Last year, a major casino company released the results of an extensive survey of the American public’s views on gambling. One of the questions asked was, ãWhy do you gamble?ä The top two responses were and ãsocial interaction.ä Coming in a distant third was ãto win.ä Is having fun more important to gamblers than winning?
Not a chance!
Survey or no survey, I’ll lay you 3-to-1 that most gamblers would happily choose playing alone with a grumpy dealer and winning, over being at the friendliest table in the universe where they’re losing two out of every three hands. When you’re winning, entertainment and social interaction take care of themselves.
If winning is good, then winning big is better and winning consistently is best. Consistent winners are rare, to be sure, but they are real. And anyone who’s developed the gambling expertise necessary to win consistently is a candidate to go to the nextsome might say the ultimatelevel: the professional gambler.
Making a living as a gambler is a romantic, exciting prospect that’s no doubt crossed the mind of anyone who’s ever walked away from a gambling table with a fistful of chips. And guess whatit can be done. But you’d better think double hard before making this career move; gambling for your paycheck is a seriously tough way to pay the rent. I’ve heard many ligaz888 gamblers claim to be professionals. Upon inspection, though, the claims are rarely supportable. As the term implies, a professional gambler earns his living by gambling. He doesn’t supplement his bankroll with a paycheck from his day job. Gambling is his day job. In its most primitive form, gambling professionally is a grueling, hand-to-mouth existence. In its most highly developed state, it’s a frenetic world of mathematics, computer analysis, training, travel, subterfuge, contacts, contracts, and self-employment taxes.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to lecture you on the imprudence of trading your 9-to-5 routine and a guaranteed paycheck for the uncertainty of a gambler’s life. But it would be irresponsible of me not to at least touch on the basic demanding prerequisites and a few of the potential pitfalls associated with this line of work.
This article does not address gambling skills or strategy. But I hope you realize that you have to be able to beat the games before you can even think about trying to make a living from them. I’ve found that many successful gamblers play all games well. If you were the kid who always won at Monopoly and Risk, you probably possess the requisite skills. That’s not enough, though. You’ll have to develop the specific expertise necessary to win at the gambling game(s) you choose to play. Obtaining this knowledge and developing these skills is hard work. It demands the same commitment to study and practice that you would devote to learning any other trade or money-making skill.
Numbers are the foundation of gambling, so you need to possess a certain mathematical aptitude. You must be able to remember strategy tables and run numbers in your head. You must also have analytical skills. Not for playingwith the exception of poker, rote recall is usually all you need during actual play. Rather, analysis is required for evaluating the myriad gambling options and determining the best strategy before you play. You don’t have to own a Ph.D. in mathematics, but a working knowledge of algebra and a fundamental understanding of probability theory are very important. The ability to solve combinatorial problems is a big plus.
Another essential is money. If you’re not sufficiently financed, your efforts will be wasted. Once you’ve identified (or engineered) an advantage, gambling earnings are directly related to how much you bet. You might be the best card counter in Las Vegas, but if you can only afford to make $5 and $10 bets, you won’t clear minimum wage. How much money do you need to start? Among other considerations, it depends on the games you play, how much you want to earn, and the standard of living you’re accustomed to. I’d say the minimum buy-in is $10,000, and that’s cutting it close. Some of the most talented potential pros I’ve ever seen are back working in the real world because they were undercapitalized in their initial gambling forays and found themselves stopped out of the game by a run of bad luck.
You’ll need endurance and dedication to putting in the time. If you don’t get out and play, you can’t earn. In that respect, gambling for a living is little different than punching a time clock. Flexible hours are a benefit of the biz, but that freedom makes strong self-motivation (to get out and work) a must for the gambling pro.
Gambling is boring; many players are surprised by the drudgery that goes with the long hours. Sure, you feel like you want to play around the clock when you’re out on a vacation. But when you have to do it to pay the grocery bill, playing the games for hours on end gets tedious. To get a feel for the monotony, check out a new book called Las Vegas Blackjack Diary, by Stuart Perry (ConJelco), which chronicles the author’s eight-week stint as a card counter. You’ll conclude very quickly that this job is not exciting. Nor is it romantic; the ability to prop yourself up in front of a video poker machine for 36 hours straight probably won’t drive someone of the opposite sex mad for you.
And, finally, you must be emotionally prepared to deal with unfathomable bankroll swings and the consternation of the casinos. When you lose, the casinos don’t care about you, but when you win, you’ll feel the heat. To casino bosses, you’re a pirate, no matter how gentlemanly you conduct yourself.
Are you still dreaming of a major-league career? Then let’s get down to the nitty-gritty,namely, which games can be played with a long-term advantage. The list of potentially beatable games is a short one, made up of blackjack, poker, video poker, sports betting, and, in some instances, race betting. That’s it, folks. The dice system that worked so well on your last three visits won’t hold up over time. Your fancy theories on roulette? Forget Îem. All casino games other than those listed above come under the category of ãunbeatable,ä and are ignored by professionals (except under special circumstances, as you’ll see).
You’ll need to master the strategies that have been developed by mathematicians and computer scientists for beating these games. A new book, How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, addresses many of these strategies and is a good starting point for those interested in the techniques the pros use to beat the games. (The books just mentioned are available from Huntington Press, 800-244-2224).
Most gambling professionals concentrate on learning one or two of the games. They learn every nuance of play and operate as specialistsblackjack specialist, poker specialist, and so forth. But they also keep an eye peeled for off-beat profit opportunities, ways to beat the games that are ordinarily unbeatable. This becomes possible when additional variables are introduced into the mix. Here’s where things get interesting. All of the following offer profit potential, and thus are constantly monitored by professionals.
Any game played in a tournament format is potentially profitable. The reason is that the game itself becomes no more than a vehicle for obtaining the objectivethe big tournament prize. Losses from a $1,000 buy-in in a negative-expectation game like baccarat are inconsequential compared to a six- or even seven-figure first prize. Your competition is no longer the casino, it’s the other players. You don’t have to beat the game, you simply have to play it better than the other entrants. Tournaments are enormously profitable for experts. The problem is, they’re time consuming, they embody huge swings of capital, and they’re difficult to play with enough regularity to support a career.
Any game with a progressive meter attached to it is potentially beatable. Keno is an excellent example. I’ve seen this worst of all gambling games become profitable on many occasions compliments of a runaway meter. In 1995, an 8-spot keno progressive at the Rio rose above $225,000, giving players a 12 percent advantage on every ticket played. Professionals came in and fired hundreds of tickets at a time chasing the ãoverlay.ä The jackpot was eventually hit at $234,000 by a syndicate of pros that had reportedly spent $80,000 playing up to that point. Over the years, I’ve seen hundreds of progressives cross into favorable territory in games like video poker, keno, slots and Caribbean Stud.
Any time a casino fiddles with the games or the payouts, there’s potential for profit. Probably the most potent dollar-per-hour opportunities I’ve seen have come from ill-conceived promotions, upon which pros pounce whenever they surface. It’s like old-home week at the best ones, as players who haven’t seen each other in years enjoy a giant social event while they’re making a buck. I remember thinking, the first time I encountered a really profitable casino promotion, that I’d never see anything as good again. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Promotions continue to show up year after, with opportunities that are bigger and better.
Coupons are little more than low-level promotions. Many entry-level pros count heavily on coupon income during lean times.
Most casino mistakes manifest themselves in ill-conceived promotions, but sometimes they’re just mistakes. The biggest mistake I’ve ever run across that wasn’t connected to a promotion was at the Continental in Las Vegas, where a mislabeled keno brochure offered payoffs that resulted in a 20 percent player advantage on a $2 6-spot. The brochures were corrected after a group of pros betting hundreds of combinations per ticket hit two 6-spots in one game for a $27,000 return.
One of the best ways to beat the casinos out of money on a non-professional level is by exploiting the complimentary system. Do pros take comps? Some don’t, because they don’t want to give up information about themselves. Many do; complimentary meals and lodging go a long way toward defraying the costs of doing business, especially if you live somewhere other than where you are playing. Max Rubin, author of Comp City and a veteran blackjack pro, suggests that partaking of the comps that come with the territory is one of the great pleasures of professional play. I agree.
Any game can be beaten by cheating. Every pro has had to deal with the temptation, whether he’s figured out a move of his own or been approached by someone else. I’ve known some fabulous players who’ve derailed their careers with a jail term. Take a pass.
The hierarchy of gambling professionals is complicated. Most new pros enter the game at the lowest level. They work alone and take their lumps as they learn the ropes and come to grips with the hard realities of fluctuating bankrolls. If you want to experience the meaning of the word ãdemoralized,ä work a 10-hour day and come home with $500 less than you left with. These ãscufflers,ä as they’re known in the Las Vegas lingo, discover quickly that the racket is too tough to take on alone, and partnerships (with other scufflers) are usually forged early.
This is the make-or-break stage. If you hook up with the right people, you can begin to ascend the hierarchy. As you, or your group (or team), build your reputations, you gain levels faster. Successful pros like to associate with other successful pros, so the better you do early, the more valuable the contacts you make while scuffling at the lower echelons will be. Hooking up with the more experienced pros can save you years of toiling in the minor leagues. This is where you learn the real secrets of beating the games. And this is where you begin tapping into the all-important ãinformation pipelineä (see sidebar).
Suddenly, things begin to resemble a real business. Considerations of accounting, return on investment, cash flow and risk enter the picture. If the people you affiliate with are in a similar financial position as you, the business will function as a partnership in most respects. Often, though, one of the entities will have more assets, making it necessary for deals to be cut differently. Now distinctions between investor and player shares (of the profits) must be made, and negotiations concerning percentages for players often hinge on an assessment of their playing abilities.
Up the road, the information pipeline is expanded. New recruits may be brought in. More time is spent analyzing the relative merits of various gambling endeavors and the team becomes more efficient by choosing only the best options to pursue. The financial warchests of the successful groups can become quite impressive. Those that do it right use 1099s to keep things straight with the IRS.
Do many teams reach this point? You’d probably be surprised how many do. But we’re still not at the highest level.
At the top of the hierarchy, the level of sophistication, both gambling-wise and business-wise, is incredible. These groups employ attorneys and accountants and give their ãemployeesä benefits. Business plans are drawn, company directors are appointed, and profit sharing is instituted. One group has its own toll-free telephone number so associates can check in easily from anywhere in the world. These are multi-million dollar operations.
What you really want to know, no doubt, is how much money can be made. Again, profits are a function of how much you are able to bet. Most individuals and members of small groups make between $20,000 and $50,000 per year. For talented, dedicated players, the $100,000 per year claim in the title of the Sklansky/Malmuth book mentioned earlier is not out of line. The games of choice at this level tend to be blackjack, poker, and video poker (see the new column by Bob Dancer in this issue for more about playing video poker as a pro).
The average yearly per-person take for members of the bigger blackjack teams or sports betting syndicates often exceed $250,000. The ultra-sophisticated corporate-type operations win millions per year, the lion’s share of which goes to the founders and early participants.
So now it’s time for the $64,000 question. If the potential to make so much money is there, why aren’t more people doing it? Let me say it once more: the playing skills are difficult to develop and the lifestyle is even more difficult to maintain. But there’s a much greater deterrent. Truth is, the majority of people who have the ability to make money gambling can make a lot more money doing other things. While the amount you can earn gambling is high, it’s almost never unlimited; competition from others and the inevitable reluctance of casinos to accept your action are powerful limiting forces. Many of the brilliant minds I’ve known from the gambling world eventually moved on to other challenges like the stock market or businesses with higher upside potential.