If you're even thinking of being in Vegas, check out the rest of our DestiNATION: Vegas guide. It's stacked with expert advice from locals on what to eat, where to drink, and what to do.
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T he only way to beat the house in Vegas, people will tell you, is not to play. Every bet here is a sucker's bet at some level; all the odds are tilted away from your wallet; and the house, in the long run, always wins.
Do not listen to those people, for if you do, the best you'll do in this life is to die slightly richer yet much, much more bored. Instead, strap on your big-kid armor and stride confidently in the direction of getting your ass kicked by the casinos here. It's an American rite of passage, after all, and one spiked with the adrenaline rush of watching potentially life-changing sums of money flicker just out of reach.
What you DO want to do, though, is gird yourself against the many subtle tricks that casinos have devised to give them greater edges, even away from the tables and slot machines. With a few pointers, you can make the right moves and navigate your way through these glittering mousetraps that generations of sucker bets have financed.
What time of day is it? Where is the nearest exit? Good luck finding some daylight at mega-casinos like the MGM Grand or Caesars Palace. These palaces of kitschy seduction are designed to numb you to the outside world. While some newer Vegas casinos like The Cosmopolitan are getting away from this type of design, many still hope to coax you into casino purgatory with a maze-like design of games, shopping, and restaurants, where time seems never to pass and there's nothing else to do but give up your cash.
Good luck cashing out
Need chips? That's easy. Need to cash out? It always seems that the casino cage is hard to find, requiring a walk deep into the casino -- past many other games and temptations. Once you find it, often there is a line with only one person there to service gamblers who are ready to trade in their chips for cash. It's no coincidence the casino entices you first with more action, a bite to eat, or a visit to the gift shop.
Chips don't seem like real money
Julius "Big Julie" Weintraub -- a Vegas legend who popularized gambling junkets from the East Coast to Sin City in the '60s and '70s -- said it best about casino chips: "The guy who invented poker was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius." There's just something about those colorful chips. They don't seem as precious as real money. They're easier to risk than real cash -- and the casinos know it. Some people even collect the chips and take them home, which is just a souvenir you bought from the casino.
Airports are for flying, not gambling
It's Sunday afternoon. You've spent three days getting hijacked at craps tables, fleeced at poker, and robbed blind by the sports book. Now you're back at the airport, bleary and dehydrated, waiting for the 2:35 direct flight back to Tulsa. You fork over $10 at Burger King, slouch into your seat -- and notice a bunch of other mopes like you, desperate to salvage the weekend, milling around those McCarran International slot machines. Don't do it! Those machines have among the worst payout percentages in town. Save your quarters -- and the last of your dignity -- for the next trip.
Wild carpets keep your eyes on the prize
This is one of those tiny design details, but you can bet that the casinos are sweating even the smallest of small stuff. That garishly patterned carpet on the casino floor is there for a reason -- to keep your eyes looking up. That means you're making eye contact with slots, craps, blackjack, the sports book, instead of gazing down into a visual disruption. No navel-gazing or staring at the hideous floor -- the casino wants your eyes to be on the (ever-elusive) prize.
So-called VIP treatment
Living the high life comes with a cost. Whether you're rolling into clubs, booking close-up seats at shows, or hitting the high-end cuisine, absolutely nothing under this roof will come cheap. And unless you're a Rockefeller, those high-limit and VIP slot areas can quickly drain that gambling bankroll as well. Nightclub cover charges, drink minimums, and lobster dinners may be nice, but don't get carried away. Stay alert for discounts, and if you don't see a price on something, do not assume it's within your budget.
Never buy insurance -- and don't split 10s
Blackjack, played with discipline, offers you the best odds of any game in Vegas. So of course casinos have modified it to their advantage. For instance: Don't bother with "insurance." If the dealer has an ace up, bettors can take the "insurance" bet in case the dealer has a 10 in the hole to blackjack. This seemingly conservative bet adds as much as 7% to the house edge, and yet people still take it, as if they're somehow making the prudent move.
Speaking of bad strategy, splitting your 10s might be one of the worst plays you can make in the casino. But, once again, blackjack players do it all the time. Don't be that guy! Most experts on the topic say keeping 10s together for a nice 20 is the best play to make in the long run no matter what the dealer is holding.
Be careful who you learn from
Many casinos offer free lessons on how to play the games -- but the casino doesn't exactly have a ton of incentive to school you on the bets that give you the best chance to win. Better advice? Read a book. Or go online to memorize a few key strategies to take advantage of the better betting options at the tables and slots -- such as pass-line bets with odds at the craps table and basic strategy at blackjack.
There's no such thing as free booze
Casinos know a few Buds or gin and tonics are more likely to keep bettors at the tables or feeding cash into the slot machines. While casinos have gotten tighter with free drinks over the years, there's a reason Vegas casinos raked in $11 billion in 2015. You don't have to be a teetotaler, but go easy on the gratis White Russians and you might be able to skip at least one trip to the ATM.
Never reach for a cash advance on your credit card
This is where merely irresponsible behavior becomes a gateway to lasting financial scars. Do not use your credit card to get a cash advance -- essentially, using a charge card to continue at the blackjack table or Lucky 7s slot machine. This is a bad idea for every reason known to money. You're already down, so now you're going to chase bad bets by putting debt on a credit card? First off, the casino charges a percentage for this "convenience,” as does your credit card -- plus the interest rate for carrying over debt on a card. If the thought of a cash advance enters your mind, it's time to head to the free stuff: the Bellagio for the fountain show or the Mirage for the volcano show. Or straight for the airport.
Dirty hidden fees, part one
Many casino hotels charge what are called "resort fees" -- daily charges tacked onto the hotel bill for "resort amenities." Keeping them off the above-board cost of the hotel room is just a way to bump up what you thought was a reasonable bill. Imagine you've taken a beating at the tables for a few days and then the casino hits you with another $50 upon departure, and you'll get a sense of why people tend to leave this town in a worse mood than when they arrived. "This is one of the worst," says Anthony Curtis with LasVegasAdvisor.com. "The fee should be transparently included in the rate. Only a few casinos no longer charge the resort fee."
Dirty hidden fees, part two
There are plenty of great restaurants in Vegas and plenty of places to eat in Vegas for $10 or less, but one of the most infuriating practices for a few restaurants, especially on the Strip, is the Concession and Franchise Fee (known as a CNF) -- sticking it to diners for an extra 4.7% on every bill. What's it for? When your bill comes, the restaurant adds a surprise charge for such things as "prime real estate locations." Really. And it's applied to an entire bill, including taxes -- a tax on a tax!
The club you don't want to be a part of
Joining the players club at casinos will earn you "cash back" or "player points" -- the more you gamble, the more perks and points you get, redeemable for things like merchandise, free room and meal comps, or cool jackets. But remember the big picture -- these clubs are designed to keep players at the tables and slot machines longer. Curtis argues that players should always join the clubs to get something back, but the casinos wouldn't offer these programs if they weren't getting the better end of the deal. Don't defy logic by losing hundreds of dollars to earn points that score you a beer koozie.
Know your poker limits
Everyone dreams of a big run at the poker tables. You watch the World Series of Poker on ESPN religiously and dominate that home game with your buddies. But slow up before you think you're ready to run with the big dogs. Unless you're prepared to lose your entire stack, don't jump into that $25/$50 cash game on the assumption you're the next Chris Moneymaker. Take a measured approach: Set your limits based on your experience and your bankroll. As the old saying goes: "If you look around the table and can't tell who the sucker is, it's you."
Don't parlay those sports bets
Absolutely do throw down some change at the sports book -- it's a great way to add verve to games you were going to watch anyway. But don't get sucked into parlays. They are seductive: A series of small bets, each of which needs to hit for you to cash in, is a way to get action on several games and can pay out huge. But parlays conceal lousy odds. Overcoming point spreads is difficult enough, but getting four or six contests correct to hit a parlay is a proposition that hugely favors the house. Experts say it's wiser to bet each game individually and roll some of those winnings into other wagers. Anyway, do try shopping your sports bets around multiple sports books -- you'll often find the same bets offered at more favorable odds.
Shop 'til you drop
Louis Vuitton. Versace. Jimmy Choo. Dooney & Bourke. Guerlain. Michael Kors. High-end casinos like Caesars, The Venetian, and the Wynn now double as mega-malls for haute couture, with prices to match. But, hey, it's your money, so do what you want with it. Say this much about putting down $15,000 on an alligator-skin Burberry purse: Unlike that five-part parlay bet you made on the afternoon slate of college football games, you at least know that 15 large is going to get you a handbag.
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