Secrets casinos don't want you to know

They say "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," but we uncovered some secrets that may just give players an advantage over the house. Before you place your bets, read on for a jackpot of insider information. ]

Casino design is about the art of seduction

There's a reason casinos feel like an oasis in the middle of the desert (and in the case of Las Vegas, that is literally true): it's a cleverly designed psychological scheme to enhance the mood, seducing you and your wallet with pleasant sights, sounds, and yes, even smells. Most casinos don't have windows or clocks to keep guests blissfully unaware of the time and money they've frittered away, and hotel/casino design goes far beyond altering the laws of time like some Time Lord of Gallifrey.

In Vegas, two different hotel/casino design strategies rule supreme: the classic "gaming" style and the more modern "playground" style. Developed by former gambling addict turned casino consultant David Friedman, the classic "gaming" style design emphasizes gaming decor over everything else, with slot machines right near the hotel entrance, low ceilings, and maze-like floor plans that always somehow lead you right back to the casino. Meanwhile, designer Roger Thomas partnered with Steve Wynn to create the "playground" style layout at the Bellagio, where spaces are more open, airy, and luxurious. "People don't want to make bets when they feel trapped or overwhelmed or confused," Thomas told The New Yorker. "That's not the mood you want … People tend to take on the characteristics of a room. They feel glamorous in a glamorous space and rich in a rich space. And who doesn't want to feel rich?" Um, no one.

Then there's sound design, lighting, and smells. Originally, game designers made sure to tune all of their machine sounds to the key of C so no dissonant sounds would distract players around the slot machine area. One study conducted by British psychologist Mark Griffiths found people playing roulette were more likely to bet at a faster pace under red lights and up-tempo music than at tables with brighter lighting and slower music because it made them feel sexier. But casinos also are betting on you following your nose … straight to the nearest slot machine. One study conducted by Chicago-based researcher Dr. Alan Hirsch found that when casinos pumped a "pleasant but unidentifiable scent" into the slot machine area on a Saturday night, gambling increased 50 percent because it may have triggered some kind of sexual arousal, or as he put it, "a more aggressive behavior pattern." Maybe instead of losing all your dough to feel sexy, just try some Prince albums and lingerie?

"Freebies" aren't really free

As that old Lew Brown and Buddy DeSylva song says, "the best things in life are free," and casinos are notorious for offering guests as many special perks as a celebrity receiving a swag bag at the Oscars. But don't flag down the cocktail waitress to order ANOTHER "free" flaming alcoholic concoction just yet. You're still going to wind up paying for it in the end one way or another.

"There's always been this unspoken rule that the bartenders decide who gets what," said Scott Roeben, a Vegas insider and blogger. "They're watching the play and if you don't play enough, they say you gotta play more. They're automating that system … so there's a very one-to-one correlation between play and the reward." Some casinos offer free hotel stays, free parking, tickets to shows, spa packages, and even ringside seats for fights, but only if you hit a certain level of play (aka spend enough money) in their establishment. So, you don't get to drink or live like a high roller if you don't play like a high roller. "At the very basic level, a computer may decide what you get," casino consultant Max Rubin told the Baltimore Sun. "The higher you get, the more people-centric it becomes. You may now have a player host, then you have a VIP host. Then you may get an executive host for an even higher level. And he is required to reach out and touch you. And then there is a player development host for the highest of high rollers."

But even the low rollers have to spend money to earn rewards, and one of the easiest ways they get you is through the free Player's Card, which acts like a loyalty reward program. Available at every major casino in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, the Player's Card gets loaded with discounts and free hotel stays the more you play. Many casinos give you a round of free play or a T-shirt just for signing up. And to reel you in even more, you can use the same card at any casino owned by the same company. For instance, the Player's Card for the MGM/Mirage company works at nine resorts in Las Vegas, making it even more appealing to hit as many as possible to try to earn reward. Oh, and you better use it or lose it. Most of these "comps" have an expiration date, so you have to redeem them immediately—or risk losing that spa package with a masseuse who looks like John Cena that you earned from blowing $500 on slots. Bummer!

You want to play where no one knows your name

If you sit down at the poker table and the player next to you receives a warm greeting from the dealer like Norm on Cheers, take your money and run. Often, these regulars are professional gamblers or locals looking to make their living off of casual players and tourists. Though most professional gamblers are probably playing in private rooms rather than $5 minimum tables, you still want to look for tables where everyone seems to be on an equal, anonymous footing with the dealer. And keep your eyes and ears peeled for louder, livelier tables too. "Generally, that means people are winning, drinking, and having a good time," says Thrillist travel editor Ryan Craggs, "You're there to have a good time, which will be exponentially increased by a table full of people drinking, yelling, and high-fiving each other. Because this correlates strongly with the table winning money."

Unfortunately, you're no more likely to win just because you pick a table where people happen to have been doing well. But being the life of the party at least guarantees you a better time.

You're being watched more closely than a Russian spy

If you've seen the celebrity-filled heist comedy Ocean's Eleven, you know casino security is infamously tight. Considering Nevada casinos raked in over $24 billion during the 2015 fiscal year, minimizing cheating, theft, and other losses is a top priority. Gone are the old mafia days where huge guys in double-breasted suits roughed you up for cheating. Now, casino security has gone totally high-tech, with owners spending millions of dollars to ensure their vaults and players stay safe.

Every venue uses state-of-the-art closed-circuit television, which allows security guards to monitor every square inch of the building. According to Casino.org, a larger venue like the MGM Grand has upward of 2,000 cameras connected to 50 monitors, allowing maximum surveillance. So even if you've got a Lady Gaga–worthy poker face, security can still zoom in on your cards and follow you throughout the building to make sure your win wasn't a bluff.

Plus, most establishments now use some form of facial recognition software. This helps casinos identify underage guests and target flagged individuals who have shady records or gambling addictions. Casinos can lose their gaming licenses and suffer major legal and financial troubles if they're caught letting the wrong people play. Sensors around the building can help casinos track guests' movements too. Former casino security expert Jeff Jonas notes, "Each resort has tens of thousands of sensors, every door lock system, every slot machine, ATM machines, point of sale machines, it just goes on and on. There might be more sensors per square foot than anywhere, possibly other than a battleship." So unless you're Danny Ocean with a crackpot team of clever criminals, it's not worth it trying to pull one over on the house. They've got their eyes on you.

Tables are a better bet to win money than machines

There's a reason casinos often place slot machines nearest to the entrance: they're guaranteed money-makers for the house. "Slots are popular because they're easy to play and many have low minimums," says Vegas gaming expert Anthony Curtis, but because the play is fast and randomized, you're all but certain to lose more money than you win. That's why he suggests playing the tables instead. "The rule of thumb is, if something is easy to learn and play, the casinos will charge you more to play it," advises Curtis. "Pushing buttons on machines is easy. Learning the rules of table games takes effort. Do the work, and you'll get a better gamble."

Table games are much slower-paced, which means players have more time to strategize and make better, safer bets, especially when there are more players at a table. The house's advantage drops significantly. Gaming expert Basil Nestor says, "The house edge for blackjack is less than 1 percent when you practice perfect basic strategy. Compare that to the house edge on a typical slot game. It's usually in the range of 7 percent to 10 percent. Of course, you can beat any game if you have a dose of good luck. But it's a lot easier to win when you're bucking a smaller edge." And if you know your stuff, you stand a better chance still at games against other players, such as poker. If a computer could beat Jeopardy champs, then you should probably stick to betting against humans where you have a higher mathematical chance of winning.

Chips feel less like real money, so you'll bet more

There's something alluring and fun about the colorful little round chips casinos use in place of money, and with good reason. Much like credit cards or even Monopoly money, casino chips reduce feelings of guilt. "Whether it's chips, tokens, e-cash, or smart cards, they all serve the same psychological function," says Dr. Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, "They 'disguise' real money's true value. What's more, chips and tokens are often re-gambled without thought or hesitation, and all the evidence seems to suggest that people gamble far more with virtual forms of money than real cash."

Plus, using chips keeps games moving more swiftly than if dealers had to wait for players to count out their bets using real dollars. But don't bother trying to pass off counterfeit chips for real ones at the cash out window. Many casinos have started embedding RFID tags (radio frequency tags) into their colorful tokens to crack down on those seeking to illegally add to their winnings. The Bellagio used these RFID tags to track down a burglar who stole $1.5 million in chips at gunpoint from a craps table in 2010. Goodbye, Mr. Chips!

Dealers make most of their money from tips

Like waiters and others in service-related jobs, tips are the main source of income for many dealers, who often only make a minimum wage hourly salary. Much depends on how dealers "serve" you while you're at their tables, and keeping the customers satisfied is job number one. "We want a happy player at the game for two reasons," said Sophie, a former longtime dealer turned professional card counter, "That's the only way we make money off of tips. And it makes for a really long night if people are pissed off and losing. We want to keep spirits up so players keep playing and keep tipping. "

The dealers themselves have plenty of strategies to lighten players' pockets and line their own. "As a dealer, it always helps to smile and try to socialize with the customers, since talkative, upbeat and positive dealers make better tips," notes blackjack dealer Antoniya Hamberg. So don't be surprised if your baccarat dealer flashes you a megawatt Miss America–style smile. It's all part of the job. "When I was in management," Sophie recalled, "we would always say to dealers, 'You are actors and actresses. Put on a show.' But the minute the players walked out, none of us thought twice about them." If you win big, make sure you treat your dealers like your BFF and show them a little monetary love. The only stiff thing at the table should be the drink in your hand.

Hidden fees also drain your wallets

No matter how careful you are with your money, the house still always wins and not just at the blackjack table. Many resorts have started charging guests with hidden fees labeled as "resort fees" or "concession and franchise fees." While many hotels across the country have been adding surcharges onto bills since 1997 to pay rising utility bill costs and for special amenities like pools and tennis courts, these surcharges are now extending to the most ludicrous items to take more of your hard-earned money.

The minibar is always an enticing if expensive hotel room novelty, but the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas has found a way to ensure you get charged for it even if you don't guzzle down any of the tiny, gleaming liquor bottles in a drunken stupor worthy of The Hangover. Special sensors inside the refrigerator instantly charge guests if an item has been removed for more than 60 seconds. And don't think about using the fridge even just to store your buffet dinner leftovers. The Aria charges an additional $25-a-day "personal use fee" if you use the provided minibar for storage. But don't worry: for a reasonable $35 a night, you can also rent a mini-fridge from the Aria to keep your stacks of cash and personal liquor stash cold.

And beware the "concession and franchise" fee often tacked onto bills at restaurants on the Vegas strip like Senor Frogs and the Sugar Factory American Brasserie at Paris. The CNF adds a whopping 4.7 percent tax to your entire bill for everything from "prime real estate location" to "live entertainment" and sometimes even tap water. Las Vegas trip adviser Anthony Curtis put it succinctly, "It's a tax on a tax." Maybe a trip to the minibar isn't such a bad idea after all.

Beware the "near-miss"

Wayne Gretzky once said, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you don't take," and he could just as easily have been talking about casinos as hockey. In fact, casinos are counting on Gretzky's logic and the psychological effects of something called the "near-miss" to keep players pulling those giant levers or calling out "hit me" on a hand of blackjack. Scientists at the University of British Columbia and Oxford found that players responded far more strongly to "near misses"—aka moments where they almost won, like getting two cherries on a slot machine or missing hitting 21 by a single card. A similar study conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Nottingham and University of Cambridge in England found these instances of "near misses" triggered a huge release of dopamine similar to drug use in their subject's brains, so even if the losses were excruciating, the high of almost winning sent them straight back to the slot machine to try again. Haven't you gamblers ever heard, "hugs not drugs?"

And it sounds like we may have famous psychologist B.F. Skinner to blame. In the 1930s, Skinner created something called "the Skinner Box," which he likened to a slot machine, for perhaps his most famous experiment on Operant Conditioning. Skinner placed pigeons and rats in his box and rewarded them with pellets of food anytime they pressed the lever. But after he altered his experiment to randomly release pellets instead of releasing them every time the lever was pressed, Skinner found the animals pressed the lever more often. In the same way, casinos "reward" players with near-misses to keep them coming back in hopes of winning, so you may think your chances have improved, but you're just a lab rat in a grand psychological experiment conducted in a flashy hotel and casino. Ick.