Casino games are a fun way to spend money, not a good way to earn it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a strategy when playing them. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of dangerous misinformation out there about what “casino strategy” means.
Part of our goal with the Bonus Casino School is to teach you how to develop strategies to get the most value out of your gambling dollars.
But before we get into specifics, let’s look at some of the most common claims you’ll hear about casinos and casino strategy. Some of these are entirely false, but for the most part, they’re just incomplete, and we’re here to give you the whole picture.
Myth: “The House Always Wins”
Reality: The people who design casino games choose the rules to give the operator a mathematical advantage. The size of that advantage is called the “house edge,” and you’ll find lots of information about that in our lessons on probability.
That means that if you keep playing a casino game for long enough on a fixed budget, you will eventually lose all the money. So, when people say this, what they really mean is:
The house always wins in the long term.
However, the “long term” might be very long for a lucky player who hits a big prize early on.
For example, many slots have top payouts of 10,000 times your bet or more. Conversely, the average loss (i.e., the house edge) on a single spin for most online slots is only about 4% of the bet.
So, a player who hits a 10,000x payout on the first spin could probably play about 250,000 more spins at the same bet size before losing all their winnings.
Even at a relatively rapid pace of 15 spins per minute, that player would likely stay in the black for about 275 hours. Put another way, that’s about two months of playing nine-to-five, five days per week.
In practice, almost every gambler will occasionally have the experience of walking away with a win for the day. If they start off lucky and don’t gamble too much, some might even end up lifetime winners.
Myth: “It’s Possible to Earn an Income by Gambling”
Reality: Technically speaking, yes, it is possible to be a professional gambler. However, for most people, it’s a terrible idea to try it, so there are a lot of asterisks to this claim.
To make money in the long term requires finding ways to create or exploit a negative house edge – that is, an edge in favor of the player. These are rare, but they do exist, and a player who can find them is known as an “advantage gambler.”
The first word of caution here is that being an advantage gambler is very difficult, requiring more discipline and mathematical insight than most people have. For every person actually making an income gambling, many more are losing their shirts trying.
You also won’t learn to be an advantage gambler by reading a few articles online. The techniques that work require a lot of practice, and anyone who tells you there’s a simple way to beat the casino is lying.
Another important thing to realize is that not every game presents such opportunities. For instance, a slot machine will never directly allow for advantage play. At best, a professional gambler might squeeze a little profit from free spins or gain more from promotions and comps than they lose while playing.
Finally, even for those who can manage it, professional gambling is not an easy or particularly pleasant lifestyle. It can also be a hard one to get out of once it has lost its luster, as few of the skills are transferable – and it doesn’t look good on a resume.
Myth: “Casino Games Depend on Skill”
Reality: It’s surprisingly difficult to define what it means for a game to have an “element of skill.”
All casino games involve some level of meaningful decision-making, if only in terms of how much to bet and when to stop playing. Those decisions will impact how much you spend, how much you can potentially win, and your ups and downs along the way.
Many casino games also have multiple types of bets. In some cases, like roulette, these differ only in terms of their volatility but still have the same long-term average payout. However, in others, like craps and baccarat, some bets have a larger house edge than others.
Knowing the average return for each bet type and avoiding the so-called “sucker’s bets” is a skill of a sort. A more experienced and knowledgeable casino player will tend to avoid high-edge bets like the draw in baccarat or the horn bets in craps.
However, if we restrict the discussion to only games where the player’s decisions after the initial bet affect their odds, there are fewer of those. Blackjack is the most traditional example, but video poker and some other card-based table games also have decisions to make that will help or hurt the player.
It’s important to note that even skill-based casino games are always in the house’s favor. Perfect decision-making might get the player close to statistically breaking even, but the rules are calibrated to prevent players from winning over the long term. “Skill,” in this context, simply means that bad decisions can cause the player to lose more.
The exceptions are card games where the deck isn’t reshuffled after each hand, mainly blackjack. In that case, the composition of the remaining cards might occasionally skew things slightly in the player’s favor. Card counters seek to identify and exploit those situations.
Myth: “Blackjack Offers the Best Odds”
Reality: Blackjack isn’t just one game but a family of games. Some blackjack rulesets indeed offer theoretical payouts very close to 100% with standard blackjack strategy, and those may be the most favorable odds on offer at the casino.
Conversely, unfavorable rulesets can make for blackjack games with a house edge comparable to other table games, even with perfect play.
Here are some of the rules that make a blackjack game more favorable to the player:
- Fewer decks
- Higher payouts on blackjack (3-to-2 is good, 6-to-5 is bad)
- Dealer must hit soft 17
- Option to surrender (late surrender is good; early surrender is even better)
- Ability to double after splitting
- Ability to split multiple times
- Ability to split Aces
In principle, a single-deck game with all the most favorable rules could even be in the player’s favor. However, casinos won’t offer such a game for that reason, except perhaps as a loss-leader promotion.
Other games with good odds for the player include video poker and certain craps bets. Video poker, like blackjack, requires skill to play correctly. In craps, many bets are unfavorable, but the basic Pass Line bet has only a 1.4% house edge and allows the player to place a subsequent Odds Bet with no house edge at all.
Myth: “With the Right System, You Can Beat the House”
Reality: Professional gamblers do have systems they use to beat their opponents, the sportsbook or, more rarely, the casino. However, these are complicated strategies and they evolve over time.
Genuine “systems” for profiting at gambling take the form of poker training courses, books, and mathematical models for estimating sports odds. They aren’t simple things you’ll find laid out in a single article on a website.
Most of the time, if you hear someone claim to have “a system,” particularly for casino gaming, they’re either kidding themselves or consciously attempting to fool you.
In particular, systems that claim to find the pattern in random results are bogus. You can’t predict when a slot machine will hit, nor what number is coming next at roulette.
Systems for varying the size of your bets are also problematic. The most famous of these is the Martingale or double-down strategy.
In principle, doubling your bet each time you lose would guarantee a small profit, but only on two conditions:
- You would need to begin with infinite money, and
- The casino would need to be willing to accept any size of bet.
Since neither of these is ever true, the Martingale strategy isn’t the “safe strategy” it’s sometimes presented as. Other betting systems have similar problems.
Claim: “Slots Can be Due for a Win”
Reality: Unlike the other claims, this one is straightforwardly false. The random number generators that power slot machines determine each result independently. There is no point at which the odds of a win go up, no matter how many losing spins or near misses have come before.
Players who believe that slots can “be due” are an example of people kidding themselves and following a system that doesn’t actually work. It’s a superstition, plain and simple.
For more detail as to why, see our discussion of the Gambler’s Fallacy in our lessons on probability.
There is one exception to this, which is a “Must Hit By” progressive jackpot. Such games gradually increase the odds of the jackpot as the deadline approaches, in order to guarantee that someone wins before the designated time.
However, those machines are explicitly programmed by the manufacturer to work that way and are advertised as such. They do not reflect the normal operation of a slot machine or even that of other progressive jackpots.
Casino School: Strategy
This has been Strategy Lesson 1 of our four-part Casino School series. Next up is Strategy Lesson 2: Can You Tell a Real Choice From a Fake One?