Gambling Overview+ Back

No two gambling cities are ever the same.  Rules vary, comps vary, minimums vary, what you need to know before gambling there varies.  That's why I've prepared this concise overview of the Macau gaming scene, where you'll learn vital information about Macau's best and worst games, which comps are useful and how to make the most of your time and money in the Chinese version of Sin City. 

 

Basics

Macau has had legalised gambling since the 1850’s.  Fan Tan was the game of choice way back then, and there were more than 200 Fan Tan saloons in 1900.  In 1962, the industry took a big step forward when SJM secured a monopoly on all gambling city wide.  Besides introducing more Western style games, Stanley Ho’s massive conglomerate also improved the ferry system between Hong Kong and Macau, which brought a lot more people in. 

 

In 2001, SJM’s monopoly ended when 5 other concessionaires were granted casino licenses:  Galaxy, Sands, Melco Crown, Wynn and MGM.  This expansion ushered in the current era of Macau gaming, one characterised by unprecedented revenue growth and explosion.  In 2005, casino revenues stood at 6 billion US dollars a year.  By 2013, that number had swelled to 46.5 billion dollars, a 9 time increase in less than a decade.   Year on Year increases averaged well over 30%, peaking in 2010 when revenues grew an amazing 57.8%.

The good times hit a wall in 2014 however, and many wonder if they’ll ever come back.  Xi Jin Ping’s crackdown on mainland corruption led to a -2.6% YOY drop in gambling revenues from 2013 to 2014.  2015 was even worse, with casinos only earning 28.85 billion dollars, a whopping -36.2% YOY drop compared to the 44 billion they made in 2014.  As catastrophic as that sounds, that’s still 4 times more than what Las Vegas makes in one year.

The market leader in 2015 was Las Vegas Sands, whose heavy presence on the Cotai Strip give them a large advantage over their competitors.  Galaxy and SJM finished second and third respectively, only a couple of percentage points behind Las Vegas Sands.  Melco Crown finished 4th with a market share percentage in the mid teens, while Wynn and MGM lagged significantly, with neither operator cracking 10 percent.


In general, the six casino operators all run their casinos in the same way, so there aren’t any major differences between them.  All in all, only two things stand out to me: Las Vegas Sands casinos tend to have the best range of games, while the comps are generally worst in SJM casinos, the majority of which are satellite outlets, controlled by third party operators. 

Geography


The overwhelming majority of Macau’s 40 casinos are located in 3 principal zones: the area around the Macau Ferry Terminal, the Amizade Strip and the Cotai Strip.

The 11 casinos around the Ferry Terminal are mostly smaller venues run by SJM, with the lone exception being the Sands, the only monster casino in the area.  A 10 minute walk west along Avenue D’Amizade will bring you to the main Amizade strip, home to 13 casinos, the most significant of which are the Wynn, MGM, Lisboa, and Grand Lisboa

The new development zone for Macau gaming is the Cotai Strip, an area of reclaimed land between Taipa and Coloane, which used to be two islands.  Now it’s all one large land mass, and where you'll find all of Macau's newest casinos, like the Venetian, City of Dreams, Galaxy, Sands Cotai, Studio City, Wynn Palace, Parisian and MGM Cotai. By 2019, they should be joined by two new properties: the Lisboa Palace, and Louis 13, both of which are currently under construction.  It’s all part of Macau’s grand scheme to turn Cotai into a mini Vegas.  

 

Macau Ferry Terminal casinos Sands Oceanus Grand Lapa Golden Dragon map Amizade Strip Macau Casinos Wynn MGM Grand Lisboa Starworld map Macau Cotai Strip Casinos Venetian Galaxy City of Dreams Studio City map

 

Money

The currency of choice in casinos is Hong Kong Dollars, although a few places also accept Macau Patacas, aka Mops.

Tipping dealers is rare, so don’t feel the need to do it.  Of course, if you wish to do so, it won’t be refused.

Smoking

The Macau government made all mass gaming areas on casino floors go 100% smoke free in October 2014, something I thought would never fly, particularly in Asia.  Hats off to them, it’s been a wonderful development.

The land of Baccarat 

As mentioned above, Macau officially has 35 casinos but I’ve never bought that line.  To me, a casino is a place that offers a wide range of games (around 5 at least), along with some slots and video poker.  If judged by that criteria, then half of the casinos in Macau aren’t what I'd call casinos at all, but Baccarat Halls instead.  A Baccarat Hall is a place where 95% of the tables are Baccarat and only two or three other games are offered, most likely Sic Bo and Blackjack (and those tables might not even open.)  To me, that’s not a casino and unless Baccarat is your game you can avoid these places completely.  Just leave them to the Chinese.

For a broader selection of games, you need to think big, as in the “Big 12” casinos: Sands, Venetian, Sands Cotai, Parisian, Galaxy, Studio City, City of Dreams, Grand Lisboa, Wynn, Wynn Palace, MGM, and MGM Cotai.   Truth be told, 95% of the tables in those casinos are Baccarat as well, but at least they offer 5 or 6 other games too.  Besides the Big 12 casinos, Ponte 16, Pharaoh’s Palace, Oceanus, and the Lisboa are other good venues as well, although the latter is very Chinese.  I like them because the game selection is just as good as the Big 12 casinos (and sometimes better) while the minimums are a touch lower. 

Which brings me to my next point….

The stakes are high and so am I


Macau is an extremely expensive place to gamble.  At the Big 12 casinos, standard minimums start at $300 HKD, or 40 US dollars.  Ouch.  Electronic gaming machines have inundated the market recently that offer lower minimums of $20 to $100 - but so what?  They’re electronic gaming machines, so they’re not as fun, and you can only play 3 games on them anyway: Baccarat, Sic Bo, and Roulette.  As far as $100 Western style games, Blackjack, Caribbean Stud Poker, Craps, Roulette and War still remain, but you might have to go to a Baccarat Hall to play it. 


In fact, you ask me what my biggest criticism of Macau gaming is, it’s that there aren’t enough low limit tables.  Or to put it another way, that I’m not rich enough to play there!

Here are notable $50 and $100 games still offered in the city.

 
$100 Baccarat: Crystal Palace, Diamond, Ji Mei, Paradise Kampek, Taipa Square

$100 Blackjack: Babylon, Casa Real, Diamond, Jai Alai, Ji Mei, Ponte 16

 

$100 Caribbean Stud Poker: Pharaohs Palace


$100 Craps: City of Dreams, Studio City

 

$100 Fan Tan: Casa Real


$100 Pai Gow: Lisboa

$50 Roulette: Parisian, Sands, Sands Cotai
$100 Roulette: Galaxy, Grand Lisboa, Pharaohs Palace, Plaza, Venetian 

$50 Sic Bo: Casa Real, Golden Dragon, Grandview, Ji Mei, Oceanus

 

$100 Three Card Baccarat: Crystal Palace, Golden Dragon, Grandview, Jai Alai

 

$100 War: Parisian, Sands Cotai

To ensure the list is up to date, you can always double check using the Search Games function found here: Macau Games.

Good rules


Ok it’s expensive, but at least the rules are good, at least compared to Vegas.  Macau has 6 games with a house edge under 1.25%: Blackjack, Craps, Video Poker, Baccarat, Fan Tan and Pai Gow, if you’re banking at the Lisboa.  Blackjack, in specific, has 0.08% games at MGM, Wynn, and Lan Kwai Fong, while the standard number city wide is 0.16%, which is obviously quite good.  Electronic shufflers are used everywhere though so forget about counting. 

The best Craps is found at the City of Dreams (5 times odds) while the Wynn and MGM’s EZ Baccarat or Dragon 7 Baccarat is the best Baccarat in town (1.02% Banker bet).  Video Poker is atrocious in general with the best game in town MGM's 9/7/5 Double Bonus Poker (99.1%), but the minimum on the machine is huge - $25.  For $2 and $5 games, the normal return is usually between 94% and 96%. 

After these 6 games the good times end, as all other games are over 2%.  For the best rule among these 2% plus games look no further than Roulette.  All the tables in the city are single 0, a substantial improvement over the double 0 wheels that pollute Las Vegas.  Speaking of which…
   
Macau is nothing like Vegas

I’ve met a lot of people who don’t enjoy gambling in Macau.  They say it’s not fun and they’re probably right.  Party pits, free flow booze, friendly dealers, hot waitresses working it for tips, a festive fun atmosphere… no, no, no, no and no.  Gambling is a serious venture in Macau and the vibe on the floor reflects it.  The vast majority of casinos are entertainment free with absolutely nothing going on, other than some background music if you’re lucky. 

It probably also doesn’t help that you lose the banter with other players and the dealers, since 99% of the dealers and 97% of the other players can’t speak English.  No one really drinks anything either and only a few of the Big 12 casinos even serve free booze, which you’ll only get if you specifically request it and prove that you’re gambling.  The best free drinks are found at the Plaza casino, but you’ll be paying for it when you make your bets.  It’s certainly not a cheap place to play.

Player cards and promotions


I’ve stopped writing down the information related to promotions, because there aren’t enough good ones going around to make a difference.  The vast majority of Baccarat Halls do nothing, and while most Casinos will put something on, I don’t think they’re very useful for the recreational gambler.  Besides that, I think some of the promotions are rigged anyway.  I’ve participated in many a daily draw that just looked like an out and out sham.  Judging from the reaction of the winners, they knew they had it locked up before the numbers were called. 

Player cards are widespread in Macau and 95% of casinos offer them.  The process is the same as everywhere else - just insert the card into the slot machine or hand it to the floorman before you start playing.  Points are then credited to the card according to how much you gamble which can later be redeemed for gifts and prizes.  Most of the nicer prizes like MacBooks and iPhones require a huge amount of points and you’re much better off just going to a store and buying what you want outright, rather than chasing it in a casino.  The shiny gift redemption catalogues sure look nice, but it takes a massive effort to redeem anything halfway worthwhile.

For that reason, I think the best promotions in Macau are tied to daily point accumulation, especially for recreational gamblers.  Most Sands and Galaxy casinos will offer those, so you should be able score free ferry tickets or a meal at least, if you gamble long enough.  For information on Galaxy promotions, just visit their useful website here: GEG Rewards.

Player cards are also useful for shopping and dining discounts when frequenting the hotel’s shops and restaurants.  In general, the discounts range from 5 to 20%, which is not inconsequential.

All the best comps in Macau are reserved for the high rollers, aka VIPs, aka whales.  Free rooms, transportation tickets and other benefits can be had at smaller casinos like Taipa Square and Grandview after a buy in of $30,000, while a nicer place like the Sofitel requires $60,000.  The downside is that you can only play Baccarat afterwards.  Once you get into the $100,000 plus range the options really open up, either in the form of private junkets or VIP dead chip programs that return cash back rebates and other room and dining comps.  For more information on that, please click the link for the VIP Intro.

 

Let’s talk a bit about the games in more detail now.

 

House Edge & Element of Risk

The chart below lists every game in Macau, ranked in order from best game to worst game.  Games are judged according to their best bet, the one that results in the lowest House Edge or Element of Risk.  (The lower the number the better, a House Edge of 0% means you can expect to lose $0 per each $100 bet, which is a completely fair game.  A house edge of 1% means you can expect to lose $1 for every $100 bet.)  

 

 

The chart also assumes you follow optimal strategy which is usually very easy to learn.  Most games don’t even require you to make any kind of strategic decision at all, you just bet then win or lose.  For information on optimal strategy,  the Gambling Quiz has you (mostly) covered, but if you can’t find what you’re looking for there, just leave a question on the message board and I’ll try and help. 

Generally speaking, the best advice I can give you in relation to gambling is not to do it.  If you are going to gamble though, the next best advice would be to only play games where you have an advantage.  To my knowledge, the only bet in Macau which results in a player edge is counting the Dragon 7 side bet in EZ Baccarat.  Other than that, you have to hope a dealer is hole carding something somewhere.  Barring that, I recommend sticking to games with the lowest house edge and only playing those. 

 

I’d like to conclude by going a little bit more in-depth into Macau’s Blackjack and Video Poker. 

Blackjack

 

Standard Macau rules result in a house edge of 0.16%.  The following casinos are exceptions:

 


         


 

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To learn more about Macau's VIP scene, please click the link here: VIP Intro.  We also have infomation about VIP Rates and a fun Gambling Quiz!

 

 

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