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Ask the Editor: Onboard Activities

Do onboard casinos have a payout limit?

What's the deal with HAL's Sports of Call program?

What's the truth about art auctions?

Which casino games have the best odds?

After gambling in various casinos on land and seeing some large payouts by slot machines I cannot once remember seeing a payout more than $500 on a cruise ship. Is the cruise industry held to any standard, given the fact that they are in international waters?

Per the Cruise Lines International Association (the cruise industry's marketing arm): "[As in land-based Las Vegas resorts], all equipment purchased and installed on cruise vessels will meet the regulatory standards of the Nevada Gaming Control Board or other licensed jurisdiction for payback and internal software."

Based on those standards, "All shipboard gambling operations will be inspected by each member line's internal audit department on a regular basis, not to exceed 12 months."

So, the bottom line, based on those data, is that if you see fewer payouts than you would empirically expect to see, it's not ships vs. land -- it's the nature of the gambling beast!

We enjoy earning Dam Dollars in Holland America's Sports of Call program, by participating (and hopefully winning) in sporty onboard activities. It's fun, provides a decent workout, doesn't cost anything -- and you can trade in your dollars for logo prizes! On the flipside, it seems like every time we cruise, the rules have changed. There are no fixed "prices" on the prizes (sweatshirts, hats, key chains, etc.), and sizes and stock seem to vary wildly by sailing. So what's the deal with this, er, dam program?

The old chestnut "there's no such thing as a free lunch" perfectly explains Holland America's somewhat confusing Sports of Call program and associated Dam Dollars.

The Sports of Call program awards guests for participating in select onboard activities, such as basketball games, dance classes, walk-a-miles, and other athletic and competitive endeavors. Eligible activities are marked with a special icon in the Daily Program. All participants are awarded with Dam Dollars, with passengers receiving more Dollars if they or their teams come in first, second or third in the competition. Dam Dollars can be redeemed for free HAL swag at the end of the cruise.

Although it sounds easy enough, once you get past the basics, the actual rules become a little convoluted. We approached a Holland America spokesperson to find out why these Dam Dollars are so damn confusing.

The first thing would-be Dam Dollar collectors should know is that prices for prizes change according to the length of the cruise. Items are cheaper on a cruise shorter than 14 nights than they are on a cruise of 14 nights or longer. For example, a baseball cap is 15 Dam Dollars on a shorter cruise and 20 Dollars on a longer cruise; a sweatshirt is 30 on a shorter cruise and 35 on a longer cruise. In addition, voyages longer than 22 nights may have additional prizes available, such as windbreakers and jogging suits.

The reason for these differences is that passengers on longer cruises have increased opportunities to earn dollars. However, ship's staff are also allowed some flexibility in setting prices "to create diversity in award levels." So if lots of people participate in lots of activities, the swag prices may go up, and if bad weather or lack of interest causes many of the eligible games to be canceled, the prices may go down. If you've been wondering why the value of a Dam Dollar seems to suffer from rapid inflation and deflation, well now you know.

Dam Dollars become entirely worthless after each cruise, so repeat cruise travelers can't accrue Dollars over several voyages and then redeem them for a higher-value prize later on. In addition, prizes are limited to what's currently on hand. So if you want to redeem Dam Dollars for a T-shirt and the ship doesn't have your size in stock, you'll just have to choose another prize. The ship does re-stock items but sometimes there's a delay in receiving the shipment.

Ultimately, this program is a gimmick -- the cruise line uses the Dam Dollars as an incentive to get guests to participate in onboard activities and collect HAL logo items to give the line free advertising. While the line will make some effort to keep rules fair and prizes stocked, it has little incentive to go above and beyond to make sure you get the exact prize and size you want. If you really want logo-wear that fits, you can always buy it with real dollars in the ships' shops.

Is the art sold at onboard auctions really worth what they say, or is it just a ruse to squeeze more money out of the passenger?

Park West Gallery, the promoter responsible for the vast majority of auctions at sea, has a fairly clean record as tracked by the major consumer watchdog groups, including the Better Business Bureau (Park West has been a member since 1981). On the flipside, the New York Times has reported that class action lawsuits have been filed against the art auction giant for misrepresenting the value of its artwork onboard cruise ships.

Regardless, there is no denying that cruise lines love the auctions because they are a way of getting more revenue from their passengers.

Passengers opinions fall into two camps: Those who claim they can buy the same art shore side for less money and those who swear that they've seen art they've bought at sea advertised for more money. In a way, both may be correct. Art -- like all collectibles -- is a market-driven commodity. That means that the advertised price is not always the actual price, which is determined by supply and demand, and may vary widely from seller to seller.

And there's the rub. Park West's description of their appraisal methods states that they base their opinion on " prices of reputable art galleries and (somewhat vaguely) other reliable price data and lists ... [and] that they exclude third party auction prices or Internet prices...." From this description, the presumption is that Park West bases its appraisals mainly on listed prices, not completed transactions, and that it self-appraises its own inventory, a conflict of interest.

So the bottom line is that so long as you limit the amount you are willing to commit, and buy pieces because you like them, not because you are expecting to turn a profit, there is no reason not to join the ranks of passengers who find art auctions an engaging and stimulating pastime.

However, there are a slew of reasons not to treat auctions at sea as an investment opportunity, including the lack of access to independent appraisals or competing sellers for price comparisons, and the fact that the heat of the auction process is counterproductive to making serious financial decisions rationally and dispassionately, especially in light of Park West's no-refund policy.

Question: Are there any casino games that have better odds than others -- and if so, which ones and how much better?

The one certain bet in a casino is that if you play long enough you will definitely wind up on the losing side of the equation. (Unless, of course, you win one of those multi-bazillion-dollar slot jackpots, one so huge that the universe is likely to end before you run out of money.)

The best choices for casino wagering are not necessarily those closest to even money vs. long shots; what matters is the difference between the actual odds and the odds the casino pays to winners. This differential is called the "house edge," and is expressed as a percentage. For example, if a particular game has a house edge of 2.5 percent that means for every $100 wagered the player's average loss will be $2.50. We will list popular cruise casino games sorted by house edge.

All casinos may not have the exact same house rules, and this can inject a variation in the house percentages listed below. For example, in blackjack, some casinos require the house to stand on any 17, while others require the dealer to hit a "soft" 17. The odds listed are for typical Las Vegas rules, and though there may be variations in the odds you find in your onboard casino, the relative rankings of the wagers should still hold.

Texas Hold 'Em (House edge: none). We're talking about traditional poker, not video poker or games played against the house like Caribbean Stud and Let It Ride. This is a format familiar to patrons of land-based casinos, but relatively new to those on ships, where the house provides a dealer who deals the cards, makes payouts and rules on winners. The reason it's at the top of our list is that there is no house edge whatsoever, because players contest with each other, not against the house.

The dealer does "rake" a percentage of each pot (often 5 percent). But since the experience and capability of each player raises or lowers their chances, skill becomes a significant factor in winning, and a highly skilled player usually will have a sizeable advantage over some or all of his tablemates. This may not always be the case for land-based poker lounges where it's not uncommon to encounter poker professionals who play every day year-round, including on the tournament circuit. Even a skilled tourist at a poker table with three or four of these pros is likely to lose. But it's highly unlikely to run into professionals in a cruise ship casino.

Even so, it still makes a lot of sense not to play unless you really know what you're doing. To that end there are a number of online training sites (such as, where you can also play live online), or educational and practice software such as "Poker Academy Pro," (widely available, including at

Blackjack (House edge: 0.20 - 0.63 percent). The variation in percentages is due to the range of number of decks in play. The smallest edge relates to single deck blackjack (now all but extinct on cruise ships); the largest is for a game dealt out of an eight-deck shoe. But even at the worst end of the spectrum, players following the proper "hit/stand" strategy still get the best odds in the casino.

In addition, blackjack is one of those games where the odds are variable; as cards are dealt out, the makeup of the deck(s) change(s), altering the ratio of big cards (9,10, jack, queen, king, ace) to small cards (2, 3, 4, 5, 6) -- and when that ratio is high, the odds are actually in favor of the player. This discovery is generally credited to mathematician Edward O. Thorp, who expanded it into the system known as card counting. Thorp's book "Beat the Dealer," published in 1966, is still the seminal work on the topic, and its publication sounded the death knell for single-deck blackjack. Casinos consider card counting to be dishonest -- or, put another way, they consider playing intelligently tantamount to cheating -- so we would never recommend following any card counting system. But Thorp's book, still in print, is a great resource for the casino gamer whose game of choice is blackjack, providing an excellent understanding of the dynamics and strategy of the game, and a complete statistically valid hit/stand/split/double-down strategy.

Craps (House edge: 1.41 percent). This percentage refers to Pass and Come bets. It can be improved significantly by betting the Pass Line and taking "Odds." This means placing an additional wager behind a Pass Line bet. In a casino that offers "Full Odds," this means that you are paid the exact same odds on the Odds bet as the actual odds. Put another way, there is no house edge on the Odds bet. That reduces the house edge on the combined wagers to 0.85 percent. Some casinos allow Odds wagers larger than the original bet. If you can put twice your original bet behind the line (2X Odds) the house edge drops to 0.61 percent; for 10X Odds it's a low 0.18 percent.

Three Card Poker (House edge: 1.46 - 2.32 percent, depending on form of the game played).

Let It Ride (House edge: 3.51 percent).

Caribbean Stud Poker (House edge: 5.22 percent). This percentage is exclusive of the optional $1 progressive jackpot bet, which most experts agree drastically inflate the house edge.

Roulette (House edge: 5.26 percent). This edge is for the typical American Roulette wheel (one with a double zero). If you can find a European wheel -- which has a single zero -- the house edge drops to 2.70 percent.

Slot Machines (House edge: 5.50 - 15.20 percent). The variation is due both to machine settings and cost of play. The worst odds listed are for nickel slots; the best are for five dollar machines.

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