How Easy (or Hard) is it to Win at Gambling?

by Michael Stevens
on June 15, 2017

I was brainstorming topics for the blog today, and I asked my daughter (who knows little about gambling), if she had any ideas. Specifically, I asked her to ask me a question about gambling.

She replied:

“How easy is it to win at gambling?

It’s a great question, because it has multiple answers based on a variety of subtopics.

How Easy Is It to Win at Casino Games?

Of course, some casino games are easier to win at than others.

But the thing to understand about casino games is this:

With only some unusual exceptions, the casino always wins at casino games in the long run.

Here’s Why:

Every casino game bet has a probability that you’ll win. The payoff for that bet is always paid off at lower odds than the odds of winning.

Here’s How Probability Works:

The probability of an event happening is calculated by dividing the number of ways an event can happen by the total number of possible events.

If you’re rolling a six-sided die, the probability of rolling a 1 is 1/6. You have 6 possible outcomes, but only one of them is the desired outcome – what you’re solving for.

This probability can be expressed in multiple ways – as a fraction, as a percentage, or as odds.

I expressed it as a fraction above, but if you want to express it as a percentage, you divide and multiply by 100. In this case, you’d get 16.67%.

If you want to express it as odds, you would compare the number of ways the event can’t happen with the number of ways it can happen. You have 5 numbers on a six-sided die that AREN’T a 1, and only one number that IS a 1.

The odds of winning are 5 to 1.

Let’s suppose you open a casino, and you offer your customers the chance to pick a number and get paid 4 to 1 if they guess right.

It’s probably obvious how the casino has an edge here, but let’s do the math.

You use a statistically perfect set of results to make your prediction. In this case, we’ll assume you’re betting $100 every time you roll the die. You’ll win $400 once, but you’ll lose $100 five times, or $500.

Your net loss is $500 minus $400, or $100.

You divide that by the number of bets you place to get the average loss per bet, which, in this case, is $16.67. Since that’s 16.67% of $100, we say that the house edge for this hypothetical game is 16.67%.

Of course, if you’ve ever gambled, you know that in the short run, anything can happen. Otherwise, no one would ever go home a winner, and no one would patronize the casinos.

In fact, the house edge on this hypothetical bet in this hypothetical game is high enough that most savvy bettors would pass this game by for something else.

But the higher the house edge is, the more likely it is that you’ll lose.

And the longer you play any game with a house edge, the more likely you are to lose your money.

That’s because the closer you get to “the long run”, the closer your results are expected to look like the statistical prediction.

Let’s look at a simple example from a real game, though – roulette.

A standards roulette wheel in the United States has 38 numbers on it. 18 of those numbers are black, and 18 of them are red. 2 of them are green.

A bet on black (or red) pays off at even money – 1 to 1.

But the odds of winning that bet are lower than even. You have 20 ways to lose and only 18 ways to win. The odds are 20 to 18 that you’ll win, which can be reduced to 10 to 9.

In fact, the house edge on every bet at the roulette table is 5.26%. Those two green zero slots on the roulette wheel are where the house gets its edge.

In the short run, you can place a single bet on black and have a reasonably easy chance of winning. Many people intuitively understand percentages, so let’s look at the percentage chance of winning this bet:

You have 18 possible wins out of 38 possible outcomes. The probability of winning, therefore, is 18/38. Converting that into a percentage gives us 47.37%.

You have an ALMOST 50% chance of winning this bet.

If your goal is to just double your money and walk away, placing a single bet at the roulette table isn’t a bad plan.

But the more bets you make, the lower your probability of doubling your money becomes.

That’s because the longer you play, the closer your results are going to get to the theoretical expectation.

When you calculate the probabilities of multiple events happening, you multiply.

To place 2 bets on the roulette wheel and double your money, you must win both bets. If you only win one of the 2 bets, you might break even, but we want to know how easy it is to double your money.

We multiply the probability of winning the first spin with the probability of winning the 2nd spin to get the probability of winning twice in a row:

That’s 47.37% X 47.37%, which is 22.44%.

In the scenario where you place one big bet, you double your money almost half the time.

In the scenario where you place two bets half that size, you double your money less than a quarter of the time.

The smaller you divide your bankroll and the more bets you make, the closer to the long run you’re going to get.

I read someone call this the difference between a maximum boldness strategy and a minimum boldness strategy.

The idea is that if the house has an edge, you’re better off placing one big bet instead of several smaller bets. That improves your odds of walking away a winner.

By the same token, if you have an edge over the other party – like the casino has over you – you benefit from placing many smaller bets.

If you’re an advantage player – a gambler who figures out how to get an edge over the casino – you’re better off “grinding it out” over a long period of time. Bet too much at once, and you risk losing your bankroll before the mathematical expectation kicks into the long run.

Is It Easy to Become an Advantage Player?

Since we’re already talking about casino games, I’ll talk about becoming an advantage player in terms of those games only. (You can also become an advantage player when betting on sports or playing poker, too, though).

You have 2 realistic choices when becoming an advantage player in a casino:

Blackjack has a house edge over the player, but it’s unique among casino games in that the odds change as the cards are dealt out. The composition of the deck changes.

A natural in blackjack pays off at 3 to 2. The odds of getting a blackjack go up when a lot of lower-valued cards have been dealt. They go down as higher-valued cards (aces and tens) are dealt out.

Here’s an example:

You’re playing at a table where all the aces in a single deck have already been dealt.

The odds of getting a natural are now 0.

If you raise the size of your bets when the odds of getting a blackjack are better, and lower the size of your bets when the odds of getting a blackjack are worse, you change the house edge.

A normal flat-betting player using basic strategy faces a house edge in blackjack of between 0.5% and 1%.

But someone who’s counting cards – tracking the ratio of high cards to low cards and betting accordingly – gives herself an edge over the casino of between 0.5% and 1%.

You’re more likely to double your money as a normal flat-betting player using basic strategy if you bet your entire bankroll on a single hand. The more bets you place, the more likely it is for the house edge to eat up your bankroll.

If you have an edge over the casino, though, it’s foolish to risk going broke on a single hand. You’re better off placing lower bets while waiting for the long term to kick in.

How easy is counting cards?

It’s easier than you think, but harder, too.

Here’s why:

If you’re a complete novice to the concept, you probably think you must memorize which cards have been dealt. That’s how it’s portrayed in the movie Rain Man.

That’s not how it really works, though. Real card counters assign a value to the high cards and a value to the low cards, and they adjust their count as the cards are dealt. They start over when the deck is shuffled.

The easiest card counting system to learn is called the Hi Lo System. You add +1 to the count every time you see a card ranked 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6. You subtract 1 from the count every time you see an ace or a 10.

7s, 8s, and 9s count as 0.

In this way, you’re roughly keeping track of the ratio of high cards to low cards in the deck.

Then you raise the size of your bet when the count is positive. You lower the size of your bet when the count is 0 or negative.

You also raise your bets in proportion to how high the count gets. You might double your bet when the count is +2 and quadruple it when the count is +4.

Here are several factors that make counting cards harder than you might think:

It takes practice to become accurate. Try counting through a single deck of cards at your kitchen. If you get a total of 0 when you finish, you’ve succeeded.

I got an almost perfect score on my math SAT, by the way. I only missed two questions. I made straight As in every math class I ever took. I competed in multiple math categories in scholastic competitions.

I’m good at math.

But the first time I counted through a deck of cards, I got the wrong total at the end. (Remember, any total other than 0 is incorrect. The Hi Lo count is a “balanced count”, which means there are just as many positive values as negative values in the deck.)

Counting cards is not an intuitive activity. It takes practice.

It’s hard to duplicate casino conditions when you practice. Most people start by practicing at their kitchen table or their desk using a single deck of cards. It’s relatively quiet with few distractions.

Guess what real casino conditions are like?

You’ll face a constant barrage of slot machine sounds in the background. You’ll also deal with talkative players and dealers at the table. People are walking around.

And blackjack dealers at casinos are way faster than you think, probably.

All these factors contribute to making counting cards harder than you might think. In theory, it’s easy. In practice, you need almost-inhuman amounts of focus and determination.

The casino is watching. You might think counting cards is illegal, but it’s not – it’s just frowned upon by the casinos. They don’t stay in business by letting players get an edge at a game, even if the only thing the players are doing is thinking about the game while they play.

And remember how I mentioned focus and determination?

Casino dealers and pit bosses watch players to see how focused and determined they seem. If you’re thinking and/or concentrating too hard, the casino will notice.

Even if you’re so smart and good that you can count cards without seeming to concentrate, the casino watches for players who raise and lower their bets. Most pit bosses and casino managers can count cards themselves, in fact.

What does the casino do if they think you’re counting cards?

One option is to ask you to play other games besides blackjack. They’ll usually explain (politely) that you’re too good at the game.

Another option they have is to shuffle more often. I counted cards in Kansas City once, and that’s what they did to me. Of course, I was also so drunk that I didn’t notice they started shuffling every hand.

That’s another obstacle, by the way – avoiding temptation and staying on point the whole time.

Is it easy to count cards?

In theory, yes, but in practice, not so much.

What about video poker, though?

The trick to getting an edge over the casino at video poker relies on 3 things:

  • Recognizing favorable pay tables.
  • Playing with nearly-optimal strategy.
  • Taking advantage of comps and rebates.

If you play well (i.e. make correct decisions most of the time), you can find video poker games where the house edge is less than 1%. The trick is being able to recognize those pay tables.

Here’s the thing about video poker:

It’s like a slot machine, but one where you know the odds of getting certain combinations. If you know the payoff for a bet and the odds of winning, you can calculate the house edge. (We did it with roulette earlier in this post, remember?)

But you also have decisions to make which affect your outcome. Every hand you get to choose which cards to keep and which ones to throw away.

The house edge calculations for video poker assume that you’re able to make the correct decisions 100% of the time.

But even if you make rare mistakes, you can get close to keeping that house edge down to 0.5% or less.

This doesn’t put the odds in your favor, though. It’s almost impossible to find a game with a pay table that generous.

The difference between a professional video poker player and a talented amateur is the ability to take advantage of rebates and comps.

You see, when you join the slots club, the casino rebates a percentage of your hourly action. If the rebate percentage is high enough, you can get a small edge over the casino.

Here’s a specific example:

You’re an expert at Pick’Em Poker, and you play with almost perfect accuracy. The house edge on this game is only 0.05%.

The slots club awards you with 1% rebates on your action.

Your edge over the casino is now 0.95%.

How does that translate into expected earnings?

Assume you play 600 hands per hour – that’s average. Assume, too, that you’re playing for $5 per hand. That’s $3000 per hour in action.

Your expected win on that amount, given the numbers above, is $28.50 per hour.

Keep in mind, though, that much of that amount is in the form of comps – free meals, gift certificates, hotel stays, etc.

True video poker professionals master the ability to sell those perks to other people for cash.

It’s a hard way to make an easy living.

Conclusion

How easy is it to win at gambling?

If you’re talking about casino gambling, it’s hard – especially if you spend any time playing.

If you’re not an advantage gambler, your best chance of walking away a winner is to place one big get and walking away after. That might not be the most fun, but this is about easy/hard distinctions, not how to have the most amount of fun.

If you are an advantage gambler, though, your best bet is to make sure you have a large bankroll. Then make sure you don’t put much of it at risk on any single bet. To do so risks going broke in the short run before your long term expectation kicks in.

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