The best book I’ve ever read about casino gambling was Andrew Brisman’s The Mensa Guide to Casino Gambling: Winning Ways. The most important lesson I learned from that book was how the house derives its mathematical edge over the player. The 2nd most important lesson is that you can use this information in conjunction with some other data to predict how much money you’ll lose per hour on average.
Of course, this prediction is just a statistical estimate that won’t be reflected by your short-term results. But it’s important to understand, because the prerequisite to understanding it is this:
Casino gambling is entertainment, and entertainment comes with a price. You cannot win in the long run at most casino games. And the games where you can win are probably beyond most people’s abilities. (Card counting isn’t for everyone.) That’s because the casino pays off all the bets in such a way that over the long run they’ll come out ahead.
This kind of thinking and this kind of mathematical edge applies to every casino game you’ll ever play. Once you understand this, you can start thinking about how to triple the amount of action you get with the same bankroll.
The House Edge
The house edge is just the average amount of each bet you’re expected to lose in the long run. In the roulette example I gave, you’re going to lose an average of 2 units over 38 bets, which is 2/38, or 5.26%. Every time you bet $100 on a spin of the roulette wheel, the casino expects to win an average of $5.26.
Of course, in the short run, random chance eliminates this as a likelihood. On a single spin, you’ll either win a unit or you’ll lose a unit. It’s impossible to lose 5.26% of a betting unit. In any given hour at the roulette table, you might show a net profit or a net loss. You’re more likely to show a net loss, though. That’s how the house edge works. Once you know the house edge, you have 1/3 of the information you need to estimate the hourly cost of your gambling.
The Average Size of Your Bets
Different bettors use different bet-sizing approaches. Some people just bet the same amount on every event. If you’re playing blackjack for $5 per hand and never changing the size of your bet, your average bet is $5. Other bettors vary the size of their bets. When I play blackjack, I bet between $10 and $100 per hand. I’m usually betting on the lower end of that, so my AVERAGE bet size might be $20 or $30.
Some bettors double their bets after every loss at roulette. These are called Martingale System bettors. I’ve written about that strategy elsewhere. It’s hard to say what their average bet is, because it changes based on how long their losing and winning streaks go. I will say that the size of your bet using the Martingale System gets really big faster than you think.
Here’s what happens when you double the size of a $5 bet after 5 losses in a row:
Your average bet over those 6 bets was $52.50. But it would go way up if you lose 7 times in a row. When you’re calculating your predicted hourly loss rate, you’re going to multiply your average bet size by the house edge. This is your predicted average loss per bet.
If you’re betting an average of $50 per spin at an American roulette wheel, where the house edge is 5.26%, your average loss per bet is $2.63. If you’re betting an average of $30 per hand at the blackjack table, and if you’re good enough at blackjack basic strategy to keep your house edge to 1%, you’re losing an average of 30 cents per hand.
If you’re playing slots for $5 per spin, you might be losing as much as 50 cents or more per spin. We don’t know the house edge for a slot machine game, but we can assume it’s at least 10% most of the time. Once you know what your average loss per bet is, you can look at the next part of the equation to determine how much your gambling entertainment is costing you per hour.
Your Average Number of Bets per Hour
How many bets you make per hour varies based on which game you’re playing. It also varies based on how many players are at the table. If you’re a playing slot machines or video poker, the number of bets you’re making per hour is based almost entirely on how fast you play.
Here’s an example:
For comp purposes, most casinos assume that you’ll get in 72 hands per hour at the baccarat table. This varies according to the number of players at the table, though. With fewer players, you might see more hands per hour than this. With more players, you’ll see fewer hands per hour than this.
At roulette, you can assume 38 spins per hour. That’s a perfect number at most roulette tables, since there are 38 numbers on the wheel. Slot machines and video poker are the real doozies, though. The average player gets in 600 bets per hour on a gambling machine, but this can vary widely based on the player. Fast players can get in 700 or 800 spins per hour.
I once took a recovering meth addict gambling in Oklahoma with me. I’ve never seen anyone play slot machines so fast. She just slammed the spin button repeatedly as fast as she could, without ever stopping to look at her results. I’m not sure how someone enjoys playing such a game in that manner, but she seemed to have fun. We lost a fortune, though.
You Can Calculate Your Predicted Loss per Hour by Multiplying Your Predicted Loss per Bet by the Number of Bets You’re Making per Hour
Let’s start with baccarat. I’ll assume you know that the banker bet is the best bet, and the house edge on that is 1.06%. I’ll also assume that you’re playing for $25 per hand. Your expected loss per bet is $25 X 1.06%, or 26.5 cents per hand. At an average table where you’re playing 72 hands per hour, your expected loss per hour is 72 X 26.5 cents, or $19.08.
Let’s look at blackjack, too. Assuming you’re playing for $25 per hand on average, an assuming you’re good enough at basic strategy and playing a game with good enough conditions that you’ve gotten the house edge down to 0.5%, your expected loss per hand is 12.5 cents.
Slot machines, are the really big winners for the casinos. Let’s assume you’re playing at a more or less average slot machine at an average casino. That game has an 8% house edge—for purposes of this example. And you’re playing for $3 per spin. Your expected loss per spin is 24 cents. With 600 spins per hour, your expected loss per hour playing slots is $144. That’s more than any of the table games we looked at by an exponential degree.
But the truth is, it’s a matter of time with any of these games before you lose all your money. That’s how a negative expectation game works. Think of the house edge as being like a small tax that eats away at your bankroll every time you place a bet. If you reinvest your winnings at a loss repeatedly, you’ll eventually have no more money, even though you are winning occasionally.
Thinking of Casino Gambling as Entertainment
This all leads to the one of the important points in this post. A rational, savvy gambler thinks of the money spent on a casino game as an entertainment expense. You’re trading money for entertainment. In the short term, you might have some winning session, but if you play long enough, The Law of Large Numbers suggests that you’ll eventually see results that resemble the mathematically predicted results. Once you change your mindset regarding that, you can start to evaluate the entertainment value of specific games against their cost.
In that case, the house edge on blackjack might be as high as 2%, which means you’re losing more per hour than you would at baccarat. And you’re not enjoying the game as much. You decide to switch from blackjack to baccarat. You can do this kind of calculation for any casino game and think more clearly about which games you find entertaining enough to warrant their cost per hour.
You can also compare the entertainment cost of gambling with other kinds of entertainment. For example, you might compare the cost of playing blackjack for 2 hours with the price of a Cirque du Soleil ticket and decide you’d rather just gamble.
How to Triple the Amount of Gambling You Get for the Same Amount of Cash
If you’ve accepted the premise that casino gambling is a form of entertainment with an hourly cost, you can start to take steps to save money and get the same amount of entertainment. In fact, it’s not hard to triple the amount of entertainment you get for the same money.
All you need to do is reduce the size of some of the 3 factors affecting your hourly loss rate:
- Your average bet size
- The house edge
- The number of bets per hour
Let’s say you’re a committed slot machine player. If you switch from betting $3 per spin to betting $1 per spin, your expected hourly loss drops from $144 to $48. Let’s say that you can’t enjoy a slot machine game unless you have at least $3 per spin on the line. At $1 per spin, the stakes are meaningless.
How can you get more gambling time for the same amount of money? You could slow way down and make fewer spins per hour. You could use the lever instead of the spin button. You could talk with your buddy at the machine next to yours. You could wait until all the winnings are credited before making your next spin.
It’s unlikely that you’ll get your rate of play down to 200 spins per hour. That would be ludicrous and probably dull. But getting down to 400 spins per hour is achievable, and it reduces your expected hourly loss from $144 per hour to $96 per hour.
How can you achieve something similar at these table games we talked about?
The 1st thing to understand about table games is that with more players, the number of bets per hour goes down. At a full blackjack table—one with 7 players at the table, you might see 50 hands per hour instead of the 60 I mentioned in my example earlier.
Playing video poker instead of slots can save you a fortune, too. You can easily slash your gambling budget by way more than 1/3 by playing video poker. Like blackjack, video poker requires a certain amount of strategy and tactics.
The 1st step is being able to find the video poker machines with the better pay tables. Once you’ve done that, you should learn the correct strategies. You need to keep the right cards and discard the wrong cards, and the correct decisions aren’t always obvious.
If you can find a full-pay Jacks or Better video poker game and play it with optimal strategy, you can reduce the house edge to 0.54%. This means that if you’re playing for $5 per hand, your expected loss per hand is about 2.7 cents. At 600 hands per hour, that’s an hourly predicted loss of $16.20. Compare that with the $144 per hour loss we talked about on a slot machine playing for $3/spin. The difference is tenfold. Even a bad video poker game is usually better than a good slot machine game.
Comps and Rebates from the Slots Club
All of the tactics in that last section are superior to playing for comps. Making fewer bets per hour, playing for lower stakes, and sticking with the games that have the lowest house edge are all super strategies for reducing the cost of your entertainment. This doesn’t mean you should ignore comps and rebates, though. In some cases, they can make a major difference.
Here’s how the slots club (or players club) works at most casinos:
You sign up for the program at the appropriate desk, and the casino gives you a plastic card—similar to a credit card—to insert into the slot machine when you’re playing. You can also present this card to the dealer at the table games. The casino then tracks how much money you’re putting into action per hour. They’re not tracking how much you’re winning or losing, by the way. They’re only tracking how much you’re betting.
If you’re a basic strategy player, you’ll only lose 1/4 of that, making your comps 4 times as valuable at the blackjack table. The comps and rebates are awarded as a percentage of your action. Usually the casino gives you back 0.2% of your total action in the form of comps.
If you’re playing blackjack or full pay Jacks or Better, the house edge is only 0.5% to begin with. By getting back 0.2% from the casino in the form of comps and rebates, you’ve almost cut the house edge in half—doubling the amount of gambling you’re getting for your money.
Almost all casinos offer double and triple comp rewards during certain specific time periods, too. This means getting back 0.4% or 0.6% in comps. In that case, you’ve practically eliminated the house edge. Some video poker players could even be considered advantage players, because the value of the comps exceed the amount of money they’re losing in the long run playing the video poker games. This is just another tool to add to your arsenal.
Casino gambling involves trading money for entertainment—at least, that’s how it works in the long run. The most rational gamblers understand this and treat their casino gambling as an entertainment expense.
The purpose of this post was to explain how to get 3 times the amount of entertainment for the same money. If you follow the 4 strategies outlined in this post, you’ll be able to do exactly that:
- Reduce the house edge as much as you can
- Reduce your average bet size as much as you can while still being entertained
- Make fewer bets per hour
- Get as much back in comps and rewards as you can
This post, obviously, is aimed at the recreational gambler. Professional gamblers might have some lessons to learn here, but the strategies for getting an edge and winning money at casino gambling in the long run are entirely different.