefty percent of the money wagered.
Even with that hefty percentage, casinos are way more player-friendly than lotteries or horse racing, which keep more than 50 percent of the money wagered by their players.
So why can’t people learn? It’s really not that difficult. Table games are the best games to play in a casino because, in general, the house edge is lower than 10 percent. They’re much more volatile, meaning that there can be days where the casino actually loses money at tables. Information is widely available on the internet for anyone who cares to do a short Google search.
Slots are more predictable, for casinos and players alike. Casinos set their “hold” percentage at a specific level depending on the regulations or market conditions. Regulatory agencies report in general what the hold percentages are in their jurisdictions, so it’s no mystery. Players just have to look it up to see they’re not getting the better of it when playing slots.
When I was editor of Casino Player magazine in the late 1980s, we turned the “hold” percentage around and called it the “payback” percentage. After all, a 90 percent payback sounds much better to a player than a 10 percent hold. There were only two legal jurisdictions in those days—Nevada and Atlantic City. In New Jersey, the Casino Control Commission reported the hold percentage from every casino, as well as the hold percentage of each denomination of slot machine—this was before you had the “multi-demon” machines you see today.
We thought this was a valuable piece of information, and even teamed up with CDC Gaming Reports to award “Certified Loose Slots” certificates to casinos that would give us access to their hold information to provide third-party verification of those facts. We believed that would guide players to the casinos and machines that paid back the most. And while there certainly were a handful of devoted players who appreciated this data, the vast majority of players just didn’t care. (Of course, it depended on how the casinos marketed that certificate to really take advantage of it.)
In general today, there are many woefully uneducated players who only have the vaguest notion of how the games work. Ironically, they seem to be more knowledgeable about how the players clubs work, and how much they need to gamble to reach a certain level of comps. Casino folks call it “aspirational” play, and make it part of their marketing plan. I’m a member of many casino and gambling groups on Facebook, and the number of posts about players clubs far exceeds the posts about gambling and odds.
Now there are some ongoing efforts to educate players on odds and playing conditions. One is the GameSense program, originally developed in British Columbia, which has been incorporated by MGM Resorts for all its properties. Hard Rock International just launched a similar program. Both these programs educate players about the rules of the games, the odds and the volatility of the games. They also offer assistance for players who have problems with gambling.
This is just the start. The American Gaming Association is committed to educating players so they can make informed decisions when they play, and enjoy casino entertainment responsibly and without harm. The “Get to Know Gaming” (G2K) program is an excellent representation of the industry, filled with facts and figures.
But will the players respond? In my 40 years in gaming, I haven’t seen a great thirst from the majority of players for the education that could make casino gambling more fun and profitable. I guess for many of them, gambling is an escape from their regular lives, where they’re generally educated and understand what they’re doing. Maybe it’s not that important to them to be informed.
But that doesn’t mean the industry shouldn’t keep trying—if only to show that the information is out there. It’s up to the individual players to decide what to do with it.