Eyes forward or I’ll put a flea cone around your neck

I tend not to talk much about work, for two reasons. First, it’s hard to relate to much of the anecdotes that I’d mention if you’re not surrounded by the casino atmosphere to the degree that I am. (And perhaps that’s for the best.) Second, they get a bit touchy about relaying work-related information to the outside world, so I don’t want to blab something that’s considered insider info. (Trust me, if I have to look for another job to sustain myself out here, I will not be a happy camper.) But the events that took place last night are worthy of mention, and I think are public domain enough to air out in public.

One of the banked games we have at the casino is a variant on Texas Hold’em called “Easy Poker”. Here’s a crash course on how it works: you start by placing a bet in the Ante spot. You then get two cards, at which point you can either bet a second time (the same amount as the Ante) or check the rest of the hand down. The flop is then dealt; you now have the option of placing a third bet (again equal to the Ante) or checking, provided you bet in the second spot above. The turn and river cards come next, each one with the opportunity to place another bet for your hand, each of these bets being double the Ante. After all five community cards are dealt, the dealer then deals out two separate hands for the bank and plays the best one. If you beat the bank, you’re paid even money on all bets you placed.

Clearly, the game has the most obvious house edge you’re likely to see in a casino game: you get one hand, we get two. On the other hand, players get to control how much they bet at each phase of the hand, and someone with even a semi-decent hand like K3 is likely to ride it the whole way if a King hits on the flop. The limit for the first bet is $100, but that can easily turn into $700 if they get a hand.

Now, I’m getting over the fact that each of the games we play, while all long-run money makers, have quite a bit of variance. My bank lost nearly $5000 in one day this month, but that can easily be chalked up to the pendulum swinging in the players’ direction that day. It’s hard to work a job such as this when you’re both highly competitive and have an inferiority complex, but even on my unluckiest days I shake it off rather quickly. What I cannot abide, however, is when people cheat.

Let me explain: the difference between us and Vegas is that in Vegas, the house has a stake in the action. In fact, that’s how their casino makes money. In California, the house has no stake in the action; they merely charge each player a dollar (or $2-3 for the banker) to play each hand. So while Vegas casinos treat players who defy the rules rather harshly, in California it’s hard to rouse a floorman into giving the table a mild scolding for breaking the rules.

The rules in Easy Poker are simple: you’re only entitled to see your two cards. You’re not allowed to show or tell people what you have, you’re not allowed to peek at another player’s cards, you’re not allowed to speak in a foreign language (since you could communicate the above information without the banker knowing what you’re saying), you’re not allowed to bet in spots that haven’t come up yet (indicating that you have a very strong hand), and you’re not allowed to root for specific cards to come on the board (since if that card does come, everyone will know that it made you a hand).

The reason is, any cards you can account for in another player’s hand is a card you know the bank can’t catch. If the board reads A K 9 6 2, and you have the King, you probably eschew betting because any Ace kills you – and with four chances to get it, the bank’s probability of getting a 3-outer is 31%. But if you know that the guy next to you has an Ace, the odds drop to 21%, which is small enough for most players to gamble. Likewise, if the board reads 7 K J Q A and you have A7, there’s no way you bet the river – even with your two pair – because any 10 fills a straight, and four 10s out gives the banker a 40% shot of catching it. But if you saw the guy next to you holding T3, you’re much more likely to chance it – especially since the 10 is pretty much the only way you can be beaten without the bank hands catching something far more unlikely such as JJ or AQ. Bets that result from improperly obtained information cause us to lose money in the long run.

Just to give you a sense of how bad things are in this game, I once went out there with a pen and paper, and tallied every time someone violated one of the above rules. In the three hours I was out there, I counted ninety-nine infractions. And that was a pretty slow day. There’s a group of about a dozen or so people who play the game almost exclusively; they practically break every rule on every damn hand.

Which brings me to last night. I was put on an Easy Poker table after lunch, and noticed that the person I was relieving lost $4800 out of her bank. Sure enough, there were four people there betting no less than $40 a spot, and sure enough, they were all engaging in various affronts of the rules. I think I dropped about $1200 in my first three hands alone, thanks in no small part to a $50/spot bettor with second pair following a $5/spot bettor with top pair into the hand street by street.

The first thing you’re supposed to do as a banker when you see these shenanigans going on is to alert the dealer. I did so, and the dealer did warn the players to stop sharing cards, but this tends to have the same success rate as using a piece of notebook paper to stop a cannonball. I then took a restroom break and informed my supervisor of what’s going on. He told me to keep an eye on things, and clandestinely alert him if the cheating continued. Of course, two hands later, the same shtick was taking place – in fact, so blatant was the sharing of info that people were actually asking each other – in English – what they each had. I get on the phone to my supe and ask for a “color change”.

Minutes later, a floorman appears to warn the players about sharing hand information. This, however, does nothing to dissuade the table from breaking the rules – the aforementioned $5 accomplice continues to present his cards to both his $50 neighbors right in front of the floorman. It’s at this point that I decide that matters need to be taken into my own hands. I call for time, and warn the table that the next time I see anyone flash, peek, advertise, or otherwise insinuate what they’re holding, I’m picking my bank up off the table and taking it back inside.

The shameless sanctimony that ensued could be cut with a spoon.

The floorman immediately countered with, “You can’t do that!” Oh? So I can sit here and watch as everyone playing practically turns everyone’s cards face up, then watch as you and the dealers do absolutely nothing to rectify the situation, but I can’t refuse to bank the game when it’s so obviously crooked? I realize that this isn’t my money – and you know what, that’s a damn good thing, because there’s absolutely no way I’d ever put any of my own money at risk if the enforcement of the rules in this game are so lackadaisical.

Fortunately, another banker was nearby, so I took my break at that point and informed the supervisor what had happened. He was not pleased at the fact that I threatened to pick up the bank (and I knew he probably wouldn’t be). All the same, I got the point across – so much so, that the supervisor actually sat at the table while I was on break, and informed me that if things continued to go unchanged, that he’d get the casino’s shift supervisor involved. (Such person actually does have authority to punish players for violating the rules.) When I returned, everyone was pretty much behaving (or had moved to a different table).

The good news is that the casino is planning on remodeling the smoking atrium by the end of June, making it into a high-stakes poker area instead of the California games that are currently there. At that time, rumor has it that they’ll be replacing Easy Poker with another hold’em variant, one that is far more difficult (or at least, far less profitable) to cheat at. I can only hope.

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7 thoughts on “Eyes forward or I’ll put a flea cone around your neck

  1. nosaer

    Tim, I mean no offense here, but I think you made a mistake in how you handled this situation. If I were your floor manager I would be angry at you for threatening to withdraw the bank – not because of the threat, but because you may wind up costing your company a lot of money.

    If people are cheating obviously, you can figure it out. Moreover, you can figure out how much they are winning – and whether or not it is worth it. If you try to break these guys balls, nine times out of ten they will leave. But one time out of ten, they’ll get angry. And they’ll get smarter. And then they’ll start cheating with tells, non-verbal tells, code-based chip tells – the same stuff we use to communicate on blackjack teams. Now suddenly people are winning and not obviously cheating, which means you no longer know who or how much. It isn’t long before someone posts on AP, and you have five rotating teams of Stanford Law Students betting the maximum each hand, taking hundreds per hour per table, and suing the hell out of you when you try to stop dealing or remove them (good luck breaking the kind of code top blackjack teams use, even with video evidence – one I saw recently was based, literally, on sixth century Chinese poems with random letter scrambling).

    If I were your boss, that is what I would be worried about, and why I would be angry.

    Reply
  2. loogaroo

    Your lawsuit would be completely without merit, because unlike card counting in Blackjack, what you’re doing is indeed breaking the rules.

    And in any case, everyone in our company knows how crooked Easy Poker is – and that may very well be the reason that once the remodel is complete, they’ll be offering a different game.

    Reply
  3. jiggery_pokery

    I really enjoyed this fascinating post; it brings about all sorts of what are probably really easy and quite possibly very dumb questions. I have checked your tags quickly and cannot find a tag that would lead to immediate answers, so if you can forgive said dumb questions, please:

    1) What is the distinction between, and relationship between, dealing and banking a game?

    2) I fear I don’t understand the part where you say in Vegas, the house has a stake in the action. In fact, that’s how their casino makes money. In California, the house has no stake in the action; they merely charge each player a dollar (or $2-3 for the banker) to play each hand . Is this a game with practically no rake from the players to the house other than this fixed dollar per hand?

    3) If it’s not company confidential, what is local (state-wide?) policy regarding tipping? Obviously all the staff play each game completely straight, but I imagine that players would be more likely to tip generously should they be winning than should they be losing.

    4) Surely your supervisors have reason to be grateful to you for identifying misbehaviour? Anything that staff can do to stop the casino systematically losing money has to be a good thing from the casino’s perspective – even if it’s as simple as inviting the cheats to play the casino’s other games and nothing that they are no longer welcome to play Easy Poker.

    Reply
  4. loogaroo

    1) What is the distinction between, and relationship between, dealing and banking a game?

    In California, playing games of chance for money is banned. To get around this, the local cardrooms make games like Blackjack into games of “skill” by giving each player an opportunity to bank the table in turn. The bank hand is tantamount to the dealer’s hand in a conventional casino. By banking, you’re responsible for all bets amounting up to whatever you put in your bank. The company I work for essentially “covers behind”, meaning that we cover any action left over when the other player’s bank has been depleted, and of course cover all bets when it’s our turn to bank.

    (It should be noted that in games like Easy Poker, nobody else ever banks, and so we become the de facto “house”.)

    2) I fear I don’t understand the part where you say “in Vegas, the house has a stake in the action. In fact, that’s how their casino makes money. In California, the house has no stake in the action; they merely charge each player a dollar (or $2-3 for the banker) to play each hand”. Is this a game with practically no rake from the players to the house other than this fixed dollar per hand?

    Players pay a $1 collection for every $100 bet on each hand. Bankers pay $2 regardless of the amount they’re banking, plus a $1 jackpot drop if there are more than two players. Since the casino neither wins nor loses money based on the outcome of the hands, this is how they generate their income. (And a damn good amount of income, too.)

    3) If it’s not company confidential, what is local (state-wide?) policy regarding tipping? Obviously all the staff play each game completely straight, but I imagine that players would be more likely to tip generously should they be winning than should they be losing.

    On non-VIP tables, we tip a flat $5 to the dealer at the end of their rotation, whether we won $100 or lost $5000. On VIP tables, we tip 1% of any incoming money. And you’re right – players are far more likely to tip when they win than when they lose, and that’s one of the reason that part of our jobs is to correct dealer mistakes, since they’re far more likely to “err” in a player’s favor, if you catch my drift.

    4) Surely your supervisors have reason to be grateful to you for identifying misbehaviour? Anything that staff can do to stop the casino systematically losing money has to be a good thing from the casino’s perspective – even if it’s as simple as inviting the cheats to play the casino’s other games and nothing that they are no longer welcome to play Easy Poker.

    They’re happy that I caught it, they’re happy I informed them when it continued, they’re not happy that I took matters into my own hands (or at least threatened to), since it undermines their authority.

    The real problem is that since the casino makes its money from collections and not house edge, cheating doesn’t affect their bottom line, so they’re slow to do anything about it. Rest assured, if this kind of stuff happened in a Vegas casino, these players would probably shown the exit by large security officers. But our company is basically just another player (albeit the player that supplies about 25% of their revenue, but still), and so we don’t have absolute power over the enforcement of the rules. All we can do is put pressure on the floor managers to run a tighter ship.

    Reply
  5. jiggery_pokery

    Thank you! That has cleared up my confusions and makes sense.

    Can players choose to bank when their turn comes around but not play? If so, isn’t it +EV for them – or is it technically +EV between them and the other players but the casino doesn’t care because they’re taking their collection no matter who’s banking?

    I must say it’s a very civilised way of doing things!

    Reply
  6. loogaroo

    You have to bet at least once before the bank plaque comes to you in order to be allowed to bank in any of the games they offer.

    Player-banking is fairly common in Pai Gow Poker and Tiles, a bit less common in Blackjack, pretty rare in Baccarat (but only because there’s rarely enough action to merit it) and almost unheard of in 3-Card Poker and Easy Poker. The reason is fairly simple: given the general layout of the money, it’s far too easy for a player-banker to land on “bad action”. (Since the order in which the payouts start is pseudorandomly determined, it’s entirely possible for the player-banker to bank $100, have one player on the table win $100 while everyone else loses, and the banker ends up paying the winner while we collect the losing money. In the above two games, the chances on losing your bank to a big hand increases exponentially, since the bigger the hand, the more you end up having to pay it.)

    In addition – indeed, because of the snowballing action in those two games – player-bankers either have to let us partner up with them and offer 2/3 of the action in the first bank (meaning, if they want to bank $100, we bank $200 with them, and the money lasts until $300 in action has been paid or collected), or we pull our “Cover Behind” plaque and they’re on their own. (Or, if they don’t cover, once their bank is exhausted, nobody else gets any action on their bets.)

    This makes player-banking games like 3-Card Poker very impractical, since they have to cover the potential $20,000 someone may get for hitting a royal flush; Easy Poker is very similar, since the only time you’ll see a lot of action is when you’re likely to have to pay it.

    And of course, there is a certain stigma associated with player-banking, seeing as you’re playing the bad guy on the table – particularly in games where so few players bank in the first place. And in any case, you’re pretty much wasting your time banking unless you do it long enough to make the expected value outrun the variance – and that’s on top of the added rake you’re paying.

    Reply
  7. tleberle

    Back when I was a youngster, I tried to play four-square, wall ball, and all those games that the kids at recess would play. I was fairly awful at it, and didn’t really get better.

    When I broke my leg in fourth grade, I couldn’t really play. The kids, taking pity upon me, let me be the umpire. I called everything down the middle, whether it was my best friend, worst enemy, or someone I didn’t know. It got to the point where if someone needed a dispute settled, they’d ask me to mediate, such was my reputation.

    The reputation of your place of employment can be enhanced by having people like you not standing by and letting people cheat. Those people might huff and leave, but you don’t want cheaters there anyway. All that stuff that said was a load of hooey. Any employer worth his salt will want someone like you in their corner. A lawsuit isn’t what you should be worrying about.

    Good on you for doing the right thing.

    Reply

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