Over lunch at a casino buffet, my friend Will and I got into a discussion about roulette.
It was unusual because Will is a blackjack player who doesn’t play roulette, but he raised a point about bringing the high house edge on American double-zero roulette more in line with other games. At roulette, the house has a 5.26 percent edge on all bets but the five-number wager on 0-00-1-2-3, where the edge is 7.89 percent.
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You get a much better deal on the best bets in craps (1.41 percent on pass, 1.36 percent on don’t pass, less if you take advantage of free odds or laying the odds), Three Card Poker (2.01 percent of total wagers on ante-play with an easy strategy), or baccarat (1.06 percent on banker, 1.24 percent on player), and blackjack basic strategy players can drive the edge to less than 1 percent at most tables.
Will wanted to know if there was an easy fix.
“Casinos probably have too much money invested in double-zero wheels to change them out for single-zero (with a 2.7 percent edge),” he said.
“But what if they tinkered with the payoffs? How close do raising payoffs by a unit come to balancing roulette with other table games?”
I told him there was more to it than expense in equipment. Casino operators are happy with roulette as a high house-edge game. When new wheels are added, they’re almost never of the single-zero variety.
Some casinos, notably in Atlantic City, reduce the edge on wagers with even-money payoffs, such as red or black, odd or even and 1-18 and 19-36. In A.C., the player gives up only half his even-money wager when the ball lands in 0 and 00. That drops the house edge to 2.63 percent.
But to address Will’s point, let’s look at what adding a unit to the payoff would do to the house edge on inside bets.
Single number: The true odds of the ball landing on any given number are 37-1. The house pays 35-1. If the payoff was 36-1, the house edge would be 2.63 percent.
Split (two numbers): True odds are 18-1, and the payoff is 17-1. An 18-1 payoff would be true odds with no house edge.
Street (three numbers): True odds are 11.67-1 and the payoff is 11-1. At 12-1 payoffs, the player has an advantage.
Corner (four numbers): True odds are 8.5-1 and the payoff is 8-1. At 9-1, the player has an edge.
Five-number: True odds are 6.6-1 and the payoff is 6-1. At 7-1, the player has an edge
Double street (six-number): True odds are 5.3-1, the payoff is 5-1, and raising the payoff to 6-1 would give the player an edge.
So the simple step of raising payoffs by a unit either leave an even proposition or give players an edge on all inside bets except single numbers.
That’s simply not going to happen. What would be needed to bring the house edge more in line with other games is to pay off in fractions. If split bets paid 17.5-1 instead of 17-1, the house edge would be 2.78 percent.
That’s not happening either. Casinos are not going to ask their dealers to learn to pay off in fractions, nor will they equip their tables with chips of less than $1 to make up the change.
If operators actually wanted to bring roulette in line with house edges on other games, the easy way would be to use single-zero wheels. There doesn’t seem to be any interest in going that direction.
Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).