Casino design and why the house always wins
Inside Macau's Las Vegas Sands casino. (Aaron Tam/AFP/Getty)
Pay close attention the next time you step into a casino and you may find that every inch of your experience is being controlled or influenced by the house. From the rules governing the games to the music playing on the sound system to the colour of the carpet underfoot, casinos are carefully designed with the sole aim of getting customers to part with as much money as possible.
Security is one of the many aspects of a casino designed with this bottom line in mind. According to the consultancy Worldwide Casino Consulting, the casino industry loses tens of millions of dollars per year to cheating schemes.
Earlier this month, Macau police arrested 17 people for cheating three casinos out of 90 million Hong Kong dollars. The alleged cheating ring, which included dealers at the casinos, used tiny cameras to take pictures of cards at the baccarat tables. Last year, a casino cheating ring which had operated for more than five years in at least 29 casinos in Canada and the United States was dismantled following an investigation by the FBI. Van Thu Tran, co-founder of the Tran Organisation ring, and her husband, Phuong Truong, were working as dealers at the Sycuan Casino on the Sycuan Indian reservation in San Diego, California when they initiated a “false shuffle” scam, in which dealers used sleight-of-hand to keep certain cards together in the deck, allowing players in on the scheme to track those cards. More than 40 people pleaded guilty to charges connected with the crime ring.
Although the industry makes more than a hundred billion dollars each year, it still works hard to crack down on cheats, immediately alerting law enforcement officials to suspected wrongdoing.
When it comes to the design of modern casinos around the world, constant surveillance is a top priority. Security has become so sophisticated that a long-running heist such as the Tran case is actually quite rare.
To catch cheaters, casinos train dealers and other casino floor staff to watch for signs, in addition to installing “eye-in-the-sky” video cameras in the ceilings. Most gambling houses have hundreds, even thousands, of cameras, many of which range 360 degrees, monitored live by security departments, some of which utilise face detection software to track suspicious or previously-barred players. Newer casinos track betting by installing radio frequency identification tags into chips, alerting security when chips are not where they’re supposed to be (for example, if a player is holding more chips than they have won, or if chips are missing from a gaming table). In addition, visitors staying at the hotel where they are gambling often have to register their personal data when they reserve their rooms, information casino security has access to.
Getting you to stay and play
Interior design conventions in casinos may be evolving, but their objective remains to get gamblers to stay and play for as long as possible. Traditionally, gambling floors have forgone windows and clocks for controlled lighting systems that confuse the concept of time. Many casinos look and feel the same at 3 pm as they do at 3 am.
Casino design consultant Bill Friedman writes in the book Stripping Las Vegas: A Contextual Review of Casino Resort Architecture that layout makes a big difference, too. He favours a “maze” of short, narrow passageways with changing directions over long, wide rows of gaming areas. The idea isn’t for players to get lost but instead to limit their line of vision and reduce the scope of the gaming spaces they’re in. Friedman writes that this motivates visitors to walk around and explore new gaming areas, each of which feels like its own, intimate space. Intimacy may be the most important concept Friedman promotes, calling for low ceilings and segmented gambling floors (instead of what he calls an “open barn”), to increase players’ comfort.
Newer casinos build upon Friedman’s premise that a comfortable player is a continuous player. Roger Thomas, head of design for Wynn Resorts, who was recently profiled in the New Yorker magazine, applied this principle to the high-limit slot machines room at the Wynn casino in Las Vegas. He was initially designing the space for older men, with the aesthetic taking on a dimly-lit clubhouse feel, but then he discovered that the most frequent players of high-limit slots were in fact female. Throwing out tradition, he installed windows pouring in natural light and created a “garden conservatory” room to create a more inviting atmosphere for women.
Engaging players’ senses also keeps them gambling. Fast music, red lights and pleasing aromas have all been shown to increase casino profits, possibly because they heighten the perceived level of excitement. Add to this plenty of free alcoholic drinks, (and for high-rollers, complimentary rooms), and players tend to feel a lot looser with their money.
The house rules
Playing on psychology isn’t the only strategy the house implements to gain an edge. Casinos write the very rules that gamblers have to play by.
Depending on where you are in the world, these rules may be subject to legal regulation to ensure that casinos don’t overstep their bounds. For example, in the game of blackjack, players may try to count cards to keep track of the deck and determine whether the dealer or the player has the probable advantage. This is a perfectly legal strategy, but that doesn’t mean casinos have to like it. In the popular US gambling destination of Atlantic City, New Jersey state law prevents casinos from barring card counters, while in the state of Nevada, home to the quintessential gaming city Las Vegas, no such law exists, so they can ask card counters to stop playing, or in extreme cases, ban them. As gaming author Frank Scoblete explains in his video tutorials, casinos anywhere can take measures to hinder card counters, such as limiting the amount of money they can bet. In Holland, many casinos use continuous shuffling machines (CSM), so that dealt cards are shuffled back into the deck after each hand, in order to fend off card counting.
In all casinos, the games have a built-in “house edge”, the profit taken from each bet. Although it varies from place to place, lottery-type games such as keno or slots typically have the worst odds, with the house advantage getting up to around 35%. Players’ odds are better in card and dice games; for instance, blackjack only has a house advantage of around 1% to 2% for skilled players and a house advantage of up to around 20% for unskilled players, while craps has a house advantage as low as less than one percent for skilled players and up to around 16% for unskilled players. Casinos don’t typically disclose odds, but frequent blackjack players have reported facing better odds in Belgium, while in the Dominican Republic, keno reportedly has even worse odds than other parts of the world.
At the end of the day, the house always wins because casinos are businesses. They have to turn a profit to stay alive. While the ecosystem of a casino serves the end goal of taking gamblers’ money, players can come out on top by quitting while they’re ahead. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.