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Escaping Vigorish

Speeding up the game by eliminating the speed bump

Escaping Vigorish

To vig or not to vig. That is the question.

Whether ‘tis wiser in the pit to

suffer the coins and calculations of outrageous fortune—WTF is 5 percent of $2,375, anyway?—or to take up lammers and collect them later? Talk about a sea of troubles. And by opposition what, stop the practice altogether and lose money?

Ay, there’s the rub.

Whether or not casinos should continue charging a vig (or a “tax” or a “commission”) on certain bets in certain games is indeed the question. The answer, however, comes not courtesy of Shakespeare’s Crown Prince of Denmark but rather Mattel’s 8-Ball of Magic: “Outlook not so good.”

Scour the world and you’ll find a handful of games that deduct commission from some or all winning bets: 1) baccarat; 2) pai gow poker; 3) pai gow tiles; 4) three-card baccarat; and 5) fan tan.

OK, to be honest, you really had to do some serious scouring the find the last two, but hey, they’re out there. You just have to know where to look. And then be willing to go there.

Which we were. And we did. And lived to tell about it.

Over the next two months, we will dig into each of these games—two now, three in May—and explain how to best remove commission from them, if such is your desire. But before shoveling the first scoop of dirt out of the ground, let’s clear a little underbrush out of the way.

The truth is that nobody likes commission. Nobody. Not the customers, who occasionally find themselves in disputes over its accumulation; not the dealers, who constantly find themselves calculating 19/20ths of any amount they can count; and most definitely not the casinos, who invariably find themselves looking for ways to speed up game play, not grind it. To. A. Halt.

Commission endures not because people think it’s good and wholesome and fun; rather, because of the understandable unwillingness to fix what appears to be working just fine, thank you very much. Gamblers play the hell out of these games—well, the hell out of baccarat and pai gow poker, anyway—so why monkey around?

But maybe, just maybe, the slow pace of change is about to change.



By far the most popular game in the commission club, with 10,000 tables around the world, and growing. And growing and growing and growing. Everyone thinks baccarat comes from Asia, but it actually comes from Italy. So, basically, it’s the opposite of spaghetti.

In the standard, commissioned version, casinos take back 5 percent of all winning Banker bets. Necessity is the mother of this convention: The game’s drawing rules favor Banker over Player 46 percent to 45 percent, with ties accounting for the rest. If casinos didn’t collect a toll on Banker wins, that’s all people would bet on. And then, faster than you can count from 0 to 9, the table would hemorrhage all its chips out of the rack.

The most widely used version of commission-free baccarat takes one specific event—Banker winning with a three-card total of seven points—and makes it a push. The second-most widely used version takes another specific event—Banker winning with a point total of six—and pays it 1 to 2. While both methodologies result in similar house advantages, the former is considerably faster.


Pai Gow Poker

Though not a juggernaut in the class of baccarat, pai gow poker—the slow game with the funny name—is hardly a lightweight. Instead, it’s one of the most popular poker-based titles in the history of table games.

And also unlike baccarat—or pai gow tiles, three-card baccarat and fan tan—this is not a game with an overwhelming Asian clientele. It’s much more Occidental than Oriental: it’s poker-based; it’s from Southern California; it’s played almost exclusively in the United States and Canada. You would be hard pressed to find a single table in a single casino in Macau, Singapore or Malaysia, or anywhere in the Far East, come to think of it.

Casinos typically employ two countermeasures to create a house advantage on pai gow poker: they win ties; and they charge players 5 percent commission when they beat the dealer. Combined, these yield a mathematical edge of about 2.6 percent.

Because pai gow poker’s earning power is already handicapped by its leisurely pace and propensity for pushes, when casinos stop charging commission, they typically start doing something else. They have to reclaim that lost edge back, right? Yes, with the notable exception of Washington state, where custom dictates not charging commission nor implementing some new rule to goose up the house edge. In other words, geographical proximity notwithstanding, if you’re going to play pai gow poker, the Pacific Northwest and its 1.5 percent house advantage is like literally your best bet.

There’s good news if you don’t operate a casino in the state of Washington and you don’t want to continue charging commission. You’ve got options. Lots and lots of options:

If the dealer’s entire seven-card hand contains less than a pair, all player bets win 1 to 2; if the player’s entire seven-card hand is Queen-high, all player bets push; if the dealer has a Joker in his hand, all player bets push; when the dealer’s two-card hand is 9-high, all player bets push; when the dealer yawns and checks his watch twice in a 10-minute interval, all bets made by left-handed players with red hair lose half their bets.

Hey, just seeing if you’re paying attention.

To be continued . . .

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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