The cult classic Rounders (1998) recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its release, prompting the poker community to reflect on how the tale of Mike McD vs. Teddy KGB inspired an entire generation of players to take up Texas Hold’em. Between stars like Matt Damon and Edward Norton, insider lingo that invited audiences into the world of underground cash games, and a fateful cameo appearance by Johnny Chan himself – Rounders was the perfect vehicle through which to introduce people to poker.

I was one of those players, transitioning from my usual seven-card stud grind to the game Doyle Brunson once famously described as the “Cadillac of Poker.” But while I re-watched Rounders for what has to be the 1,000th time, I was struck by a seemingly minor exchange between Mike McDermott and his mentor Joey Knish. In the film – which used the real story of New York City gambling pro Joey Bagels as the template for John Tuturro’s “Knish” character – Mike McD is scrambling to rebuild his bankroll to pay off a friend’s debt.

Mike has long since lost his original three stacks of “high society” (or $30,000) taking a shot at Teddy KGB’s big game, an unnecessary risk that Knish rightfully reminds him about while rejecting his request for cash:

“You had to put it all on the line for some Vegas pipe dream.”

This rebuke riles Mike up, and he shoots back at Knish with the following reply:

“I took a risk. I took a risk… You see all the angles, and you never have the fucking stones to play one.”

And that’s when it happens, a quote that encapsulates the concept of gambling professionally more than any other I’ve yet encountered:

“Stones? You little punk, I’m not playing for the thrill of fucking victory here.

I owe rent, alimony, child support… I play for money. My kids eat.

I got stones enough not to chase cards, action, or fucking pipe dreams of winning the World Series on ESPN.”

While it may seem like Knish is browbeating an already broke and desperate friend, the elder is actually trying to impart a lasting lesson on Mike. Gambling for a living is just that, a way to make ends meet, to provide for yourself and your family. Professional gamblers – whether they grind skill games like blackjack or video poker in the casino, wager on sports, or play cards like Knish – aren’t there to have a good time or chase thrills. Every hand they play, every chip they earn is simply another day in the office.

Coming to this realization can be difficult for casual gamblers who harbor dreams of turning their passion into a profession. Most players who have a day job, but enjoy dabbling in casino games, sports betting, or poker, envision the life of a pro gambler as the proverbial gravy train. Wake up whenever you want, play games and have a blast, then hit the buffet for a free feast – what’s not to love?

Well, if that was really how the pros lived, I’d love every minute of it. But during my three decades and counting as a professional advantage player, the day to day routine is far from glamorous. Instead of the fantasies entertained by Mike McD – heading off into the sunset of Las Vegas to take on your heroes at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) – most pro players are simply try stay afloat.

Between built-in daily expenses, and the house’s inherent edge in certain situations, I have to bust my tail day in and day out to push my ledger into the black. One rough run involving short-term variance, one unexpected life event that eats into my volume at the tables, and an entire month’s worth of grinding can be nullified just like that.

Throw in the constantly fluctuation landscape of corporate casino policies – parking fees are a particularly devilish invention – and house rules that are continually tinkered with to further disadvantage players, and pros like myself face a steep uphill climb if we hope to squeeze out a profit.

For that reason, whenever the going gets tough on the tables, I always rely on another quote from that famous scene with Knish confronting Mike:

“I tell you to play within your means, you risk your whole bank roll. I tell you not to overextend yourself, to rebuild, and you go into hock for more.

I was giving you a living, showing you the playbook I put together off my beats – and that wasn’t enough for you.” (Quote)

Knish’s fabled “playbook” may not be the most fashionable or sophisticated, but it does the trick. Play within your means, target the softest games, apply your skill in a safe setting and ride it to steady profits. That’s the playbook I’ve lived by during my time as a professional gambler, and it’s worked well for me. But if you suspect the life of a pro might be for you too, be sure to check out the diary below, which describes my typical day gambling to pay the bills.

8:00 a.m. – Rise and Shine to Study the Lines

My work day begins the minute I roll out of bed and hit the shower. Instead of soaking in these last few minutes of freedom before a day at the office, I fire up a few of my favorite online sportsbooks to compare the day’s lines.

I don’t bet on sports professionally by any means, although I do consider myself a sharp bettor, and my ledger usually shows a slight profit by year’s end. My bread and butter games are blackjack, video poker, and Texas Hold’em tournaments for the most part, but I do enjoy splashing around a few units on whatever sports are in season. After poring over the daily Major League Baseball lines on books like Bovada and Pinnacle, I find a few games that tickle my fancy.

The Phillies have lost eight straight games, plummeting out of the playoff race to find themselves under .500 entering the last series of the season. They host the Braves today in the first of a three-game set, but instead of an NL East division title deciding showdown, this series is essentially meaningless. The Braves have already clinched the East, and they can’t move up to pass any other division leaders, so Atlanta’s playoff seeding is already set.

I think Atlanta will hit the field with nothing to play for, while the Phillies will look to win one last game at home in front of the Philadelphia faithful. On Bovada, the Phillies are getting (+120) as the dog in this one, but by “line shopping” over at Pinnacle, I locate a slightly better (+125) price. That’s the play for me, along with Philadelphia (+122) to win the first five innings – also a better line than I found on Bovada (+115).

Line shopping may not seem all that important, especially when the discrepancies are just a few percentage points in either direction. But when you bet sports seriously, spending a few extra minutes to identify the optimal price definitely helps balance out variance over the long run. And for a pro gambler, fighting off variance however you can is the name of the game.

8:30 a.m. – Fire Off the Daily Sports Bets

I like to use the “unit” system as a sports bettor, which is simply a way of standardizing your wager size. In my case, one unit is equal to $100, and I like this Phillies game as a two-unit play for the main moneyline. Another unit goes towards the first five innings bet, putting me on the hook for $300 before I even head out the door.

9:00 a.m. – Coffee and a Bagel

Before reaching my favorite casino – the South Point in fabulous Las Vegas – I like to fuel up by hitting the neighborhood bagel spot. Breakfast is the cornerstone of a healthy diet, after all, and as a casino gambler, I need all the good stuff I can get before entering the fray of cigarette smoke, comped cocktails, and food court meals. Once I’m full and ready to get at it, I make my way south from The Strip to reach the South Point – where I’ll spend the next 12 hours grinding skill games on the casino floor.

9:30 a.m. – Arrive at the Casino and Go to Work

I like the South Point because it combines the beauty and modernity of a nice resort casino on The Strip with the benefits only off-Strip casinos can offer. Simply put, the South Point isn’t as aggressive towards advantage players as other venues. If you’re willing to shake hands and pass along the occasional tip, pit bosses here are happy to welcome sharp action.

And why not? Even as an advantage player who tries to beat the house at their own game, I can only shave the house edge on blackjack or video poker down to under 0.25 percent or so. That’s quite low, a much better rate than any recreational gambler can find, but it’s still an edge for the house.

Counting cards can tilt the edge in my favor, but I don’t dance with that particular devil like I used to. The implementation of multiple-deck shoes, mid-shoe shuffling, and other preventative measures targeting card counters has been comprehensive within the casino industry. You can still count and get away with it, don’t get me wrong there, but all it takes is one slip up to put yourself on the pit bosses’ radar.

For myself anyway, I trust in my abilities to play blackjack and video poker according to optimal strategy. Between playing perfectly and locating the most favorable house rule setups, I can usually nullify the house edge altogether – or even flip it slightly in the case of Deuces Wild video poker (more on this to come). With that in mind, I’d prefer to play it “straight” and keep myself in the good graces of the South Point, rather than count cards and tempt fate.

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. – Grind Blackjack

This is where the work begins, and while you might be expecting a breathless tale involving well-timed double downs and huge wins, professional blackjack isn’t like what you’ve seen in the movies.

I’m not playing as part of a team, donning disguises to trick the eye in the sky while counting my way to a fortune. Instead, I’m simply trying my best to keep basic strategy at the forefront of my memory while grinding through two or three hands per deal. In my case, I like to play a bit higher than the average bear, usually betting $25 or $50 per hand. These higher stakes allow for a certain set of privileges, such as playing at my own table where I can grind three spots per deal.

I used to enjoy blending into the crowd and playing alongside the tourists and recreational players, but those days are long gone. Now, I don’t believe in the myth that bad players at the blackjack table can mess things up for skilled players, that’s not it at all. I just prefer to play by my lonesome, concentrating on the task at hand rather than trying to make small talk with strangers.

I’ll spare you the details for this session – as anybody who has ever played a friendly hand of 21 knows how the game goes down – but after a few dozen shoes and a few thousand hands, I left the table up $600. That’s a decent score for a laymen, but at $25 for my base wager, I cleared only 24 bets worth of profit. Dividing that up over four hours, I managed to earn just six bets of profit per hour – not enough to cut it over the long run.

2 p.m. to 3 p.m. – Lunch

One benefit of playing at a higher limit on the table games is that pit bosses tend to reward you with comps and perks. After heading out from the pit on this day, a manager I’ve known for years asked me if I’d like to try the new Silverado Steakhouse. I’m a sucker for a good steak, so a few minutes later, I strolled in and presented my comp coupon to the hostess.

Professional gambling may seem like it’s all about the money, splashing it around here and there, winning some and losing some along the way – but not for me. Like the wise Knish instructed Mike, this is how I make my living, and every penny counts. With that in mind, whenever I can eat on the house, that’s an invitation I’ll accept. In the early days, when I played lower stakes and far less frequently, I usually had to ask the pit boss for a handout. Today, they recognize me as a valued player and treat me right.

But no matter how far along you are in your gambling career, taking advantage of freebies and comps is the best way to stay afloat. Think about the math of the situation to get a better idea. If you grind 300 days out the year, using comps and coupons to score free meals valued at $30 each day, you’ve saved yourself a whopping $9,000 in living expenses. In a profession where winning and losing years can be decided by random chance and a few losing streaks, padding your pockets with an additional $9,000 is simply common sense.

3 p.m. to 8 p.m. – Grind Video Poker

After devouring a nice porterhouse medium rare, it’s time to head back towards The Strip for my daily video poker session. I prefer playing Deuces Wild video poker, a fun variant that requires much more strategic thinking than your average Jacks or Better machine. With the variable of “wild” 2s in the deck, which can be used to form or improve hands, Deuces Wild creates an entirely new set of puzzles to solve.

But the real benefit of playing Deuces Wild is that this is one of the only positive expectation games a player can find on the casino floor. Provided you play your cards perfectly, which is quite difficult, take my word for it, you can turn the game’s house edge to 100.76 percent. That’s right, instead of the house holding an edge over the player, you’ll enjoy a slight advantage of 0.76 percent over the long run.

This quirk makes Deuces Wild video poker a holy grail of sorts for advantage play pros, and for that reason, the game has become increasingly hard to find. The major corporate casinos on The Strip seldom carry it at all any longer, so Deuces Wild has been relegated to off-Strip casinos.

Even the South Point won’t spread it though, so I’m off to the Palms, one of the only Vegas casinos still offering “full pay” Deuces Wild with the 100.76 percent house edge for just $0.25 per play. Well, when you bet the maximum of five coins – which every video poker player worth their salt knows to do – the max actually comes to $1.25 per hand. At this point, you’re probably wondering how I can play blackjack for $25 per hand, but only spend $1.25 on each hand of video poker. That’s a great question, and the answer all comes down to pace of play.

At the blackjack table, dealer mechanics require a certain amount of time to complete, so I might see two hands per minute on average. But when I’m grinding the Deuces Wild machine, it only takes a few seconds to flash my fingers across the screen and make the right play. Thus, video poker sessions can easily see pros play 30 or 40 hands every minute.

Because of this increased pace of play, upping the stakes any more than I have to inherently increases the risk I’m up against. And even though the house edge has been tilted in my favor, that only applies to the long run. Over a short-term sample of one day, or one week, or even a month, variance will always create losing streaks and downturns. With this in mind, the quarter machines are my go-to for Deuces Wild, as I can still pocket a cool $4,000 when a royal flush jackpot arrives – all without breaking the bank.

As it turns out though, royal flushes were not in the cards for me on this day, nor were straight flushes or four of a kind. Yep, despite grinding for five consecutive hours, I didn’t nail a single premium hand.  I did encounter a steady stream of smaller wins, however, to help keep the session on track. But even with those winners, I wound up losing $300 on video poker this day.

8 p.m. to 9 p.m. – Catch the Tail End of My Sports Bets

After departing the video poker parlor, I make my way to the sportsbook to see how the Phillies are faring. As it turns out, my read on the game was a mile off, and the Phillies are currently getting smoked 10-1 in the 7th inning. I ask a passerby wearing Braves gear what went down, and he happily informs me that Atlanta jumped all over Philadelphia’s starter to score a six-spot in the first inning. Well, so much for my first five inning bet too.  This one’s not worth watching, so I drown my sorrows in a cold beer before heading home for the night.

9 p.m. to 10 p.m. – Tally the Day’s Results and Retire for the Evening

It’s been a long day in the salt mines, and in the end, I have nothing whatsoever to show for it. I did win $600 on the blackjack tables to start the day, but a $300 giveback in video poker cut my profits in half. Throw in the three $100 units lost backing the dreadful Phillies, and I wound up breaking even on the day.

And there you have it folks, the humdrum daily existence of a professional gambler has been laid bare. No showgirls or jackpots here, just a day spent trying my best to beat the house. And when it was all said and done, I wound up exactly where I started – so I’ll get up tomorrow and do it all again.

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