Critics of the gaming industry have long accused it of creating the name “gaming” as more politically correct than calling itself the “gambling industry.”
The term “gaming,” however, has been around for centuries and more accurately describes the operators’ view of the industry because most often casino operators are not gambling. Instead, they rely on mathematical principles to assure that their establishment generates positive gross gaming revenues.
The operator, however, must assure the gaming revenues are sufficient to cover deductions like bad debts, expenses, employees, taxes and interest.
Despite the obvious, many casino professionals limit their advancements by failing to understand the basic mathematics of the games and their relationships to casino profitability. One casino owner would often test his pit bosses by asking how a casino could make money on blackjack if the outcome is determined simply by whether the player or the dealer came closest to 21. The answer, typically, was because the casino maintained “a house advantage.”
This was fair enough, but many could not identify the amount of that advantage or what aspect of the game created the advantage.
As in any industry, managers must know a great deal about many things. Given that products offered by casinos are games, managers must understand why the games provide the expected revenues.
In the gaming industry, nothing plays a more important role than mathematics. Mathematics also should overcome the dangers of superstitions. An owner of a major strip casino once experienced a streak of losing substantial amounts of money to a few “high rollers.” He did not attribute this losing streak to normal volatility in the games, but to bad luck. His solution was simple. He spent the evening spreading salt throughout the casino to ward off the bad spirits.
Before attributing this example to the idiosyncrasies of one owner, his are atypical only in their extreme. Superstition has long been a part of gambling – from both sides of the table. Superstitions can lead to irrational decisions that may hurt casino profits. For example, believing that a particular dealer is unlucky against a particular (winning) player may lead to a decision to change dealers. As many, if not most, players are superstitious. At best, he may resent that the casino is trying to change his luck. At worst, the player may feel the new dealer is skilled in methods to “cool” the game. Perhaps he is even familiar with stories of old where casinos employed dealers to cheat “lucky” players.
Understanding the mathematics of a game also is important for the casino operator to ensure that the reasonable expectations of the players are met. For most persons, gambling is entertainment. It provides an outlet for adult play.2 As such, persons have the opportunity for a pleasant diversion from ordinary life and from societal and personal pressures.
As an entertainment alternative, however, players may consider the value of the gambling experience. For example, some people may have the option of either spending a hundred dollars during an evening by going to a professional basketball game or at a licensed casino. If the house advantage is too strong and the person loses his money too quickly, he may not value that casino entertainment experience. On the other hand, if a casino can entertain him for an evening, and he enjoys a “complimentary” meal or drinks, he may want to repeat the experience, even over a professional basketball game.
Likewise, new casino games themselves may succeed or fail based on player expectations. In recent years, casinos have debuted a variety of new games that attempt to garner player interest and keep their attention. Regardless of whether a game is fun or interesting to play, most often a player will not want to play games where his money is lost too quickly or where he has an exceptionally remote chance of returning home with winnings.
Mathematics also plays an important part in meeting players’ expectations as to the possible consequences of his gambling activities. If gambling involves rational decision-making, it would appear irrational to wager money where your opponent has a better chance of winning than you do. Adam Smith suggested that all gambling, where the operator has an advantage, is irrational. He wrote “There is not, however, a more certain proposition in mathematics than that the more tickets [in a lottery] you advertise upon, the more likely you are a loser. Adventure upon all the tickets in the lottery, and you lose for certain; and the greater the number of your tickets, the nearer you approach to this certainty.”
Even where the house has an advantage, however, a gambler may be justified if the amount lost means little to him, but the potential gain would elevate him to a higher standing of living.4 For example, a person with an annual income of $30,000 may have $5 in disposable weekly income. He could save or gamble this money. By saving it, at the end of a year, he would have $260. Even if he did this for years, the savings would not elevate his economic status to another level. As an alternative, he could use the $5 to gamble for the chance to win $1 million. While the odds of winning are remote, it may provide the opportunity to move to a higher economic class.
Since the casino industry is heavily regulated and some of the standards set forth by regulatory bodies involve mathematically related issues, casino managers also should understand the mathematical aspects relating to gaming regulation. Gaming regulation is principally dedicated to assuring that the games offered in the casino are fair, honest, and that players get paid if they win. Fairness is often expressed in the regulations as either requiring a minimum payback to the player or, in more extreme cases, as dictating the actual rules of the games offered. Casino executives should understand the impact that rules changes have on the payback to players to assure they meet regulatory standards. Equally important, casino executives should understand how government mandated rules would impact their gaming revenues.