Every now and then I get a question from a friend, a reader, or a stranger at the casino, and answering it reveals some deep truths about gambling, and I just know I have to write about it. Las Vegas Visitors and Conventions Association says the average gambler “spends” $134 a day – here spend is a euphemism for lose.
When people say, “I always lose at the casino,” or “casino games are rigged” or whatever, I have to stifle a chuckle. To me, the reasons behind these complaints are so obvious. To people unfamiliar with gambling, or people who just drop into a casino without any preparation or experience, it seems like they’ve just been scammed.
You lose when you go to the casino because that’s the way the casino is designed. Gambling is a form of entertainment. Providing that entertainment is expensive. Somebody has to keep the lights on, pay the salaries of the staff and entertainers, and make sure the machines run properly.
Casino game odds are stacked in favor of the host of the game – that’s a natural consequence of the business. Winnings don’t equal the risk to chase them, so the casino has a built-in advantage, and there’s nothing you can legally do to get around that.
This post is designed to explain to people frustrated or confused by a losing casino experience just why they feel like they’re losing every time they gamble.
The Cost of Gambling is an Entertainment Expense
Few of us expect to walk onto a golf course and start playing without paying somebody for the privilege. The same goes for a bar – you can’t walk in, pour yourself a pitcher, and sit back and watch the game without some exchange of currency.
It’s funny to me that people expect to win money every time they gamble. If casinos made everyone a winner, they’d never make any money, they’d never attract investments or be taken seriously as corporations, and they’d never even conceive of operating at a loss to begin with.
Of course, there’s no expectation of winnings at Disney. At least spending that $5,000 as a blackjack bankroll could ostensibly lead to profit.
When you reframe your gambling bankroll as a luxury entertainment expense, you start to think differently about your money. Dropping that entertainment expense means taking advantage of casino comps and other freebies offered by casinos, managing your bankroll to get the most bets out of your budget, and gravitating towards games with the best odds like video poker and blackjack.
The $134 a day that Las Vegas says people lose gambling every day is what they’re spending for the experience of gambling in Las Vegas casinos. It’s become something of a tradition for young people recently of drinking age to make a sort of pilgrimage to Las Vegas. Indeed, big swaths of modern Vegas are attuned to and aimed at people in this very demographic.
Maintaining all that gilded furniture and all those bright lights and neon signs isn’t cheap. Casinos pass those costs on to you in the form of game odds.
Casino Games are Designed to Make Money
Outside of a very few specific circumstances, no game on the casino floor gives you an expectation of profit. That means the casino has an advantage that shaves away small portions of your bankroll on every bet.
In short, if the casino’s edge is 10%, you should anticipate 10% losses every time you place that bet. A classic example of how casinos guarantee an edge is the black/red bet in roulette.
On a 38-number American roulette wheel, each number has 1/38 odds of hitting. 18 of the numbers are black, another 18 are red, and two are green. Each bet on black or red has about a 47.37% chance of paying out, thanks to those two green spaces. The difference between the payout for a winning black/red bet (1:1) and your odds of winning that black/red bet (1.11:1) represents the casino’s edge for that bet.
Because the payout doesn’t match the real odds of winning, you’re never able to overcome the house advantage, and over time you’ll lose money on this bet.
Casinos don’t have to rig roulette in order for the game to produce a guaranteed profit – that profit is baked into the game’s design.
If you could find a roulette game that paid out 1.11:1 for an even-money bet like black/red, you should absolutely play that game. No casino has ever or will ever offer this game, but hypothetically, it would be a solid choice. You could make black/red bets all day and have an even expectation – of course, that still means that you’d be just as likely to lose as to win over the long term.
You Don’t Actually Lose All the Time, Though, Do You?
There are three possible outcomes for most forms of gambling – you lose, you tie or push, or you win. Regardless of what game you’re playing, you can categorize every round of blackjack or slots or whatever according to one of those three descriptors.
To truly “lose all the time” would mean to never have a single win. Imagine playing a slot machine that never hit, not a small hit, not a bonus game, nothing. That would be frustrating, boring, and nobody would play it. I highly doubt you’ve ever played a slot that’s “never” paid you any prize.
I think what people mean when they say they “never win” is that they always end up going through their entire bankroll.
I also think what people are complaining about is the difference between game odds and payouts. If I’m spending $5 a spin on a slot machine, a $1.25 hit isn’t going to mean much to me, but it’s by far the most common kind of winning result I’m going to experience.
There’s only one machine in Vegas where you can put money in and expect the same amount of money out – it’s the bill changer, and it doesn’t have a lot in the way of player-friendly features. Plus, I never make a profit – I always just break even.
Bad joke, but there’s a point to it. Having fun at the casino means, somehow, enjoying those tiny wins, and celebrating them as much as you can. That $1.25 win on a $5-per-spin game means you just won ¼ of a future spin that may end up paying you off big money.
Enjoying your gambling bankroll more usually means re-thinking and re-framing things in that manner.
Every Gambling Loss is the Cost of Gambling
It’s easy to only consider short-term results. Our brains are designed to find patterns, especially in the short term. Winning five blackjack hands in a row makes you feel like a winner and encourages you to bet more. Paradoxically, losing five blackjack hands in a row makes you feel DUE to win, and thus encourages you to spend even more.
Casinos have found the perfect trigger for the human mind’s tendency to find patterns and seek short-term rewards. Think of the slot machine as a low-dose dopamine dispensary.
Another fun way to reframe your bankroll – think of losses as literally the cost of continuing to gamble. Every losing spin of a slot machine supports the machine’s ability to offer you more spins in the future. This is quite literally true if you’re playing a progressive slot game, the top jackpot of which depends on continued regular play after losing rounds.
Money is a funny thing. Store cash in a shoebox and, over enough time, it first loses value thanks to inflation, then gains value as a valuable antique or rare collectible. No financial investment, not even the opening of a bank account, is entirely without risk. Gambling is a high-risk activity, mainly because it occasionally offers a seriously high reward in the form of millions of dollars.
People who ask why they always lose when they gamble in a casino don’t really want to hear the truth – that they made a deal with the casino when they placed the first bet. That deal goes like this – in exchange for the chance to win a lot of money, we’re going to entertain you, and you may end up having to pay the market price for it.
Heading into the casino with money you can afford to lose and the mindset that what you’re really paying for is luxury entertainment could be the difference between leaving grumpy and leaving having had a relaxing and entertaining evening.
Winning in the casino is a rare and wonderful thing. Casinos sponsor their winners by taking money from their losing guests. Sometimes, you’re that winner. Most of the time, by design, you have to be the loser.