What makes gambling fun?
Is it only winning or is it the sense of challenge?
Casino games are designed to take advantage of gamblers’ superstitions and misunderstandings of how probabilities work. The percentages that casinos take in from players may seem small but understand that in any gambling relationship the party with the percentage retention (the “house edge”) is the one who wins over time.
In other words, the longer you gamble the more likely you will lose your money.
But gambling is not based on a fixed outcome.
Even where they have an edge of 30-40%, casinos are taking a risk on every wager they cover. Sometimes they lose a lot of money.
And yet most casinos are profitable, which means the players are losing more money than the casinos.
That means your biggest challenge is to stay in the game long enough to become one of the 1 in 4 players who comes out ahead.
If that sounds like a paradox to you then you are correct. The Gambler’s Paradox is that the longer you play the game the more likely you will both win and lose.
How can that be so?
In an honest gambling game neither you nor the casino knows the outcome of the next wager. The chances the casino wins are better than the chances you win, but there is still a chance you can win. They cannot take that away from you, and that is what makes gambling so appealing and so risky.
If you’re going to gamble, the best way to enjoy the games you play and improve your chances of winning is to manage the risks you take. Here are 15 ways you can manage risk across a variety of games. There are no betting systems that ensure you will win. You just have to make shrewd choices about where, when, and how you risk losing your money.
1. Only Make Small Stakes Wagers
The number 1 mistake gamblers make is to increase their wagers above the minimum requirement for the maximum payout. Whether you are playing slot games or table games, you always lose money faster by playing for high stakes. If there is no improvement in your chances of winning the next round when you bet more money than the minimum, then you should not bet more money than the minimum.
In most cases, casino games pay the same odds regardless of how much you wager. There are some slot games that do offer better payback percentages and sometimes better odds if you increase your bets, but unless the game rules explicitly state this is the case, you should assume you have as much chance of winning or losing with a $5 bet as with a $50 bet.
And while it’s tempting to tell yourself you’ll win more money with higher stakes wagers, the truth is that on average you lose your money faster with higher stakes wagers. Casinos only limit the size of your bets for two reasons:
- They have to make sure they can cover any extraordinary player wins
- They want you to have a good time while you play so that you return repeatedly
The casino will retain a percentage of the money you wager but that percentage increases rapidly as you make higher stakes wagers.
2. Only Gamble with Bonus Money
With over 2,000 licensed and regulated online casinos to choose from, you can almost always find a casino offering a few dollars for free. You either go with a low balance “no deposit” bonus or you deposit some money for a matching bonus. Either way you have to meet a playthrough requirement before you can keep any money you win.
If you join only one casino a week you could play with 50 deposit bonuses a year, giving yourself a couple of weeks off without playing. Unless you are reckless and foolish, you should win some money during those 50 weeks. By playing conservatively with the minimum bets, you’ll extend the life expectancy of your welcome bonuses.
How does play through usually work?
You will be asked to gamble anywhere from 10 times to 50 times the amount of your welcome bonus or your deposit plus welcome bonus. You might be tempted to cut that requirement short by making larger wagers, but remember that you are less likely to come out ahead when you bet more than the minimum that the game requires.
Be patient and fulfill the gambling requirement with smaller wagers. Your chances of keeping some of the welcome bonus money are better, and your chances of winning some money are better.
3. Only Use Betting Systems that Conserve Your Money
The idea that you can “get back” money you have lost is the doom of many a gambler. The Gambler’s Fallacy is assuming that any streak of bad luck will be balanced by a streak of good luck. Too many betting systems assume that if you increase your bets by some percentage or multiple after each loss you increase your chances of winning back money you just lost.
In reality the less money you risk on each wager the more wagers you can make and the more likely you will recover some losses before your money runs out. There are no guarantees in life or gambling, but you do improve your chances of winning by playing more often and the least expensive way to play more often is to not throw your money away on big stakes wagers.
But everyone likes to make a big bet once in a while. There are ways you can enjoy taking a larger risk without losing all your money. Set some ground rules for yourself so you know when it is safe to make a higher stake wager.
For example, you could arbitrarily decide to double your wagers every four to six rounds of play. This is a random process that makes no promises about the future.
Another way you can give yourself free rein to play higher stakes wagers is to decide on a percentage of your available money that you will play with on each wager. Say you choose to make 5% wagers. If you start with $200 your first wager will be $10. If you lose your $10 you continue to make $10 bets until the basic rules of rounding tell you that $5 is required to stay close to your 5% bet.
If you have a streak of good luck and start winning then sticking to the 5% rule allows you to increase your wagers without risking most of your money at any time.
There are other systems that allow you to gradually or randomly increase your bets while conserving most of your money.
4. Only Play Games with Reasonable Payback Percentages
Everyone will immediately tell you to play blackjack or baccarat and to stay away from roulette and slot machines. But the truth is that blackjack requires some skill. If you don’t know when to hit and when to stand, your chances of hanging on to your money are just as poor with blackjack as with many slot games. You can lose your money quickly at the games with the lowest house edge if you don’t know what you are doing.
The house edge is the percent of player wagers that the casino expects to keep over time. This is by no means a reliable predictor of how much you will win or lose. Regardless of what the game is, if you don’t know how to play it well then you should assume that the payback percentage for you is somewhere between 60% and 80%. That leaves you enough statistical room to do well on a random basis but nowhere near as well as a skilled player should do.
One advantage of a slot machine game over blackjack is that if the game declares the payback percentage is above 95%, you have a better chance of winning more money on the slots than at a game of skill where you don’t know the rules very well.
Play to your level of skill or else find a game that randomly pays better than others.
5. Play a Simplified Blackjack Strategy While You Learn the Game
Everyone asks for advice when they learn to play blackjack. But when it is your money on the table you will be more overwhelmed by watching other players as you try to understand the rules of the game.
Blackjack strategy is based on knowledge of the probabilities of how the cards can be played. The casinos require their dealers to play by the simplest strategy possible because they are counting on the players to make mistakes. Because the dealer only draws cards after the players the casino is more likely to win on a weak hand than the players.
So here are three simple rules that beginning blackjack players can use to stay in the game without having to worry about counting cards and knowing all the probabilities.
- Always split pairs of Aces, 6s, 7s, and 8s.
- After deciding whether to split, always hit on any hand of 12 or less.
- Always stand on any hand of 13 or higher.
Experienced players will weigh their chances based on the cards showing on the table, particularly the dealer’s cards. Beginning players are more likely to make mistakes if they try to do all the math in their heads, and it will be obvious to everyone else you don’t know much about the game if you sit there staring at the cards and trying to do calculations.
These rules are designed to prevent you from busting. All that does is keep you in the game until the dealer’s turn to draw cards comes around. At that point the dealer will either bust or end his hand with 17 to 21. You have 0% chance of beating the dealer if you go bust by drawing one card too many. Your best bet as a beginner is to force the dealer to draw cards, if you can.
6. Only Gamble when You Feel Fresh and Relaxed
Casinos will do everything they can to help you lose track of time and make poor decisions. They will fetch alcoholic drinks for you. They set up games to make a lot of noise so it sounds like people are winning all around you. They keep the light bright, the windows far removed from view, and don’t show you any clocks.
You should take a break every few minutes. Wear a watch so that you don’t lose track of time. Set alarms on your smartphone so that you stop gambling every 20-45 minutes. You need to fight that somnolent state of mind that keeps you drawing cards or spinning reels or laying down new bets on the table over and over again.
It’s okay to get up and walk around. If you play the slots don’t fall in love with one machine. Allowing yourself to believe you have to stay at any given machine is a poor decision. When you need a break it’s better to change games than to sit there and worry about how you’re going to keep other people from playing the machine.
7. Keep at Least Five $20 Bills in Your Wallet
When you have a good run at a casino you may accept high denomination bills from the cashier. Regardless of how much you win, always ask for the last $100 to be paid to you in $20 bills. Here is why:
When you walk away from the cashier’s window you’ll see some game you are tempted to play. You risk less by putting $20 into that game than by putting $50 or $100 into it. It’s just easier to live with a $20 loss than with a $100 loss, and you are more likely to want to get your money back if you lose $100 than if you lose $20.
Also, as you play different games around the casino it’s always a good idea to run up your winnings on several different tickets. Keeping 3 to 5 tickets in play assures that when you lose all the money on one ticket you can move on quickly without regret. If you don’t like filling out the tax forms then cashing in a ticket when it hits $800 to $900 is easy enough to do, and you still have other tickets to play with. Don’t just cash everything in at the same time.
8. Ask for a Check When You Win a Large Jackpot
Casinos may be willing to pay you by check if you win thousands of dollars (or more) on one of their games. Sure, they want you to keep playing so that they win some of that money back but you have the right to leave with all your winnings.
In a land based casino if you take most or all your prize money in check format then you cannot fritter it away. On the other hand, cashing a check from an online casino may be problematic.
Make it as hard on yourself to gamble away your winnings as possible.
9. Comparison Shop between Casinos
Whether you are playing at land based casinos or online casinos, draw up a list of their table minimums, special rules, theoretical returns to players, and more. Make an informed choice about where you gamble. In Las Vegas, for example, many card players prefer to play at off-strip casinos where the table minimums tend to be lower than at the main strip casinos.
You may not have to change venues to get the best betting limits. Some casinos lower their limits during off-peak hours.
10. Place Odds Bets in Craps
If you know enough to limit your table bets to Pass or Don’t Pass, go ahead and place bets on the Odds when they are available. The house has no edge on Odds bets and this reduces their advantage on the Pass and Don’t Pass bets.
11. Avoid Playing against Local Poker Players
If there are players at a poker table who know each other or the dealer you should pass on playing at that table. These could be yokels who lose their paychecks every week but experienced players often prefer to play with strangers. Local players may be regulars who are very good at poker compared to casual card players.
However if you like a challenge and want to learn poker from people who are better than you then getting to know the local players may be the best way to study the game. Just remember that they will take your money and may not be the best potential friends you can make.
And some of those local guys may work for the casino as well. They keep the tables more full and the games more interesting but they are not playing with their own money. Their interest in the game will be different from yours.
12. Play in Tournaments with a Fixed Buy-in
You can still win prizes when you don’t gamble your own money. Paying a flat fee to participate in a slot, blackjack, or poker tournament gives you a way to manage your money. If you only play tournaments you can literally plan your gambling budget by the calendar.
Some tournaments may require you to gamble with your own money. Avoid these tournaments.
13. If You Play Keno Then Do It This Way
In every form of gambling the greater the potential payoff the more people who have to lose in order to cover that payoff. Among lottery games keno is the most well-known and also the most put down. All the experts tell you not to play keno because the chances of winning are so bad. And yet people still play keno. If you’re determined to play the game then you should understand a few things.
First: Although it has been said that playing keno is a low budget form of gambling that is not entirely true. While each ticket may be relatively inexpensive you can still buy as many tickets as you wish and some keno players may lay down $20 to $50 on the game for every drawing. To keep this a truly low budget form of gambling you must limit how many tickets you buy per drawing.
Second: Your best chance of winning on any drawing is to play the smallest picks possible. Some variations of the game require you play at least a Pick 2 (two numbers). The more numbers you pick the worse the probabilities get.
Third: The best spread on potential return is on the Pick 4. The combined potential return for Pick 4 is rated at 74%. That means you have enough ways to win combined with enough pays to nearly match the return for a Pick 1 (which is rated at 75%). The next three best picks in order of preference are Pick 3 and Pick 2 (both rated at 72%) and Pick 5 (rated at 71.6%).
Fourth: No matter how many numbers you pick in keno, the highest probability always falls on a combination that pays you nothing.
Fifth: The theoretical return to player on most slot machine games is better than on keno. And yet the probability of winning the highest combination in keno improves over slot machine games as you pick fewer numbers in keno versus playing more reels in slots. The probabilities in keno are more predictable as well because you know all the numbers used in keno whereas you don’t know how many slots are assigned to each reel or how the symbols are allocated across the reels.
The key takeaway here is to keep your expectations low by gambling on fewer numbers in keno. If your casino doesn’t allow you to play the Pick 1 option then go for Pick 4 and don’t buy more than a few tickets per drawing. The less money you spend on keno the longer it will take you to lose your money.
14. Never Play a Progressive Game with Your Beginning Stake
If you have to bet extra money to win a progressive jackpot pass on playing for the jackpot. If you are eligible for a progressive jackpot without betting extra money and you enjoy the game go ahead and play it but remember that the money for the jackpot comes from the players not the casino.
The rule of thumb with progressive jackpots is to assume that they lower the theoretical return to player by a small percentage. It is better to ignore the progressive option on table games and to play slot games that don’t offer progressives.
Although it’s great to win a progressive jackpot if you’re going to take on this increased risk then wait until you are ahead, set back at least the amount of money you started gambling with, and only gamble with “won” money when you play progressive games.
Always remember you lose your money faster by betting on progressive jackpots.
15. Treat Gambling as Part of Your Entertainment Experience
How much entertainment can you get for $200? If the casino offers perks such as discounts or rebates toward meals and shows, or even free drinks, food, and shows, then count those perks against the losses you incur as you play your favorite casino games. The evening’s experience should be fun and you should definitely seek the most bang for your buck.
While some gambling advice articles say you should ask for comps from casinos, remember that casinos use comps to keep players playing. They may comp you if you lose money and they may comp you if you win money; either way the purpose of the comp is to keep you spending money in the casino. Don’t play for comps, play for fun.
The membership rewards you earn by playing are not the kinds of comps you read about. If the casino offers you a free room in their hotel you should take that as a sign that they see potential profit in the exchange.
Much of what makes gambling fun is based on psychology. The casino uses bright lights, loud noises, and colorful displays to keep you mentally engaged in the games and the overall experience. Online casinos have fewer advantages in this area compared to land based casinos but the online casinos are always looking for ways to keep players engaged.
Casinos don’t mind if you win at their games. They know that over time more people will lose than win and yet big winners are great advertising for a casino. You don’t have to treat every casino as the enemy, although you should always evaluate casinos on how greedy they are. Among both land based and online casinos you will always be able to find some who configure the percentages in their favor well above industry averages. Learn to make good choices about where and when you gamble.
Always remember that the prizes you win are being paid by other players. All you have to do is focus on paying fewer prizes to other players. Whether than means gambling less often, betting less per wager, or only playing a small number of games where you can expect to do well it all really comes down to how well you manage your expectations and your money.