If you’ve ever heard the tale of Archie Karas – the infamous professional gambler who once turned $50 into $40 million playing craps and poker in Las Vegas – you were likely left to wonder whether a rags to riches journey like that is really possible.
Archie Karas GamblerIndeed, the finer details of Karas’ improbable rise from broke and busted to one of the largest bankrolls in Sin City – what gamblers today reverently refer to as “The Run” – are still up for debate. But the basic premise of turning nothing into something provides the allure that fuels casinos, sportsbooks, and poker rooms everywhere.We all want to grow our bankroll larger and larger over time, like a fruitful plant nurtured from seed, but that task is far easier said than done. All gambling games involve a certain level of variance, and even the very best players on the planet must suffer through the “swings” caused by short-term peaks and valleys in their own luck.

In an interview conducted well after the heyday of his legendary heater, this is how Karas himself described the highs and lows associated with gambling results over the long term:

“I’ve been a millionaire over 50 times and dead broke more than I can count. Probably 1,000 times in my life.But I sleep the same whether I have ten or ten million dollars in my pocket.” (Quote)

To help survive those swings, most gambling strategy sources advise players to bring a bankroll big enough to withstand the very worst. But what if you were forced to start with nothing at all to your name?

Karas had his $50 – which was worth closer to $100 back in 1992 when “The Run” began – and he also borrowed a significant stake to get himself off the ground. Those are helpful stepping stones to be sure, but let’s suppose for a minute that you were literally left with nothing to your gambling name. In that case, could it ever be possible to turn $0 into a viable bankroll with which to play comfortably once again?
Chris “Jesus” Ferguson GamblerWell, if you ask poker pro Chris “Jesus” Ferguson that question, he’d tell you it definitely is – provided you have the right system in place.  Ferguson is best known for winning the 2000 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event, going on to parlay his World Champion status and self-styled “Jesus” persona into stardom during the fabled “poker boom” era. During that time, Ferguson helped to found Full Tilt Poker, one of the first major online poker rooms, writing the computer code used to power the site’s then world-class assortment of cash games and tournaments.And while Full Tilt Poker eventually collapsed under the weight of its owner’s Ponzi scheme tactics and willful mismanagement of player funds, the site once set the standard for online poker. More than a decade ago, with the site still at its peak, Ferguson decided to conduct a unique experience in bankroll management.

Ferguson’s Bankroll Challenge Provides Proof of Concept

Back in mid-2006, the notoriously intelligent and analytical Ferguson – he holds a Ph.D in computer science specializing in virtual network algorithms – devised a deceptively simply challenge.

Knowing full well the value of managing his bankroll – and likely realizing that Full Tilt Poker’s population of “fish” needed a reason to return after losing their stake several times over – Ferguson wondered whether he could build up to $10,000 after beginning with nothing at all.

Unlike Karas, the six-time WSOP bracelet winner didn’t even give himself the benefit of a $50 foundation. Instead, he drained his Full Tilt Poker account of all funds, and then worked diligently for nearly two years to transform zero into a five-figure haul. Here’s how it worked. With no opening bankroll to fall back on, Ferguson had to rely on his online poker room’s menu of “freeroll” tournaments to get into the black.

In case you don’t know, a freeroll tournament doesn’t require a penny in entry fees, so players can simply sign up and hope for the best. Understandably, the prizes for a freeroll tournament are paltry to say the least, with say 100 players splitting up a $10 guaranteed prize pool. The lucky winner might take home a buck, while final tablists score a few quarters, and min-cashers add a pile of pennies to their account.

Looking back on the journey in an interview with popular poker media outlet CardsChat, Ferguson explained how the freeroll portion of his bankroll challenge worked:

“With no money to start with, I had no choice but to start out playing Freerolls.Starting out, I’d often manage to win a dollar or two, but I’d quickly get busted and have to start over again.

It took some time but, after awhile, I was eventually able to graduate to games that required an actual buy-in.” (Quote)

When he was finally able to scratch together a couple dollars, Ferguson then instituted a series of strict rules to govern his future play. First, Ferguson decided to limit any cash game or sit and go tourney buy-in to just 5 percent of his current bankroll. In other words, if he had $10 on hand at the time, his maximum allowable buy in for cash game or sit and go purposes was only $0.50.

He did build an exception into this first rule, so whenever Ferguson had $2.50 or less to work with, he was allowed to use it all at once. Second, whenever he entered a multi-table tournament, Ferguson could only buy in for up to 2 percent of his current bankroll. Again, there was an exception though, so any tournament priced at $1 or less was eligible for entry.

Finally, whenever he found himself in a No Limit or Pot Limit cash game, and the total chips on the table equated to more than 10 percent of his current bankroll, Ferguson forced himself to exit the game when the blinds next arrived. As an example, if Ferguson had $50 in his bankroll and wanted to play $1/$2 No Limit Texas Hold’em, he had to leave whenever the total table chip count reached $500 or less.

It was slow going at first for Ferguson, and it took him the better part of nine months just to reach $100. After going from a few dollars back to zero again several times during his first few months of play, Ferguson finally escaped the danger zone by amassing $6.50 from freeroll cashes. Next, he entered a $1 multi-table tournament and placed 2nd out of 683 entrants to earn a whopping $104.

Now blessed with the ability to play low-stakes cash games and tournaments, where a successful pro like himself had a serious edge, Ferguson was able to run his bankroll up at a steady rate. Still, it would be another nine months before he reached his original goal of $10,000. In the end, having started out playing freeroll tournaments and penny ante cash games, Ferguson had $28,000 with which to attack Full Tilt Poker’s famed $25/$50 high-stakes tables.

Ferguson later explained the genesis of his bankroll challenge, and what crossing the finish line after almost two years of effort meant to him:

“For me, this experiment isn’t about the money.It’s about showing how, with proper bankroll management, you can start from nothing and move up to the point where you’re playing in some pretty big games.

I know it’s possible because I did it once before, turning $1 into $20,000.”

Freeroll Poker Tournaments Are a Perfect Way to Start

Few of us possess the innate poker skills and commitment to studying strategy that Ferguson used to fuel his WSOP championship runs. Even so, by using his bankroll challenge as a template, anybody can take on the tall task of building their own gambling bankroll online starting at $0.

First things first, which means freeroll tournaments for poker players, and free play awards for casino table game and slot specialists. You’ll learn more about the casino free play bonuses in the next section, so for now let’s focus on freeroll poker tournaments.

The selection of no-cost tournaments has certainly been slimmed down since the poker boom era, but you can still find sites like PokerStars, PartyPoker, 888 Poker, and America’s Card Room (ACR) hosting freerolls. For one thing, these tournaments offer players who may be considering taking their leave from the site a reason to stay onboard. And for another, freerolls are a great way to reward regular players with what every gambler craves – something for nothing.

If you’re keen on recreating Ferguson’s rise from zilch to nearly 30 grand, you’ll almost always need to score some freeroll winnings to get the ball rolling. The problem is, freeroll tournaments are a far cry from “real poker.” Players literally have nothing to lose, so it’s much tougher to bluff them off marginal hands. Conversely, your opponents will be more than happy to call you down with weak draws or speculative starting hands, simply because they’ll face no monetary penalty for making bad plays.

The end result is a hybrid form of poker wherein recklessness is often rewarded, and reason gets tossed out the window entirely.This is why poker players who take the game seriously often have trouble acclimating to the more casual and carefree tourneys.

Ferguson refused to give in, however, and as he later told PokerListings, he applied the same focus and wherewithal that made him an elite pro to those early freeroll forays:

“One of the funny things about the challenge is that people would see me playing a freeroll and think I was fooling around.Are you kidding me? I was taking those freerolls dead seriously, because getting money out of them was an essential part of the challenge.

I was sweating on the other side praying, ‘Please fold, please fold!’”

If you’re entering the world of freeroll poker looking to rebound and get back into the black, it’s best to follow Ferguson’s lead. Play the game straight up, just like you would a bonafide bracelet event at the WSOP. After all, you don’t want to develop any bad habits that might leak into your game going forward. With that said, try your best to take advantage of the freewheeling nature of most freeroll opponents.

Make a point to include more bluff-catchers in your range, while bluffing far less than you ordinarily would. And be sure to make moves that keep your stack climbing into the upper echelon, rather than surviving your way to a min-cash. After all, you’ll need to scrape up actual dollars to move into the next phase of this bankroll rebuild, and freerolls reserve their top payouts for the final table.

Use Online Gambling Bonuses to Build a Bankroll from Scratch

Given the successful model provided by Ferguson and his bankroll challenge, this page has focused on poker thus far. But whether you like to play blackjack or baccarat, craps or roulette, video poker or the slots, online casino enthusiasts can get in on the zero to hero antics too. That’s because online casinos, and sportsbooks for that matter, love to lavish their regular players with so-called “no deposit bonuses.”

Let’s say you’ve been grinding blackjack for a few months, cashing out winnings as you go, before a run of rough beats depletes your bankroll entirely. You decide to take a mental break for awhile before depositing again, only to receive the following email a few weeks later:

“Congratulations! Your account at [insert online casino or sportsbook] has been credited with a bonus. Click here to find out how many bonus dollars you scored today.”

This is clearly a promotional ploy designed to get inactive players back to the tables, but you can always make the site’s marketing work in your favor. After clicking through the necessary prompts, you’ll usually wind up with somewhere between $10 and $30 in free bonus funds.

And aside from some basic “playthrough” requirements – which are put in place to ensure you actually gamble with the funds before cashing them out – these bonuses are exactly what they claim to be: free money. You won’t get them all that often these days, but if you’ve put in any reasonable amount of time grinding a particular online casino or sportsbook, you can expect to receive the occasional no-deposit bonus.

And even if they don’t sent it to your directly, most sites run a “Player Points” promotion which allows your regular play to pile up points. These points can usually be redeemed for cold, hard cash in the form of bonus funds, so no matter how you get the dough, you should be able to turn a depleted bankroll into a few bucks.

From there, it’s all about game selection and bankroll management when separating the successful players from the soon to be broke again. And as you’ll learn in the next section, applying a hard and fast set of rules to govern your play is the best way to stretch bonus dollars out to their full potential.

Play by a Strict Set of Rules to Sustain Success

To achieve success in his $0 to $10,000 challenge, Ferguson famously used defined formulas to compare his bankroll to the stakes he was playing. That’s the first step toward protecting yourself from the whims of variance, which will inevitably influence the results of any player, even elite pros like Jesus himself. When you play “above your head” – or at stakes so high that just one or two losing sessions will evaporate your entire bankroll – you’re putting yourself at risk for no good reason.

Just ask Ferguson, who heard back from countless players that tried and failed to replicate his rags to riches attempt:

“Usually, these stories end with the person telling me that they went broke. There’s no surprise there.These folks tried to quickly build a bankroll by gambling. They’d play in a game that was beyond their bankroll and, if they happened to win, they’d move up to a higher limit and risk it all one more time.

Inevitably, they’d lose a few big hands and go broke.”

The rule about playing within your bankroll limits can apply to all of the games, including poker, casino table games, slots and video poker, or sports betting.

You might turn your $10 free play into $100 through diligent grinding on the nickel-ante Jacks or Better video poker game. At that point, it can be quite tempting to take a shot at the standard quarter-ante games, which actually require $1.25 per hand when playing the maximum of five coins. This version of Jacks or Better can produce a $4,000 payout when you beat the odds to make a royal flush, so most mid-level video poker aficionados prefer them above the lower stakes.

The only problem is, a $100 bankroll only gives you 80 hands of wiggle room to work with. That is to say, it only takes a net margin of 80 losing hands before your down to $0 once again. Instead of jumping up in stakes, why not stick to the nickel games, where a max-bet spin only costs $0.25? At that rate, your $100 is enough to withstand a net margin of 400 losing spins – offering plenty of play through which to withstand variance.

When Ferguson authored a personal blog back in 2007 to explore the idea of sound bankroll management, he touched on the concept of playing over your head:

“I think a lot of players would do well to apply these rules. One great benefit from this approach to bankroll management is that it ensures you’ll be playing in games you can afford.You’ll never play for very long in a game that’s over your head because, when you’re losing, you’ll have no choice but to drop down to a smaller game. You can continue to sharpen your game at that lower limit until your bankroll allows you to move up and take another shot.

These rules also prevent you from being completely decimated by a bad run of cards.”

Above all else, the key here is patience. Gamblers always want to chase the next big thing, whether that’s a progressive jackpot on the higher-denomination slots, a sweet multi-table tournament score, or quick returns on a well-timed blackjack double down.

There’s a problem with that approach though, and it’s called probability. Remember, every casino game ever devised – with the exception of a few video poker variants and blackjack played by card counters – builds in a healthy edge for the casino. That house edge can range from 0.50 percent for basic strategy blackjack players to 5.26 percent on double-zero roulette, and even higher on “sucker” games like keno.

The point is, gambling games tilt the odds in the house’s favor, so you should expect to lose more often than you win – both in terms of sessions played and dollars wagered. The trick successful gamblers have figured out is how to mitigate that inherent risk while working around it. By playing within your bankroll limits, walking away when variance isn’t on your side, and sticking to the lower stakes in order to build an invaluable cushion, you’ll be able to absorb those inevitable losses while still climbing through the ranks.

Ferguson did just that over a decade ago, and you can too, but only when you follow Jesus’ sage advice on the subject of bankroll management:

“I had the discipline to stick to my rules, and that motivated me to play better at the lower levels.I really didn’t want to lose any more because I knew the consequences: I’d have to play even lower and work even harder to get back to where I’d been, which could take as long as a month.

If you ever find yourself bored or frustrated playing at the lower limits, you’re obviously not playing well. Take a break from the game. Often, stepping away can give you a fresh perspective and heightened motivation to play well when you return.”

As proven by players like Ferguson and Karas way back when, and others like Doug Polk today, turning nothing into something as a gambler is indeed possible. You’ll need to work harder on your game than ever before, but if you’re willing to commit and follow the guidelines above, anything is possible when you have a wager on the line.

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