Bet Smart!

By Robert Cancellaro

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The scene is a familiar one - a weekday morning around 11 a.m., seniors flood onto the main floor of a casino, heading for the glittering bank of slot machines that will hopefully make their day trip worthwhile. While some position themselves strategically in front of their favourite machines, others meander towards the free or very inexpensive buffet that is an enticement in itself. Depending on the onlooker, this scene can be interpreted as a well-orchestrated stampede of sheep to slaughter or a happy, content gaggle of older people out for a day of fun.

Gambling (or gaming as it is sometimes called) generates few tepid feelings. You are either for it or against it! One thing is for sure - gambling is ubiquitous, and one of the fastest growing industries in the world. All the provinces (although Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick have no casinos) and 48 of the 50 United States (not Hawaii and Utah) permit some kind of gambling. Just about anywhere you travel, there are places to gamble - slot parlours, poker rooms, bingo halls, race tracks, racinos, off-track betting parlours, full-service casinos, and every convenience store on every corner sells lottery tickets of some kind. Over 75 per cent of Canadians have gambled in the last year and a healthy portion of those are people over age 60.

Depending on whose statistics you accept and what slant the researcher is championing, anywhere from less than one per cent to over four per cent of those who gamble can be categorized as problem gamblers. Yet, when these statistics are broken down further by demographic, a slim two per cent of senior gamblers fall into the “at-risk” category, the lowest at-risk percentage of any group. All of which raises the question, why do seniors gamble?

Unlike younger, even adolescent, gamblers who are more likely to gamble for excitement and financial gain, seniors typically gamble for social reasons. According to the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation in its 2010 report, *Seniors and Gambling*, the majority of seniors see gambling as an “opportunity to socialize,” a way “to be entertained,” and a means “to have fun.” The dangers of excessive gambling, well reported in the media and sensationalized to the point of fear in some communities, often do not apply when it comes to seniors. Chiefly because of age and experience, seniors are more apt to “know their limits” than any other group.

The fact remains that any kind of gambling involves putting some money at risk. Unaware and compulsive gamblers often do that willy-nilly. Smart gamblers put their hard-earned dollars into play with the full knowledge of the odds they are facing. Becoming a smart gambler is well worth the time and effort required.

The easiest games to play are often those that carry the lowest odds of winning. Bingo is easy to play but the odds of winning are against you and dependent on the number of people playing with you. Increase the number of players and your chances go down; decrease that number too much and the people running the game will lower the jackpots. If there are 1,000 players in the bingo hall with you, someone will ordinarily get a regular bingo within the first 10 numbers called; increase the players (or the number of cards they are playing) and it will take fewer balls to find a winner.

Smart bingo players invest the least amount of money needed to play all the game options - regular games and special games. They play as many cards as they comfortably can and hope for the best. In many cases, the money invested goes to charity; in other cases, it helps provide the free coffee and treats that bingo halls liberally dispense. Bingo is enjoyable and social – have a good time and you are a winner!

Slots are another case altogether. The old-fashioned three-reel one-armed bandits are long gone in most modern casinos and so are the somewhat reasonable odds of cashing out at least a little something. Older slot machines had three reels with 17 characters on each reel. Lining up the jackpots involved one chance in 17 X 17 X 17 chances or 1 in 4,913 - long odds, but it did happen once in a while.

Today’s electronic giants have any number of reels and any number of characters and the chances of winning are far less and not at all determined by how quickly or slowly you crank the handle, or how many times you pat the machine and urge her on, but on some random number generator embedded deeply within the circuit boards of the computer (yes, a computer!).

Smart gamblers know that different denomination machines are set to payout in different percentages, and the higher the denomination (a 25-cent machine as opposed to a penny machine) the better the payout. Five-cent machines generally pay out at rates close to 90 per cent of the time while dollar machines pay out at the rate of 95 per cent of the time. What that means is for every $100 you put into those machines, the nickel machine will return $90 and the dollar machine will return $95.

All of that, of course, happens over thousands and thousands of chances. The casino wins 10 per cent of your money, in one case, and five per cent, in the other. If you are lucky you may win the jackpot along the way, provided you know enough to play the maximum number of units on each pull, and have the gumption to get up and walk away while you are still a winner. Play slots judiciously and, if you ever do get ahead, quit and come back again later.

Any gambling game that involves skill is a game you should consider. Blackjack has “rules” (mostly when to take a card and when not to take a card) that allow you to reduce the casino’s edge to less than one per cent. Playing craps and making pass line bets and taking the full odds the house allows can reduce the casino’s take to about one-and-a-half per cent. A roulette table with a zero and a double zero affords you no better odds than a dollar slot machine. All the other casino games are highly disadvantageous to players except Baccarat, but that can be extremely boring.

Sitting down at a poker table may be the best bet in a casino for anyone. Learning how to play is fairly easy - getting good at it takes some experience, and digesting a few good poker books is helpful. Of all casino games, poker involves more skill than any other. By learning how to play, learning how to “read” other players, and learning how to manage your money, the skill part of this game reduces the “luck” factor significantly. And keep in mind that the casino allows you to exercise all of your skill since they are cutting their share out of the pots and when you win you are taking another player’s money, not theirs. Take advantage of this subtle difference.

Smart seniors walk into a gaming establishment with a plan. Just like you are apt to set goals in other areas of your life, set gambling goals and limits. A number of strategies work to reduce the likelihood that significant amounts of money will be lost. Here are a few suggestions:

* Set time limits for your gambling ventures - 30 minutes at the slots, an hour playing blackjack, a relaxing half hour in the Keno lounge. When the time is up, it’s time to move on - no grousing, no waffling, just stick to your plan.

* Set money limits. Regardless of what game you are playing, only put a certain amount of money at risk. The amount can vary, but it should be a sum that you can afford to lose so you won’t feel bad when you do.

* Set win limits. A good rule of thumb is if you win 50 per cent of your bankroll, quit. Putting $100 at risk at a blackjack table and leaving when you have accumulated $150 is a pretty good outcome from any gambling session. If you can afford to put more at risk, by all means do so, but winning 50 per cent of your initial stake is always a good goal.

* Mix gambling with other activities. If you are a vacation gambler, be sure to include other activities in your daily plans - a trip to the beach, some shopping, a good restaurant, a show in the evening, and some sightseeing. These activities not only break up the gambling grind but, in the long run, save lots of money.

With a little bit of luck, lots of patience and self-control, your gambling experiences can be entertaining and satisfying. Like anything else, the more you know about it, the better off you will be.



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