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.
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:
This rebuke riles Mike up, and he shoots back at Knish with the following reply:
And that’s when it happens, a quote that encapsulates the concept of gambling professionally more than any other I’ve yet encountered:
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.
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 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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.