There are a limited number of activities where you can get an edge when gambling. It doesn’t matter how smart you are; you can’t make a living betting on roulette. This post covers the following gambling activities that you might be able to make a living off of poker on:
- Progressive slots
- Video poker
How to Play Poker Professionally
Poker is my favorite opportunity for gambling profitably. I prefer it to almost any other kind of advantage gambling, because I think it’s the easiest way to make money as a gambler. In blackjack, you’re playing against the casino. They take strong countermeasures against advantage players.
In sports betting, if you’re placing enough big bets and winning often enough, some books will start to turn down your action.
But in poker, you can almost always find other players willing to take your action. As long as you’re good enough to overcome the house’s 5% rake—the amount they take from each pot to pay to host the game—you can make a profit.
This does mean, of course, that you must be a little more than 5% better than the other players at your table.
In fact, when you talk “professional gambler,” most people think of “poker player.” That’s because poker offers simple mathematical principles that make it hard to lose when you understand the game and can implement that understanding. It’s a game of logic and decision-making.
Making $100,000 a year playing poker is easy if you’re willing to put in the work. It’s not something most people can just sit down at the table and master intuitively, though. Most people will need to start by mastering the basics of the game.
You can do that by reading webpages about how to play, but it makes even more sense to find some good books about poker in general and start by reading those. I recommend The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky and Fundamentals of Poker by Mason Malmuth.
Once you grok the basics of poker, it’s time to move on to specific games. For most people in the United States, this means learning how to play Texas holdem. Starting with limit games is a good idea for people with normal sized bankrolls. I started with Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players by David Sklansky.
The next trick is to find the juiciest poker games you can. I’m lucky. I live near Oklahoma, and the games there—especially at the lower stakes—are notoriously soft. If you can fold below average hands, you can win at poker in Oklahoma.
The better you are at the game relative to your opponents, the more money you stand to make playing poker. Your edge increases as the difference in skill level increases. No matter which game you play, you need a big enough bankroll to avoid going broke. Don’t play with scared money or above your bankroll just because you think a game might be juicier than another lower-stakes games.
Keeping records of your results is a critical step, too. One of the best bosses I ever had pointed out to me that “performance measure is performance improved.” I also used to say, back when I was a middle manager in corporate America, that if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
You can’t measure anything in poker if you’re not keeping detailed records. You might find that you’re winning more per hour in the $5/$10 games than the $10/$20 games—for whatever reason. The opponents might just be that much tougher at the next level. You wouldn’t know if you didn’t keep records, though.
Professional gamblers should treat their gambling like a business.
And businesses keep records.
How to Make Money from Progressive Slot Machines
Slot machines are far and away the most popular games in any American casino. For years, you’d see the oft-touted statistic that claimed slot machines accounted for 70% of the casinos’ revenue. I read a book recently that touted another, more impressive statistic—80%.
Casinos love slot machines, too, because they generate insane amounts of money. People put more money into action per hour on the slot machines than any other game just because of the rate of play. Even slow slots players make 400 spins per hour. Faster players can make as many as 800 bets per hour.
Multiply that by an above average house edge (6% or more, most of the time) and even a small stakes slots player generates more money for the casino than most other higher-stakes players.
But there’s money to be made playing the slot machines if you know what to look for.
I usually advise the average gambler to avoid progressive slot machines. The probability of hitting the progressive jackpot is so low that it’s usually not worth it. The way a progressive slot machine game works is that it takes a tiny percentage of each bet and uses it to “feed” the constantly growing jackpot.
But since the payback percentage for a game is a function of how much you can win versus the likelihood of winning, when a jackpot gets large enough, a slot machine has a payback percentage of over 100%–meaning you have the edge.
Professional gamblers, though, aren’t looking at machines like MegaBucks. Even if the jackpot gets big enough to make it a positive expectation bet, you’ll likely never see that expectation realized. The odds of winning the jackpot are too small. You could play MegaBucks every day for the rest of your life and never hit the jackpot.
An average slot machine has a payback percentage of between 90% and 95% in a jurisdiction like Las Vegas. In other parts of the country, like Oklahoma, that number might be even lower. If you play games with a payback percentage like that, you’re bound to lose.
Here’s how the theory behind this type of advantage gambling works:
Let’s suppose you’re playing a game where the payback percentage is 95%. You might expect to win a jackpot on this game once every 50,000 hands or so. (You can’t really predict this, but you can make some estimates based on your observations.)
If you’re required to bet $3 per hand, you’d have to put $150,000 into the machine before expecting to hit the jackpot.
Suppose that game has a progressive jackpot that started at $50,000, but it’s grown to $150,000. Mathematically, if you play your 50,000 hands and win that $150,000, you’d have won your investment back and broken even.
But you don’t lose on every spin of the slot machine game. Let’s say you lose an average of 10% of each bet before hitting that jackpot. That’s $15,000 in losses. You stand to profit significantly if the jackpot gets this high in that situation, right?
Those aren’t realistic numbers, but understanding the math is easy when you’re using those numbers. A more likely scenario for this machine might involve a jackpot that starts at $10,000 but rises to $15,000+.
The problem is figuring out what the jackpot needs to be for a game to become a positive expectation bet. With older slot machines, this was easy. You knew how many symbols there were, so the likelihood of getting 1 of those symbols was just 1 divided by the total number of symbols.
Modern slot machines, though, are powered by a random number generator. Some symbols are more likely to appear than others. The best you can do in this situation is try to make some estimates based on what you’re observing while you’re playing the game.
Here’s an example of this kind of statistical analysis:
This weekend I played a game called Lightning Sevens. I made 200 spins in half an hour, and I bet $1.25 per spin. This means I put $250 in action. I lost $50, so my estimate of that game’s payback percentage is 80%.
That’s a VERY small sample size, so it’s hard to draw much of a conclusion from it. I did hit the smallest progressive jackpot once every 50 spins or so, though—it was only worth $20. The game had 4 progressive jackpots, though. The top jackpot was 50 times as much as the lowest jackpot, so my guess is that the probability of hitting it is 50 times that of the lowest jackpot.
That means I have a 1 in 2500 probability of hitting that top jackpot.
While I was playing, the top jackpot was $1100 or so. With a 1 in 2500 probability, that’s a clearly negative expectation bet.
But if the jackpot were closer to 2000 coins, the game would almost certainly be close to break-even. It might even become a +EV play. I’d need to get more results to draw a conclusion.
Another route to take with progressive slots is to look at some of the websites that track the size of the average jackpot when it hits at certain online games. These sites look at how often a jackpot hits based on jackpot size and the amount of time that’s elapsed since the last jackpot hit.
Once you get near either of those numbers, the theory is that the game is getting closer to being a positive expectation game. That’s not an accurate number, either– because we don’t know how likely it is to hit the jackpot.
Playing progressive slot machines for a living is theoretically possible but not practical. I include that information here for 2 reasons:
- It will be helpful when I discuss playing video poker professionally.
- It’s a good example of how you can combine some techniques with others to get an edge.
Let’s talk about point #2 for a minute, too. If you join the slots club and get rewards, playing on that machine gets better because you get rebates of your losses. Those rebates are small, but they bring the payback percentage of the game up.
Casino promotions and tournaments can also add to your expected return on these games. Combine the slots club rewards, promotions, and tournaments, and you can often turn a negative expectation into a positive expectation game.
Finally, some slot machines have “banking” functions. These are rarely found anymore, but the way they work is that a tiny percentage of each of your bets builds up the “bank” on the game. Some players run out of money or lose interest before cashing out that money in the bank. Observant slots players can find games with money left in the bank and play those machines.
How to Play Video Poker for a Profit
With slot machines, we don’t know the probability of hitting the top prize. We don’t know the payback percentage for the game at all, because we don’t know the probability of getting a specific symbol.
But with video poker, the odds are based on a deck of cards. We can calculate the probability of getting a royal flush, which is the jackpot prize. In games without wild cards, a royal flush will come up once every 40,000 hands.
Knowing this, we can calculate how high a jackpot needs to be on a progressive video poker machine and only play when it’s over 100%.
And in fact, entire teams of professional gamblers track these stats. They then occupy every seat at every video poker machine that fits that criterion until the jackpot gets hit.
A progressive Jacks or Better video poker usually has an 8/5 payback table, which means that a full house pays off at 8 for 1. A flush pays off at 5 for 1. The payback percentage on a game like this would be 97.3% if you play with perfect strategy.
But as the size of the top jackpot increases, so does the payback percentage. If you’re playing on a quarter machine and betting 5 coins on each hand, the game becomes break-even when the jackpot gets up to $2300. (That’s 9200 credits instead of 4000.)
The higher that jackpot grows beyond $2300, the more profitable that game will be if and when you hit that progressive jackpot. If you’re an average video poker player, you probably hit 600 hands per hour. You might be able to hit that jackpot in less than 70 hours. (It’s possible you won’t hit it at all, but the entire point of advantage gambling is to look at the edge and what it means in practical terms.)
You can, in turn, turn this into an hourly wage estimate. If the jackpot is $3000, for example, your profit after 70 hours would be $700. The $2300 makes you break even, so the amount beyond that—the $700—is your profit. Over 70 hours, that’s a profit of $10/hour.
Some advantage gamblers hire teams to play for them. I already talked about that, but it’s something to consider getting on the other end of if you can. Some people are willing to play video poker for $7.50/hour if you bankroll their action. You just need to be confident in their ability to play close to perfectly—which is a whole other ball of wax. It’s also common to pay such a player a bonus for hitting the jackpot if and when they do.
It’s hard to find video poker jackpots this good, but they’re still out there. In Vegas, there’s a number of casinos in North Las Vegas, away from the Strip and Downtown, which offer great video poker games.
Finally, if you want to learn the appropriate strategy for such video poker games, your best is probably one of Bob Dancer’s books. There are other books from good writers, including Dan Paymar and Stanford Wong, but Dancer’s books provide the best instructions for mastering strategy.
Taking Advantage of Casino Promotions and Tournaments
Slot machine clubs aren’t new anymore, but for many professional gamblers, they’re an important part of your overall strategy. You use a plastic card to track your play for the casino. In return, you get free stuff and rebates from the casinos.
The card looks like a credit card, and every slot machine in a modern casino has a slot where you can insert the card. The more you play on the game, the more points you earn.
This works great for the casino, because it encourages you to gamble more. It also allows the casino to track which games you play, for how long, and for how much money. They can then make better marketing decisions.
The rebates and comps for these clubs are usually in the range of 0.3% of the amount you bet, although if you play during double and triple point time periods, that can increase to 0.6% or 0.9%. If you’re playing a game like full pay Jacks or Better, which has a house edge of only 0.46%, that can be the difference between playing a negative expectation game and a positive expectation game.
Of course, an edge of 0.14% or even 0.44% isn’t going to make you a living. It’s a consideration, though.
If you can find a video poker game with a payback percentage of close to 100.17%, adding that 0.9% can turn into a significant edge. If you can find such a game for decent stakes, you’ve got something going on.
Let’s say you find such a game in a $1 denomination. You’re putting $5 per hand into action 600 times per hour, or $3000 per hour. Your advantage during triple points time periods is around 1%, which means you’re looking at $30/hour in expected earnings.
Casinos also often feature promotions and special events that can even be considered loss leaders. Sometimes these promotions include tournament play, while other promotions don’t involved tournament play at all. In either case, if a promotion adds to your bottom line, it’s worth exploring.
Eddie Teams is an example of an advantage gambler who recently took advantage of a casino promotion to earn $150,000 in 2 months—playing slot machines, no less. If you were the player who made the most slot machine spins during a specified period of time, you got to choose from 5 posters on the wall—each of which had a prize behind it.
Some of these were worth $10,000 to $50,000. Teams memorized where they put the $50,000 card, and the 2nd time he was eligible, he knew which card to choose.
These kinds of promotions happen all the time. You just need to be aware of when they happen and how to best take advantage of them.
Making a living gambling is about putting yourself into positive expectation situations repeatedly and making sure you have enough bankroll to avoid going broke because of a short-term swing in the wrong direction.
Only a limited number of gambling activities lend themselves to this type of gambling. I’ve covered most of them in this post. If you participate in other gambling activities, that’s cool, but please don’t delude yourself into thinking that you’ve somehow gotten an edge at a negative expectation game like baccarat or roulette just because you’re using some bogus betting system.
Learn how the math (probability) works when it comes to gambling, then restrict yourself to situations with the highest possible expected value (+EV).
Not everyone is cut out to be a professional gambler. There are would-be poker pros who would have been far better off just getting a regular job. They just didn’t have the temperament to pull it off.
Now you know what it takes?
Do you have what it takes to make a living from gambling?