You’ll find any number of pundits online or off who have betting strategies. Some of them work, but most of them don’t. Discerning between the 2 is one of the first steps to becoming an expert, winning gambler in the long term.
Casino games come with a mathematical edge for the casino baked into the game’s odds and payouts. Any bet you make on a casino game pays off at odds lower than the odds of winning. Over the long run, this results in a profit for the casino.
Few strategies can overcome this house edge. In fact, in most casino games, it’s impossible to use a strategy to overcome the house edge.
Other gambling activities come with the equivalent of a house edge. For example, in sports betting, the book usually asks you to risk $110 to win $100. This difference makes it practically impossible to get an edge when betting on sports.
In poker games, the house makes its money by taking a small percentage—usually 5%–from each pot over a certain amount. This is called the rake. This means that to profit at poker, you must not only be better than the other players, but better enough to overcome that additional 5%.
Some betting strategies work in the short run and generate small profits, but in the long run, they can also amount to a high risk strategy. They don’t change the odds of the game or eliminate the house edge. They just increase the chances of a short term small profit, while simultaneously increasing the chance that you’ll eventually have a huge devastating loss. (See the section about the Martingale System below.)
1. Counting Cards in Blackjack
One of the most famous gambling strategies is counting cards in blackjack. This is an effective gambling strategy that can eliminate the house edge and give the player an edge over the casino.
But counting cards isn’t the easiest strategy to implement, for a variety of practical reasons.
When you play blackjack, you face a tiny edge for the casino, if you’re using basic strategy. In fact, that edge can be as low as 0.5%. The first step to mastering counting cards is to master basic strategy.
The next thing to understand is that some hands pay off more than others. A 2-card hand totaling 21 is called a “blackjack” or a “natural”. That hand pays off at 3 to 2 at most casinos.
(You can sometimes find generous casinos offering a 2 to 1 payoff for a natural, but that’s as rare as hen’s teeth. You can also find games where the casino offers a 6 to 5 payoff for a natural. That’s much worse for the player, and you’re unlikely to get an edge in a 6/5 blackjack even if you’re good at counting cards.)
The thing about a 2-card hand totaling 21 is that it can only happen when you get a card worth 10 and another card worth 11. The face cards and the 10s are all worth 10. The aces are worth 11 points.
The next thing to realize is that blackjack is a game with a memory. A standard deck of cards has the following ratio of cards:
- 16 cards worth 10
- 4 cards worth 11
- 32 cards worth some other point value
As the cards are dealt from a random deck, the ratios of cards worth 10 or 11 (aces and 10s) change relative to the other values. When a deck has an unusually high ratio of high cards to low cards, your odds improve.
Think about it this way. If you dealt out all 32 cards worth something other than 10 or 11, your probability of getting a blackjack would skyrocket, right?
This would, in turn, increase your chances of getting a 3 to 2 payout.
If you bet more in this situation, and less when that situation doesn’t exist, you’d develop a small percentage edge over the house.
The way card counters track this ratio is by assigning a heuristic value to each card. 10s and aces are worth -1 each. Low cards, like 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6, are worth +1.
As the low cards are dealt, the count increases. As the high cards are dealt, the count decreases.
You raise and lower your bets relative to the value of the count.
Sounds foolproof, doesn’t it?
And indeed, if you can master this skill, you can get an edge of 0.5% or even 1% or 2% over the casino.
But there are practical considerations to consider, too:
For one thing, many casinos use multiple decks of cards. This dilutes the effect of each card that’s dealt. This requires you to convert the running count to a true count. (You divide the running count by the number of decks left in the shoe.)
Also, with multiple decks in use, the number of times you’ll see a positive deck decreases.
Some casinos now use continuous shuffling machines. Obviously, if the casino puts the discards back into the deck before dealing the next hand, any count you have returns to 0.
And casinos are aware of the existence of card counters. They take steps to prevent you from getting an edge by counting. This can include asking you to no longer play their blackjack games. It can also result in you being asked to leave the casino and never come back.
Card counting can’t be used in online casinos, either. Most casinos have video game type software that duplicates the probability of a deck of cards just fine. But they shuffle the deck between hands. Since you’re dealing with a random number generator, “shuffling” the cards doesn’t take any time at all.
Even live dealer casinos shuffle the deck continuously. Just because they’re using real decks of cards doesn’t mean you can get an edge by counting.
All that being said, it’s still possible to make money counting cards in blackjack. It’s just harder now than it’s ever been.
2. The Martingale System in Roulette
The Martingale System can be used in any casino game where you have an even money payout and a close to 50% chance of winning that even money bet. It’s most commonly used in roulette, though. It can work in the short term, but it’s a high risk strategy.
And it doesn’t change the house’s edge.
Here’s how the Martingale System works. You start by placing the lowest possible bet on one of the even-money bets on the roulette table:
- Red or black
- Odd or even
- High or low
If you win that bet—and on an American wheel, you’ll win 47.37% of the time—you start over and place another small bet. You continue to rack up these small profits until you lose a bet, which usually happens pretty soon.
When you lose a bet, you double the size of that bet for your next bet. If you win that 2nd bet, you recoup your loss on the first bet and generate a profit equal to the size of your original bet.
So if you bet $5 and lose, you’ll bet $10 on the next spin. If that wins, you get $10 in winnings–$5 for what you lost previously and $5 profit.
If you lose 2 times in a row, though, you double your bet again. The progression now looks like this:
$5 – $10 – $20
On your first 2 bets, you lost a total of $15. So if you win this third bet, you’ll have a $5 profit.
If you lose 3 in a row, you do it again, this time betting $40.
The problem with a system like this is that the bets can become huge when you hit a long losing streak—which is more likely than most people think.
Here’s how fast that progression scales up:
Most casinos with a $5 minimum bet on roulette have a $500 maximum bet. So even if you have a bankroll large enough to wager at this level, you can no longer place your next bet if you lose 7 times in a row.
The other problem is that you’re eventually going to run into a situation where you’re risking a lot of money to just guarantee your $5 profit.
Even if you can place that $640 bet, you’ll only be up $5 afterward if you win it.
And you’ve already lost $635 at that point. You have a 52.63% chance of losing another $640 on top of it on that 8th bet.
You might think that a losing streak of 8 spins in a row is so unlikely as to be impossible. That’s a huge assumption. Losing streaks like that happen multiple times a day at every casino with any kind of action at their roulette tables.
But you can often show a profit at the roulette table using the Martingale System. In fact, most of your sessions will be profitable. You’ll just inevitably run into the occasional big losing session which will wipe out all your gains.
I surprised and impressed my dad by using the Martingale System when we visited Reno many years ago. He had no experience gambling, so he didn’t know what I was doing at first. Once he realized, he thought it was pretty cool.
But that experience could have easily gone the other way.
3. Oscar’s Grind in Roulette
Oscar’s Grind is another system that involves changing your bet size. It has multiple names, though—some people call it Hoyle’s Press. Others call it the Pluscoup Progression.
Like the Martingale System, Oscar’s Grind does nothing to change the math behind the game. You still face an unassailable house edge in roulette, no matter what system you use.
The idea behind Oscar’s Grind is that both wins and losses usually come in streaks. If you can keep your bets low during your losing streaks and keep them high during your winning streaks, you should be able to profit.
The problem, of course, is that it’s impossible to predict when either kind of streak will begin or end. These winning streaks and losing streaks are only visible in retrospect—after they’ve already happened.
The idea is that you divide your gambling session into mini-sessions. Each session ends when you’ve achieved a profit of one unit.
You start by betting one unit. If you win, you move on to a 2nd mini-session. If you lose, you bet again, increasing the size of your bet by one. This continues until you’re ahead by one unit.
Then you start over again by betting one unit.
The only time you don’t increase the size of your bet by one unit is when it would result in a profit for a mini-session of more than one unit.
Like the Martingale, this approach only works if you have an unlimited bankroll and no table limits. Of course, you’ll never be in that situation, so the system doesn’t work at all.
But it can be fun to try in the short term. Just don’t expect it to turn you into a roulette winner.
4. The d’Alembert System in Roulette
The d’Alembert System also requires you to raise and lower the size of your bets based on what happened on the previous bet. You start by betting a single unit. If you win, you bet a single unit again. If you lose, you raise the size of your bet by a single unit.
Instead of doubling the size of your bet after every loss, you increase the size of your bet by one unit. You also decrease the size of your bet after every win.
You bet $5 and lose. On your next spin, you bet $10, and you lose again. On your 3rd spin, you bet $15. This time you win.
After a win, you decrease the size of your bet by a unit, so now you bet $10. If you win again, you’ll be back at your single unit bet.
But if you lose, you increase the size of your bet back to $15.
This provides a gentler betting progression than you face when playing with the Martingale System. You’re less likely to face a giant debilitating loss. Here’s what the progression looks like if you lose 8 times in a row:
There’s a huge difference between needing to place a bet of $40 and needing to place a bet of $640.
In that respect, the d’Alembert System is superior to the Martingale System.
But it still doesn’t change the house edge. If you play roulette long enough, you’ll eventually start to see results similar to the mathematical expectation of losing an average of 5.26% of each bet.
5. Expert Handicapping in Sports Betting
According to the book How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living, the biggest profits in advantage gambling are being made by sharp sports bettors. A “sharp” is someone who plays with an edge against the book.
I have it on good authority that the most important factor in getting an edge over the books comes from shopping lines.
But if you’re good at handicapping games, or if you understand how to fade the public, you can get a significant edge at sports betting and generate a respectable ROI (return on investment).
For one thing, you need to start with the understanding that a 50% win rate won’t even break even when dealing with the books. They make you risk $110 to win $100, so you’d need to win 52% or so just to break even. Every 1% you can increase your win rate beyond that results in a higher ROI for you.
One of the ways to achieve this is by being able to recognize when a point spread is slightly off from what it should be.
The best way to illustrate this is by looking at NFL betting. Most of the bets made in this niche are done using a point spread. The underdog gets to add points to that team’s score to determine whether they win the bet or not.
An underdog can lose a football game and still be a winning bet if they cover the spread.
For example, if the Broncos are a 2.5 underdog to the Cowboys, and the final score is 21 to 20, with the Cowboys winning, a bet on the Broncos wins. You add the 2.5 to their final score to get 22.5, which beats 21 points.
But bookmakers like to have their action balanced on either side of a game. If a game starts getting too much money on one side, the books will adjust the point spreads in an effort to get more bets on the other side of the game.
This presents an opportunity for the smart bookmaker, because most of the time, the public gets it wrong. If the bookmaker moves a line based on too many bettors putting money on one side of the game, all you have to do is bet against the public, and you’re making a potentially profitable bet.
Other situations come up in sports betting where you can place arbitrage bets. These are bets where you can bet on both sides of a game and guarantee yourself a profit regardless of who wins. These opportunities come up because of discrepancies between multiple books’ lines.
Keep in mind, though, that most barstool pundits—you included—aren’t smarter than the Vegas oddsmakers.
They do that stuff for a living, man!
6. Expert Video Poker Play Combined with Comps
Playing video poker can be a profitable betting strategy, but it’s rarely a betting strategy where you can make significant amounts of money. You combine your knowledge of the best video poker pay tables with the comp rate from being in the slots club to create a profitable situation.
You find a casino offering a video poker pay table with a payback percentage of 99.95%. This means that the house edge is only 0.05%.
With your players’ card inserted, you get back 0.4% of your expected losses in the form of room, food, beverage, and cash back. This is how most comp systems work.
You now have a 0.35% edge over the casino.
That’s not much, but it’s an edge. And it does assume that you’re able to make the optimal decisions on every video poker hand.
How much money does that equate to?
Most video poker opportunities like this are on low stakes machines—usually in the 25 cent range. A max bet on one of those games is $1.25. If you’re fast, you can play 600 hands per hour, putting $750 into action per hour.
Your expected win at 0.35% of $750 is $2.63 per hour. That’s far less than minimum wage.
Even if you could find a dollar machine, you’re still only looking at $13.15/hour. That’s respectable, but it’s barely a living wage. You’re almost certainly better off getting a job.
But if you want to enjoy some gambling on your vacation that doesn’t cost you any money, this is a fun way to do it.
7. Expert Poker Play
Everyone knows by now that playing poker at an expert level is a way to get an edge when gambling. Countless books and videos are available to improve your game. You can even hire private tutors and coaches who’ll gladly help you improve your game.
But being a little above average isn’t good enough. You need to be good enough to overcome that rake I talked about earlier.
Think about it this way. If you and the other 9 players at the table were exactly equal in terms of skill, you’d eventually all break even in a game of poker. No one would have an edge over anyone else.
But if the house is taking 5% of each pot, you’ll all eventually go broke. It will take time, but that 5% will eat up your bankrolls.
On the other hand, if you’re twice as good as all the other players at the table, you’ll be winning their money at such a rate that the 5% becomes insignificant. You’ll have a huge pile of chips in front of you long before you’ll need to worry about going broke because of the 5% rake.
Betting strategies are a mixed bag. I tend to prefer betting strategies where I really can get a mathematical edge over the casino. But even harebrained betting systems like the Martingale can be fun if you realize that they don’t really change your odds of winning.
You need to decide before putting any money into action what your goals are. For most casual gamblers, your goal should be to get the most entertainment you can for your money. This usually means being able to discern between high house edge bets and games and low house edge bets and games.
Betting systems become irrelevant at that point, other than being an interesting way to manage your bankroll at the table.