You’ll occasionally run into someone who learns that you’re a gambling writer. They’ll usually have a similar set of questions, but the one that always surprises me is, what is gambling?
Sometimes it’s a variation of that. I was having a cigar with some buddies yesterday, in fact, and they were discussing having a poker game at the cigar lounge. They suggested gambling for cigars instead of money, and they wanted to know if that would still be considered gambling (I’m in Texas, so there are laws related to gambling that you need to consider).
The other question that I get asked is about how to win at gambling. Everyone always wants to know what the best ways to win at various gambling activities are.
They usually want confirmation that their strategy with a specific game is the right one.
I usually can’t provide that confirmation, because their strategy is often terrible.
I’ll start be defining gambling then looking at 7 examples of gambling and which strategies might work if you want to be a winner.
What Is Gambling?
Gambling isn’t complicated. It just means risking money (or something else of value) on the outcome of a game or activity.
For example, pitching pennies is a type of gambling, albeit for low stakes. You pitch pennies toward a wall, and the person who winds up with his penny closest to the wall at the end of the game wins all the pennies.
Bingo is another kind of gambling. You buy a bingo card, everyone else does, too, and whoever’s running the game puts that into a prize pool. Your goal is to win that prize by matching a pattern of letters and numbers on your bingo card.
I’ll spend the rest of this post with mini-essays about the virtues of various strategies for specific types of gambling.
1- Betting on Sports
You’re betting on sports any time you wager money on the outcome of a sporting event. For many Americans, this means you’ve put money on a football game. You might bet on the outcome of a game with a buddy with a friendly wager, but you’re equally as likely to bet with someone who books action on games for a living.
Such a business is called a bookmaking operation. In the USA, bookmakers are called “bookies,” and they’re operating outside the law. This doesn’t make them bad people. Most of the bookies I know are sweet people who pay out winnings in a timely manner.
My favorite bone-headed strategy for winning at sports betting is to pay someone (an “expert”) to make your picks for you.
But think about this:
And the bookmakers set this spread at a number which theoretically makes a bet on the game a 50/50 proposition.
Literally anyone can claim to be an expert handicapper and get 50% of their picks correct just by choosing teams at random. I read a story about one tout who asked his 5 year old daughter for his picks all season.
He won over 65% of his picks that year.
This is just and example of standard deviation, though.
Don’t buy sports picks. It just increases the winning percentage you need to achieve to break even over time, and the expert handicappers probably aren’t as expert as you think.
2- Slot Machines
A slot machine is a gambling machine in a casino with spinning reels with symbols on each reel. These are usually virtual reels on a video screen now, although some games still have physical reels. The outcomes for these slot machines are determined by computer programs called random number generator programs. The reels are just for show.
Casinos are in the business of making a profit, so they set up the math behind these games in a way that they can average a profit. They do this by having winning combinations with a certain probability of winning. They then pay those bets off at odds lower than the odds of winning.
You might have another combination on that machine that comes up 10% of the time, and it might pay off at 2 for 1 odds.
But that combination only wins 1 out of 10 times, giving that combination a huge advantage for the house, too.
My favorite strategy for winning at slot machines was from a friend of mine in the real estate business.
She told me that she sits at the exact same slot machine every time she visits the casino, because eventually it’s bound to pay her off.
That’s not how it works. Every spin of the reels is an independent event. The slot machine has no memory of previous spins.
No strategy can beat a slot machine, save cheating.
And that’s a whole other blog post.
Blackjack is an example of a casino game played with standard playing cards. Your goal is to get a higher total than the dealer without going over 21.
It’s a comparing game, and you compare the number of points your hand has with the number of points the dealer has.
You compete with the casino, never the other players. Even in tournament blackjack, the outcome of each hand is determined by how your hand compares to the dealer’s.
This doesn’t account for the simple fact that you have to play your cards before the dealer does. If you bust – get a total of 22 or higher – you lose immediately, regardless of how the dealer’s hand goes.
Poker is a gambling game using cards where you compete with the other players at the table. It’s one of the unusual gambling activities where you can actually get an edge if you’re skilled enough.
Poker is a whole category of games that includes draw poker, stud poker, and holdem poker. Each of those subcategories has specific games that fall into those categories – for example, there’s 5 card stud and 7 card stud, Texas holdem and Omaha.
Poker is one of those rare gambling games where you can get a mathematical edge. The problem is that most people overestimate their ability to get that edge.
The best information I’ve been able to find suggests that fewer than 5% of poker players are profitable in the long run.
Most players think they’re good at poker.
Some of them are good.
But the overwhelming majority of poker players aren’t good enough to overcome the rake. That’s the 5% fee that the cardroom removes from each pot to pay for the space you’re playing in.
If you stick with home poker games without a rake, you’ll probably do a lot better in the long run.
5- Video Poker
Video poker is my favorite alternative to slot machines. It’s still a gambling machine, but you can make decisions during the game that affect the outcome. This makes it a more intellectually stimulating exercise than just watching spinning reels and wondering where they’ll land.
Video poker also offers better odds than slot machines. You can also calculate the odds of winning in a video poker game, because the probability of getting certain results are based on a 52-card deck of playing cards.
Most people don’t play video poker as well as they think, and even if they did, most video poker games don’t have generous enough pay tables to offer the smart player an edge.
And the video poker games where you can get an edge are usually low-stakes games. Even if you could play perfectly and get a long-term advantage, you couldn’t make much money on an hourly basis because of the low stakes.
Craps is my favorite casino game, even though it has no skill element at all. You roll the dice and hope to get a winning result, or you bet on how well someone else does when they roll the dice.
One of the interesting things about craps is the variety of bets available. In some casino games, like roulette, you have multiple bets you can place, but they all have the same house edge. In the case of roulette, it doesn’t matter which bet you place, the house edge is 5.26%. (There’s an exception, but there’s only one, and it’s the 5-number bet, which has a 7.89% house edge.)
But in craps, almost every bet has a different set of odds. Of course, only a few of those bets are worth making compared to the other ones, but those bets (pass, don’t pass, come, don’t come, and odds) all have a house edge of 1.41% or lower.
But some of the other bets at the craps table have a house edge of 16% or more.
The lamest strategy I can think of for craps is the idea that you can control where the dice land. I’ve seen some gambling writers I respect suggest that this isn’t as nonsensical as it sounds, but I remain skeptical.
The first casino game I ever played was roulette. The odds are lousy – a 5.26% house edge is too high, especially when you compare it to games like blackjack or craps, both of which have a house edge of closer to 1%.
But roulette is a slow game, and if you place the right bets, you can play a low volatility game without a lot of hourly outlay.
The Martingale System is the most popular means of trying to beat roulette. Using this system, you double the size of every bet after a loss. This system usually breaks when you hit a bigger losing streak than you thought possible.
Those are just 7 examples of gambling and the ways people try to win at these activities.
If you noticed nothing else in this post, I hope you noticed this:
It’s not easy to win at gambling in the long run.