Ken’s Online Blackjack Experience

When I was first introduced to the idea of wagering at online casinos, I had the usual questions…

How do you know the games are fair?
How do you know they’ll actually pay you if you win?

I’ve managed to answer those questions to my satisfaction, and now I do play online. In fact, as of this writing, I’ve played at 51 different online casinos. And, I’ve made money doing it. Being the webmaster of a popular gambling information site means I get a lot of questions via Email. Many curious visitors to my site pose the two big questions above. So, here’s my take on the online gambling industry, the good and bad.

Are the games fair?

I keep meticulous records of my play tracking the total amount of bets that I make. It’s a lot of work, but I continue to do it for several reasons. Most of the time, I’m playing where bonus money is involved, and the cash-out requirements for bonuses typically mandate a certain amount of play. I also want to be able to keep track of the percentage of bets lost overall.

With the large amount of play I’ve recorded, I feel pretty confident in stating that the games I’ve played are fair. That is, they accurately mimic the games you would find in a land-based casino. I’ve wagered over $300,000 online and I’ve lost a total of 0.6% of that amount. Most of that play has been at blackjack, with house edges up to about 0.5%. But, some of the play has been at online slots with an unknown but certainly higher house edge. Losing 0.6% is a little high, but it’s within reason for a little bad luck.

Update: My play in early 2002 has been very profitable. My total wagers have now reached the half million dollar mark, and I’m actually ahead of the games without considering bonuses. Quite surprising to me, but true.

So, at the casinos that I have played, it seems that the games are legitimate. Of course, it would be quite easy for online gambling software to be programmed to cheat you. And, I’m certain there are some online casinos that do so. Its not a coincidence that I haven’t played these sites. If you choose a reputable site I believe that you can trust the games and not worry. In particular, there are four major software providers that I think are rock-solid. For more information, keep reading. In short, I have no reason to believe that I have ever been cheated online.

The smarter operators of online casinos realize that they can make a lot more money offering a legitimate game for many years than they can make by cheating a few players in the short-term. For this reason, size and reputation matter.

Now, how is it that I’ve lost 0.6% of my bets, but I’ve still made money?
One word: Bonuses. Keep reading and I’ll explain.

Update: Now that I’m ahead of the game instead of 0.6% in the hole, the bonuses are pure profit.

But, first, what about receiving your winnings? …

Will You get Paid?

If there is one area of online gambling which has disappointed me, it’s the fact that I have had a few problems collecting my winnings. Nonetheless, I’ve never been stiffed. Over the years, I’ve made hundreds of cash-in transactions. I’ve had trouble with five of them. I managed to collect every time, but it has taken a few phone calls and emails to customer service. If you choose to play online, make sure that you keep good records, or you’ll be at their mercy.

Update: I’ve had absolutely no problem with any cash-ins since 2003. Perhaps cash-in delays are a thing of the past.

So, what were my 5 problems?

The slowest pay was at the now-defunct Fairplay Casino. I suppose I should be thankful that I ever received my money from a casino that went out of business due to poor management. Luckily, I wasn’t owed much when they folded. Four months after they closed down, I received a bank transfer for the final $35 they owed me.

Almost as slow was Lucky Nugget casino, where it took me nearly four months to collect $85. Lucky Nugget was one of the first casinos that I played, and I was still pretty suspicious of the games. I received a substantial bonus of $110 from them, played just over the required amount, and cashed-out $85 of my original $100 for a net loss of $15. I still believe that they intentionally mishandled my cash-in since I played barely enough to qualify for my bonus. Lesson learned: Play a little extra when bonuses are involved, or better yet, a lot extra.
Next up, Captain Cooks Casino, where I waited 7 weeks for a PayPal transfer of $349. Their claims of various delays are pretty transparent, especially since their sister property of Illustrated Casino was giving me the run-around at the same time.
Illustrated Casino, affiliated with Captain Cooks, took 6 weeks for a PayPal transfer of $393, not-so-coincidentally credited on the same day my Captain Cooks fiasco was resolved.

My most recent trouble was with King Solomon’s, where I received a free $50 bonus to try out their new software. I ran the balance up to $250 and cashed out, but only a portion of my cash-in was credited against older credit card buy-ins. Two months of phone calls and Emails later, I finally received the rest of my credit.

Those episodes paint a pretty bleak picture. The good news is that my other cash-ins have been handled with no problem. In 2004, average payout times seemed to improve just about everywhere. Most payouts are handled within 2 days, with some within just minutes. A few places still take several days, but all in all, transactions are speedier now than ever. These days, most of my transactions are handled via Neteller, a sort of online wallet similar to PayPal. (Editor’s note: Neteller eventually pulled out of the US market.)

Back to the question: Will you get paid? The short answer: Yes, I always have been.

There are more observations about payment issues in the next section, Choosing a Casino…

Choosing a Casino

I’ve heard that there are over 1400 online casinos operating on the Internet. While I can’t vouch for that number, I do know that there are many, many sites out there. And, of course, every site claims to offer fair games and quick payouts. Knowing which sites are really trustworthy is very important. My method is simple: Stick to the biggest and most reputable sites. Online casinos don’t become popular without treating their players fairly.

The first thing I want to know about an online casino is: Who created the software? There are six or seven companies that are widely used for online gaming software, and also many less popular second-tier software providers. Almost all of my play has been at sites that use one of the ‘Big Four’ software providers.

MicroGaming: This is perhaps the most popular software provider, with many casinos using MicroGaming’s software. They offer a very large number of games, including several large progressive slots. The blackjack is excellent, with many varieties available.

Cryptologic: Though once a major player in online gaming software, Cryptologic’s market share has shrunk as many of their casinos have left to other software providers. The flagship casino brand of Intercasino is still an excellent place to play. I’ve never had any payment delays or problems with any Cryptologic-powered casinos. One nice feature of their games is multi-player blackjack.

Boss Media: Once this was my favorite software to play. It’s attractive, fast, and easy. However, in recent years advances by the competition haven’t been mirrored at Boss Media. It’s still good, but no longer my favorite. One nice thing is that a few of the Boss Media casinos offer an exceptional blackjack game. Some offer only six-deck, but a few still offer a single-deck game with S17 and DAS. That’s the best game on the net. E-cash is handled by an outside company called WebDollar. I’ve never had a problem of any kind with Boss Media powered sites.

Playtech: Another outstanding software provider, with many reputable casinos. This is my current favorite software platform, with lots of interesting games, and good progressive jackpots. There’s a 25c video poker game called MegaJacks that is often high enough to be a profitable play.

Among the second-tier software providers, I’ve also played at sites utilizing Real Time Gaming software. Although the software is not bad, I’ve seen quite a few complaints on the message boards about players having trouble collecting their winnings. Many of these sites seem to be under-bankrolled, occasionally negotiating with players to payoff their winnings over time. That’s not my idea of how things are supposed to work. No thanks.

Update: There are a few really good Real Time Gaming casinos, so I’ve added a handful of the reputable ones to the advertisers here. I’m very picky though, approving only the very best.

The second item of interest when deciding whether or not to deposit at a given casino is how you can contact them if needed. I choose to play only at sites that offer toll-free support by telephone. If they only offer Email support, I figure they can’t be a very large operation.

Last of all, I examine the cash-out procedures to see what is available, and the amount of any fees involved. Cryptologic and Boss Media casinos both charge $1 for most types of transactions. Withdrawals from MicroGaming and Playtech sites are usually free.

Next up, I’ll discuss how to use bonuses to make a nice profit online…

What about bonuses?

While land-based casinos offer players free meals, drinks, and rooms in exchange for their play, online casinos tend to offer the only readily available substitute they have: cold hard cash. Almost every online casino offers a sign-up bonus, where they match your initial deposit with extra chips. These bonuses can be quite lucrative in some cases. Many sites also have ongoing promotions where they offer extra chips.

If you play where a bonus is involved, be sure to read the fine print, the so-called “terms and conditions”. Sometimes you’ll have to email the casino to receive the bonus. Sometimes you’ll have to play through your deposit one or more times before you are eligible for the bonus. And, in almost every case, you’ll have to wager several times the amount of the deposit and bonus before you’ll be allowed to withdraw the money.

However, in most cases, a smart player can expect to make a nice profit from the bonus. For example, consider a MicroGaming casino with a “Buy $50, Get $50 Free” bonus offer. Let’s say the bonus requires you to wager the deposit and bonus 20 times before cashing out. So, you purchase $50, they add another $50, you start with a balance of $100. You’ll need to wager at least $2000 before cashing out. For example, you could play Blackjack at $10 per hand for 200 hands. Most blackjack games available online have a house edge of less than 0.5% if you use the correct basic strategy. So, for your $2000 in action, the expected loss is only $2000 X 0.005, or $10. The casino has paid you $50 to give them $10 in expected losses. Not a bad deal!

Update: These deals have become less lucrative than when this was originally written. Many casinos now prohibit playing blackjack for purposes of the bonus wagering requirements. Instead, you’ll have to play some of the games with higher house edges. Read the terms carefully.

Of course, that $10 is the average loss for a perfect basic strategy player. Your luck will determine what happens with your bankroll. You may lose the $100, or you may win $100 or more. But, in the long run, you’ll get to keep about $40 of that $50 bonus.

However… Bonuses have become the bane of the online casino industry, with some players being categorized by the casinos as ‘bonus abusers’. In most cases, these are players who meet the terms and conditions to the letter, cash-out the bonus, and are never seen again. The reputable online sites know that some players will play strictly for the bonus, cash-out, and never come back to play again. That’s just the cost of attracting new players to their casino. However, some of the more questionable sites will use any excuse they can to avoid paying a player who appears to be there for the bonus only.

Make absolutely sure you abide by all of the terms they mention. And, my recommendation is to play much more than the minimum required action to cash out the bonus. Remember, over the long run, your edge is huge. Sure, you may run into a run of bad cards and lose that $100. But, you will also occasionally run into a good run of cards and turn it into $1000 (granted, probably not with flat $10 bets). If I were playing our example bonus, I’d probably play at least $3000 in bets, and probably $4000 or $5000.

Of course, if you stick to the cream of the crop of online casinos, these guys are going to pay you quickly anyway. They understand that if a player meets the conditions, the bonus is theirs, fair and square. If they pay promptly, maybe they’ll gain a player for a long time.

Bonuses are one of the last great giveaways you’re likely to see. I don’t think the large bonuses available today will still be here a few years from now. They’re just too expensive for the casinos. So, get ’em while you can.

Update: The really lucrative ones have indeed disappeared. Today’s bonuses are great for trying out casinos, but they are no longer a quick way to make a sure profit. Still, read the terms, and take advantage of whatever offer is available.