11 Gambling Lessons Learned from 20 Years Spent at Casinos

by Michael Stevens
on October 5, 2016

You can’t go back and undo the mistakes you have made in the past or repeat your solo successes. All you can do is spend an occasional moment reflecting on what life has tried to teach you and make an effort to learn those lessons.

The first time I walked into a casino I was both amazed and unimpressed. I was amazed by all the sounds of the slot machines and I was unimpressed by the architecture. That was a temporary casino on a Native American reservation in the hot dusty west. It almost had a saloon like atmosphere with the cigarette smoke, the dark ceiling, and the droves of cowboys and their women (or guys who wanted to be cowboys and their wives) sitting around pulling levers on slot machines.

There were nights when the cigarette smoke was so thick you had to step outside for a breath of fresh air. There were times when, as you raked gold tokens (we called them “coins”) out of the coin trays in the slot machines, you looked at your fingers and saw they were dirty, grimy, black and stank of odors you could not identify. I washed my hands often in those days, a habit I have not quite lost even in modern “clean” casinos.

I won and lost a lot of money in the casinos. I had fun and I found myself wondering why I would spend 12 hours on a Saturday playing games that just wanted to take my money. Somewhere along the way I learned a few of those lessons life wanted to teach me. Here is what I can share with you.

1. Never Gamble Alone

You might think this is about safety or switching out places at a table or a slot machine but that isn’t the point of always gambling with someone you know. When you are alone you have no one to share your good mood with so you turn to the stranger next to you and awkwardly try to share his or her good mood. Sometimes they react well to the intrusion. Maybe they were just waiting for a chance to engage you in conversation. Some people are very social in casinos but some people look at you like they would prefer to shoot you.

When you have a friend or a family member there you can relax and be yourself and say anything that comes to mind and you know they won’t call security over and whisper into their ears fearfully.

After you have spent six hours on the floor you’ll understand the need to say something to someone, to wake up and be social and to remember that you have a life beyond those walls that you’ll return to.  When you gamble by yourself and the walls start closing in it doesn’t matter how much money you have won or lost. You just start to feel isolated and maybe a bit empty. We are social creatures and we need to know we are part of a group that accepts us for who we are.

And besides all that philosophizing, if you lose all your money your brother-in-law can usually be persuaded to buy everyone dinner if you don’t have enough credits on your members club card to get a free meal.

2. Leave As Much Money at Home as You Possibly Can

A few times I made the mistake of taking all my spare cash to the casino with me. Once in a while I got lucky and came out ahead but there is something about having all your money with you that makes you a dumb as doorknobs gambler. You throw caution to the winds and you start betting faster and making larger bets. Is that a new slot machine?  What the hell!  Let’s put $50 into it before we understand how the bonus game works!

It’s even worse when your friends know you have money. You’ll be sitting at the blackjack table and maybe getting a little bit ahead and someone comes tapping on your shoulder. “Do you have any money?”  More than once I wanted to say, “Not really. I’m just borrowing this $300 from the casino before I give it back to the dealer.”  Instead I usually said, “Here is $50. Don’t blow it all on one game.”

Intentionally self imposed poverty makes you a better gambler because you are more aware of just how little money you have. When you get carried away you make bad decisions. I once spent three months saving $1,000 that I thought I would use for a vacation or something. One night my wife and I were at a casino and we spent the $200 I had brought along for the evening. She wasn’t ready to go home and she was feeling miserable because we had lost all our money. “Oh no, dear, we’re not broke,” I said. “We still have $1000 in the savings account.”  And I took out my ATM card to prove it.

There’s just something about knowing you have money close at hand that makes you take bigger risks.

3. Never Gamble When You are Broke

I never got this desperate. When I had no money I stayed home or I went over to a friend’s house. I waited until my next pay check and after I paid my bills if I had any money left over then I went to the casino.

But there are some people who allow hope to be their guiding light in their darkest hour. This is a good thing when the world looks dark but you still have a job to go to. It’s never good to take a hopeful person into a casino. They dream of winning fortunes.

I remember winning about a thousand dollars one night at a casino in the far north. I was walking back from the cashier’s window to my wife, who was happy with our evening’s good fortune (and the fact we had paid the bills a little early that month). As I put the cash into my wallet, quickly counting the crisp new $100 bills again, I noticed a young couple sitting by a slot machine.

The young man was slumped over with the most devastated, dejected look on his face. The young woman looked completely lost. She wanted to comfort him but obviously could not. I will never forget their haunted faces. They were struggling to cope with some personal horror. I have always assumed they had bet the rent money hoping to come up with a last minute win that would solve their immediate financial problems.

Honestly, I don’t know what happened. They could have had a big fight with a friend. They could have just learned their parents died in a car accident. But the way I read their faces and body language, I have always been convinced they made a terrible mistake and bet the last of their money.

I promised myself (and my wife) that I would never gamble if I could not afford to lose the money. That is one promise I have kept, although there have been times when temptation was strong. If you really need money gambling is too risky to be a solution to that problem. I don’t care how many miraculous stories you hear, just don’t do it.

4. Don’t Believe Any Betting System Works as Promised

I have tried a few betting systems myself. None of them ever worked. But I have talked to a lot of gamblers through the years and not one of them has ever said to me, “You know, I have this betting system that always comes through.”  I never met anyone who claimed to have a betting system that worked most of the time.

So who are these guys who are selling all the betting system books?  And why is anyone buying those books?  If you want to know which betting systems work just hang out at a casino and ask the dealers which betting systems beat them day in and day out. The good ones will just smile at you. Some of them may laugh out loud. The younger ones may express mild interest in the idea that there is some system that could beat the casino at its own game.

Betting systems are made for suckers. Well, if it’s a betting system that is supposed to help you win it’s made for suckers. If it’s just a money management system that helps you while the hours away without going broke, then it’s not really a betting system.

When you gamble long enough you’ll want to see why the betting systems break.  I suggest you try it with some of those free online games first. For example, if you cannot use the same betting system to win any free online games three nights in a row then maybe that will satisfy your curiosity.

5. Mother Mary Is Not Listening When You Gamble

When you’re watching your favorite team lose a football game you know if they can get possession in the last two minutes the quarterback will put the ball up in the air. The closer you get to a championship the more likely the Hail, Mary! Pass will come into play along with an onsides kick if they can get the touchdown.

Every Hail, Mary! Play I have attempted in the casinos has failed. When you’re down to your last $5 or you last quarter you might bounce back up a few times before you finally lose everything but I have never won a jackpot or a big table bet on my last round.

The big wins come randomly and you could have just as easily sat down at the blackjack table and split three hands before beating the dealer as gradually racking up a few good wins at the roulette wheel throughout the night. Somehow when I am ahead I manage to stay that way by walking away. When I am behind the last wager is most likely wasted money.

Your experience may be different but no one has ever told me that they personally won a lot of money on their last bet. If you are that broke and that tired you have probably played yourself out. It’s time to go home.

6. Walk Around the Casino at Least Once an Hour

For years I found it really hard to get up and leave a table or a slot machine. Once I started playing a game I just wanted to stay there. It took a heart attack at the table next to me to remind me that the human body is not meant to sit in a stationary position hour after hour.

I remember talking to people around me about the emergency after the paramedics wheeled the guy out. But the other players quickly lost interest in the subject and went back to their gaming.  What were they thinking?  Was I being inappropriate or were they trying to avoid thinking about the inevitable consequences of life?

Gambling is a form of escape for many of us and so I can see why people who would spend days caring for their relatives after a heart attack would quickly move on when it happens to someone else in a casino. But something touched me that night. I promised myself I would not become the next heart attack victim.

Fortunately I learned that all you really need to do when you work at a sedentary job is get up and move around for 5-10 minutes every hour. Hey, if I can do that at work I can do that in a casino. And while I had to tear myself away from the game I was playing the first time I did it I soon learned a valuable lesson: it doesn’t matter how well you are doing when you get up and leave a game. After a brisk 10 minute walk you’re ready to start over and your chances of winning are just as good.

Walking around a large casino isn’t just good for your heart. It clears the cobwebs in your head, gives you a chance to check on your friends and family, and even allows you to think about taking a break from gaming for a while. You might realize how hungry you are and head for the buffet. Or you may remember you promised to call your mom and dad that night and take a moment to check on them.

7. Tip the Serving Staff Because They Won’t Always be Around You

Imagine you are a server in a casino and all night long you bring drinks to people who never tip you. How motivated do you think you will be to keep serving them?  If you are a regular in a casino they will remember you, so being one of the regular tippers is a lot smarter than being the arrogant guy no one ever wants to serve.

And this is an important lesson that I have carried over to other situations, like restaurants where I eat often. I always tip even for poor service. If I am dissatisfied with the service I make my feelings known politely but I still leave at least a small tip. The message is usually well received and you have no idea of what the server is having to deal with. Everything could be going wrong for that person and you just might be the one thing that goes right.

We don’t owe tips to anyone who serves us. Tips are gratuities and we take the word “gratuity” from Medieval French Latin meaning “free gift”. But another meaning you’ll sometimes find for “gratuity” is “graciousness”. Tipping the server is an act of grace. No one deserves grace. We give it freely to engender good will and to help out those who serve us. It’s the right thing to do unless the server is acting so horribly wrong they are obviously looking to get fired.

Servers remember the people who remember them. If you want good service then reward mediocre service. That helps you establish your reputation with the staff. They are trying to earn a living. They’ll appreciate all the help they receive toward that end.

8. Don’t Play a Boring Game

You are there in the casino to be entertained. There were nights where I found myself playing games I did not understand, could not love and appreciate, and hoped I would never play again. When the casino is most crowded, as during a holiday celebration, you may have to wait a long time to get a seat at a table you want to play. Inevitably I wander over to the slot machines.

There are some slot machine games that were obviously designed in the deepest pits of hell. Someone loves these games, I tell myself, but then I call myself a liar. No one can love a slot game that looks like it was based on a child’s collection of bathtub toys. You’d have to be reliving your childhood to want to listen to the silly squeaky ducks and squirrels. After about three spins I know if I can tolerate a slot machine game.

But the same is true of blackjack. If the cards are just going back and forth and your stake neither grows nor shrinks eventually you get tired of going nowhere. That is the nature of gambling, to be sure, but you want either the satisfaction of beating the house or the challenge of having to decide when to cut your losses short. If the game is just happening there is no challenge and no satisfaction.

I have learned not to play boring games. If nothing happens either way I stop playing the game. I’m not gambling because I want to be bored for a few hours.

9. Breathe Fire when There is Oil in Front of You

Imagine you are a dragon besieging a castle and the defenders have poured hot oil over the walls to deter you. This strategy would work against human soldiers but you are a fire breathing dragon. All you have to do is set the oil on fire and the castle is yours.

There are nights when you can seem to do no wrong. This is a completely random thing. I know it’s random because I always find myself thinking, “Why can’t this happen more often?”

Well, I’m there to be entertained, not to get rich. But when the games flow your way, when you get all the best splits, when the slot bonus games keep on rewarding you with payoff after payoff, you may become fearful. I have watched people walk away after winning a moderate amount of money. “It can’t last forever,” they say.

That is true. That is oh so perfectly true. But if you give in to temptation and put a few dollars into the machine or sit down to play a hand and you win, that means the random numbers are jumbling your way.

Keep playing until you stop winning. Don’t let some superstition about being too greedy make the decision for you. As long as it’s two steps forward and one step back you are making progress. I never stop playing a game at the first loss. I give myself some time to see if the cards or the slots will roll my way.

10. After a Big Win Deduct Half Your Stake from Your Bankroll

To me the “stake” is the money I take into the casino at the beginning of the evening. That could be $50 or $500. If I play a little more aggressively at the blackjack table or hit a big jackpot on a slot machine I stop and assess where I am when the chips are piling up and the credits count looks large.

If I can deduct twice what I walked in with and still keep playing with a reasonable new stake, I do that. As long as I stick to my guns I will walk out of the casino a winner that night even if I lose all what is left over.

I don’t mean to say that if you walk in with $200 and win $5000 you should gamble away $4600. That would be completely stupid. But if your stake is $200 and you play it up to $500 then it makes sense to set back $400 and keep playing with the $100.

In fact, I’ve deducted twice my stake a couple of times on really good nights. Like I said above, if you are a dragon and the casino pours oil on you, light it up. You have nothing to lose once you have set back twice your stake.

11. If You Keep Losing, Leave the Casino Before You Lose Everything

As I said above, Mother Mary is not listening when you pray to her in the casino. Or, if she is listening she’s showing you some tough love.

If you cannot get something to shake loose after an hour and you are running out of stake money, leave. It’s not your night. You don’t owe it to the casino to lose all your money there. If you can grab a free meal do so but then take off.

You can come back another time and maybe then the cards will fall your way or the random number generator will be aligned with the right stars. Don’t count on a shrinking stake to keep you in the game. It just doesn’t work that way.

I would rather walk out with my dignity and a few dollars in my pocket than be the stubborn idiot who has to stay all night trying to get back what I’ve lost. There will be other nights. If God is willing and the river don’t rise, I’ll come back with more money that I can afford to lose after another paycheck or two and I can try my luck again.

Conclusion

There are other life and gambling lessons I have learned but these look pretty good to me. If I had to boil it all down to just a few words of wisdom, I suppose I would sum up these lessons this way:  You are there to have fun, not to support the world on your shoulders. You won’t solve any of your problems by gambling and you won’t solve anyone else’s problems by gambling.

You do have to win once in a while in order for it to be fun. Who wants to always lose?  Well, besides people who play lotteries, that is, who wants to always lose when they gamble?  I know I don’t. Half the fun is being there and half the fun is being the guy everyone else congratulates.

Your turn will come if you are patient and prudent. You don’t need to be the hero who stands up for the downtrodden masses. You just need to walk out feeling like you had a really good time. If you can honestly say to yourself that you had a good time then you weren’t really gambling, you were just enjoying an evening out and hopefully a fun time with friends.

Keep your spirits up, pay your bills on time, and give ‘em hell at the tables when you’re hot.

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