What Is Professional Gambling?

Colored Casino Chips, Guy Wearing Suit and Tie
What is professional gambling? First of all, it means earning your livelihood from gambling activities.

These betting activities might include betting on sports, playing poker, or any US casino games. This requires getting a mathematical edge when placing bets.

My plan with this post is to cover some of the subtleties of professional gambling by looking at some of the possible roads leading to this career. I’m also going to dispel some myths about pro gamblers.

If you’re under the impression that professional gamblers career from one fancy party to the next with a beautiful model on each arm, you’re likely to be disappointed by the reality of the gambling profession. Professional gamblers don’t spend all their time eating at fancy restaurants with supermodels.

In fact, they spend an obscene amount of time studying math and finding ways to put the odds in their favor. Neither task is easy. Keep reading below to learn more about professional gambling.

What You Think You Know About Pro Gambling Is Wrong

If you’ve seen movies like 21 or Two for the Money, you probably have a distorted perception of what professional gambling is like. 21 is based on a heavily fictionalized book, Bringing Down the House, by Ben Mezrich. I don’t even know how it got categorized as nonfiction.

Two for the Money is an entertaining look at the tout industry, but it’s ludicrous. In comparison, The Lord of the Rings movies aren’t as filled with fantasy as Two for the Money. In real life, tout services are some of the sleaziest businesses you can give your money to.

Card Counting Is One Way to Become a Professional Gambler

I don’t mean to give you the impression that people can’t make a living playing blackjack, though. Blackjack card counting might be one of the easier ways to start learning about advantage gambling.

What’s advantage gambling? It’s using techniques and loopholes in the rules of a casino game to get a mathematical edge while you play.

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In almost every gambling activity, you operate at a mathematical disadvantage. This is true of ALL casino games, most poker games, and most sports betting activities.

With casino games, the casino has an edge because they schedule their payout odds to be lower than your odds of winning. With poker games, the house takes a 5% rake from every pot. With sports betting, the bookmaker has you risk $110 for every $100 you stand to win.

For now, let’s focus our discussion on getting an edge at blackjack.

The first thing to understand about blackjack is that the house has an edge because it makes you play your hand first. If you go bust, it doesn’t matter what kind of result the house has. You’ve already lost your money. This is true even if the casino goes bust, too.

Blackjack Table, Ace of Hearts, Jack of Spades

But blackjack has some distinct qualities which make it a possibility for an advantage gambler.

For one thing, the house edge is tiny, especially if you’re playing in the right games. The house edge in some blackjack games in the US, if you play with perfect strategy, might be as low as 0.4%.

For another, the composition of the deck of cards changes as the cards are dealt. Imagine a roulette wheel where a number gets blacked out once it got hit. If, for example, the ball lands on a red spot and that number gets filled in, the odds of getting a red result just got lower.

If that happened twice or three times in a row, it would be smart to bet on black. Your odds of winning would improve.

Of course, that’s not how roulette works. Every spin of the wheel is an independent event, and it’s impossible to get an edge at roulette by looking at what happened on previous spins.

But in blackjack, once a card is dealt, it’s gone until the deck gets re-shuffled.

The Payouts in Blackjack Are How You Get an Edge

The payout when you win in blackjack is even money, with one exception. If you get a blackjack (also called a natural), you get paid off at 3 to 2.

A blackjack is a two-card hand totaling 21. It always consists of a 10 and an ace.

If a deck has more aces and 10s in it compared to other cards, you have a higher probability of getting that bigger payout.

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If you increase the size of your bets in those situations, and reduce the size of your bets in other situations, you can flip that 0.4% edge on its head.

In fact, card counters can get an edge of between 0.5% and 2% over the casino. This doesn’t mean they know what the next card will be. It doesn’t mean they’ve memorized the deck.

It just means they’ve kept a rough accounting of high cards (10s and aces) versus low cards (2s through 6s) and increased their bets when there are a proportionally higher number of aces and 10s in the deck.

One of the Big Problems With Counting Cards

The problem with most advantage gambling techniques is also one of the biggest problems with counting cards—you’re not guaranteed to win.

Since gambling games like blackjack are games of chance, you can do everything right and still have huge losing streaks. If you don’t have a big enough bankroll to weather those losing streaks, you can go broke before your edge ever kicks in.

Many people don’t have enough faith in their skills or in the laws of probability to stick with it.

On the other hand, some people get on hot streaks and overestimate how good they are. You can be a lousy card counter and get lucky repeatedly. Eventually, your lack of skill will result in massive losses, though, and you’ll be scratching your head wondering what happened.

Group of People and Casino Dealer at Blackjack Table, Dealer Hand Placing Chips on Blackjack Table

In other words, professional gamblers see wins and losses just like other gamblers do, but their overall trajectory through time is upward rather than downward. Imagine a line graph with a crooked upward trend. That’s what the earnings of a real professional gambler looks like.

An average recreational gambler will often see a winning session only 20% to 40% of the time, depending on luck and how well they play which games. Even gamblers who enjoy playing casino slot games walk away winners 20% of the time. Blackjack players who know how to use basic strategy might walk away winners 40% of the time.

But a professional gambler might have winning sessions 60% of the time. Sure, that sounds great, but when you’re losing during 40% of your sessions, it’s easy to get discouraged and think you’re doing something wrong.

Other Ways to Gamble Professionally

I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time talking about card counting, but I think it’s an interesting perspective into professional gambling.

A few years ago, I read a book about professional gambling written by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth. It was called How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living.

In that book, they list some of the ways you can gamble with an edge. They include:

  1. Blackjack
  2. Horse betting
  3. Sports betting
  4. Poker

I think they mentioned a couple of other possibilities, but those were the most realistic ones. Of those, they suggested that becoming a professional sports bettor was the most profitable way to be a professional gambler.

I think poker is a legitimate avenue toward making a living as a pro, too.

But I should point out that most people, my readers included, aren’t up to the task of gambling for a living. It requires more self-discipline and introspection than most of us are capable of.

Statistics seem to bear that out. I’ve done some reading about the percentage of poker players who actually show a profit after a year of playing.

The number is about 5%, which means that 19 out of 20 poker players lose money at the tables.

Unless you’re keeping detailed records, you’re probably one of those losers, too, even if you think you’re breaking even or winning small amounts regularly.

Professional gambling requires an amount of humility that most of us just don’t have.

Conclusion

Professional gambling is a real thing. Some people really do earn their livelihood from their gambling activities. Some of them are blackjack players who count cards. Others play poker for a living, and others gamble on sports. All of them have a few things in common.

The most important of these things is their refusal to bet money without a real mathematical edge. A real professional gambler insists on having an advantage before placing a bet.

They also take a hard, cold, realistic view of the results of their gambling activities. It’s impossible to make a living as a gambler unless you’re willing to face the real facts of your situation.