Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Don't Leave Money On the Table: How I Do Vegas

Each year in June, my wife and I take a trip to Las Vegas with her twin sister and her husband. Sometimes their other sister joins us as well. We have a gambling budget and a food / lodging budget. The problem is my wife and I don't agree on how a budget works. My wife thinks a budget is money we planned on spending, so if we spend it all, it's no big deal - we planned on it.

On the other hand, I look at the budgets differently, at least the gambling budget. My goal is to return from the trip with at least as much of the gambling budget as I went with. If we can do this, my reasoning goes, we can possibly take a second trip later in the year, basically for no extra money. (We live within driving distance of Las Vegas and our rooms and meals are usually either comped or at a big discount, so that expense is relatively small.) If I win and come back with more money than I took, that's great, but I don't plan on it. Instead, I try to break even.

This difference in views is a constant source of friction between us on each trip. If we are losing, I'll stop gambling or switch to a game with a lower minimum bet or less volatility - moves designed to make my money last longer. My wife does the opposite - she'll place larger bets or play games with larger payouts but more volatility, with the goal of getting a big win to recoup her losses. And if that doesn't work out, it's not a big deal, her thinking goes, because it was money we planned on spending anyway. She says she's there to gamble and that's what she's going to do.

I am perfectly happy sitting at a blackjack table for 5 hours and coming away even or up or down a few bucks. That's five hours of free entertainment and free drinks. Plus, I've still got my money and can play again later. As the saying goes, a push is as good as a win. If I can manage to do that over the entire trip, I'll have enough of my budget left to make another trip later in the year.

I don't have a way to reconcile our opposing views. The best I've managed to do is just give her her gambling money and don't pay any attention to what she is doing with it.

It should go without saying, but if you are gambling, be sure to join the player's club at whatever casino you are gambling at. Make sure your play is being tracked because that's how you get good offers and comps. Spend a little time investigating how the player's club works. Some casinos are very open about how many points you need to earn certain comps, while others are quite secretive.

The two casinos we frequent most are Wynn / Encore and The Cosmopolitan. The difference between the two player's clubs is quite striking.

The Red Card at the Wynn is fairly secretive about what you need to do to earn comps. They do say you earn 1 point for each $2.50 wagered on reel slot machines and 1 point for each $6 or $15 wagered on video poker, depending on which game / denomination you play. There is no information about how many points you earn for spending money in the hotel, although they do claim you earn something. However, they don't publish any information about points needed for certain rewards. The theory is that everyone is treated individually and that this gives the casino hosts discretion to award comps to people as they see fit. It is, supposedly, a way to show off their great customer service. I call bullshit on this theory. Asking for comps is never something I like to do because it feels almost like begging to me, and when you are turned down, it's even less enjoyable. The standard response from the casino hosts is that you should just charge everything to your room and then, right before you check out, ask if you played enough to get anything comped. I usually get maybe one meal comped. (Although, to be fair, I do get our room for free.) The consensus seems to be that the Red Card is one of the worst casino cards out there. We go to Wynn / Encore because we like the casino environment, but during our trip last month, the scales finally tipped and the gambling negatives finally outweighed the decor benefits.

In contrast, the Identity card at The Cosmopolitan is very explicit about how many points you need for certain comps. It's even published on their website. They are also very clear about how many points you earn for spending money at the hotel. Maybe it's just the engineer in me, but I love the transparency. I love the fact that I know exactly what I am getting and what I need to do to get to the next level. It's like a video game and I'm trying to level up. (As an added bonus, Marriott Rewards hotel points are exchangeable into Identity points and vice-versa, although converted Marriott Reward points do not count towards your Identity tier progression.) Somehow, it's not so distasteful to me to ask for a comp when I know I've earned it and there's no chance of getting turned down. I suppose that is why the begging feeling isn't there.

But wherever and whatever you play, always use your player's club card. It's your key to getting free stuff. Pay attention to the details. For instance, I discovered that Identity points at the Cosmopolitan expire after 1 year of non-use, so if you want to maintain your tier level, go more than once a year (or give your card to someone who is going and will play a few games using your card). Also, know what games earn you points. A trend I have noticed over the years is that video poker typically earns fewer points than slots at just about every casino and the points it does earn are getting fewer and fewer. Vary your play and  don't leave money on the table!


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