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An Insiders Take...
Dan Lubin, a Las Vegas game designer with Galaxy Gaming, provides High Roller Radio one of the most fascinating 'insiders' take on the casino-patron relationship, quality table game design and protection, advantage play and its associated costs' and the mathematics of the house edge. Terrific interview.
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Q: When designing a table game, what are some of the things you have to consider?
DL: This is going to male no sense to a lot of people but the casino and the player are actually a partnership. It’s not an adversarial relationship. Ninety-fiver per cent who come to casinos are high school principals, doctors, teachers, computer programmers, and they’re there to drink a glass of wine, let their hair down and try their luck. These are basically what we call ‘recreational’ players, clem players if we may say that. They’re there in good faith,straight up and just, not looking to abscond with money through nefarious means. They just want to have fun. If they lucky they leave a winner, if not they leave happy cause it was money well spent. These are people who are really important to the operators and the reason for our existence. Now, gaming is a recreation. It’s like the movie industry, going out to a restaurant, going out to a show, you’re there to have fun and the excitement of gambling. We’re not enemies, the casinos and the players, and we actually wouldn’t exist without one another, but it’s where the cards and the dice decide who’s the winner and who is favoured. It’s not anything nefarious, the dealer trying to shade or do anything to the deck. It certainly matters for a player wo wins and loses that night. The dealer’s work, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, and he really doesn’t care because it’s not his money. This is hard for people to see and believe from their own ‘money’ point of view but the dealer doesn’t care. The dealer’s only job is to be a referee. The casino is a referee. The card results or the dice result make the call. The dice and cards decide the winner. The dealer simply does the take and pay. He doesn’t care who wins and loses but there’s a belief that he does otherwise. A lot of gambler’s believe that. That is one of the things I really want to stress, that you’re in a partnership with the casino against or for luck. The casino is not the enemy. It’s a service provider. This is a fairly alien concept to a lot of gamblers, and especially to advantage players because they tend to take the view that the casino has to be the enemy, partly to justify what they’re doing. Now, I want to get onto how the casino makes it’s money. It makes its money, not by charging an admissions fee like a movie house or giving you a bill like a restaurant, it makes it’s money by charging one or two percentage points. A game, instead of being fifty-fifty, is really like 49% to 51% or 48-52 and it has to be that way in order for people to get paid, for the lights to stay on and al that jazz. So games are designed with a tiny edge and the casino makes it up by the volume of the action. They trust the math. They don’t want to scam any individual player, or nothing like that, they just trust the math and volume to take care of that particular income need. When you do anything to breach that house edge, that is official and required to be there, it’s a little like sneaking into the movie house through the fire door and getting in for free. That’s the analogy I use. When you destroy the house edge, to make money in a blind out career as an advantage player, t doesn’t cost the casino. The casino is always going to make its money. The casinos will have tougher rules, they’ll have a higher house edge, so what happens is that Mr. and Mrs. high school principal end up footing the bill for AP player to take some extra, unwarranted cash. That’s a problem because the people going to a casino in good faith, to let their hair down, to have fun, are actually covering the tab for someone else to call this a job, if you know what I’m saying. My position is that game protection is the responsibility of the casino and it’s also the job of the manufacturers, like a Galaxy Gaming, like Sfufflemaster, to make these games as trouble free and as fair as possible and to have them not be fraud-able. It’a the kind of thing where Mr. and Mrs. principal, instead of paying $80, might pay $120 for their gambling night because of AP issues. It does have a cost. The casinos seem to be a little behind the advantage players because the AP players are really dedicated, almost compelled, to do what they’re doing. It’s an exciting and illicit way of doing something but the casino workers and managers have mundane lives, it’s a workaday thing. When they go home, they’re not studying ways t stop AP players. They have wives and kids. It’s like the average casino worker is up against a navy seal teams. There’s still a lot to be done. There is an attitude ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ but there’s also a it of a drive. Let’s evolve, let’s get better at what we’re doing and we will, see the efficiencies given back to us if we do that.
Q: In your bio it sys, “Ex computer analyst and ex dice dealer," almost as if you’re equally proud of both jobs. Are you?
DL: Yes I am. I was a computer programmer and analyst in New York City for a private college, Metropolitan College, and I was one of the last old school main frame programmers. When I got downsized, I just sold my co-op, started life again here in Las Vegas as a retirement dealer and just never looked back. I then transitioned from being a dealer to game design.
Q: When one door shuts another always opens?
DL: Yes, and moving here was interesting. I came here with a little bundle of cash and was planning to have a quiet retirement life as a dealer. Many years before, when I was playing at the Stratosphere on vacation, I noticed a lot of seventy year old dice dealers. I knew I was being downsized at the time, so I asked them if this would be a old retirement career. They said yes, so that’s how I started my gaming career, I came to Vegas with plans of being a dealer but I got into game design. I kept analyzing the games I was dealing. One of the things I noticed? The quarters on the Pai Gow table are completely unnecessary, that there should be some sort of mechanism to make it commission free, that has the same house edge, the same play. This would avoid change making, no introduction of errors due to the slowing down of the game, and this is how I came uo with EZ Pai Gow. If the dealer gets a Queen high hand, and only a Queen high hand, there’s no action on the flat bit otherwise all hands are live. The game is 20% faster, it feels fairer to the players, and it is, and that was my first big hit as a game designer.
Q: So os that your jobs, to make games smoother and faster?
DL: Not always, sometimes it’s brand new stuff, a brand new gimmick, a brand new mechanism that;’s exciting and fun to play, but sometimes a new game variation is simply fixing something wrong with the game that we always just accepted or didn’t even notice. I’m one of two full-time game designers in Vegas. You really don’t need that many. When you look at the casino floor there are really only six types of games that represent 95% of the action. You really don’t have to produce many games. You have to produce one or two blockbusters like Ultimate Texas Hold’em or EZ Pai Gow. It’s not like being a screenwriter where Hollywood has an appetite for a thousand screenplays a year. Maybe only one or two new games could be introduced to American casinos. You may discover something that is broken, and you have a better way, but it’s very hard to find that eureka moment. Also, keep in mind that if you do come up with a new game, you have to produce something that’s better than blackjack, better than craps, better than roulette, you have to create a monster. Quite often, when people come home and they’;re playing with cards and trying to figure out a troubling hand they had at the casino earlier that evening, and they come up with an idea, it might not be that good. Ninety-nine out of 100 aren’t good. One of of 100 germs of an idea are good. It’s very hard to determine, in your own opinion, how good it is. From that point you try to describe it as to how you would deal it in procedure, and that;’s why dealers and gamblers make better game designers than someone who is not instinctually knowledgeable.
Q: What are some of the best games in the casino? Games that work well in every area?
DL: On the top of the list, I would have to say it’s Roger Snow’s Ultimate Texas Hold’em, a very brilliant design. It’s exciting. You can press your bet early on if you think you’re in a strong position at the ole cards point. You can make nice size bets that pay generously when you make a monster hand. The house edge is really very tiny, and hidden. It’s discreet through the 'anti-equal' blind bet mechanism. It’s just a brilliant design. It’s effortless to play if you understand poker and it’s extremely satisfying. Highly volatile but enthralling to play. It’s one of the top games to play. He came up with that after four-card poker and crazy-four poker, those wore warm-ups. My game really cleaned up the game of Pai Gow Poker. And, three-bet blackjack by Jeff Hall is really hot. You can spit for free, you can double-down for free, it’s the same as standard blackjack but every thing is free to the player, the additional action like splitting and doubling-down. The payback for that is, if the dealer gets a 22 your hand is a push, so another great game.
Q: What about card counting? And, other advantage play and how it relates to game protection?
DL: On a slot machine, once it’s been designed and the house rules developed, if you’re not sicking a light wand or a coat hanger into you’re pretty clean on a slot machine. In blackjack it is an official rule, even though it’s not broadcast, that card counting is not allowed. On a blackjack table a pit boss can come up to you and say, 'I’m sorry sir, we’re running a business here, you’re affecting my profits and we have to let you go.’ If they’re misguided and doing something they’re not supposed to then just kindly ask them to leave, and even give them a comp in good faith. At video poker and slot machines, anybody who is not sticking a light wand or a coat hanger into the thing is really not breaking any house rules aside from winning. If the mathematics of the slot machine were correct and fundamentally sound, it would average out to the coin-in they expect and the player return they expect. The fact that there is an optimal strategy available for any game, as well as the average player strategy, or ploppy strategy for any game, and you have to factor in and incorporate both into game design. In other words, ‘What’s the best play this game will ever see?’ If that level of play is a loss for this particular device or game, then we have a problem. We assume that when manufacturers release a slot machine the mathematics are correct and that situation was taken care of. The perfect play, the James Scott level play, should not be backed off for playing legal strategy and by the rules, which they are doing on slot machines.
Q: Once a game is designed, it must have to go through all these checks before being released to the public?
DL: Yes. We basically have math laboratories specializing in, there are two of them used for approval now in Nevada. Before that, any renowned gaming mathemetician could file a report and that would be acceptable. They still are but now they want an official business laboratory, specializing in gaming mathematics, to approve these reports. On table games, it’s basically the house edge and dealing procedures but what is often overlooked is the game protection math. Is the game accountable? Is it Fraud-able? The reason this happens is because most game designers try to ale a game fun, easy to deal and easy to survey. They are not thinking enough about game protection. In any case, all of these games are thoroughly examined in order to be approved by the respective gaming jurisdictions. It is assumed the onus is on the developer and the casino operator.
Dan Lubin Thank-you!