People learn about gambling games on the internet all the time.
Sadly, a lot of them learn all the wrong lessons in all the wrong ways.
My purpose with this blog post is to provide some guidance as it relates to gambling game probabilities and strategies so that you can avoid the most common mistakes.
Here’s something to consider, and if you’ve read much poker strategy, you’ve probably already heard this:
Money you don’t lose is worth just as much as money you win.
One of my biggest goals is to help you lose less money, regardless of what kind of gambling you participate in. Since most of my readers are casino gamblers, this post focuses mostly on casino games.
But I also mention why poker is far superior to casino games in general and how to go about learning to play.
1- How Gambling Math Works
It’s hard to understand gambling math without understanding probability. In fact, gambling math is all about probability.
Luckily, probability is simpler than most people think. You only need to understand a few concepts:
- Probability is a measurement of how likely it is that something will happen. It’s also the name for the branch of mathematics that concerns itself with these likelihoods and measurements.
- You can always represent an event’s probability with a number between 0 and 1. A probability of 0 means that the event is impossible; a probability of 1 means that the event is inevitable.
- The probability that something will happen added to the probability that something won’t happen always totals 1. If you have a 50% chance of something happening, you must have a 5. 0% chance of it not happening. If you have a 25% chance of an event happening, you must also have a 75% chance of it not happening, and so on.
- Probabilities can be expressed as fractions, decimals, percentages, or as odds. If the probability of something happening is 1/2, that’s the same thing as saying it has a probability of 0.5 or 50%. That’s also the same thing as even odds, or 1 to 1 odds.
- The probability of an event is the number of ways that event can happen divided by the total possible number of events. If you roll a die with 6 sides, there are 6 possible outcomes. The probability of getting a 6 is 1/6, or 0.167, or 16.7%.
- Casinos measure their advantage over the player as a percentage called “the house edge.” This is the long-term average of how much the casino expects you to lose per bet. If you place 100 bets of $100 on a game with a 5% house edge, the casino expects to win 100 X $100 X 5%, or $500. (You put $10,000 into action, and the casino expects to win 5% of that, which is $500.)
- Some games have a higher house edge than others. Everything else being equal, gambling games with a lower house edge are better than gambling games with a higher house edge.
Of course, there’s more to gambling math than just this.
But that’s a great starting point for anyone interested in gambling games.
2- Why Betting Systems Don’t Work
A betting system is a methodical way of raising and lowering your bets at a game based on the outcomes of your previous bets. The goal of a betting system is to increase the probability that you’ll be a winner at the game.
In the long run, betting systems don’t work. They’re the equivalent of adding together a bunch of negative numbers and expecting the outcome to be positive just because you changed the size of each number.
The most common example of a betting system is the Martingale. You place an even money bet, and if you lose, you double the size of that bet for your next wager. If you lose again, you bet again, and you double the size of that bet, too.
This continues until you win.
When you do eventually win, you’ll recoup all your previous losses and have a profit equal to the size of your first bet.
Here’s the problem with this and other betting systems:
They all assume that the previous outcomes affect the subsequent outcomes.
And in most casino games, each bet is an independent event.
This means that if the ball lands on red 5 times in a row in roulette, the probability of it landing on red again on that 6th row is still the same—47.37%.
The formula doesn’t change. You take the total number of possible red outcomes—18—and you divide them by the total of all possible outcomes—38.
The Martingale assumes you’ll eventually have a winner, but that’s not necessarily true. In fact, it underestimates how likely it is that you’ll face a long losing streak.
When you do face that long losing streak, you’ll lose all the small profits you made on the successful iterations of this strategy.
All betting systems are variations of the Martingale in one way or another. They all involve raising or lowering the size of your bets based on what happened on the previous bet.
And they all suffer from the same flaw:
The probability doesn’t change on subsequent bets.
3- The Casino Games with the Best Odds
I mentioned earlier that you can measure a casino game’s odds by its house edge. That’s the percentage of each bet that the casino projects that you’ll lose in the long run.
Here’s an example:
A standard American roulette wheel has a house edge of 5.26%.
If you bet $100 on a spin of that roulette wheel, you’ll win $100 some of the time, but you’ll lose $100 slightly more often.
Over time, the number of winning results versus the number of losing results will ensure that you lose about 5.26% of your total action on that wheel.
The casino games with the lowest house edge include the following:
- Baccarat – If you stick with the banker bet, the house edge for baccarat is only 1.06%.
- Blackjack – If you play with perfect basic strategy in the right game, the house edge for blackjack is less than 0.5%.
- Craps – If you stick with the pass line or don’t pass bets (or the come and don’t come bets), the house edge for craps is only 1.41% or 1.36%. The house edge on the free odds bet is 0%, which combined with the already low house edge on the other bets, makes for a great game indeed.
- Roulette – If you can find a European roulette game which has the en prison rule in effect, the house edge is only 1.35%. But a standard American roulette game has a house edge of 5.26%.
- Video poker – The house edge for video poker games varies based on the pay table in effect. The best games have a house edge of less than 0.5%, provided you play with close to optimal strategy.
I should point out that even if the house edge is 0.1%, if you play a negative expectation game long enough, you’ll eventually lose all your money.
4- How to Play Slot Machines
That’s the best strategy for playing slot machines.
Not only is the house edge for the average slot machine one of the biggest in the casino, the speed at which you play is so high that it almost guarantees a large amount of money lost per hour.
You can project your hourly loss at a game by multiplying the house edge for that game by the average number of bets you make per hour and by the average size of each of those bets.
If you’re playing blackjack for $25 per hand with perfect basic strategy, you might get in 80 hands per hour. This means you’re putting $2000 per hour into action. If the house edge is only 0.5% based on your use of perfect basic strategy, your predicted hourly loss is only $10 per hour.
Compare that with an average slot machine, which has a house edge of at least 6%. (I’m being generous, too.) The average slot machine player makes at least 600 spins per hour, and you might be betting $1.25 per spin on an average machine.
That’s $750 in hourly action, and the casino projects that you’ll lose 6% of that, or $45.
And keep in mind that you’re betting 20 times as much money per bet on the blackjack game.
Are slot machines really 4.5 times as entertaining as blackjack?
I don’t think so.
5- Why Baccarat Might Be the Most Underrated Game in the Casino
I’m obviously a fan of blackjack with its low house edge.
But the only way to achieve that low house edge is by playing the game perfectly.
Baccarat, on the other hand, requires no strategy other than avoiding the bad bets.
Since the house edge on the banker bet is only 1.06%, the correct strategy for baccarat is to just bet on the banker repeatedly. Anyone can remember that.
Besides that, baccarat is little more than a coin toss every hand.
You have a roughly 50/50 chance of winning, and nothing you do has any effect on the outcome.
You’ll find plenty of superstitious players at the baccarat table recording scores and results from previous hands, but you already know better than that, right?
After all, I covered how every bet is an independent event at almost all casino games.
The only real drawback to baccarat is that it’s usually played for high stakes. If you’re a committed low roller, you can probably find mini-baccarat games that are more suited to your needs.
6- How to Win at Gambling Games Without Cheating
When it comes to casino games, you can’t get a mathematical, long-term edge at them without cheating.
This doesn’t mean you can’t win.
In fact, the casino is counting on you to win at least some of the time in the short run. If no one ever won at a casino game, no one would play.
How do you maximize your chances of walking away from a negative expectation game with some winnings in your pocket?
The Law of Large Numbers suggests that the bigger the dataset gets, the likelier it is that your actual results will resemble the theoretically predicted results.
In other words, if you’re playing a game where the house has an edge, your best shot at winning is to get in and get out as fast as you can.
The example I always like to point out is roulette. Let’s say your goal is to double your money. The best way to achieve that goal is to place one big bet of your entire bankroll and then walk away.
The probability of winning an even-money bet at the roulette table is 47.37% under the American rules that are so common in Las Vegas casinos.
If you place 2 bets half the size of your bankroll, you have to win both bets to double your money. The probability of winning both bets is 47.37% X 47.37%, or 22.44%.
Would you rather have a close to 50% chance of doubling your money, or would you rather have a less than 25% chance?
And the more bets you make, the harder it gets to win enough to double your money.
This is an example of something I call “The Maximum Boldness Strategy.”
On the other hand, you can get an edge at some gambling activities without having to cheat. These include:
- Blackjack – If you count cards or use some other kind of advantage play technique.
- Horse Betting – Handicapping horse races is a time-honored method for gambling with an edge, but it requires a lot of know-how and skill. Most tracks take such a large percentage of the prize pool that you need to be really good at this to make a profit.
- Poker – If you play in poker games with other players—rather than versus the casino—you can get an edge at poker by being the most skilled player at the table. But you have to be good enough to overcome the rake. For most people, I think poker offers the best chance of gambling with an edge.
- Sports Betting – You have to win 53% or more of your bets to profit in the long run, and even the best sports bettors only boast of a win percentage of a little more than 55%.
- Video Poker – If you play with perfect strategy on the games with the best pay tables AND take advantage of the perks of being in the slots club.
You might be able to find other gambling activities where you can win without cheating, but those are the main ones.
7- Why You Should Learn How to Play Poker
I mentioned in my last point how you could get an edge at poker mathematically by becoming more skilled than the other players at the table.
That’s not the only reason to learn to play poker. The game offers multiple opportunities to learn about yourself and other people.
Becoming good at poker improves your math skills. That can help you in almost any other endeavor, but it’s especially important in the world of personal finance.
Becoming good at poker also improves your people skills. I don’t know of any area of life where having a better handle on why people do what they do isn’t helpful.
Besides all that, poker is a lot of fun. You can make money and have fun at the same time. It’s also one of the best personal development activities I can think of.
Everyone should learn how to play poker.
8- Blackjack Strategy and Why It Matters
If I had to pick one casino game for you to play, it would be blackjack.
I have 2 reasons for this:
- The decisions you make matter. In most other casino games, you have no decisions to make that affect your outcome. In blackjack, making good decisions improves your odds.
- The house edge is lower than almost any other game. Of course, this requires using perfect basic strategy.
Let’s talk for a minute about basic strategy.
That’s just shorthand for the correct mathematical decision in every possible situation at the blackjack table. Basic strategy accounts for the cards in your hand and the dealer’s up-card.
You can buy small laminated basic strategy cards in any casino gift shop.
Or you can just memorize basic strategy. It’s not hard.
If you’re going to gamble anyway, you might as well get the most entertainment you can for your money. With a house edge of well under 1%, blackjack is the best game in the casino for this purpose.
But don’t just rely on your hunches.
If you’re not using basic strategy, you’re probably giving 2% or more back to the casino.
You don’t need to do that.
In fact, if you’re going to do that, you might as well just play some other casino game.
9- Getting the Most Out of Your Next Trip to Las Vegas
You can find more to do in Las Vegas than play casino games. The city has cool museums (like the Mob Museum and the Atomic Energy Museum.) You can also see all kinds of shows (like Penn & Teller and Legends in Concert). And the dining is unreal.
You can save money by learning when to travel to Las Vegas. Hotel stay prices go way up on Friday and Saturday nights. Conventions can also have a huge effect on prices. The best time to go is in December right after the end of the rodeo finals and before the Christmas and New Years rush.
You can find coupons and deals for just about anything in Vegas, but if you’re a gambler, you should consider joining the slots club at the casino. The casinos love giving people free stuff just to encourage them to gamble.
If you’re good at blackjack or video poker, you can get enough value back in comps to get a close-to-break-even deal.
10- Why You Should Also Learn How to Play Craps
If I could choose a 2nd casino game for you to learn how to play, it would be craps. If you avoid the sucker bets—which are most of them—craps offers some of the best odds in the casino.
And unlike blackjack, craps doesn’t require you to know any kind of strategy or make any decisions other than which bets to place.
And since the best bets at the craps tables are the most basic bets, you shouldn’t have trouble making the right decisions.
Most importantly, craps is just plain more fun than any other game in the casino. When a shooter gets on a hot streak, you’ll see people screaming and jumping up and down.
You don’t experience the kind of excitement you see at the craps table elsewhere in the casino.
Gambling games are a lot of fun, but they’re even more fun if you understand some of the math behind the games. This math gives the casino a clear, long-term edge, but understanding what that edge is and how big it is could be considered the 1st step in becoming a savvy gambler.
As long as you understand what’s really going on when you’re gambling, you’re ahead of 90% of the other gamblers out there.