Can You Tell a Real Choice From a Fake One?

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Casino games are largely luck-based, but most will offer you some sort of choices as a way to make them more interactive and engaging. However, not all those choices are equal. In fact, some aren’t really meaningful choices at all, just the illusion of choice.

Realities like this inspired the launch of our Bonus Casino School.

One of the tricks that casino game designers use to draw you in is to convince you that you have more control over the outcome than you really do. Getting carried away with that can lead to superstitious thinking, which is a risk factor for gambling addiction. (Learn more about responsible gambling. Gambling problem? Call or text 1-800-GAMBLER or visit the National Helpline website.)

Effective casino strategy means making good decisions. But first, you need to be able to tell whether the decision you’re making actually matters.

That’s not a yes-or-no question: choices in a gambling game can range from very deep and important to completely meaningless, but many are somewhere in between.

We can, however, lump choices into a few categories.

  • Illusory Choices
  • Volatility Choices
  • Betting Choices
  • Algorithmic Choices
  • Complex Choices

Here are some of the questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether a choice is real or just an illusion:

  • Does the choice only seem meaningful in hindsight? If so, it’s an illusory choice.
  • Does the game have a fixed return-to-player? If so, it’s a volatility choice.
  • Do you have to choose before anything else happens? If so, it’s a betting choice.
  • Does a published perfect strategy for the game exist? If so, it’s an algorithmic choice.
  • Did you answer “no” to all those questions? In that case, it’s a complex choice.

Illusory Choices Matter Only in Hindsight

Some slots feature 'choices' in the bonus round that don't actually change the outcome.Typical example: Choosing between two 50/50 options.

Calling heads or tails on a coin flip is a classic example of an illusory choice. After seeing the result, you might be happy with your pick or wish you had chosen the other options. However, at the time you call it, both choices are equivalent.

Assuming the coin is balanced, you have precisely the same chance of flipping heads or tails. Before the flip, you have no information that would lead you to see either option as more likely.

That means that one person could call heads every time, another could call tails every time, and a third person could alternate. Over time, all three would win about the same number of times.

Different roulette bets with the same odds also fall into this category. Red, Black, Even, Odd… all of these are effectively the same bet. You might have a favorite, but there are 18 winning numbers for each bet, so they all work out to the same chances.

If seemingly different choices don’t change the math for the game at all, then they’re not really different. It’s just the same bet with other names.

Some slots and other digital games also offer meaningless, fake choices. For instance, a bonus game might let you pick one of three chests to open to find your prize. In these cases, the game hasn’t even determined what’s in any of the chests until you pick one. The random number generator determines a prize at the time you make the “choice,” so you will get the same prize regardless of which one you select.

Volatility Choices Affect Your Experience, Not Your Bottom Line

Typical example: Choosing between inside or outside bets in roulette.

In the very long term, the only feature of a casino game that matters will be its return-to-player (RTP). As discussed in our casino math lessons, RTP represents the average amount you’ll win back for every dollar you bet.

Many casino games have a fixed RTP. If that’s the case, then no decisions you make during the game will change your long-term outcomes.

However, those decisions might still affect your short-term results by changing the game’s volatility. Different bet types in roulette are a classic example of this. Choosing Red instead of Black doesn’t change anything, but choosing a number instead of a color increases your volatility.

It still doesn’t change the RTP at all, which remains 97.3% for European roulette or 94.6% for American roulette. If one person makes 100,000 one-dollar bets on Black and another makes 100,000 one-dollar bets on 17, they will both end up down about $2,700 after those 100,000 spins. However, the person betting on a specific number will experience more swings along the way.

Another example of a choice that changes the volatility without changing the RTP much is when certain slots allow you to pick between different bonus games. The game may present this as a choice between “bigger wins” or “more frequent wins,” which is a simple way of describing volatility.

Research the RTP of the game you’re playing. If sources give a single percentage without qualifying it, any apparent decisions don’t affect your bottom line, though they may impact volatility. However, if there’s a phrase appended like “using standard strategy,” then your choices probably do affect your long-term outcomes.

Betting Choices Can Have Better or Worse Returns

Typical example: Craps betting options.

Certain games offer choices that affect the RTP (return-to-player), but only at the start of the game when you place your bet. The most extreme example is craps, which has a wide range of options, varying just as widely in their RTP.

Betting on the die roller to win or lose (“Pass” or “Don’t Pass”) has a low house edge, under 2%. That corresponds to an RTP better than 98%. It also allows the player to make a follow-up “odds” bet with 100% RTP.

After that, the most common bets are Place bets, i.e., bets on whether the shooter will roll a particular number before they crap out. Here, bets on the most likely numbers – 6 and 8 – have an RTP pretty similar to Pass and Don’t Pass. However, bets on less likely numbers have correspondingly worse RTPs, around 96% for 5 or 9 and 93% for 4 or 10.

The worst bets of all for the player are the Hard Ways and single roll “Horn” bets. Many of these have RTPs below 90%, so their house edge is almost ten times higher than for the Pass bet.

People often call those choices “sucker bets” because savvy casino players know to avoid them. Betting on a draw in baccarat is similar, which has about a 1% house edge for betting on either hand to win, but a 14% house edge for betting on the draw, making that a sucker bet.

The same is true for many, but not all, novelty side bets in table games.

Avoiding sucker bets can be called a “strategy” of sorts, but it’s not a complicated one because the correct answer is always the same. You simply have to know the RTP for the various options in your chosen game and avoid the unfavorable ones.

Online casino games have to provide this information in the game help. In many retail casinos, the dealer will likewise tell you if you ask.

Algorithmic Choices Are Like Following a Recipe

4 to 8 Deck Blackjack Dealer Hits on Soft 17 Blackjack Strategy ChartTypical example: Standard blackjack strategy.

The most meaningful choices in a casino table game are often the ones you encounter partway through a round. At that point, you have information you didn’t have to begin with, and your choice can increase or decrease your expected return.

To get regulatory approval, casino game designers need to “solve” their game so that they can specify its theoretical RTP and publish a standard strategy to achieve that RTP.

So, to the extent that player-versus-house casino games offer real choices, they’re usually algorithmic ones.

An “algorithm” is a series of steps to produce an outcome. So, these choices are meaningful, but you can make the right choice by following a set of steps. For most games, you can find those steps online, often in the form of a chart or table.

For instance, in blackjack, the steps are:

  • Count the value of your hand
  • Look at what card the dealer is showing
  • Look up each of those values on a strategy chart (or have one memorized) to determine the correct move in that situation. For instance, if you have a Hard 14 and the dealer is showing a 5, the corresponding box on the chart will tell you to Stand.

Casinos want to make money, so they typically won’t offer a game where an algorithmic strategy creates an edge for the player. However, some games might offer a very high RTP with correct strategy because the players making incorrect choices make up for it.

Complex Choices Are Usually Found Outside the Casino Space

Typical example: Online Poker

Some types of gambling have more complicated choices, for which it’s impossible to write out a complete and perfect strategy. That might be because the game itself has too many possibilities to account for every scenario or because it depends on factors outside factors such as other people’s decisions.

Because of the regulatory requirements, you won’t usually find such products on the casino floor. However, it’s in the world of complex choices that most professional gamblers ply their trade.

Multiplayer poker games like Texas Hold ’em fall into the category of complex choices. There are too many possible scenarios to put them all in a table. Also, winning the maximum requires basing decisions on observations of the opponent’s tendencies as well as the cards.

Sports betting is another example. Because the outcome is determined by the result of real-world sports, it’s impossible to know the exact probabilities. Sportsbooks use mathematical models to estimate those probabilities, but if a professional bettor has a better model, they can find edges and turn a profit.

Casino School: Strategy

This has been Strategy Lesson 2 of our four-part Casino School series. Next up is Strategy Lesson 3: Budgeting for Gambling & Bankroll Management.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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