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Too free (or not too free)? A brief look at casino ‘comping’

I’m a great believer in the cliché that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Except of course of you are in Las Vegas and take advantage of the vast array of bonuses and complimentary offers (more commonly known as ‘comps’) that are on offer. It doesn’t take a psychologist to tell you that the psychology behind ‘comping’ is to get the gambler to spend more money. Comping is a legitimate psychological marketing strategy used as an incentive to either get punters to gamble in the first place, or an incentive used to prolong gambling. Here in the UK, we are obviously not on the same level as Atlantic City or Las Vegas, but most gambling establishments offer an array of temptations to get you to gamble. These include cash prize draws, gift raffles, tokens or credit boosts (for instance, winning additional credit on selected slot machines instead of cash), and scratchcards (which can be redeemed inside the arcade or casino). These types of marketing ploy have two main effects. Firstly, they get people exposed to the gambling environment. Secondly, they get people exposed to gambling itself.

As I noted in a previous blog, the frequency of bonuses varies depending the gambling establishment but can occur hourly, daily, weekly, or seasonally. These are often used to entice the consumer in several retail environments, but what makes them especially psychologically appealing in a gambling environment are the obvious similarities to the characteristics of gambling events in general (such as risk, uncertainty, intermittent reinforcement, and non-monetary psychological rewards). Furthermore, the appeal is strengthened since gamblers feel they are getting something for nothing.

“Comps” can come in many guises. These include travel amenities such as free room, food, drink, shows, golf, limos, with which the casinos reward their “good players” – those that spend (i.e., lose!) a lot of money – and entice other potential gamblers onto their premises. The easiest comps to get are free parking and fun books (which often contain coupons for free drinks, snacks, and souvenirs). For these comps, you don’t even have to gamble. Punters simply have to walk into the casino to get them. The lowest level comp for gamblers is the ubiquitous free drink. It doesn’t matter if you’re putting a quarter in a slot machine or laying down a couple of grand at the poker table, casinos will serve complimentary drinks. However, just remember that drinking alcohol over prolonged periods will impair judgement and rationality. The outcome is usually more money spent by the gambler, which is what the casino wanted in the first place!

It should be no surprise that the value of comps increases with the value of bets. The standard equation used by casinos to determine comps is: size of average bet times number of hours played times the house advantage times the comp equivalency. In other words, say you play blackjack, making £10 bets for two hours. The casino multiplies 120 hands (60 an hour) by £10 and comes up with £1,200 worth of action. It then multiplies £1,200 by the 2% house advantage and comes up with £24. This is what the casino believes it will win from you on average in two hours of $10 blackjack. It then multiplies £24 by 40% (i.e., what it is willing to return in comps). This means the gambler is entitled to £9.60 in freebie amenities.

Comps returned to the big gamblers include high-roller suites, lavish gourmet dinners, unlimited room service, en-suite Jacuzzi, private lap pool, ringside seats at live shows or sporting events, private parties, limos, and Lear jets. Does this sound good to you? It’s yours. All you need to do is bet $25,000 a hand in Las Vegas eight hours a day over a long weekend, or have a $5 million credit line. More within your reach are the comps for $25-a-bet gamblers. This might include half-price hotel room, limited food and beverage, and line passes to the show. The $100-a-bet gamblers will usually get full room, food, and beverage, meaning their whole stay is free. Simple psychological economics – but it works.

To enter the comp game, you must “get rated” by the casino. The casino then records your time in, time out, average bet size, and other details. The data are entered into the computer and casino marketing determines what comps you’re entitled to. If you are a slots player, the casino will use smart cards to monitor and assess your gambling. By playing table games the gambler can exploit the system. In short, it’s possible to trick the casino into thinking that you’re a bigger gambler than you really are by utilizing what is known as “comp wizardry.” Casinos are especially vulnerable to comp system exploitation, because a player’s gambling must be observed by pit bosses. Simple tricks by the gambler include looking like a loser, slowing down the speed of play (such as playing one hand every minute and a half instead of every minute), and betting more when the pit bosses are watching and less when they aren’t. It’s the simplest psychology that can minimize your risk and maximize your reward in the comp game.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The psychology of gambling: Complimentary nuts. Inside Edge: The Gambling Magazine, November (Issue 20), p. 66.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online ads and the promotion of responsible gambling. World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(6), 14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet gambling, player protection and social responsibility. In R. Williams, R. Wood & J. Parke (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Internet Gambling (pp.227-249). London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? (pp. 277-292). New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2008). Responsible gaming and best practice: How can academics help? Casino and Gaming International, 4(1), 107-112.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2009). Centralised gaming models and social responsibility. Casino and Gaming International., 5(2), 65-69.

Wood, R.T.A., Shorter, G.W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Rating the suitability of responsible gambling features for specific game types: A resource for optimizing responsible gambling strategy. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 94–112.