"Gambling" Banned in Las Vegas
by Joe Harkins

    There’s no gambling in Las Vegas. The word has all but disappeared from the local public relations vocabulary faster than this town’s late King of Rock 'n Roll ever left the building.

    If you ask a popular Internet search engine to list all web sites that mention both Las Vegas and gambling on the same page, you’ll not find a single hotel or casino among the first 100 listings. That's because virtually all local properties avoid using the word "gambling." In that standard policy lies both a lesson in semantics and a caution.

    Las Vegas has gaming, not gambling. Lacking that little "bl" in the middle, the dreaded and despised word "gambling", with its nose-wrinkling whiff of risk and ruin, becomes a cozy term denoting fun and, yes, games.

    The morning line agrees. Gambling bad; gaming good.

    Gaming is a big business. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitor News Bureau’s most recent annual summary of local economic activity announced that the 1,577 gaming licenses in the area it serves won $6.15 billion. However, the relentless expansion of casinos in the Connecticut woods, the Jersey Shore, the Indiana dunes near Chicago and even the bible-belt backwaters of Mississippi, has caused the growth-curve of Nevada gambling revenues over the last year and a half to become flatter than a deuce dealt face down.

    Nonetheless, call it gaming or gambling, Las Vegas is still the biggest and the best. It not only continues to offer bet-the-mortgage poker and hot running craps, but the town also experiments with new games.

    Results are mixed.

Red Dog - War - Faro

    Red Dog (an aggressive form of poker) and War (a money version of the loud but tame game you played as a kid) have not attracted much of a following beyond a handful of smaller casinos and their loyal clientele. Faro, a game from the era of sawdust on the floor and six-guns on the table, has quietly folded its green cloth and left town like a guy who tried, once too often, to draw to an inside straight.

Pai Gow

    Some newcomers, such as Pai Gow and its Wild West variant, Pai Gow Poker, have taken root in the desert sands. Pai Gow, originating in China and played with 32 tiles, is also known as Chinese Dominoes.

    Up to eight players (including the dealer) are dealt one stack (4 tiles) each. Dice determine who plays first. The object of the game is to match the tiles into two pairs for the best ranking combinations.

    A player wins by beating the dealer with both of his pairs of tiles, or loses by having both pairs be of lower rank than the dealer’s or, if one set of player’s tiles is higher and the other is lower, it’s a "push" or draw and no money changes hands.

    The dealer slot moves counter-clockwise among the players, that is, each player has the opportunity to deal against other players. The dealer can win, lose, or push against any player.

    Pai Gow’s system of tile values and hand-ranking is more complicated than the directions for getting to your hotel room without passing through the casino.

    Pairs of tiles are either "Wong" or "Gong" and may make up any of 16 pairs known as "Bo" but the ability of a Wong or Gong to make a Bo has nothing to do with the dot count on a given tile’s face. Only certain combinations count.

    It’s as if the famous Chinese curse that originally wished you "an interesting period in history" has been paraphrased to, "may you hold an interesting Wong or Bong but even if they are Bo that doesn’t mean you’ll win."

Pai Gow Poker

    That might explain why Pai Gow Poker, played with a deck of cards but simpler rules, is a more popular variation. You’ll find it at larger casinos.

    To a standard 52-card deck, a joker is added. That joker may be played either as an ace or to complete a straight or flush. The bank deals itself and each player seven cards.

    One hand will contain five cards and is known as the "high hand." The other two cards form the "low hand."

    Cards and hands in Pai Gow Poker are ranked according to traditional poker values (ace, king, queen, jack and number value, etc.) The object of the game is to win the bet by having both the high and low hands rank higher than the respective hands of the bank. If a player’s both hands rank lower, the bank wins. If only one of a player’s hands is ranked higher than the respective hand held by the bank, the wager is called a "push" and is refunded.

    The bank handles all bets and charges each winning wager a five-percent commission. Stakes vary from table to table but are generally high.

The Slots

    By far, the most popular activity in Las Vegas is playing the slots. Under Nevada law, a slot machine must pay back at least 75% of what it takes in, or conversely, by implication, it may keep one out of every four coins played.

    Some casinos advertise the generosity ("looseness") of their slots as traffic-building promotions. Consensus among experts consulted for this article has it that machines at airports, gas stations and convenience stores are the "tightest" while those in some casinos may be looser.

    According to a spokesman for the Nevada Gaming Board, state inspectors constantly check looseness claims. As long as you are careful to understand the language of the claims, you probably can find a few machines with better pay-outs.

    For example, a sign that boasts, "We have the loosest slot machines on the strip" would require only two old 25-cent machines back in the corner to satisfy that claim. But all the other 500 or 1,000 or more shiny, new, dollar-per-play machines in front of the room might be set to the maximum 25% "keep" allowed by law. Sometimes, a casino employee will help you identify looser machines in the room. Remember to tip if you win based on their advice.

    Just keep in mind that there are almost 127,000 licensed slot machines in Las Vegas and not one of them ever fails to earn back its cost. In fact, the average newly-installed machine in a busy casino does so in less than two days.


    The ultimate in gambling simplicity is Keno (pronounced: key-noh), a game you can play while playing other games or eating lunch. On a game card, you choose a set of numbers from one through eighty. The house draws 20 numbers at random and these are displayed on monitors throughout the public areas. Runners sell the tickets and often will even will deliver any winnings. The type of ticket, the amount bet and how many of your numbers match those drawn determines the value of wins.


    Craps is a macho game but its energy and pace appeal to both sexes. The shooter shakes the dice (in hand or cup depending on house rules) and rolls them down the table so they bounce off the far end.

    If the shooter rolls a 7 or 11 on the first roll, players with money or chips on the painted "Pass Line" win. If craps (2, 3 or 12) are rolled on the first roll the house wins that money. If one of the other possible numbers (4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or10) are rolled on the first pass, that becomes "the point" and the shooter continues to roll until that point is rolled again. If a shooter "makes his point" that is a win for the shooter and bystanders at the table who have placed bets down on the marked surface of the craps-table within either of the lines marked "Pass" or "Come"). However, if 7 is rolled before the point is seen again, it’s a win for the house and for those who placed their bets on the "Don’t Pass" and "Don’t Come" lines.

    Large sums move with a single roll. Even if you don’t go near the tables, the excitement around a hot shooter ripples throughout the room with the speed and force of a desert flash flood.


    Roulette is a more stately game, one that evokes images of white-gloved royalty beneath candlelit chandeliers. There are 36 numbers plus a zero (and usually a double zero) on both the spinning wheel and the table grid. If you bet the single winning number, the pay-out is 35 to one. Simultaneously betting combinations of numbers appeals to theorists with "a system." However, that double zero is one more chance for you to lose but the pay-out doesn’t change. This explains the phrase, "the odds are stacked against you."

Blackjack (21)

    Blackjack (also called "21") is one game that promises talented and alert players a measure of equality against the house. The dealer gives each player two cards and deals two for the house, usually one up and one down. The object is to draw cards that total 21, or come as close as possible to 21, but not go over.

    After each player has drawn cards without exceeding 21, the dealer turns up the hidden card. In most casinos, house rules say that if the dealer’s two cards total less than 16, the dealer must draw additional cards until he reaches 17 or higher. If the dealer’s first two cards total 17 or above, the dealer must stand pat and cannot draw. Not all houses follow the same rules, but those rules that apply usually are printed right there on the playing surface of the table.

    Any player may then continue to draw cards until the hand exceeds the dealer’s count, in which case the player wins. However, if the player goes over 21, the dealer wins. When the dealer and the player tie, it’s a draw.

    Casinos do not believe in giving a sucker an even break. In the days when only one deck of 52 cards was used, a "card counting" player with a retentive memory might keep track of which cards had already been retired from play, then bet accordingly based on the certainty of the remaining possible cards. By introducing multiple decks and reassembling the discards more frequently, casinos have largely eliminated that as a strategy.

    Still, there are individuals with extraordinary abilities who can track multiple decks. Those, the casinos deal with by the blunt method of outright exclusion from the premises. Every house in Las Vegas keeps a book, complete with full-face photos, of persons believed to be clever enough to win at blackjack by counting cards.

    Whenever one is recognized, either by a floor-person or one of the hundreds of hidden video cameras that monitor everything, security personnel escort the "offender" from the premises and send out an immediate alert to all other casinos that such a person is back in town.

    However, betters who have studied the odds of how often any particular number-total can be built from specific hands as they appear may use that insight to adjust the amount and timing of their bets. Betting systems based on the concept are described in various books and there are professional blackjack players who claim to be supporting themselves with this skill.

Beating The House

    Still, if you are tempted to double your kid’s college fund on any of Las Vegas "games", just don't forget that all the glitter and plaster-over-chicken-fencing architectural fantasies around you were paid for by previous bettors with the same foolish fantasy. If you think you might come out ahead, or worse yet, you’ve already learned that you can’t, keep this phone number handy; 702-385-7732. That’s the Las Vegas Chapter of Gamblers Anonymous. Their answering machine message will guide you to direct personal contact with a counselor at any hour of the day or night.       -30-

originally published in Convention News Daily, October 1998

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