I have a nearly 40-year old book about casino gambling that I’ve been reading lately. It’s called The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling by Edwin Silverstang. It’s fun to read, because it’s a little outdated. The casino business has changed a little since 1980.
But in other respects, it’s right on point. In fact, the main thing that’s outdated about the book is the selection of games covers. Casinos have rolled out a lot of new games since then. And there’s nothing at all in the book about internet casinos, of course.
In the post below, I look at the specific advice in the chapter “A Winning Approach to Gambling” with an eye toward what’s accurate and useful and what’s inaccurate or useless. As with most gambling books, The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling is made of good advice, not so good advice, and some just plain lousy advice. I’m going to examine all this advice piecemeal below:
It’s Just as Easy to Win as It Is to Lose at Casino Gambling
This is from the 1st paragraph of the chapter:
“When most people think of gamblers, they inevitably think of losers. However, it’s just as easy to win as it is to lose, especially in casino gambling, because the casino games recommended in this book either give the house a very small percentage as their edge, or in the case of blackjack, the player has an advantage over the casino.”
The italics in the above quote are mind. Ask anyone who’s spent any time playing games in a casino if it’s just as easy to win as it is to lose, and I think you’ll get the same answer: No, it’s not.
Everyone realizes this, even naïve players who don’t understand the math behind the games. More sophisticated gamblers, who really understand the math behind the games, understand just how ludicrous this statement is.
I’m a writer. I’m not great, but I do value precision in the use of language. This kind of laziness when writing about the subject of casino gambling is offensive to me. (It’s also amusing, though.)
A List of Things You Must Do to Win
The book then provides a list of things you must do to win at casino gambling:
- Make only the bets with the lowest house edge.
- Manage their money wisely.
- Exercise self-control.
- Play to win, not for the thrill of action.
According to the author, “If you follow these sound principles, you can’t help but be a winner.”
Let’s start with the 1st thing—only making bets with the lowest house edge. If you make bets where the house has an edge, you will eventually lose all your money. That’s how the math behind casino games works. It’s unavoidable.
It doesn’t matter if you play a game with a high house edge or a lower house edge. You might lose your money faster if you play a game with a higher house edge. But even as good a mathematical indicator at the house edge offers an incomplete picture. Things like volatility matter, too.
The only way to “can’t help but be a winner” is to only play when YOU have an edge, not the casino. Even then, in the short run, you might lose. Of course, in the short run, you can play a game with an edge for the house and still come up a winner some of the time. That’s just how gambling works.
Exercising self-control is an ingredient for winning at casino games, though. You must maintain enough self-control to avoid making negative expectation bets. This means playing baccarat and craps is a losing proposition. (The author suggests sticking with 3 games: baccarat, blackjack, and craps. You can only get an edge at one of those games.)
Playing to win instead of playing for the thrill of the action is indifferent advice. It’s hard to take it too seriously when the author suggests you play games where the house has an edge. Let’s talk about how the house gets the edge at casino games right now, in fact.
How the Casino Gets an Edge at Casino Games
All casino games have a mathematical edge that favors the casino. The casino gets this edge by paying out bets at lower odds than the actual odds of winning those bets.
Probability is a measure of how likely it is for something to happen. An event’s probability is always a number between 0 and 1, and it can be expressed in multiple ways:
- As a fraction
- As a decimal
- As a percentage
- As odds
An event with a probability of 1 will always happen, and an event with a probability of 0 will never happen. The probability of that event happening is the number of ways it can happen divided by the number of total possible events.
Let’s look at an example:
You flip a coin. You want to know the probability of it landing on heads. That’s 1 possible event. There are 2 possible events in this situation, though—you could get heads, or you could get tails.
The probability of getting heads is 1 divided by 2, which can be expressed in the following ways:
- 1/2 (as a fraction)
- 0.5 (as a decimal)
- 50% (as a percentage)
- 1 to 1 (as odds)
When you express probability in odds format, you compare the number of ways the event can’t happen with the number of ways it can happen. 1 to 1 odds is even odds. But odds is also a format used to describe payoffs on bets. It describes how much money you win versus how much you stand to lose.
If an event with 1 to 1 odds pays off at 1 to 1, you have a break-even proposition. Over a long enough period of time, the person betting on heads will win as often as the person betting on tails. But if you change that payoff so that it’s 3 to 2, one side clearly has an edge. One side wins 3 units every time he wins, compared to the other side only winning 2 units when he wins. All casino games pay out at uneven odds.
An Example of the House Edge in Craps
Craps bets are useful to demonstrate how the house edge works. Let’s take a craps bet, the hard 8 bet. This is a bet that the dice will land on 4 and 4, giving you a total of 8, before the shooter rolls a 7. There’s only 1 way out of 36 possible ways to get a hard 8 result. On the other hand, there are 6 ways to roll a total of 7. The actual probability of winning your hard 8 bet is 10 to 1. The payout for that bet, though, is only 9 to 1. For every dollar you wager, you get a payoff of $9 when you win. Can you see where the house gets its edge?
The casinos (and savvy gamblers like you) measure this advantage as an average percentage of your bet that‘s lost on each spin. It’s easy to calculate, too.You assume that you’re wagering $100 per roll of the dice. You then assume a statistically “perfect” sample. In this case, you’re looking at 10 losses of $100 versus one win of $900. That’s a net loss of $100.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll be a long-term winner in the game. In fact, the Law of Large Numbers suggests that the longer you play and the more sessions you get under your belt, the likelier it is that your results will eventually mirror those long-term predictions. In fact, the best and most likely way to double your money at the casino is to place one big bet on a close-to-even-money shot, like a bet on black in roulette. Then if you win, walk away forever.
But if you want to be a winner over the long run, you need to find a game where you can get an edge. Games like blackjack and some video poker variations offer you those opportunities. Poker games with other players also offer you that opportunity. Baccarat and craps, though, do not offer you an opportunity to get a mathematical edge over the casino.
To Make Money at Blackjack, Three Steps Must Be Followed
He also explains the 3 steps to making money at blackjack:
- Know the correct play in every situation that arises. (This is called “memorizing basic strategy.”)
- Count cards.
- Alter bets based on the favorability of the deck.
For the most part, these 3 things are true. This is a formula for winning at blackjack. There are now other advantage play techniques for the game, but they were probably unknown in 1980 when The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling was published.
Here’s the thing about blackjack: In every situation, there’s one play that has the best expected value. That decision is called “basic strategy.”
And as it turns out, there are fewer possible situations in blackjack than you might think. The dealer will always have one of the following cards showing:
But the king, queen, jack and 10 are all worth 10 points each, so the total possible situations you’re facing are actually just 10.
Of course, you have more possible totals than that, because you’re playing 2 cards. But many hands are played exactly the same way, which reduces the number of situations accordingly. For example, you’ll hit any hard total of 8 or less. You’ll stand on any hard total of 17 or more. A basic strategy player faces a house edge in blackjack of between 0.5% and 1%. This is a dramatic improvement over the 4% or 5% that the average player faces. Most people make poor blackjack decisions.
Card counters can achieve an edge against the house of 0.5% to 2% or more. They can also make adjustments to their basic strategy based on the count. In this respect, Silberstang is right on the money. You can make money on blackjack if you’re willing to learn basic strategy and card counting. Where he misleads is in his claim that it’s easy to make money from baccarat and craps. Yes, the house edge is low for those games. But there’s still an edge, which makes it hard for you to win.
The money management section is where the bulk of the advice in this chapter comes from. His 1st rule of money management seems more like common sense than anything else—don’t gamble with money you can’t afford to lose. Well, yeah. Of course, thousands of gamblers ignore that advice. They wind up attending meetings of Gamblers Anonymous. That’s a good idea for anyone who keeps gambling when he can’t afford it or isn’t enjoy his gambling anymore.
He mentions having a large enough bankroll for the game you’re playing, then suggests referring back to his earlier chapters on baccarat, blackjack, and craps for those amounts. Really, it doesn’t much matter how much money you have if you’re playing a negative expectation game, though. If you play long enough, you’ll eventually lose it. And you’re more likely to hit a cold streak than a hot streak. That’s what having a house edge means. But if you want to spend some time having fun at the tables, you need enough money to make that happen.
He closes out the chapter with more thoughts on playing to win instead of for the thrill of the action. If you’re not getting any kind of thrill from the action, I don’t think you should gamble at all. Since it’s a negative expectation game, you can’t say you’re playing just to earn money—unless you’re an advantage gambler like a card counter. Yes, you can enjoy the thrill of being in action. This and winning are not mutually exclusive.
The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling isn’t a bad book. The explanations of how many of the casino games work in actual practice are some of the best I’ve seen. The author’s coverage of the bets and the odds is also good.
The work starts getting into trouble when it delves into strategy. The claim that you can somehow manage your money and bankroll in such a way as to consistently overcome the house edge is silly. You can find better and more accurate coverage of that kind of thing on the internet at some legitimate writers’ sites.
Still, it’s not a terrible chapter full of terrible advice, either. It’s just that some of the advice is wrongheaded and even nonsensical. It’s a mediocre chapter in a book that’s otherwise pretty good.