Q. Can you explain sports futures bets to me? For example, when you bet on who's going to win the NL pennant before the season. My brother told me these are sucker bets, but I don't really understand how the house makes its money.
A. The house makes money on futures bets by offering you less than true odds, just as on any other bet in the casino.
Let's look at a current example. As I write this, an online site lists these odds to win the National League West Division: Giants, 13-10; Diamondbacks, 2-1; Dodgers, 11-2; Rockies, 7-1; Padres, 15-1.
Let's convert those odds to percentages. The 13-10 odds on the Giants is the same as saying the house is paying as if the Giants have 10 chances in 23 to win the division. Divide 10 by 23, multiply by 100 and convert to percent, and you get 76.29 percent.
Conversions for the other teams give us Diamondbacks, 33.33 percent, Dodgers, 15.39 percent, Rockies, 12.5 percent, and Padres, 6.25 percent.
If all those figures added up to 100 percent, a sports book offering those odds would be giving bettors an even break. But you'll notice they add up to much more than 100 percent, at 139.76 percent. That means the house is paying bettors less than the real probability of anyone from that field winning the division.
The house edge is 1 - (100/139.76), which when multiplied by 100 to convert to percent gives us a house edge of 28.45 percent.
If the house was paying more money at bigger odds to winners, and figures added up to less than 100 percent, that would mean players had an edge. That's not going to happen. The house is going to make sure the total is more than 100 percent, paying less than true odds is how casinos make a living.
Q. I play basic strategy, but I have a buddy who counts, and he always stands on 16 against a 10. He said it's to disguise his play. I thought it would be better to pick another hand like 16 against 7, but he said 16 against 10 was really a closer call. Can you tell me why? I'd think 16 vs. 7 would be closer, because the dealer busts more often.
A. You're friend isn't steering you wrong. A 16 vs. a dealers's 10 is a much closer call than 16 vs. 7. The dealer does bust a little more often with a 7 up - 26 percent of the time vs. 23 percent when starting with a 10. It's what happens when he or she doesn't bust that makes the difference.
About 30.8 percent of the time, the down card is going to be a 10-value. When that happens, the dealer who starts with a 7 has 17, and the dealer who has a 10 up has 20. That's just part of the overall picture, but will more often wind up with a higher-ranking hand when starting with 10 than when starting with 7.
And what happens if we don't bust when hitting with 16? That means drawing an Ace, 2, 3, 4 or 5. One-fifth of the time we don't bust on 16 are hands in which we draw Aces, for a total of 17. That 17 has a chance to push if the dealer has a 10 down to a 7, but loses when the dealer has a 10 down to a 10. If you draw a 2, you win if the dealer has 10 down to a 7, but lose if the dealer has 10 down to a 10. If you draw a 3, you win against 7-10, but lose to 10-10. On 4, you have 20, beating 7-10, but pushing 10-10. With 5, finally, you have 21, a winner either way.
So if the dealer has 10 down and you don't bust, you push one-fifth of the time and win four-fifths if the dealer has 7 up, but lose three-fifths of the time, push one-fifth and win just one-fifth of the time when the dealer starts with 10.
Yes, there are more possibilities when the dealer has cards other than a 10 face down, but the bottom line is that we win more often if we don't bust when the dealer has 7 up than when he or she has 10. The potential for gain is much higher if we're facing a dealer's 7 than if we're facing a dealer's 10.
That shows up in card counting systems. A Hi-Lo counter will stand on 16 vs. 10 at a true count of plus-1, but will keep hitting 16 vs. 7. Wins are seldom enough that some counters, such as your friend, will stand on 16 vs. 10 just to throw the pit crew and surveillance off the scent. It's a low-cost move that is counter to basic strategy and might help convince the crew that your friend is no threat.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski's weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.