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Gambling in Panama
In February, 2011, I spent six days in Panama City. While there, I visited most of the larger casinos and spent entirely too much time playing in the name of research. This article is about what I learned in regards to the gambling scene there.
According to lcb.org, there are 29 casinos in Panama City. Most are small slots-only affairs, but some are larger with table games. The casinos with table games are usually associated with a hotel. Unlike in Vegas, the casinos are more like amenities of the hotel, rather than the other way around. The players tend to bet small and can sit at the same table for hours. There is a more relaxed atmosphere in Panama casinos than in those in the U.S. In Panama, players seem to play for the social factor and to pass time, as opposed to in Vegas where excitement and winning seem to be what motivates most table game players.
Before getting into the games, here is some information about the general casino conditions and amenities in Panama City.
Food — There are not many restaurants directly associated with the casinos. Most hotels seem to outsource their casino to somebody else. The only food you might see in the casino is from a bar menu. There are often independent restaurants in other parts of the hotel or nearby. One interesting thing is I saw a lot of players eating full meals at the slots and table games. As I mentioned, players can spend many hours playing in the same spot, and hunger is not to get in the way. I speculate the meals come from the room service kitchen.
Drinks — Gambling and alcohol are not mixed as much in Panama as in the U.S. A beverage server will come around with a tray of soft drinks and beer once in a while, but it almost never happens that she will come by the tables with a notepad to take special requests. You may have to be a little forceful if you want something other than beer or soda. Most players seem content to just go with the flow and don't complain if they don't get served. As with a lot of things in Panama, it helps to be extra patient.
Dealers — There is not much chatter between players and dealer. The dealers pretty much just stand there and deal. Much like in Macau, the players seem to prefer it that way and don't talk to the dealers either. I tried to break the ice and speak to some dealers using my horrible Spanish, but they pretended to not understand me. To be honest, I can't blame them. I know just enough Spanish to be very annoying.
Smoking — There is a law prohibiting smoking in any public building in Panama, including casinos. As a non-smoker, I applaud Panama for this, and I hope one day the U.S. does the same.
Table game limits: The minimum is usually $3 or $5, and the maximum is usually $500. Some casinos had small high-limit rooms, which tended to start at a $25 minimum. For those who don't know, Panama conveniently uses the American dollar.
Comps — The casinos had player reward cards, just as in the U.S. However, it seemed to me the cards are primarily intended for machine players. Only at the Veneto casino was I ever asked if I had one as I played at the tables. At the Crown casino, I applied for a card and tried to offer it to the supervisor where I was playing, but he just ignored it.
Tipping — Neither the dealers nor cocktail waitresses expected tips, and they hardly ever received any. This is another thing I applaud Panama for. Gratuities are supposed to be just that, gratuitous, for service beyond the call of duty. I'm not saying you shouldn't tip in the U.S., but let's be honest about it, tipping here has become a misnomer — it's better termed "mandatory service fee."
Promotions — There were lots of promotions going on. For example, one casino paid 2-1 on blackjacks in diamonds at certain times. Another had a six-card Charlie rule. Both these rules gave the blackjack player a small advantage.
I could tell from the signage there were other special events, drawings and tournaments being promoted; however, all the wording was in Spanish, so I didn't pay much attention to it.
Next, here are some comments about the availability and rules of specific games in Panama City.
Blackjack is king of the table games, accounting for about 50% of the tables. The rules are very consistent from casino to casino and are as follows:
- Six decks, usually on a continuous shuffler.
- Dealer hits soft 17
- Dealer does not take a hole card, but player loses original bet only against a dealer blackjack.
- Early surrender, except against an ace.
- Double any two cards, and on 9-11 with three cards.
- Double after split allowed.
- Re-split any pair up to four hands, including aces.
Roulette is the second most popular game by table count. All wheels are double-zero.
Craps is not very popular, with the larger casinos having one table open at peak hours only. The odds multiple was never posted, and I would have had great difficulty putting that question into Spanish. At the Veneto, where I found an English speaking supervisor, I was told the rule was 3-4-5X odds.
Canal 21 is a blackjack variant I saw in every major casino. However, only the Crown casino called it that; the other casinos renamed it after their own casino. For example, the Majestic casino called it "Majestic 21." I have heard of this game before. In the blackjack community, it is referred to as "Canal 21," so let's stick with that.
The rules are the same as in blackjack except:
- Four decks are used.
- Blackjack pays even money.
- Suited three of a kind pays 20 to 1.
- Unsuited three of a kind pays 3 to 1.
- Suited 6-7-8 pays 5 to 1.
- Unsuited 6-7-8 pays 3 to 1.
- 7-card 21 pays 5 to 1.
- 6-card 21 pays 3 to 1.
- 5-card 21 pays 2 to 1.
Casino Hold 'Em is a poker-variant popular in Panama but unknown in the United States. On a personal note, I was hired to analyze this game several years ago by the game inventor. I had heard the game was doing well in other parts of the world, but I had never seen it in actual casino until this trip.
All the major casinos in Panama City offered the game, but much like Canal 21, they all called it something different, but all some variation of "Texas Hold 'Em." I call it Casino Hold 'Em because that was the name the inventor intended. Here are the rules:
- Player makes an Ante bet.
- Dealer gives the player and himself two hole cards each and flops three community cards.
- Player may make a Play bet equal to two times his Ante, or fold.
- Dealer deals two more community cards, the turn and river.
- The dealer needs at least a pair of fours to open.
- If the dealer does not open, the Ante bet pays according the Ante pay table and the Call bet will push.
- If the dealer qualifies and the player beats the dealer, then the Ante will pay according to the Ante pay table, and the Call bet will pay 1 to 1.
- If the dealer qualifies and the dealer beats the player, then the Ante and Call bets will lose.
- If the dealer qualifies and there is a tie, the Ante and Call bets will push.
Ante Pay Table
|100 to 1
|20 to 1
|Four of a kind
|10 to 1
|3 to 1
|2 to 1
|1 to 1
I have never quantified a player strategy for this game, but I can tell you the player should raise 82% of the time. Assuming optimal strategy, the house edge is 2.16%.
Live poker is not very popular, but the larger casinos have small poker rooms, often open only certain hours at night. No-limit Texas Hold 'Em was the game of choice, if not the only game.
Video poker players will be very disappointed in Panama City. I would estimate that video poker makes up 1% to 2% of the machines, and what few I found had terrible pay tables.
Slots were almost all penny video slots. The three-reel stepper slots were about as rare as video poker machines. In terms of floor space, in Panama the ratio is about 1/3 slots to 2/3 table games. In the U.S., it is roughly reversed.
Sports Betting outlets can be found in the larger casinos. They are usually small, simple places to make a bet and run, similar to the Leroy's franchises in Las Vegas. Most sports available for wagering were U.S. professional sports with 20-cent lines, much like in Vegas.
There were some other table games. The wave of poker-based games has not caught on as strong in Panama as the U.S., but there were some. The Majestic seemed to be the best for variety of new games.
Here are some brief comments about the major casinos in Panama City. The table game and slot figures are taken from CasinoCity.com. Except as noted, the casinos mentioned are located in fairly close proximity of each other in the "cangrejo" central section of the city, which lies along the major Via EspaÃ±a boulevard.
Table games: 20
Hotel: Riande Continental
This is a quiet casino that was fairly empty when I visited. It is a long room with table games going down the middle and slots along the edges.
Table games: 56
The largest casino in Panama. Quite modern and lively. I might also add there were lots of prostitutes, many of them quite attractive. They were not pushy; most waited for the customer to make the first move. In some cases, just making eye contact was enough to constitute a first move, so be careful.
Table games: 30
Modern, upscale and quite busy. They were hosting a beauty pageant while I was there, which I enjoyed watching.
Table games: 21
Hotel: El Panama
This is a lively casino with a young clientele. There is a disco in center, which played live salsa music while I was there. Majestic
Table games: 48
Hotel: Multiplaza Shopping Center
This was the only casino with table games I visited that was not directly attached to a hotel. In this case, it was a wing of a shopping center. It was next door to the Radisson. A moderately busy yet quiet casino. Most players seemed to prefer to be left alone.
Finally, let me warn my fellow male American players of a trick I will refer to as the Double Down Hustle. Based on my experience, the perpetrator is always female and usually young and attractive. The victim was me, but probably any lonely looking man will do, preferably a Gringo.
After rat-holing chips (discretely hiding them), the perpetrator bets more than half but less than all of her remaining chips on the table. For example, if she had $15 in front of her, she would bet $10. If a double down play comes along she feigns nervousness about making a full double down bet and asks the victim if he wants to make up the difference, up to a full double. To continue the example, she bets $10, puts up $5 for her own double, and offers the victim a chance to put up $5 of his own money. Since every proper double down play has a positive expected value, this may seem like a great offer.
Should you accept, at first the perpetrator will likely give back your bet and winnings if the bet wins. This would serve not just to build trust, but also to break the ice and engage you in conversation. Eventually, she may angle for a handout after she pretends to bust â�� remember, she is rat-holing chips. Or, she may start paying less than a full amounts on winning double and split wagers.
I must admit, I went along with this a bit longer than I should have in one case, in the name of a paid Spanish lesson and boredom. In my experience, you are most likely to experience the Double Down Hustle at the Veneto, but it was attempted on me at the Royal casino as well.
So now you are well prepared in the event you find yourself in Panama City with the urge to gamble. For more information, I have many additional details and stories in my blog at wizardofodds.com.
More InformationFor more in-depth information about Panama, please visit my three-part blog entry about it.
For a Spanish translation of this article, visit Las apuestas en PanamÃ¡.