Why it's Harder to Win BIG at Craps

A lot of players question my “recreational” slot play as being foolish. Fact is, I set aside a specific potion of my bankroll for slot play on every gaming outing. These players tell me I should stick to craps because the game has an extremely low house advantage to begin with. By limiting their bets to Pass and Come or Don’t Pass and Don’t Come, then taking or laying Free Odds, these craps players cut the house edge to well below one percent. With a little bit of skill it’s easy to gain an edge over the game and lock up a win.

So why do these savvy bettors often find their sessions less rewarding than slots or some of the higher-edge table games such as Roulette or (God forbid) slots? The answer lies in the volatility of the game.

Volatility is the variable that causes those huge swings in bankroll. “Natural” winners and winning flat bets only pay 1 to 1 in craps. You bet five dollars – and if the wager wins you win five dollars. In order to win substantially more than a unit or two here and there you have to risk substantially more or place a higher vig wager.

On the other hand, slots players and those who play the higher edge table games often experience wider swings due to payout schedules featuring returns ranging from a few dollars to gigantic jackpots – all for the same nominal bet. On a slot machine, you can luck out and hit “the big one” for a single wager. Just last week I sat down at a slot machine as the woman beside me dropped $1 in and win a $1800 jackpot. To score a comparable win at craps you’d have to parlay a $1 hard six to $10 – then to $100 – then hit it two more times.

For a big score in craps you have to get lucky – not just once – but on a long run of wagers that increase in size over the course of the streak. Betting $5 on Pass and taking 5X odds, then making two Come bets with odds for the same amount, can expose a player to a hit of $90 or slightly more, yet bring in no more than $55 on any one throw. A $1000 bankroll is marginally adequate for a long session with these bets. Picture, though, how hot a table would have to be for those $35 to $55 wins to offset the $90 losses and add up to $1800 in winnings our slot player locked up. Then you start to understand the volatility of the low-edge game.

Do I recommend playing slots? Not at all. Do I play them? Just about every time I go to the casino. It’s a cheap enough way to “rent” a chair when I want to take a break from standing at the craps table. And who knows? I might even get a lightning strike.

I do take a systematic approach to slots. Here’s my dirty little secret. I head to the high limit area and look for any machine that a player won on. There’ll be three symbols aligned on the machine and the payout meter will read “Winner Paid” and show a number of coins paid. Example, Winner Paid 40. On a $5 machine that’s $200. What I’m looking for is a machine that’s in its pay off cycle. Yes, slot machines have random number generators and every decision is a random, independent decision. But they’re also programmed to yield a certain percentage of wins, and I’ve tracked enough machines through the years to know that the machines tend to clump a lot of smaller wins building up to a larger “jackpot” win. Then they clump up some smaller wins before going to sleep for the next ten thousand or so decisions. I’m looking for a machine that’s (hopefully) building up toward a jackpot. When I find that machine I sit down and slip a $100 bill in the slot. I give it six pulls at $5 (or $10 if it’s a $10 machine). If it gets any hit in those six pulls I start over and give it six more pulls. I continue until it goes six decisions without a hit – or it gives me a hit that yields at least a 50% win. If it gives me a 50% win I cash out and go looking for another machine.

Last week in Vegas I found such a machine. I put $100 in and it hit for $180 after a few pulls. I cashed out $240 and took it to another machine – this one a $1 nine liner at $9 a pull. In short order it kicked off a $300 win. I took my ticker for $400 over to a $25 machine. I had sixteen shots at hitting something, but only intended to use six of them. On the first spin it hit for $200. I played those units off plus two more and it hit for another $100. This continued until it finally hit for $800. I cashed out an even $1000 for a $900 slot session win over the run of three machines.

No, it doesn’t always work out like this. The next night the same machines were all sound asleep. I ended up giving $300 back, but limited my losses and still walked with a win for the week.

All in all, slot play accounted for about a third of my wins for the week in Vegas – and it was a VERY good week. They REAL key to this is just like craps. Plan your play and play your plan. Limit your losses and have a solid win goal in mind that you stick to. Or, as I often say, get in, get up, and get gone.