There’s an old notion that gamblers shy away from table games—and toward slot machines—because craps, blackjack, sic bo, et al. are just too gosh-darn complicated for their own good.
Shut up, you old notion. Go outside and shake your fist at a cloud, why don’t you?
Table games too complicated? More so than slots? Check your EPROM, pal. You’re on tilt. Table games are much, much, much easier to understand than slot machines. Beat the dealer? You win. Don’t? You lose. That’s it. Game over. Literally.
But whatever. For the sake of argument, let’s humor this fantasy for a minute. If table games are indeed the kings of confusion, then who is the king of kings? Which is indeed the most confounding, perplexing, puzzling one out there? Hmmmm.
And away we go, NCAA-bracket style:
Three Card Poker vs. Blackjack: The most popular proprietary table game vs. the most popular public-domain table game. But as it turns out, this contest is no contest. Three Card Poker is pitifully simple: fold if you have less than Queen-Six-Four. Th- th- th- th- th- that’s all, folks. Blackjack, on the other hand, has an array of decisions (when to hit, stand, split, double, surrender) that require many hours—as opposed to one-tenth of a second—to memorize.
Baccarat vs. Craps: Baccarat is a glorified coin flip. It’s 100 percent luck. Craps is also skill-free, but mastering the game requires a knowledge of more than 50 bets, some that are settled immediately and others that are settled at different points of the roll, and some that can be made only after something else happens first.
Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em vs. Sic Bo: Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em is the youngest entry, while sic bo is the oldest. In fact, it’s so old that nobody knows its exact age. Could be 500. Could be 2,000. And sic bo is as straightforward as it is ancient: we’re talking three-dice roulette. The dealer pops the dice (or spins them in a birdcage contraption) and reveals the results. Whereas sic bo has zero strategy, Ultimate has oodles: raising, checking, folding, counting outs. It’s by far the toughest table game ever to play perfectly, even if you’re Rain Man or Deep Blue.
Winner: Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em.
Pai Gow Poker vs. Roulette: Let’s see. One of these games has a funny name, a 53-card deck, a semi-wild Joker, no No. 4 on the layout, a complicated set of rules for the dealer’s hand, and a 19-to-20 payout. The other game has one ball and 38 pockets.
Winner: Pai Gow Poker.
Blackjack vs. Craps: When Jimmy the Greek handicapped football for CBS in the 1970s and ’80s, he would list the keys to victory (running game, defensive line, coaching, etc.) and put a check mark next to the team he thought had the advantage. In the end, whoever had more checks would get the Greek’s nod. Paying homage to that, blackjack wins three matchups: mathematical complexity, mastering basic strategy and mastering advanced strategy (i.e., card counting). But craps prevails in four categories: difficulty to deal, difficulty to learn, physical demands (you have to stand) and physical dexterity (you have to throw the dice).
Pai Gow Poker vs. Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em: No game in this field can run and gun with Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em when it comes to the difficulty of mastering advanced strategy. There are countless internet posts on how to bet, collude and even cheat your way to winning. If that were the sole criterion, this would be a blowout. Like UNLV 103, Duke 73. Pai gow poker, on the other hand, is just an all-around pain in the fanny. Besides everything mentioned in its round-of-eight rout of roulette, it also has the funkiest dealing procedure of any casino game. The first hand doesn’t automatically go to the player farthest to the dealer’s left; instead it goes to the position chosen randomly. To make matters messier, the dealer must deliver all hands to all player positions, even if they are unoccupied.
Winner: Pai Gow Poker.
Craps vs. Pai Gow Poker: Innovation and automation have started to erode what makes pai gow poker so difficult to play and to deal. Forty percent of the tables are now equipped with a device that tells the dealer how to set his hand according to the prescribed house rules. (It can also help players do the same.) Plus, casinos are converting more and more games to “commission-free,” thus eliminating that oddball 19-to-20 payout. Shufflers and random-number generators are also helping to de-mystify the game.
Craps, however, is stuck in a time warp. And apparently, that’s just the way it likes it. Nothing about the game is easy—playing it, dealing it, supervising it, surveilling it—and neither innovation nor automation is coming to the rescue anytime soon. Players must know when and where to drop their bets. They must know when to take odds, when to lay odds, and how much to put down to cover their action.
And in that vein, they must know the differences among double-odds, full double-odds and 3X-4X-5X odds. They must know pressing and power pressing. They must know placing and buying. They must know which bets are on and which bets are off after the shooter makes the point. And they must know, above all else, that you never, ever, ever shoot from “The Don’t.”