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The 5 Best Casino War Tips

By Randy Ray
Published on February 22, 2017
War Hands Feature

Like most people, my earliest memories of playing with a deck of cards date back to kitchen table games of War.

The classic card game can be played with two or more players, no skill or talent is required, and the only thing a rookie needs to learn is how to count. As a simple high card game, War is based on each player tabling the top card from their respective portion of the deck. Whoever plays the highest card – deuces are low and aces are high – takes them both, thus creating one of the simplest gambling games ever devised.

Growing up, we didn’t play for anything more than sibling pride, or maybe to decide who did the chores that weekend. Even so, the concept of gambling is imbued in War’s gameplay because the objective is to win cards from your opponent’s deck. Whoever accumulates the other player’s stack of cards first, through winning successive high card battles along with the decisive three card “wars,” was deemed the winner.

This process of chance contingent acquisition is nothing more than gambling without a personal bankroll on the line, and perhaps this provides the source of War’s enduring appeal. Young children are drawn to the fast paced play and back and forth action, as I was during my first War sessions spent settling scores with my older brothers. And even after the mechanics of the game become so simplified that War can be played on proverbial autopilot, it serves as a great time killing exercise in a pinch.

As an adult, I still dabble with a game or two of War whenever a rainy day keeps the kids and I shut in, and even decades later, the game still holds up. It’s a pure game of chance after all, so my years of experience mean nothing against a determined 7 year old holding a handful of aces and face cards.

With that preamble in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that – despite my status as a well-informed, strategically thinking casino gambler – I find time for a few hands of War whenever I head to the casino for one of my regular tours of the trenches.

1) War Breaks Out in Casinos Across the Country

In 1993 a small Reno based casino game design firm called BET Technology Incorporated filed a claim with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), with the goal of protecting the intellectual property associated with their new table game: Casino War.

The game was invented by Dave Sugar, an employee at the Hacienda Casino in Las Vegas at the time, and marketed by BET Technology.

Although the concept took a fair amount of time to prove its solvency to casino managers, by 2000 major casinos on the Las Vegas Strip like the MGM Grand were running multiple Casino War tables in the pit at any one time. Just two years later, the game had been adapted for play via the Betfair online casino platform, while competitors soon followed suit with knockoffs of their own.

Sugar and BET Technology’s model for Casino War was simple: take the same basic gameplay we all grew up with and adapt it for the player versus dealer template used in most table games. Players put up a mandatory Ante wager to get the game started, and the dealer then distributes one card face up to the player, while taking one card face up for themselves.

As per the usual rules of War, the high card dealt is the winner, but in this case players scoop an even money win on their Ante bet. When the player tables the lesser card, their Ante bet is claimed by the house.

And when the inevitable occurs and the player’s card exactly ties the dealer’s card, players have the choice to “declare war” by putting out a second Raise bet which matches their Ante. From there, the dealer will burn three cards and deal out one more face down, with the last card dealt deciding who wins the war. Players can also opt to “surrender” on a tie and take back half of their Ante bet, but invariably, when a tie occurs most people opt to hit the warpath rather than beat a retreat.

Upon winning a war with the dealer, players only receive an even money payout on their Raise bet only – while their Ante bet is returned as a push. In effect, during a war, players must risk two units in order to win one – lending the game a certain element of risk evaluation.

Finally, to lend the game a jackpot element, players can also bet on the possibility of a tie occurring. This longshot side bet pays out at 10 to 1, so most players tend to splash around on the Tie bet from time to time despite the odds being stacked against them.

Boasting one of the more simplistic, yet entertaining, gameplay experiences found on the casino floor, Casino War soon grew into a bona fide hit among recreational gamblers. With slot machine designers attaching childhood games like Scrabble, Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Battleship to modern video slots, the casino industry was clearly hoping to lure players through the power of nostalgia, and Casino War fit perfectly within that philosophy.

Eventually, as word of Casino War’s popularity among players – and fairly high house edge to benefit casinos – began to spread, the big boys on the casino game marketing block came calling. In 2004 the rights to BET Technology’s game portfolio were acquired by Shuffle Master, the globally leading casino game design firm which wound up becoming SHFL Entertainment in 2012.

Through the purchase of BET Technology, and with it, Casino War – Shuffle Master continued the company’s shift away from the slot machine sector and into the dominant table game brand it is today.

At the time, Shuffle Master President and Chief Operating Officer Paul C. Meyer celebrated the addition of Casino War to the company’s rapidly expanding table game portfolio:

“We are pleased to add Fortune Pai Gow, Royal Match 21 and Casino War to the other successful table games in our Entertainment Product line. We have now fulfilled the promise made at the beginning of fiscal 2003, that, through internal development and acquisitions, we would add 1,000 table games by the end of fiscal 2005. In fact, we have added approximately 1,400 tables inside of 16 months and now have over 2,900 branded table games licensed throughout the world.

We have been impressed with the quality and popularity of the BET games. This acquisition represents an important step in implementing our recently announced strategic focus on our core Utility and Entertainment Product lines.”

Today the game of Casino War is among the most widely played offerings within the casual gambling market. As you’ll soon discover, there’s plenty of reasons why sophisticated, purely profit driven players tend to walk right by the Casino War table, but that hasn’t limited the game’s widespread appeal.

But for recreational gamblers who come to the casino in search of a good time, and in my personal case, a glimpse back to the carefree nature of their own childhood card games – Casino War can’t be beat. The rules take a minute or so to learn, the betting process is about as basic as it gets, and the element of chance is so pronounced that any session can result in big swings.

Whether you’re thinking about taking a shot at Casino War for the first time, or you’ve survived a few battles in the past and want to improve your chances of victory during the next campaign, I’ve assembled the following Casino War Field Guide with you in mind. Below you’ll find five tips to help you understand the game better, in terms of probabilities, payouts, and proper strategy:

2) Assessing the Battlefield

Before plotting any maneuvers, the best plan of action is to take a moment to study the lay of the land.

In the case of casino reconnaissance, players are always well served by examining the mathematical foundations of their favorite gambling games. Knowing the basic odds is a great first step, but I prefer to dive into the nuts and bolts of a casino game’s probabilities and payouts before proceeding any further.

When it comes to Casino War, the game’s simplicity makes things much easier than you’d find in a game like craps, which includes dozens of different bets and corresponding payouts. In this game, you only have a single starting bet to worry about: the Ante.

After making the Ante bet, the probabilities and payouts offered under the traditional Casino War setup are as follows:

RESULT PAY PROBABILITY RETURN
Win 1 50.27% 50.27%
Lose Original bet 1 46.30% 46.30%
Lose After War 2 3.42% 6.85%
Total N/A 100% 2.88%

Before the sight of tables and data brings back bad memories of high school math class, let me take a moment to explain what this all means.

Simply put, the first line in the table shows what happens when you win the high card battle to take down a hand of Casino War. Here, you’ll earn a payout of even money, or 1 to 1, on your Ante bet, so a $5 wager brings back $5, $20 returns $20, and so on. Under the probability heading, you can see that the odds of winning an Ante bet in this way stand slightly above the 50/50 mark at 50.27 percent.

This means you can expect to win the high card battle during a hand of Casino War just over half the time.

Moving to the second line, you’ll see that the odds of losing that Ante bet by virtue of a bad high card stand at 46.30 percent. Thus, you’ll win the high card game more often than you lose it.

The discrepancy between those two figures is explained by the presence of a tied high card battle. In this case, players can always opt to take the surrender option, ending the hand right then and there in exchange for half of their Ante bet back. But in almost every case, players choose to press ahead and declare war on the dealer. When this happens, the ceremonial burning of three cards takes place, before another high card standoff settles the score.

Your odds of winning and losing on the war remain the same, but the odds of ever tying at all are rather slim at roughly 7 percent. Thus, the odds of losing after a war are approximately half of that figure, or 3.42 percent.

All in all, this table helps us define the most crucial number for any gambling game: expected return. From my perspective as a player, expected return defines the amount I can theoretically expect to bring back while making a certain wager over the infinite long run.

For the game of Casino War, the expected return rate stands at  2.88 percent – which means that for every $100 bet over time, I can expect to lose $2.88. For players who prefer the term “house edge,” that 2.88 percent figure also defines the house’s inherent edge on Casino War.

Don’t worry too much about that negative figure though, as every conceivable casino game is set up in such a way as to guarantee the house a preset edge. After all, casinos aren’t in the business of offering player favorable propositions anyway. And indeed, that house edge of 2.88 percent is actually rather low for a novelty table game like Casino War, so I’m comfortable knowing that I’m not sacrificing an inordinate amount of equity by playing a few hands of the classic card battle.

3) Adjusting to Conditions on the Ground

As the unfortunate soldiers fighting for Germany on the Russian front, or for Custer during his infamous last stand, any shift in the field of battle can wreak havoc on well-designed strategies.

With that wartime maxim in mind, Casino War players must be cognizant of the subtle changes to the rules that many operators choose to include in their version of the game. Whether you’re playing live in a brick and mortar casino, or online through an internet based gambling service, Casino War can be played in a few different formats.

The first rule adjustment to remain aware of concerns what happens when you tie the dealer’s card. In most versions of Casino War, a tie will give the player an option to surrender and collect half of their Ante in return, or press ahead by declaring war and paying an additional Raise bet equal to the Ante.

I’ve already discussed this dynamic in previous sections, with three cards burned and a fourth dealt face up to determine who wins the war – but what happens when that fourth card also creates a tie?

In this case, most versions of the game simply award the player with a win, using the old “tie goes to the runner” provision used in baseball.

But in other formats, the tie on a war scenario actually results in the casino paying out a “tie bonus” equal to the Ante bet. As a result, winning wars under these rules is far more lucrative than the original.

Obviously, players benefit from having the bonus payment system in place, as they can earn an additional betting unit whenever they defeat the dealer in a war. So whenever possible, take your action to the Casino War tables that include the tie bonus, as this will decrease the house’s edge and increase your overall expected return.

The second major way that Casino War games can differ is based on the number of decks in play. When I played the game as a kid, my two brothers and I divvied up a single 52 card deck between ourselves – so we each started with 17 cards and the extra leftover was put into the “pot” for the first winner to claim.

In the casino setting, however, managers and operators have long since discovered that using multiple decks at the same time increases their precious house edge. That’s why single deck blackjack tables, which used to be the norm, have been largely replaced by the six  and even eight deck “shoes” that dealers use today.

For the sake of Casino War, you can expect to find the full range of deck sizes in use, both in the live and online arenas. Some houses will prefer to use single  or double decks as an enticement to nostalgia, while others opt for more decks to slightly reduce the player’s expected return.

The table below combines both of these rule adjustments – the tie bonus payout and the number of decks used – to illustrate the fluctuations in house edge that can occur within the world of Casino War:

Casino War House Edge Rates by Rule Setup

DECKS WITH TIE BONUS NO TIE BONUS SURRENDER
1 2.06% 2.42% 2.94%
2 2.24% 2.70% 3.40%
3 2.29% 2.79% 3.55%
4 2.31% 2.84% 3.62%
5 2.32% 2.86% 3.67%
6 2.33% 2.88% 3.70%
7 2.34% 2.89% 3.72%
8 2.34% 2.90% 3.73%

I’ve bolded the lowest house edge rates for each rule setup to help you make sense of the numbers.

As you can see, the tie bonus being put into play immediately makes Casino War a much more favorable game from the player’s perspective. No matter how many decks are used, playing with the tie bonus always offers a reduction of between 0.36 percent and 0.56 percent in terms of house edge.

Thus, savvy players should base their strategy for the game first and foremost on finding tables that offer the tie bonus payout.

Next up, pay attention to the way these number columns seem to flow. In every respect, the house edge climbs higher as the number of decks increases. To wit, a game of Casino War with tie bonus payouts in play offers a 2.06 percent house edge using just one deck, but climbs to 2.24 percent when the decks double, and even jumps to 2.34 percent when an eight deck shoe is used.

The same phenomenon holds true across the board, so no matter which format you find on the floor, always bring your action to the games using a minimal amount of decks. One is the best, two is better than four, and four beats eight every time.

Another nugget to note concerns the surrender rule, which is offered whenever a high card battle produces a tie. As you can see, the house edge when making the surrender play is always higher than what you’ll face by simply playing out the war – at 3.70 percent to 2.88 percent using a six deck shoe, for example.

Simply put, surrendering is never a profitable play in Casino War, so you should take every opportunity to launch a war that presents itself during the course of play.

Using the table above, you can easily navigate the fog of war to find the most favorable conditions for your next Casino War session.

4) Play for the Win and Never the Tie

Aside from the basic gameplay dynamic, which is based on even money payouts on the Ante and Raise bets and a simple high card result, Casino War contains one secret weapon that recreational players seem to love: the Tie bet.

This side bet pays out 10 to 1 on your money whenever the dealer’s card and your card wind up tied. At first glance, a chance to collect $100 on a $10 bet seems like a fun lark to take, even knowing it must be a longshot. And accordingly, I see rookie gamblers every week take their shot at Casino War while betting on the Tie every time out.

Obviously, those players see their arsenal of betting chips quickly depleted by this aggressive approach, and for good reason. The math just doesn’t add up when the Tie bet is examined, as the table below makes clear:

House Edge on the Tie Bet in Casino War by Deck Density

DECKS TIE BET HOUSE EDGE
1 35.29%
2 25.24%
3 21.94%
4 20.29%
5 19.31%
6 18.65%
7 18.18%
8 17.83%

I mentioned this earlier, but the odds of landing tied cards on a random deal in Casino War stand at just 7 percent, so right off the bat you should realize that a 10 to 1 payout just isn’t enough. Think about it… you’re only getting 10 to 1 on your money, but the bet entails backing a worse than 14 to 1 proposition (100 / 7 = 14.28 percent).

And as the table above documents in stark terms, the Tie bet offers one of the highest house edge rates in all of casino gambling – ranging from an obscene 35.29 percent when using a single deck and “dropping” to 17.83 percent under the eight deck format.

Curiously, this is the only scenario in Casino War in which the house edge rate drops as more decks are added. So if you’re intent on betting on the Tie, you should always be playing with the most possible decks.

I wouldn’t advise betting the Tie given any game conditions though, because even at 17.83 percent, the house edge is purely unbeatable. I might see a lucky player cash in on that 10 to 1 payout from time to time, but knowing that they’ve been forced to fade worse than 14 to 1 odds just leaves me shaking my head.

As an informed gambler, I can still have fun with games like Casino War, knowing full well I’m playing a game of chance that puts me at a disadvantage. But the reason I can have fun doing that is discipline, because if I consistently wagered on the Tie bet, I might as well be playing craps and backing the “Any Seven” longshot on every roll. At least there, the house edge working against me would “only” be 16.67 percent.

5) Skirmishing Offers Better Value than a Siege

In a game like Casino War, players like myself – who pride themselves on applying skill and strategy to diminish the house’s inherent edge – really don’t have all that much to do.

After all, this is a game based on randomly dealing cards and hoping to hit high ones. There’s just not that much more to it I’m afraid.

And that’s fine. As I’ve covered in my Gambling Gameplan page, I’m perfectly content to play low expectation casino games – from time to time. I obviously don’t devote the bulk of my sessions to games of chance like roulette, or Casino War, because doing so would be a recipe for bankroll disaster.

Instead, I employ the fabled “hit and run” strategy favored by gamblers throughout time immemorial. If I’m flush with chips from successful run at blackjack, I may sidle up for a tour of duty at the Casino War tables. But when I do, I know full well that my allotment of hands there will be limited.

Games of chance are aptly named, and when you play them, anything can happen. Long losing streaks where the dealer just seems to have aces and face cards up their sleeve, extended runs of alternating wins and losses that leave you breaking even, and of course, the hot streak every gambler anticipates – these are all likely scenarios when playing Casino War.

Knowing this, I usually bring enough to play 20 hands at my preferred stakes – $5 red chips for the most part. That means I sit with $100 worth of chips, and if those end up becoming casualties of war, then so be it. I’ll never buy back in for a second time in one day, because doing so would only mean chasing “bad money with good,” which all experienced gamblers know won’t work in the end.

And even if I’m winning more high card battles than I’m losing, and building big reserves of chips by overcoming the dealer in wars, my time at the tables is still strictly monitored. As I said, games of chance are defined by swings, so I know by now to rack up those winnings and shield them from the fray.

As a Casino War player, your expectation should always be to mix it up in brief, hand to hand combat, rather than waging prolonged campaigns.

Conclusion

On that note, I’d like to advise readers to approach the game of Casino War with one thing in mind: entertainment.

The game is fast paced and easy to play, you don’t need to worry about memorizing rules or strategy, and there’s only one basic decision to make. This is a game played with smiles for the most part, so don’t become that grizzled grinder at the table ruining the fun for everyone else.

The casino floor is filled with games that are meant to be grinded out by skilled practitioners. Trust me, I consider myself one, and I grind out profits at blackjack, video poker, and other skill based games on a consistent basis. And while I do so, a smile seldom flashes across my face.

That’s because I consider those games to be work, while Casino War is simply a diversion from the rat race. The game reminds me of rainy days spent huddled around a deck of cards with my older brothers – days I still cherish as an aging adult.

Whatever compels you to play Casino War, whether it be nostalgia, inexperience with other games, or just a desire to try something new, do your best to view each session as an entertainment expense. Sure, you’ll cash out up here and there, owing to the relatively low house edge and essentially 50 / 50 odds. But even when you drop a buy in losing high card battles, the experience should be satisfying in one way or another.

If it’s not, just pick up your chips and find another game.

Casino War won’t ever become a cash cow for profit driven gamblers, and when you’re ready to approach the game from that perspective, the carefree card game of your youth can still be as fun as you remember.

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1 Comments
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Don | 16 Feb 2018
I realize that there is a lot of math involved in determining probabilities and such, but there are some things here that just don't "make sense" to me. 1) Why does the player have a slightly better chance than 50-50 of beating the dealer on the high card? 2) As far as war, if you surrender you always lose 1/2 your bet. If you go to war you should win one unit half the time, and lose 2 units half the time, for a net loss of 1 unit per 2 "wars" on average. This comes out to the same minus 1/2 unit per war as surrendering in the first place. If you can explain question 1) to me, that will answer question 2) as well. Otherwise, it seems illogical.
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