Last year, more than 42 million people visited Las Vegas, and the vast majority of those folks wound up hitting the casino floor for a taste of Sin City’s gambling action.
But while everyone who tries their luck at the casino wants to head home as a winner, the law of probability ensures that the house almost always wins. With the odds stacked against you – as they most certainly are in the negative expectation games casinos specialize in – winning at the casino is easier said than done.
Don’t take my word for it, because the numbers never lie.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) recently released its annual end of year data dump for the state’s casino industry, and 2017 wasn’t pretty from the player’s perspective. Check out the table below to see just how badly the casinos beat players in the most popular market segments:
|GAME / WAGER||NET WIN|
|Penny Slots||$3.1 billion|
Remember, those figures don’t extend to the total amount wagered in Nevada casinos. No, this is just what the house collected from losing bets. Take a minute to Google “six point four billion written out,” soak that enormous number in, and think about just how hard it must be to consistently turn a profit as a casino gambler.
Indeed, the ranks of legitimate long-term winners are sparse to say the least. You may have taken the blackjack tables for a cool $500 on your last trip, but what about your last 10 sessions? Or more appropriately, your lifetime as a blackjack player?
Chances are high that you’ve lost more on the game, or any other casino wager, than you’ve won when the long view is taken. Don’t take that personally now, I’m simply taking the right side of a proposition based on the probabilities involved.
Casino gamblers lose more than they win, and the NGCB numbers shown above provide concrete proof to that effect.
With that word of warning out of the way, I feel comfortable moving on to the material you really came for – a discussion on what separates winning casino players from the rest.
While long term winners are few and far between, a handful of professional advantage play specialists do manage to overcome the odds. These players are a diverse bunch, ranging from high school dropouts to MIT math professors, and every walk of life in between – but they all seem to have similar traits in common.
I’m not talking about raw natural intelligence, a photographic memory, or any of the other innate skills one might assume top gamblers possess. Don’t get me wrong though, these are great abilities to have in your gambler’s toolbox, but those are things you just can’t teach.
No, I’m referring to the five traits of winning casino players that anybody out there can absorb into their own play. As long as you’re willing to work hard, you can take full advantage of the following list, which comes complete with quotes from five of greatest gamblers to ever grace the casino floor.
1 – Studying Optimal Strategy for Skill Based Games
“If I had to boil down my advice to just one thing, it would be that the harder a game is to understand, the better the odds are if you study and play it carefully.
Therefore, mindless games like slot machines tend to be a bad bet, and more complicated games like video poker tend to be a good bet, but only if they’re played properly.
It’s like life in general. The good things in life you have to work harder to get.” –
Michael Shackleford, aka “The Wizard of Odds”
Taking a second look at that chart showing Nevada casino win rates should shine a light into how the house always wins.
You could take their haul from two skill-based games, blackjack and craps, add those together, and then double it – and you’d barely reach the $3.1 billion win generated by penny slots. And that’s just penny slots, leaving another billion or so taken in from higher denomination slots.
Clearly then, casinos benefit immensely when recreational players plop down for a night spent spinning away on the slots. Slots are a pure game of chance, which means players have no ability whatsoever to use strategy or skill to influence the outcome. Nobody is a “good” or “bad” slot player, because everyone who tries their luck is reliant on the whims of a random number generator (RNG).
The same holds true for roulette, baccarat, and the majority of modern table games. Without mincing words, these games are designed to separate suckers from their money, plain and simple.
Sure, I enjoy taking a ride on the roulette wheel from time to time, but I go into that gamble knowing full well that the odds are stacked against me. With a house edge of 5.26 percent on the American double zero wheel, and nothing but luck determining the results, I stand to lose an average of $5.26 for every $100 wagered.
For this reason, I view roulette as nothing but a lark, a fun little game to bet a few dollars on before moving on to the real grind.
You might enjoy other games of chance in the same way, and that’s fine – but winning casino players tend to focus on skill-based games with the lowest possible house edge.
To help get you started on that front, check out the table below for a full rundown of common casino games and wagers ordered by house edge:
|GAME||BET / RULES||HOUSE EDGE|
|Craps||Odds – 4 or 10||0.00 percent|
|Craps||Odds – 5 or 9||0.00 percent|
|Craps||Odds – 6 or 8||0.00 percent|
|Blackjack||Liberal Vegas Rules||0.28 percent|
|Blackjack||Dealer Stands on Soft 17||0.40 percent|
|Video Poker||Jacks or Better (Full Pay)||0.46 percent|
|Catch a Wave||0.50 percent|
|Spanish 21||Dealer Hits on Soft 17||0.76 percent|
|Super Fun 21||0.94 percent|
|Craps||Don’t Pass / Don’t Come||1.36 percent|
|PaiGow Poker||1.46 percent|
|Craps||Place 6, 8||1.52 percent|
|Heads Up Hold ‘Em||Blind Pay Table #1 (500-50-10-8-5)||2.36 percent|
|Double Down Stud||2.67 percent|
|Roulette||Single Zero||2.70 percent|
|Craps||Field (3:1 on 12)||2.78 percent|
|Red Dog||Six Decks||2.80 percent|
|Casino War||Go to War on Ties||2.88 percent|
|Craps||Place (To Lose) 4, 10||3.03 percent|
|Three Card Poker||Ante & Play||3.37 percent|
|Let It Ride||3.51 percent|
|Casino War||Surrender on Ties||3.70 percent|
|Craps||Place 5,9||4.00 percent|
|Caribbean Stud Poker||5.22 percent|
|Roulette||Double Zero||5.26 percent|
|Craps||Field (2:1 on 12)||5.56 percent|
|Craps||Place 4,10||6.67 percent|
|Wild Hold’emFold’em||6.86 percent|
|Three Card Poker||Pair Plus Side Bet||7.28 percent|
|Craps||Big 6, 8||9.09 percent|
|Craps||Hard 6, 8||9.09 percent|
|Pick ’em Poker||0 percent – 10 percent|
|Bonus Six||No Insurance||10.42 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||$1||11.11 percent|
|Craps||Any Craps||11.11 percent|
|Craps||Hard 4, 10||11.11 percent|
|Craps||3, 11, & All Easy Hops||11.11 percent|
|Craps||2, 12, & All Hard Hops||13.89 percent|
|Slot Machines||2 percent – 15 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||$2||16.67 percent|
|Craps||Any Seven||16.67 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||$10||18.52 percent|
|Casino War||Bet on Tie||18.65 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||$5||22.22 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||$20||22.22 percent|
|Bonus Six||With Insurance||23.83 percent|
|Big Six Wheel||Joker/Logo||24.07 percent|
|Keno||25 percent – 29 percent|
|Sic Bo||2.78 percent – 33.33 percent|
As you can see, the odds a player faces while gambling can vary wildly, ranging from the neutral (zero house edge) odds bet offered on craps to the absurd 33.33 percent rate found on certain side bets in Sic Bo.
So called “carnival” games – named because they don’t even bother hiding their reliance on pure chance – like the Big Six wheel (16.67 percent) and keno (29 percent) are more akin to scratch off lottery cards than casino gambling.
Conversely, the best bets on offer are almost always skill-based games, such as blackjack (0.40 percent), Jacks or Better video poker (0.46 percent), and the Pass Line bet in craps (1.41 percent).
I’ve included my own personal cutoff point as an underline, which can be found right underneath the American roulette entry. Any game with a house edge higher than 5.26 percent is off the table, in my book anyhow.
Well, another book offers a similar guideline, and that’s “Gambling 102: The Best Strategies for All Casino Games” by Michael Shackleford.
A former actuary who applied his mathematical prowess to the world of casino gambling, Shackleford is best known by the moniker “Wizard of Odds.” His website of the same name is universally regarded as the leading source of objective, accurate, and effective strategy for skill-based games.
Shackleford isn’t necessarily a gambling legend for his own play, although he proudly notes that he’s been a winning player for decades now. No, his work as the “Wizard of Odds” has been used by both sides of the gambling divide, with players and casino managers alike referring to his strategy guides as the de facto Bible for any given game or wager.
To become a winning player in any skill-based game, the first place to start is a Shackleford strategy tutorial. He doesn’t resort to shameless salesmanship or “surefire” systems, as the Wizard brand has always been associated with honest, no nonsense analysis of the mathematics that make up a bet.
You can get a feel for the numbers side of Shackleford’s strategy advice by perusing the Wizard site, but a glimpse into his knack for instruction can be found in this one-on-one blackjack lesson.
Winning players are always willing to learn, and when it comes to optimal strategies for skill games, you’ll need to memorize charts and tables in order to truly master them. That takes hard work, as I already mentioned, but anybody who puts in that work can head to the casino armed with all the knowledge they need to beat the house.
2 – Using Player’s Clubs and Promotions Prudently
“Video poker players make more off promotions than they do off the games. That was true in the past and it’s still true today.
The best players learn how to calculate when they have the edge by analyzing how much the game pays, how much the slot club pays and how much the promotions are worth.
Actually, learning the game is the easy part. Once that’s mastered, players need to learn the player’s club inside and out.” – Bob Dancer
During a six-month span stretching from 2000 to 2001, video poker pro Bob Dancer and his wife Shirley lived every gambler’s dream: turning their starting stake into a million dollar windfall.
Beginning with relatively small bets of $5 per hand, the Dancers slowly worked their way up the video poker ladder. Specializing in 9/6 full pay Jacks or Better, the couple grinded day and night, patiently building their bankroll up above the six-figure plateau.
Soon enough, Dancer was playing the $25 machines as a video poker high roller, wagering $125 per hand while max betting for five credits. He wound up jumping to the $100 machines, risking $500 on every single deal. Of course, the variance bug bit him hard, leading to a $100,000 loss that threatened to doom the duo for good.
But as the Dancer quote above demonstrates, he wasn’t relying solely on video poker payouts to pad his bankroll. By joining up with the Player’s Club – a promotion offered by every major casino that provides points, comps, and rebates to players based on their wagering volume – Dancer was able to offset his losses when the inevitable downswings arrived.
You can read more about Dancer’s clever exploitation of the comp system – which included a fortuitous find of machines paying out double points due to a glitch – in this lengthy interview with the American Casino Guide.
Today, Dancer is known as the “King of Video Poker,” due in large part to the million dollar run I mentioned above. After reverting back to the lower stakes and losing out on the double point glitch after the casinos finally took notice, the Dancers patiently grinded until they felt comfortable taking another shot at the big games.
While his wife played a $100 machine, Bob hit the $25 game and managed to beat the roughly 1 in 40,000 odds against landing a royal flush. His $125 bet produced a $100,000 jackpot, but before the team could even celebrate, Shirley struck gold on her own royal flush for another $400,000 jackpot.
When the run was all said and done, the Dancers had beaten the house for more than $1 million in just six months. And adding to their windfall were the copious comps and goodies awarded through the Player’s Club, which included several automobiles, a home entertainment center, and over four million frequent flier miles.
The tale of the Dancers is certainly extraordinary, but everyday gamblers can offset their losses using the same Player’s Club techniques. I always recommend the “Frugal Gambler” series by author Jean Scott, who is better known as the “Queen of Comps.”
Using the methods pioneered by Scott, anybody with a Player’s Card can enjoy the best rebates every major casino chain has to offer.
3 – Seizing Opportunities to Score Whenever They Arise
“I wondered how my research into the mathematical theory of a game might change my life.
In the abstract, life is a mixture of chance and choice. Chance can be thought of as the cards you are dealt in life. Choice is how you play them.
I chose to investigate blackjack. As a result, chance offered me a new set of unexpected opportunities.” – Edward O. Thorp
Earlier I mentioned the “Wizard of Odds” website as the Bible of casino strategy, and that makes Edward O. Thorp’s “Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One” the Old Testament.
Written way back in 1962, “Beat the Dealer” contained the best of both worlds: the optimal strategy for blackjack and the world’s first card counting system. With a Ph.D. in mathematics and experience teaching at MIT, Thorp is a bona fide genius who just happened to apply his acumen to solving blackjack.
For a decade, Thorp visited Nevada casinos in the name of “applied research,” using his advanced knowledge of basic strategy and his innovative counting system to crush casinos from Tahoe to Reno. He also pushed the boundaries of advantage play, designing the world’s first wearable computer while working as part of a blackjack team.
Thorp was never content to accept negative expectation. In designing a computer program capable of predicting where the ball will land in roulette, he used variables like the wheel’s spin velocity and the trajectory of the ball’s first bounce to narrow the odds on what was always a game of pure chance.
The casinos eventually pushed back against Thorp’s counting methods, introducing multiple deck shoes to make his work that much more difficult.
Thorp wound up transitioning from blackjack to another sort of gambling, and his preternatural prowess with numbers led him to devise what most experts agree was the world’s first hedge fund.
Thorp never let opportunity pass him by, and by rejecting the old notion that blackjack was unbeatable, his work gave rise to the field of advantage play as we know it today.
4 – Taking the Risks Required to Earn Their Reward
“You’ve got to understand something. Money means nothing to me. I don’t value it.
I’ve had all the material things I could ever want. Everything. The things I want money can’t buy: health, freedom, love, happiness.
I don’t care about money, so I have no fear. I don’t care if I lose it.” – Archie Karas
Archie Karas emigrated from Greece, struck out for Sin City, and wound up running $50 into a $40 million fortune.
You can find out how he pulled off what gamblers still refer to as “The Run” in this epic interview, but sufficed to say, Karas was willing to risk it all when he saw an edge.
Leaving aside the fact that Karas wound up broke due to his addictive tendencies, the man’s courage and God given gamble is worthy of admiration. He took on World Series of Poker (WSOP) champions in their games of choice, beating legends like Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese fair and square.
They say “scared money don’t make money,” and truer words have never been spoken. When you see an edge, grab ahold and hope for a run of your own.
5 – Reflecting on Results Through Honest Recordkeeping
“I posted a poll on Twitter mentioning that in 2017 I cashed for $2,792,104 and asked if people thought that was more or less than the total number of buy-ins I spent on the year.
I mention this because I think my 2017 was a good illustration of the illusion that players cashing for $2 million in a single year is a great accomplishment.
I felt like I had a decent year in terms of results, but when you break down the numbers into an actual profit vs loss, I essentially broke even!” – Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu
If old Archie had practiced diligent recordkeeping like Daniel Negreanu, he very well may have held on to that $40 million uptick.
Alas, few gamblers have the dedication to their craft that “Kid Poker” demonstrates year in and year out. When 2017 came to a close, Negreanu tallied up his final year end results for tournament play, which included exactly $2,792,104 in winnings.
As the world’s all-time leading tournament money winner, Negreanu could’ve easily announced that $2.79 million haul as a success story. Many gamblers do just that, happily counting and recording their winning sessions, while conveniently forgetting those times when the house cleaned their clock.
Negreanu took the honorable route, letting his fans and followers know exactly how hard it is to turn a profit as a gambler – even as the best poker player on the planet. By making it clear that his $2.79 million in wins were offset by $2.87 million in buy-in fees – leading to a net loss of over $86,000 – Negreanu laid it all on the line.
Gamblers hoping to turn a profit would be well served to do the same. Accurate recordkeeping that doesn’t try to fudge the truth is the best way to assess your progress, set goals, and improve your results.
Study and use these 5 traits of winning casino players to improve your chances to win. It isn’t always easy to be a winning gambler, but when you learn how to use the traits that winners have, you win more.