Craps table by Lisa Brewster.
People have vices, usually secret. My primary vice is public in a way that isn’t quite kosher. It requires skill, talent, and regular dances with my self-destructive impulses in order to excel at it. It offers a lifelong path of improving my abilities. It allows me to watch others with the same predilection, and quantify my expertise against the stupid things they do.
I’ve spent the last two decades of my life honing this vice, which I treat like a job. It pays less than minimum wage, requires long hours on night shifts, and sometimes involves taking advantage of pathetic people at their weakest moments. I enjoy the public persona of being slightly corrupted and maybe a bad influence on all of the rational people in my orbit. Who doesn’t want to be perceived as offbeat and a little, just a little, dangerous?
No, I’m not a con man, a streetwalker, or an investment banker. I’m a professional gambler. The title sounds glamorous, at least.
If I’m honest, I can’t even call myself a “professional” gambler without adding provisos. As a freelancer, I have a half dozen different jobs I cycle through, and gambling is one of them. But a true “pro” doesn’t dabble in other things like I do.
Make your own luck
I play poker. I also gamble. Poker, when played correctly, is not gambling. When you’ve got the mathematical edge, you’re not the one who needs to be lucky.1 But you’ll get the wrong impression about poker from the televised tournaments on ESPN. Yes, those multimillion-dollar rewards are possible, but only for the Olympics-class player or for the tyro who has the gods on his side.
But when the cameras are on, players have a tendency to show up with a fresh shave and clean clothes. Such niceties are sometimes skipped at the low-rent games where I play, where a buy-in is a few hundred bucks, and I’m satisfied to clear $10 or $20 an hour after averaging out the hours when I win or lose $40 or $50.
A poker game is a place where you might tolerate your neighbor’s body odor if you’re unwilling to change seats (and give up a favorable table position by doing so).2 You might be friendly to the blowhard who thinks Obama is a Muslim space lizard, because she’s blowing off chips and you want her to have a good time. You engage other players in conversation not because you’re a decent guy, but because their speech patterns and how they’re interrupted are one of the best tells at the table.
And yes, like they show you in the movie, it’s a place where you can recognize the other pros by their playing habits, and do your best to stay the hell out of their way so we can all attack the fish in peace. Sure, I’m happy to beat a very good player for some money — it’s just that they tend to make it harder than the rest of you do.
It’s easy to become a professional gambler: just spend lots of time in casinos and don’t run out of money. Being a winning professional is quite another story. Choosing to do it might be even more rare, as most of the self-proclaimed “pros” I’ve met weren’t winners, and most of the winners I’ve met never went pro.
Most of the people who think they are winners just aren’t keeping good enough records. I’ve sometimes been one of them.
Winnie-the-Pooh card protector — and Tigger too! Photo by Jeff Porten.
Born to raise
I gamble because I was introduced to it early, by parents who saw nothing wrong with an annual ritual vacation to Las Vegas, and who taught me how to deal craps when I was five, during the Ford administration, on the theory that it would make me good at math. (It worked.)3 In the mid-1990s, they moved to Atlantic City, where my father rarely placed a bet, and where my mother and I frequently went on video poker binges until 4 a.m.
I was counting cards at blackjack years before I ever entered a casino, and on my 21st birthday, when I filled out my first registration card to get comps — complimentary food, rooms, and the like — I replied to the question “how long have you been playing at our casino?” with the honest answer: “Five years.”
Comps are the freebies that the casinos give out to keep their customers happy. They’re also a crucial component of being a pro gambler. You can make a living gambling in one of two ways. The first is to make money gambling — which is harder than it sounds, and most people know it sounds hard. The second is to wager enough money to get casino comps while mostly breaking even.
While my records this year are spottier than they should be, I can ballpark that I’ve wagered approximately $150,000, two or four dollars at a time. I’ve lost around $1,000 cash in the casino that I didn’t make up at the poker table, and I’ve received $5,000 or so in comps — mostly hotel rooms, food, and free casino play. If I had a taste (and capacity) for alcohol, that number could easily be much higher: I know the places where they serve the good scotch.
My big score of the year was in early 2013, when I lived in various Las Vegas hotels for seven weeks and spent about $600 total on rooms, not including housekeeping tips. (Always tip your housekeepers.4 I’ll only stiff a maid if I’ve had a losing trip and I need the money to get home — and if that’s the case, I always apologize in person.)
“Wait,” I just heard you say. “You wagered $150,000 this year. How can you sometimes be so broke you can’t afford to tip a maid?” The way that works is that if you’re going to be a gambler, it helps to have a cavalier — or what some might call a suicidally reckless — attitude about money. If it’s your last $200, you need to win to pay rent, and you’re losing, do you stay in to get back to even? That’s the moment when you realize that intestinal fortitude is not solely metaphorical. It’s also the moment that sometimes precedes going hungry.
Of course, it’s far better to only play poker or gamble with money you’re able to lose, and to be properly budgeted so that even if you’re relying on poker to make your living, you don’t need a win right now — because no matter how good a player you are, you’re going to have losing streaks. But oddly enough, the kind of person who is attracted to this lifestyle tends not to be the kind of person who can properly manage his financial affairs.
Or at least, I’m not that kind of person.
If you’re going to walk into a casino with an expectation of leaving with more money than you brought — as opposed to hoping to get lucky — you have to find the wagers that give you an edge against the casino or your opponents. In house games, where you’re playing against the casino, the edge is almost always against you — for every dollar you wager in a slot machine, you can expect to get between $0.85 and $0.97 back.5 That’s a “house edge” of from 3 to 15 percent, which translates to your money helping to pay for the free drinks everyone else is getting.
The only house game where you can consistently find an edge is blackjack, and because the casinos aren’t run by dummies, they make it extremely difficult to do so. You also need a bankroll of around $30,000 to get that advantage if you’re starting with $5 bets. When you do have the edge, you have to switch to betting as much money per hand as you can get away with, and those bets don’t always win.
Playing against other people in a casino-hosted game offers an easier way to come out ahead. That means poker, where you play against several opponents and the casino takes its cut from every pot. (Horse racing and sports betting also qualify, because the odds are set based on the wagers other people make.) If there’s $50 in the pot and the casino takes $5, you play only when your edge is 10 percent or better against the other players. That’s the essential strategy of poker; the rest is tactics.
What makes poker hard — and endlessly fascinating — is that the cards set up the battlefield, but the decisions are made by your opponents. I start “playing poker” when I walk into the poker room, before I’ve taken a seat and I’m dealt cards. I’m deciding which game to play, by watching the tables and making snap decisions about who’s playing badly.
At the stakes of my dinky, entry-level poker games, I’m not planning on playing expert judo poker, such as winning a huge pot with a big bluff; that’s a move you can only make against other good players. Instead, I’m looking to play a solid, mathematical game against the people who make many mistakes. Their mistakes are my edge. And because they make many mistakes, the fancy moves don’t work. You can’t force people to “do the right thing and fold” when they don’t know what the right thing is.
I take an initial read of a table to spot the types. Retirees whose game strategy hasn’t changed or improved since 1967. Young hotshots looking to show off. Guys whose wives are sitting behind them (and who will do anything, anything, to avoid looking foolish while playing). Good players who are too tired, drunk, or bored to play their A game. Sports insignia on clothing: a Yankees baseball cap means one thing in Atlantic City, and something else in Las Vegas, and is the most reliable predictor of playing style I know.
After watching a game closely for 10 to 15 minutes, I’ve modified my reads and now I’m looking for details. Does that guy ever check and then raise without the best hand? Does this woman ever fold when she’s got two pair? What does the young guy need to raise preflop? (The answers are typically “no,” “no,” and “excess testosterone and any two cards.”)
Your opponents will tell you what their cards are; you just have to pay attention to how they say it. After 10 years of practice and literally hundreds of thousands of hands — I used to play 24 games simultaneously on the Internet — I’ve nearly got the low-stakes games down to a science. Bigger games bring tougher opponents, so when I move up in stakes, I have to consciously play a different style of poker; lower stakes are paradoxically more profitable.
That’s how I make money at poker — the rest of the casino is where I try to lose it back very slowly in order to bring in the comps. You’ll get a food comp playing poker — typically $0.50 to $2 an hour — but you need to gamble to get the good offers. My game, unsurprisingly, is video poker, where my nearly perfect mathematical play usually has an expectation of $0.97 to $0.995 for every dollar.6
Wager $1,000 at those stakes and you’re likely to lose between $5 and $30 (if you do it 100 or more times and then average out all the wins and losses). If the casino offers a comp that’s worth more than that, I’m ahead. Hotel comps and other nice bennies come from the “churn” — how much money you wager and how often. Then you wait to see what casino offers come in the mail or by email, and exploit the hell out of them.
On a train bound for nowhere
All of this math and preparation is completely invisible to the general public, and that’s part of why the professional gambler is generally derided. Somehow, it’s socially acceptable to be a poker player if you’re the one who’s winning millions on TV, but there’s no conception of the time and work it takes to get there. The public wants to think of the top players as vaguely psychic or gifted with preternatural abilities, while denigrating anyone who spends “too much” time in casinos.7
I find that ridiculous, and I’m constantly amazed by the amount of money most gamblers are willing to wager. In poker parlance, a gambling habit is called a “leak,” referring to the way money ebbs from your wallet. For most people entering a casino, their entire game is a sieve. I do have a compulsive gambling behavior I have to watch out for, but so long as I feed the beast safely — long gambling binges at low-edge games and small bets — I keep it under control and also build up my comps portfolio.
That said, there’s a more than faint whiff of degeneracy when I fly to Vegas on a one-way ticket, with no clear idea how long I’ll be there. People who never bet, who are exceedingly risk-averse, don’t understand it at all. My friends who gamble may respect the effort I put into it, but might wonder a bit about my motivation. I like to think that some of them are impressed by my comp packages or how deeply I’ve thought about the game, but I also suspect I’m kidding myself.
Most likely, my obsession with gambling will turn out to have been a lifelong hole I’ve blasted in my finances; unless I’m truly as good as I think I am, I’ll never move up in stakes and start really pulling money out of my obsessive habit. That’s a hard pill, but it’s one I’ve already swallowed. I’m a gambler and a poker player, and I intend to make the most of it.
“Getting lucky” is another way of saying, “I want natural random variation to be in my favor.” In an even game — say, flipping a coin — both you and the house have an equal shot at getting lucky. The more the odds are tilted against you, the more lucky you need to be: first to make up for the house edge to get to even; then to actually win money. ↩
Where you sit in a poker game is crucial; there are some players that you want to play before you so they make their decisions before you do, and others that you don’t mind going after. Going last is always best, but your table position relative to who plays first and last changes every hand. Your position relative to the other players stays the same, unless you change seats to improve your position. Having this work in your favor is “getting position” on your opponents, which is separate from being “in or out of position” relative to who goes last during a hand. ↩
The craps dealer has to memorize the more than 50 different bets that can be made on the craps table, and pay them off properly; for example, “seven to five for the nine place, plus fifteen to one for the five-four hop.” ↩
Gambling attracts the dregs of humanity, and turns otherwise decent people into cheap bastards, which is a psychological effect I’ve never understood. The same guy who’s willing to wager $5,000 at a craps table will stiff his maid out of five bucks, even if he had a winning night. ↩
The “odds” bet in craps is the only place where you can avoid a house edge — if it’s three to two against your winning, you’ll be paid three to two when you hit your number. But you have to make a pass or come bet before you can “take odds” – and both of these do have a house edge. Even so, judicious craps playing is the easiest way to reduce the house edge to very low fractions of a percent, but you need a four-figure bankroll to guarantee a prolonged playing session. ↩
The excellent Wizard of Odds Web site has extensive discussions of the payout rates of various video poker machines — which can be precisely calculated, unlike slot machines. However, you need to learn perfect play to achieve these numbers. ↩
In truth, some of the top players are preternaturally gifted with an instinct for poker. In their cases, the work is in learning how to manage the winnings. Stuey Ungar, perhaps the greatest card player in history, famously died in debt at 45 in a Vegas motel room. ↩
Jeff Porten is an Internet and Mac consultant, a serial entrepreneur, and a freelance writer. He can usually be found at a conference or at a point along the Philadelphia-Washington-Atlantic City triangle.