Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Return to the Light

Now, in my defense, I did say that the blog was going to go dark for a while. I expected it to be a couple of weeks, and I expected that once I was online I'd go back to blogging as irregularly as ever. It didn't work out that way, but only because I didn't actually write anything. Stuff continues to happen.

I'm in dealer school for the new Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan, as I wrote earlier. I thought I'd have written all about what I learned each day in class, but after the first week, that wouldn't really have been that interesting. Hmm, I probably should go back and read my last post to see what in fact I said, because I know a couple of misapprehensions of mine have been laid to rest, and I don't remember which of those I put to (virtual) paper last time I wrote. But, rather than do the sensible thing, I'll plunge ahead recklessly.

Big Man on Campus (and everywhere else)

I had expected to learn all of the casino games, seeing as we are to be in class for twelve weeks. When I learned that we were only to be learning craps, I was surprised: What could we possibly do for twelve weeks? That we were to learn (at the time, I thought) the "carnival games" (which is all the table games except Blackjack, Craps, and Roulette) also, helped somewhat, but I've been led to believe that each of those takes only a few hours to learn. So what would we do for twelve weeks?

That was at the beginning of class. I didn't know a lot about craps; the pass-line bet with odds was about as far as my knowledge went. The rest looked complicated when it was on the layout (when I would walk past a game), but I figured it'd be easy enough to learn.

Nothing has really been that hard to learn, truth be told, but if they had given us the whole game in the first two days and said, "now do that," I wouldn't have been the only one to gibber in confusion. What they did was actually quite a bit better. The whole first week, they had us simply "cut checks," meaning practicing setting out the number of chips we wanted off the bottom of a stack, and practicing some of the (initial) stickman's calls. ("Two, Craps two, Line away, Don't to pay, Double the Field.") I still thought the pace was a bit slow at this point, but there are people in the class who don't have it down even yet, so maybe I'm wrong.

The second week, they finally introduced us to some of the betting, specifically, the Pass line, the Don't pass, and the Field bets. No mention of taking or laying odds at this point; they wanted all the bets to be paid at one-to-one. Paying the field double turned out to be hard enough for some of the folks, although this at least, most of my classmates are now able to do.

Most of the second week is spent practicing at stick and at base (the dealers who aren't the stickman are "base dealers") with those three bets. The third week, we're introduced to the Come and Don't Come bets, which mean that suddenly the base dealers actually have to do real work, in moving bets.

The fourth week we were introduced to Pass-line odds, progressively: One day, we learned how to pay odds on the 10 and 4, the next on the 9 and 5, and the next on the 8 and 6. They also introduce us to laying odds on the Don't-pass line, but don't have us practice that.

The fifth week, which we're currently in, they start having us practice with players laying odds on the Don't-pass line, as well.

Since the end of the second week, they're having us practice for twenty minutes a day at each dealer position, or an hour (of the four) of total practice, per day. The rest of the time that's not spent in drills or instruction, we're mock players, shooting the dice and making bets with fake-money chips for our classmates to practice taking and paying. (The last couple of days, we haven't all had turns at each position, because they've had us doing drills at the end of class. When I realized this, I started making strategic moves to ensure that I got my full share of practice at both base positions, where I'm least smooth.)

I spent the first two weeks in the afternoon class, and the succeeding weeks in the evening class, for reasons I'll get to later in the post. The afternoon class didn't really have anybody who "wasn't getting it," but I still classed myself as the number-two person in the class, of about fifteen. In the evening, I'm probably second, again; I know less about the game than some of my classmates who've been playing craps for years, but some of those people aren't terrible smooth, either. I like what I overheard the teacher say during a break, today: That everyone in class is good at some things, but not-so-good at others. And that's probably right.

The evening class, though, has a couple of people who "aren't getting it." One, in particular, seems to have a permanent deer-in-the-headlights look, particularly as a base dealer. If someone helps him—"pay that guy $120"—he can do it, but often he doesn't know why he's paying that guy $120. We've lost a couple of others who weren't getting it. One of them went to go learn blackjack, and I hear that she's actually doing okay there.

Nanny and the Professor

There are two people teaching the craps classes, both of whom came from Greektown Casino in Detroit. They're to be pit bosses (or is it shift managers?) once the casino opens, but for now they're teaching us. Chris teaches the morning class, Morris ("Moe") teaches the evening class, and they're both there for the afternoon class. Although the two are pretty good friends, mostly, they are very different people. Morris is very much like "old-school" casino management, and Chris is "new-school." Moe is a very easy-going guy who shows steel from time to time, while Chris is a very professional person who has to make a conscious effort to relax and "hang out." They're about the same age, thirty or so, and it would be interesting to see who ends up advancing farther within the casino industry.

Since that time, other trainers have been hired, who, again, are likely to be our pit bosses and shift managers. The two I come into most contact with both came from Atlantic City, and are teaching Blackjack and Roulette (separately). One of them is very professional, but so intense that I wouldn't want to spend much time with him. The other screams "mob" from every pore of his being, but if he really has any mob connections he must keep them quiet enough to escape the notice of New Jersey's gaming commission. He's another guy who seems very much to be old-school casino-management material, and (likely) a good guy to hang out with.


I finally got a tour of the casino a couple of days ago. It's big, much bigger than any of the casinos in the local area. (To be fair, those others are mostly on boats and are therefore limited in size.) The only casino that comes close in size within a few hours' drive is Soaring Eagle in Mt. Pleasant, and I'm not sure which is bigger. Certainly Four Winds is better designed; the restaurants are nicer, and they'll do a lot better job with their retail. But in actual casino floor space it's not clear that Four Winds is bigger (though it probably is). I'm also not sure how the casinos in Detroit stack up against Four Winds, as far as casino floor space goes, because those are mostly broken up onto several levels. Like the Detroit casinos, though (and unlike Soaring Eagle, or the boats), Four Winds will have high-limit and VIP sections, somewhat separate from the main casino floor. Though I haven't played in either of those sections at other casinos, I kind of like how they're laid out at Four Winds.

The design of Four Winds is such that the building can easily expand in any direction, and in fact they're already planning their first expansion (to add more hotel rooms). Let's see, what other tidbits…the slots, which are already being brought in, appear to all be of the ticket-in, ticket-out (TITO) variety, meaning that the quarter slots don't actually take quarters.

…and Poker

The biggest knock against the casino is this: The poker room will have something between 16 and 20 tables, but they'll all be of the electronic variety. The casino's management company is Lakes Entertainment, Lyle Berman's outfit, and (I'm told) Berman has a piece of PokerTek, the creator of the electronic tables. So, to some extent, the local management doesn't have much choice in the matter. That said, they're more than willing to re-evaluate the situation and put in live games later.

Pretty much every poker player I've talked to, thinks that this is a really bad idea. Even those who take a wait-and-see attitude (like me), don't exactly think that the electronic tables are a brilliant idea. In fact, no poker player I've talked to has said, "Hey, that's neat," or anything like it. The single big advantage I see is that the rake might be lower. They're talking 5% to $4, but that's three months before the place opens, and a lot of things might change between now and then. ($4 is a bit lower than average in this part of the country, but 5%, rather than 10%, is a huge difference in small-stakes games.)

Gil, specifically, says that this is really poor customer service, because poker players want live games. He says that a fairer test would be some live games and some electronic games, to see which players prefer. And in their defense, the management did consider that, and rejected it for reasons that make sense to them. I pointed out to Gil that they already will have that situation: There's another casino fifteen miles away that deals live poker (Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City, Indiana).

Off the record, most individual management people believe that the electronic tables will fail, and that they'll have to put in live tables. One person in particular, who I probably shouldn't mention in case anyone related to that casino reads this, gives the electronic tables three months. That accords with my guess. If so, they'll do a two- or three-week poker dealer training class, and open live games. So they are open to changing their minds, which is a good thing. (If Soaring Eagle were to do this, and the electronic tables failed, they'd conclude that nobody wants to play poker, and put in slot machines.)

The upshot of all this is that the main reason I'm not in training to be a poker dealer is that there won't be poker dealers. At least, not yet.

Gil and Dagny

When I came down here to talk to the casino about becoming a dealer trainee, Gil was my ride, as I probably said in my last post. They asked him, as well, to join the class, but he demurred. He couldn't see driving all that way to attend a class to do something that he probably wouldn't be able to do, to wit, stand on his feet all day and deal craps. So I came down here alone, and spent the first couple of weeks riding a bicycle in to the casino. (The trip is flat enough, but before then, I hadn't been on a bicycle for twenty years. I worried a lot about whether I'd be able to manage it.)

Then Gil's daughter, Dagny, lost her job. I had mentioned to her previously that Four Winds was hiring dealer trainees (and, in fact, still are, select "table games" and "dealer trainee"). Once she applied, she was called, and she and Gil came down a bit over two weeks ago. They invited her to come and train in blackjack, and this time, Gil began training as well. (I assume that he figured he'd be driving her down here anyway.) Since Gil still has a business to run, he chose to come during the evening session, which worked just fine for his unemployed daughter.

But it also means that I don't have to ride a bicycle in to class every day. I'm only a couple of miles from the casino, where I'm staying, but it's still not terribly comfortable for a 300-pound guy to ride a bicycle for transportation. So I've asked Gil to swing by and pick me up on his way in, and drop me home on the way back, and (so far) he's obliged me.

Mostly, Gil, Dagny and I don't have much contact during class. I go play some fake-money blackjack with them from time to time, but they don't come shoot dice. Possibly craps is (are?) too intimindating even for fake money, but more likely they would feel like they're intruding at a game with six or eight people gathered around, rather than the one or two at a blackjack training table. Occasionally our breaks coincide, though.

Gil told me something interesting today: He figures he'll do this for a couple of years and then be a poker pro. This is the first time he's really said that poker pro was among his ambitions, and it surprised me. His reasoning is sound, though: He'll be making good money at the casino, and he'll obviously still be playing poker, likely more than he is now. In a few years, he'll be vested in Social Security, so he'll have an income of sorts. By that time, he figures to have a good idea how he stacks up against the competition, presumedly in medium-stakes games, and will know whether he can indeed "take his show on the road," so to speak.

I reserve judgment.

A Strategic Question

This might belong in a separate post, but a fellow student brought this up to me. It's always been presented to me that if you're going to play craps, the best (or least bad) way to play, is to play the Don't-pass line with maximum odds. And it's true, that this bet, looked at as a whole, has a small house advantage; the size of which depends on what the house maximum is on its odds. Four Winds is expected to offer 10× odds; with 10× odds the house has a 0.124% edge on the combined bet (see here). But:

It's not a combined bet. Let's say you put $10 on the Don't-pass line. That bet has a house advantage of 1.364%, or an EV of −14¢. Now (regardless of what the point is) you lay maximum odds. That bet pays true odds, with no house advantage, or an EV of 0¢. So, in other words, you've now put out $110, to give the house that same 14¢ of EV. In other words, you have the same EV, but you're increasing your variance drastically.

I didn't have a great answer for this when it was presented to me, but I have one now. Check me, please, to see if I'm missing something.

Whether to take or lay odds depends on why you're playing craps in the first place. If you're trying to stretch your time at the casino, giving up 14¢ of EV every time you bet $10 isn't so bad. If you've got a couple of hundred bucks, you could stay at the table for quite a while just on those $10 bets. You probably won't lose much, but you probably won't win much, either.

But if you're really trying to win money at the game, then far from trying to reduce your variance, you are seeking it out. That $110 with next to no house edge is a pretty good bet; you'll win almost half the time. Sure, a casino will trade even-money bets with you forever: They have more money than you do. But a player who makes one or two of those $110 bets is a lot likelier to leave with a good chunk of the casino's money than the guy who makes a couple of dozen $10 bets.

It seems like I should be able to wrap up this last point with something profound, but I can't do it. The concept was new to me, that taking or laying the odds doesn't actually change your EV, and so I wanted to puzzle it out. Now I have.

You know what the worst thing about living in Indiana is? The Detroit Tigers aren't on cable, here.


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It appears you have finally found the intellectual challenge you've been seeking while playing poker.

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