Play (and win) like a real pro!

Apr 18, 2005 4:24 AM

Are you a pro? This isn’t a trick question. Some of you will probably now think this column will be about how using expert strategy will turn you into a pro. Quite the contrary. The target audience for my columns have always been the recreational gambler.

There are only a few dozen or so professional video poker players. To me, a professional gambler is one who relies on his gambling winnings as income. A recreational gambler is one who chooses to gamble as a form of entertainment.

Nobody wants to lose, but the recreational gambler is willing to accept losses in exchange for the entertainment value. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should be reckless when you play. This is where expert strategy comes in.

If you rely on gambling for your income, then you have to find an edge over the casino. This is why about the only games that you’ll find professional gamblers play are blackjack and video poker (not including regular poker players). Playing blackjack with proper strategy can return 99.5%, depending on the house rules. Add in some skilled card counting and you may be able to push the game in your favor. As for video poker, we all know that there are games with payback over 100%, or whose combined payback with comps is over 100%.

The reason why professionals need to find games over 100% is because they are counting on a steady stream of income. This means they must play regularly in order to earn whatever income level they define as necessary. The more they play the more likely they will achieve the theoretical payback of the game.

This is an absolutely certainty, as sure as death and taxes. They can manage their bankrolls all they’d like, but this is all just psychological. In the end, if a video poker professional plays 40 hours per week for 50 weeks per year (a full-time job), he will play 2,000 hours or over 1 million hands of video poker.

Over any three- to four-year period, he will find that the return on his money is almost certainly within a couple of percentage points of the theoretical payback. If the game of choice pays 101%, he stands a much better chance of turning a profit then if he plays a 99% game. If he chooses to play at 97%, his odds of having a successful career in gambling would be near zero.

So, how much can a pro make? Of course it depends on how much they are willing to pump into the machine. Obviously, a game that pays over 100% means the more they wager, the more they should win in the long run. The problem with that theory is that unlike an average job where you get paid every week or two, when you gamble for a living, you have to survive the ups and downs.

It’s a little more like being paid on commission than on salary, but working harder may not be what makes the difference. If a professional were to play 600 hands per hour, and play 2,000 hours per year for four years, he would play 4.8 million hands in that time. This would equate to wagering $24 million in that time.

With a 101% payback game, the player can expect to win $240,000 over four years or $60,000 per year. In reality, he might win $500,000 or more, or he may lose tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our math knowledge teaches us that the extremes are far less likely than the middle, but a professional has to be prepared for anything. I can’t say that $60,000 is a bad salary, but obviously there are parts of this country where it would be tough to get by on that type of money.

In case anyone is wondering, it won’t matter if the professional changes what denomination he plays when he’s up or down, or if he stops after winning so much in a session or losing so much in a session. In the end, all that matters is how much money was wagered and how many hands were played at each given payback. A little luck, even with a large number of hands, won’t hurt either.

So, again, I’ll ask if you’re a pro. Most likely you are not. As a recreational gambler, it is still important that you try to adhere to the basic philosophies of expert strategy (know which games to play, play the right strategy and know what to expect). At the same time, your goal is not to earn a living, but to maximize your entertainment value at the lowest possible cost. For some of you that may mean stopping when you are up a certain amount to make sure you go home a winner.

For others that may mean playing as many hours as you can without losing more than a certain amount. The professional may be willing to play a high denomination game with a positive payback because that’s a way to meet his goal. The recreational player may have to ask himself if risking the extra money is really worth his entertainment dollars.