Over the years, I have frequently written about the value of comps. Comps generally come in two different versions. One is cash back. The casino returns a percent of the total amount wagered in the form of additional play. They do this because the odds are that any Player who plays that much is likely to play the additional money more than a minimal amount and will in the long run lose that money back to the casino, along with more of his own money.
A second type of comp is that the Player can earn free items, meals or entertainment. Sometimes, these may be earned on top of cash back and sometimes they are instead of cash back, meaning that a Player can essentially use his cash back to 'buy' something else.
Since both of the aforementioned comps are based on the amount a Player plays, you can really look at this as a form of rebate and that in many ways the Player has actually paid for these items. There is another form of 'comp' which is an entirely different category. This would be 'free play' that the casinos send out. While there may be some correlation between how much they give each Player and his actual play, this is not a direct mathematical computation. Casinos may throw a Player $5 or $10 or $20 just to entice you to come into the casino.
The question now is what you choose to do with these 'free plays'. Unlike 'match plays', they do not require that you put up ANY of you own money. A 'match play' coupon will pay you an extra $5 when you wager at least $5 on an even money wager (i.e. a hand of blackjack). This still requires you to wager your own $5. It is a great play if you are a good (or at least decent) Blackjack Player. You'll win $10 if you win and lose $5 if you lose. Again, the hope is that the Player will play the match play coupon and then stay and play for a while. If you're planning on playing anyhow, that is fine. If, however, you are not a knowledgeable Player and wind up sitting for an hour at a game that you don't know, the casino will more than get its $5 back. Also, a match play coupon is generally only worth about half of its face value. The coupon is surrendered whether the Player wins or loses. Since most even money wagers are approximately a 50-50 shot, the Player will win about half of the time and lose half the time. So, a $5 coupon will only be paid out half the time, making its value $2.50.
That brings us back to the free play coupons. While the mechanics of a free play coupon work differently in different casinos, the basics are the same. You get a certain amount of money to play on a slot machine or video poker machine. This money must be played at least once through the machine. So, if given $5, the casino doesn't care if you play $1, quarters or nickels. You can Play 100 nickels or 20 quarters. You can play one at a time or max-coin. Now, if you choose to play one round of video poker at max-coin $1, you'll play one hand. For most games of video poker, the Player will 'win' about 45% of the time. This means that 55% of the time, your $5 will result in absolutely nothing. Another significant portion of the time, you'll wind up with a High Pair and you'll get to keep exactly $5. The remaining times you'll win anywhere from 2 to 800 per unit and have a rather nice win. If you had an unlimited number of these free plays, it wouldn't matter much how you choose to play. But since you get only one of these every so often, it is my opinion that your goal should be to turn the free play into cash which then puts all the choices in your hand. Unlike the match play, proper use of free play can result in the return of 95-100%+ of the face value most of the time. Assuming identical paytables, I try to play the lowest denomination available, which allows for the most hands. The more hands, the more likely you will approach the theoretical payback. Thus, playing $10 on a 98.6% machine will on average result in a return of $9.86.
If you are disciplined, at no time are you putting your own money at risk. Thus, even if you are a bad video poker Player and play the same game at 94%, you should still expect to come out with $9.40 of the $10.00. Not a bad deal. I know some of you won't believe to hear me say this, but you'd be better of playing the money through Slots than not using it at all - again, assuming you are disciplined and don't keep playing the money until you lose it and then put more of your own money in.
A friend of mine recently told me that every time he goes to Reno on a business trip, he stays in a casino that gives him some amount of money in 'free play'. It doesn't expire for a year and in the past 12 months, he has amassed $400-$500 in 'free play'. I asked him how come he doesn't play and his response was that he doesn't know how to play video poker and he knows that Slots are not a good play. I did give him a copy of both "Winning Strategies for Video Poker" and "Video Poker: America's National Game of Chance" to help him along. But, I also told him that it didn't matter how bad he played. Even a basic understanding of Poker could probably earn him a 90-95% payback on a jacks or better video poker machine which means he should win back at least a few hundred dollars. Better in his pocket than the casinos!