Gambling can be profitable if you figure out how to get an edge at it. But that’s only possible with certain activities. Not all gambling games are games where you can get an edge.You’ll hear plenty of people use the expression “professional gambler,” but most of them are MIS-using it. A professional gambler is someone who makes a living from gambling.
Most of the people referred to as professional gamblers are NOT making their living from it. In fact, many of them are net losers. It’s hard to find statistics about card counters in blackjack or sharps in sports betting, but we do have statistics about the percentage of poker players who finish the year in the black. It’s less than 5%.
That means that 95% of the poker players on that website lose money over the course of a year. It isn’t hard to extrapolate from that. The majority of gamblers are losing money at it, not winning money at it. The way to make money consistently in gambling is to only place bets with a positive expected return.
What does that mean? The expected return is a mathematical concept that defines how good or how bad a bet is. You multiply the probability of winning by the amount you stand to win. You also multiply the probability of losing by the amount you stand to lose. Subtract one from the other, and you have the expected value of the bet.
A bet with a negative expected value is one where you’ll lose money on average in the long run. A bet with a positive expected value is one where you’ll win money on average in the long run. Learning the difference and capitalizing on that difference is what separates the pros from the amateurs.
This post provides a list of the gambling activities and casino games where you CAN get an edge. Some of these are speculative, but I’ve listed them all here for the sake of comprehensiveness.
Most people know that blackjack is a game where you can get an edge over the casino, but a lot of people are confused about just how that works. In the movie Vegas Vacation, Clark Griswold brags that blackjack is a game where a skilled player can get an edge over the house. The implication is that if you just make the right basic strategy decisions, you’ll have an edge.
A player who learns the correct basic strategy can whittle that edge down to 0.5% in the right game conditions. But the house still has an edge over the player in that situation. To get an edge over the casino, a blackjack player must do more than just play with perfect basic strategy. This usually means learning how to count cards.
That’s not as hard as some people think, but it’s not as easy as other people think, either. No, you don’t have to memorize which cards have been played or predict which cards are going to be played next. What card counters actually do is track an estimate of how many high cards are left in the deck as opposed to low cards. When there are a lot of high cards relative to low cards, they raise the size of their bets.
If you put more money into action when you’re likelier to get a 3 to 2 payout, you wind up with a mathematical edge over the casino. Most experts estimate that your edge over the casino when counting cards is about 1%. That doesn’t sound like much, but over time, it can be quite lucrative.
Let’s assume you’re playing for an average of $100 per hand, and you’re at a table where they’re dealing 70 hands per hour. You’re putting $7000 into action per hour, and you expect to win 1% of that. That’s $70 per hour in mathematical expectation.
The subjects of card counting and other advantage techniques in blackjack are more complicated than that. You can read plenty more blog posts on those subjects on this blog if you look. For now, just understand that, as far as casino games go, blackjack is probably your best chance of gambling with an edge.
2- Betting on Sports
Placing wagers on sporting events is the most popular gambling activity in the United States and everywhere else in the world. The amount of money gambled at casinos and poker tables pales in comparison to the amount of money wagered at sports books.
Most bookmakers—companies or individuals who take bets on sports—have you wager $110 to win $100 on a bet they estimate at 50/50 odds. Some might offer $105 to $100, but others, $120 to $100. It’s not hard to see how they’d have a mathematical edge in that situation. Every time you win, you get $100. Every time they win, they get $110.
This doesn’t mean that you must make $110 bets. You can make $55 bets, or $22 bets, or whatever. The ratio is what counts. The only way to beat the vig is to find bets that the books valued at 50/50, and then win more than 53% of them. Pulling that off isn’t as easy as it sounds.
3- Betting on Horses
It might seem like betting on horses for a profit is a fool’s errand. That’s because, like casinos and bookmakers, the folks running the racebooks have tilted the odds in their favor. They do this by offering prizes based on the amounts bet on a horse, then taking a percentage of that for the house. This might be as much as 15% to 20%. Compared to the 2% house edge in blackjack and the 4.5% edge that the bookmaker has, this seems like a mathematical edge that’s too big to overcome.
But betting on horses offers the same advantage that betting on sports offers:
You only bet on the races you want to bet on. You’re not obligated to bet on every contest or every outcome. This means that you can pick and choose which bets to take based on how good you think those bets are. You can get an edge at betting on horses by becoming a good handicapper—becoming good enough at estimating the odds on a race or a horse well enough that you can spot discrepancies in your favor. You can find dozens (if not hundreds) of books on the subject.
4- Video Poker Machines
I’ve explained in multiple posts how video poker machines offer much better odds than slot machines. The best video poker machines have a house edge of between 0.3% and 0.5%. That’s still not low enough to get you an edge over the casino, though. Having a small house edge is not the same as having an advantage.
Savvy video poker players have 3 ways to get an edge at video poker:
- They combine rebates and comps with expert play to overcome the house edge.
- They find video poker games with progressive jackpots that are large enough to offer a positive expectation.
- They play in video poker tournaments. (More about that in the section on casino game tournaments.)
The biggest proponent of using comps and rebates in conjunction with video poker is Jean Scott, “The Frugal Gambler.” The trick isn’t hard.
The other trick is to find video poker games with a progressive jackpot. Since expected value is a function of the size of your jackpot and the likelihood of winning, you can calculate the break-even point and the profitable point for a certain pay table.
Once the jackpot is over the break-even point, it becomes profitable. This is such a popular advantage strategy that teams of advantage players watch these games like a hawk. It can be hard to even get a seat in front of one of these machines. The teams of advantage players like to take all the seats and sit there in shifts. I’ll cover video poker tournaments in the later section about casino game tournaments.
Getting an edge at roulette is far more speculative, and I’m of the opinion that it’s a fool’s errand in today’s casino environment. The premise behind advantage play in roulette is that, since roulette wheels are physical objects, they experience wear and tear. They become less random in those situations, so some numbers come up more often than others.
The problem is that modern casinos and modern manufacturing methods mean that most roulette wheels are in good shape. Casinos replace wheels as they start to wear out. They even move the wheels around from time to time, which means that the wheel you clocked today might not even be in the same location tomorrow.
The premise behind advantage play in craps is that a shooter with enough skill can change the probability of what total the dice land on enough to change the odds in the game. It doesn’t take a huge difference in probability for this to happen, either.The questionable aspect of this is how likely it is that a shooter can actually develop such a skill in a casino environment. Before you could have any statistical confidence at all, you’d need to shoot and record the results for thousands of rolls of the dice. I’m sure most people don’t have the dedication to do that.
Another way to take advantage of this type of advantage play is to find a shooter who’s “on a roll.” Frank Scoblete explains a technique he uses for this purpose called “the 5-count.” You basically count how many times the shooter rolls without crapping out. If that shooter manages to do so 5 times in a row or more, he might be a controlled shooter. Scoblete suggests that some people are just intuitively good at this. By betting with that shooter, you could theoretically gain an edge. On the other hand, you could just be seeing the results of short term variance.
When most people think of professional gamblers these days, they think of poker players—specifically, Texas holdem players. I’ve seen multiple estimates of the percentage of poker players who are actually profitable on a consistent basis. The percentage is low—5% to 10%. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible or even hard. It just means that professional level poker requires a dedication to learning your craft that most people don’t have.
You can find countless books on poker strategy. Most of them are good, especially anything from Two Plus Two or author Ed Miller. You can also watch videos if you prefer learning that way. You can even hire professional poker coaches.
8- Casino Promotions
Taking advantage of casino promotions is another way to get an edge, but that seems to get harder all the time—especially online. The online casino bonus is one of the best examples of a casino promotion, and you used to be able to find positive expectation deals all the time. You used to be able to get a matching bonus on your 1st deposit of 100% or 200% and only be required to wager the bonus plus deposit 10X through, or something like that.
If you stuck with games with a low house edge, you could wind up with a predicted or expected profit. This is one of the areas where your ability to do some match can help you find profitable opportunities.
You deposit $200 and get a $400 bonus. You have $600. You’re required to make $6000 in wagers. You play roulette, which has a house edge of 2.70%. Your expected loss on $6000 in wagers is $162($600 – $162 = $438). You deposited $200, so you have $238 left in profit.
That’s an example of a casino promotion with a positive expectation. But change that wagering requirement to 25X instead of 10X, and you now must wager $15,000. Your expected loss on that action is $402, which is more than the $400 bonus. The expected value on that bonus is $0.
Brick and mortar casinos offer free spins on slot machines all the time. Since you’re not risking any money, these are always positive expectation scenarios.
9- Casino Game Tournaments
No matter what game the tournament involves, it might be a positive expectation bet. It depends on the structure of the tournament. Being able to do the math to determine the expectation for a tournament is a critical skill to have if you want to get an edge playing casino game tournaments.
The rules for the tournaments and the prizes structures are what make these potentially profitable. As with #8, your ability to do math is critical. Casino game tournaments vary so widely that it’s hard to explain too many examples.
I read about one casino tournament where 4 players were competing for $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, and $1,000,000. The owner of the casino offered all 4 of them a guaranteed payout of $80,000 if they all agreed to it. The expected value of the above pay structure is worth way more than $80,000.
- You have a 25% chance of winning $25,000, which is $6250 in EV.
- You have a 25% chance of winning $50,000, which is $12,500 in EV.
- You have a 25% chance of winning $75,000, which is $18,750 in EV.
- And you have a 25% chance of winning $1,000,000, which is $250,000 in EV.
- Your total expected value for the tournament as originally offered is $287,500.
Novice gamblers think that since 3/4 of the time they’ll win less than $80,000, they should take the deal. They’re not accounting for the large size of the grand prize. This is just one example of the kind of thinking you should go into casino game tournaments with.
Becoming a professional gambler is possible, but it’s beyond the means of most of us—myself included. Most people just don’t have the temperament for it. Getting an edge at gambling activities usually means taking some (if not all) of the fun out of that activity.
When it comes to casino games, frankly, most of them don’t offer you an opportunity to get an edge. A couple of the games I’ve listed as games where you could get an edge are questionable, too (craps and roulette). The other casino games where you can get an edge—well, they’re not easy to overcome, either.
Your best chance at getting an edge when gambling is to bet on sports or learn to play poker professionally. I think professional level poker is easier to learn than pro-level sports betting. You can find hundreds of good books about how to play poker well. Most of the books about sports betting, with a couple of notable exceptions, are awful.