John Grochowski

John Grochowski John Grochowski John Grochowski John Grochowski

A shuffle through the Gaming mailbag:

Q. I was playing penny video slots next to a lady who was playing two games. She wasn't waiting for anything to stop. She'd hit one button then right away do the other machine. Even during free spins on one, she kept playing the other.

I joked that it was all I could do to follow one game, there was no way I could keep track of two. She said it was the best way to get a hot machine, that casinos alternate loose slots and tight slots, and once she figured out which was the loose one, she'd stop playing the other one.

That seemed unlikely to me, but she said it in deadly earnest.

A. It seems unlikely to me, too.

Manufacturers do make games available with different payback percentages, and its up to casino operators to decide which to offer players. Two machines that look the same from the outside could have differences in hit frequency that lead to different long-term returns.

But differences on video slots usually are fairly narrow, and casinos usually don't trouble themselves to alternate games with different paybacks. It's become increasingly common for casinos to choose one percentage for a bank of games of the same type.

What if a casino did alternate high- and low-paying machines?

All slot machines have hot and cold streaks as a normal outgrowth of probability. Even if two neighboring machines had different long-term payback percentages, short-term streaks could lead the player into choosing the lower-paying machine.

Q. I don't count cards and I never take insurance. I don't even take even money on blackjacks or insure my 20s, even though I've had dealers and other players tell me that would be the smart thing to do.

I've read that card counters sometimes take insurance if the count is right. What hands do they insure? Is it most important to insure blackjacks and 20s? Is a pair of 6s too much of a crapshoot to insure? Where is the dividing line?

A. Insurance is a separate bet from your regular blackjack hand, and needs to be evaluated separately.

When the dealer has an Ace face up, you may take insurance by making a bet half the size of your original wager. If the dealer then has a 10-value face down, your insurance bet is paid at 2-1 odds. The effect is that your win on insurance cancels out your main hand losing.

Your cards have no effect on whether then insurance bet wins or loses. Only the dealer's cards matter.

Insurance would be an even bet if a third of the cards were 10 values, but only 30.8 percent are 10s, Jacks, Queens, Kings and Aces.

If a card counter knows that more than a third of the remaining cards are 10 values, then the odds swing and the player has an edge on the insurance bet.

When the player has an edge on insurance, that edge applies regardless of the player's cards. In that case, it becomes an advantage play to insure regardless of whether the hand is a 20, a pair of 6s, a soft 14, a hard 5 or any other total.

With more than a third of remaining cards being 10 values, the odds favor taking insurance on any player hand. With less than a third of remaining cards being 10 values, the odds favor refusing insurance on any player hand.

The average situation favors declining insurance, so that's the correct basic strategy play. You need knowledge of the count to make taking insurance profitable.

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