Virtual Vegas: The risks and rewards of online gambling

A man plays online poker on his computer.

Another real world activity quickly moving online -- gambling. On Thursday Nevada became the first state to legalize online gambling, narrowly beating out its longtime rival, New Jersey. Delaware and California are also likely to follow.  So now you won't have to leave the comfort of your couch to have the casino experience -- minus the showgirls and cirque de soleil. But what does it take to win online?

To answer that, we turn to the Wizard of Odds, Michael Shackleford, an actuary and a former professor of casino math at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Besides wagering at home in your pajamas, does gambling online have an advantage?  

"Assuming a fair game, the odds are generally better online. I attribute that to lower overhead costs with running an online casino. With slot machines, in Las Vegas they generally return anywhere from 88-92 percent whereas an Internet casino will usually from 93-97 percent. The odds are significantly better online in my opinion," says Shackleford.

 

DATA FROM: Wizard of Odds

 

But what risks come with Internet gambling?

"Basically the casinos are on the honor system to give you a fair game and I and other watchdog websites have busted casinos often for cheating. Often the way it works out is a player will post a log file of his play, or video of his play, and say this is just ridiculous how much I'm losing. As a mathematician by training, I can look at the log files and analyze what is the probability that a player would lose as much money as he did assuming a fair game. Lots of times the results are just off the chart. Like, the probability of luck this bad in a fair game being one in trillions," says Shackleford. "The regulation is very feeble. I think it's up to independents like me to keep an eye on the business."

How easy is it to cash out winnings online?

"With a good Internet casino, you have to click withdrawal, how much do you want to withdraw, and a check will be on its way," says Shackleford. "With a good casino -- not every Internet casino is a good casino. Some of them may not be you at all. Some of them may drag their feet and make you nag them a few times. For the most part, Internet gambling is unregulated."

Shackleford says Internet casinos subscribe to this philosophy: They want a player's deposit to last a long time and for him or her to get a lot of fun and entertainment out of their money (but eventually lose it). If a player has gotten a lot of entertainment out of their money, he or she is likely to be happy and make another deposit.

Shackleford offers these tips to succeed at online gambling:
1. Look for a good bonus that you can play on a low house advantage game.
2. The two best games to play in an online casino are usually Blackjack and Video poker (Craps is not bad either).
3. Remember that it's fun and to keep it in moderation.

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.

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