How to Make a Living Gambling
Published on September 20, 2015
Most of my posts are aimed at the recreational gambler. This one is too, but it’s aimed at the recreational gambler who has aspirations of becoming a professional gambler. Since it’s just a blog post, I can’t teach you everything you know about how to make a living gambling.
But I can provide you with enough of an introduction to get started.
If you want to check out our detailed info-graphic for a summary of all this information, it can be viewed at the bottom of this page.
The first step to becoming a professional gambler is learning enough about probability to get an edge when betting. Casinos stay in business because they have a mathematical edge over most players. Your goal as a professional gambler is to only bet when you have an edge.
But how do you know if you have an edge or not?
You have to be able to do the math.
Luckily, it’s not hard.
Probability is just a mathematical way of looking at how likely certain events are. A probability of an event occurring is always a number between 0 and 1. If an event has a probability of 0, it will never happen. If it has a probability of 1, then it will always happen.
You flip a coin. You want to know the probability that it will land on heads.
You determine that by dividing the number of ways you can achieve the result you’re solving for by all possible results. When flipping a coin, you only have one way of getting heads. You also have two possible results—heads or tails. So your probability of getting heads is 0.5.
That probability can be expressed as a fraction or a percentage, too. 0.5 is the same thing as ½, and it’s also the same thing as 50%.
When you bet on a particular event, you can compare the probability of winning that bet with how much you risk versus how much you stand to win in order to determine the expected value of that wager. For most casino games, your expected value on each bet is negative—the casino has an edge over you.
You bet on a single number at the roulette table. The probability that you’ll win that bet is 1/38. If you do win, you get paid off at 35 to 1 odds.
One other way to express a probability is in odds format. That’s a comparison of how many ways you can fail versus how many ways you can succeed. Since a roulette wheel has 38 numbers, you have 37 ways to lose and only 1 way to win. That means your odds of winning are 37 to 1.
If you got paid off at 37 to 1, you’d have an edge of 0, and so would the house. If you could get paid off at 38 to 1, you’d have an edge over the casino. But you only get paid off at 35 to 1, so the house has an edge over you.
In all those cases, your probability of winning is low, but if you get paid off enough money, even a low probability bet gives you an edge over the house.
Suppose you play 38 spins of the wheel. You’re betting $1 on every spin. If you get results that mimic the mathematical probability, you’ll lose $37 and win $35. You lost $1 on 37 spins, and you won $35 on one spin. That means your expectation is -$2 over 38 bets.
You can divide that expectation by the number of bets to get an amount you expect to lose on average per bet. In this case, your expected loss per bet is $0.0526. You can express that as a percentage if you like, and in this case, that percentage is 5.26%.
Your goal as a professional gambler is to only place wagers where you have an edge. Since your statistical results over a large number of trials should near the mathematical expectation, you can expect a profit if you play long enough.
That’s the math that works for the casino, and that math can work for you as well.
Blackjack is well known as being one of the only casino games where a skilled player can get an edge over the house. But you can’t get an edge just by making perfect decisions on every hand. Even at a casino with generous rules, you’ll have a disadvantage of between 0.25% and 0.50%.
You get an edge in blackjack by learning how to count cards. But that’s easier than you might think. Some people expect to have to memorize an entire deck of cards in order to get an edge, but that’s a far cry from what counters actually do.
Your goal when counting cards is to estimate how many high cards (tens and aces) are in the deck as compared to low cards (deuces through sixes).
A deck with more high cards results in more blackjacks for the player. Since those hands pay out at 3 to 2, you stand to make more money in those situations.
You keep up with that number by assigning a value to the high cards and another value to the low cards. Then you move your count up and down based on that value every time you see a card. Unlike most casino games, a blackjack deck has a memory, and the odds change based on that memory.
Here’s an easy way to understand why this is so:
But if a lot of deuces, threes, fours, fives, and/or sixes have been dealt, and the aces and tens are still in the deck, your probability of getting a blackjack has improved.
Not only do you have to learn how to count cards, you also have to learn how to play perfect basic strategy. If you’re making tactical errors as you play, you’ll lose any edge you gain by counting.
You’ll find other pages about counting cards and getting an edge at blackjack on this site. You can also learn a lot about counting cards from good books on the subject. Anything by Stanford Wong or Arnold Snyder is good for this purpose.
Professional sports bettors are some of the highest paid professional gamblers in the world, but becoming a pro isn’t as easy as you might think. It’s not enough to win more than half of the bets you place.
Sports books make you risk $110 in order to win $100. That extra $10 is called the vig, and as long as the book has an equal amount of money on either side of a contest, it’s guaranteed to make a profit. The math isn’t hard.
Suppose you place two bets. You win one and lose the other. You’ve won $100 and lost $110.
Suppose you own a sports book. Half of your 200 customers bet $110 on one side of the game, and the other half bet $110 on the other side of the game. You pay out 100 bets for $100, or $10,000. But you kept 100 bets at $110, or $11,000. You made a $1,000 profit.
The handicappers working for the sports bettors specialize in creating lines where you literally have as close to a 50% chance of winning as possible. If you want to be a professional sports bettor, you have to find situations where those lines are inaccurate enough that you can win often enough to compensate for your losses and still make a profit.
This can be done for multiple reasons. It’s rare that a handicapper working for a sports book makes a mistake, but sometimes sports books move the lines in order to stimulate action on one side of the contest. They do that because they want to keep the amount of action on either side as even as possible so that they can lock in their profit.
When that line moves, you have an opportunity to get into a situation where you can expect to win more than 52.4% of the time. Do that repeatedly for enough money, and in the long run, you’ll make a profit.
The newest way to gamble for a living online is to play daily or weekly fantasy sports contests for real money. These contests work just like season-long contests, but they’re over in a day or a week. And you face other players for real money.
But like sports books, fantasy sports sites also have a vig. Since you’re facing other players, you have to win at least 55.6% of the time in the 2 player contests in order to make a profit. That’s because the site takes a commission out of the prize pool before awarding it.
Here’s how that works:
A typical fantasy sports contest with two players might have a $100 entry fee. The site pays the winner $180. They keep $20 for themselves.
In order to operate at a profit, you have to be able to beat your opponents more than 55.6% of the time. This isn’t too hard for sophisticated players, but it helps to be dealing with naïve players.
You can also play in contests with large pools of players where you have a larger prize pool. In those cases, you don’t have to win more than 55.56% of the time, but you do have to win more often than the average player in order to profit.
Here’s an example:
You play in a contest with 100 players. Only the players with the 20 highest scores win any money. The entry fee is $1, so the site is splitting $90 among the top 20 players. They keep $10 for themselves.
You need to be able to place in the money about 23% of the time in order to get an edge.
Another way of getting an edge in daily fantasy sports is to focus on contests where there’s an overlay. An overlay is a situation where the site has guaranteed a minimum prize pool regardless of how few players sign up for the tournament.
Here’s a simplified example that demonstrates how this is a positive expectation situation for the player:
Of course, you’ll rarely find a situation this extreme. But any time you get a small edge, you want to take it. If a contest needed 100 players to break even and only had 80 players registered, there’s the equivalent of 20 players’ worth of dead money in the prize pool. It’s like having a contest with 100 players but 20 of them are destined to have a score of 0.
You can’t estimate how big an edge you have at a slot machine game, even if it has a progressive jackpot, because you have no way of knowing what the odds of winning that progressive are. But theoretically, if a progressive jackpot got high enough, you’d have a positive expectation bet playing that game.
But with video poker machines, you know what the odds are of winning the progressive jackpot. Since you know the odds of winning, you can calculate how big the jackpot has to become in order to have a positive expectation situation.
Most professional video poker players work as part of a team, though. If you find a progressive video poker game with a jackpot big enough to provide an edge to the player, those team members will occupy all those games until someone wins the jackpot, and then they’ll split their winnings with their teammates.
Of all the ways of becoming a professional gambler, becoming a video poker pro might be the hardest. You not only have to become an expert player, you have to find great situations. And you really need a team or network to belong to.
I’d rather play Blackjack or Texas Hold’em.
It’s clear that skilled poker players can earn a living, but it takes more skill than you might think. That’s because legitimate cardrooms take a percentage of each pot. It’s not good enough to be just a little bit better than your opponents. You have to be good enough to overcome the percentage of money that comes out of each pot.
Most cardrooms charge about 5% rake. That means if a pot has $100 in it, the casino keeps $5. You’re contributing to those pots, so a percentage of your winning (and losing) bets goes to the cardroom, too.
To get good enough to play at that level takes a lot of work. You probably need to read some books and get plenty of practice. You also need to set written goals and keep detailed records of how you do at various games and limits.
You might be good enough to win $100/hour at the $50/$100 Texas Hold’em game, but you lose $20/hour when you move up to $100/$200. Without detailed records, you won’t know that until you go broke.
You also need to remember that professional poker players make money from the weak players at the table. If you’re an expert playing at a table full of experts who are as good as you, you’ll lose money over time. You need multiple players who aren’t as skilled as you are to get into a profitable situation.
This has served as the barest beginnings of a discussion of how to become a professional gambler. You can find other ways of getting an edge at gambling, like becoming an expert handicapper of horse races. But none of these ways are easy.
If making a consistent profit at gambling were easy, everyone would be doing it all the time. Casinos would go out of business right and left.
If you want to be a professional gambler, you have to learn to rig the games in your favor—preferably without cheating or breaking any laws. You want other people on the other side of the unfair bets.
It’s that simple.
Below we have provided you with an info-graphic on all of the information listed above in an easy to read fashion.