Last update: August 2018
The three kinds of people
As a Vegas visitor, you're going to be in one of these categories:
- People who don't gamble at all. (Yes, there are lots of them.)
- People who gamble smart (playing the games with the best odds, for small stakes).
- People who gamble with no real clue what they're doing. They typically lose a lot and are often pretty unhappy about it.
My goal is to get you into category #1 or #2. If you're intent on gambling, I'll show you how to do it so you don't lose your shirt.
Not gambling is an option!
You might be surprised to learn that thousands of people come here every year for the sights, the sounds, the shows, the food, and don't gamble a penny. I know because I run into plenty of them. And by not gambling, they have more money to spend on all their other entertainment. If gambling doesn't interest you, then rest assured that there's nothing wrong with you, and don't feel pressured to do so just because it seems like everyone else is. Heck, maybe you're the kind of person who would end up with a compulsive gambling addiction once you started. In that case, it's better off not to start.
Is gambling stupid?
All the games are games are set up in the casino's favor.
The casinos don't win because they're lucky, they win because they
have a built-in edge. Since you're a guaranteed long-term
loser, gambling might seem pretty dumb.
On the other hand, almost all entertainment costs money. If you get sufficient amusement for the money you parted with, then gambling isn't stupid at all. The average loss from betting $5 a round on a typical table game with the proper strategy is only $8 an hour or less. That's certainly cheaper than any Vegas show, or even the movies. I have a hard time calling an $8/hr. loss stupid. As long you don't expect to lose more than you'd spend on other entertainment, then gambling is simply entertainment as well.
The problem with gambling is that it's extremely easy to lose a lot of money, very quickly. And if you lose so much that you're unhappy about it, then you've experienced negative entertainment. That's the situation you need to avoid at all costs.
How to be a smart gambler
The cardinal rule of gambling is never bet more than you can comfortably afford to lose. If you simply follow that one rule religiously, you'll never get in trouble. Yeah, that should be obvious, but if it's so obvious then why do so many people ignore it? Promise yourself that you'll never bet more than you can afford. The best way to do that is to set loss limits and stick to them.
The other half of the equation is to play the right games, with the right strategy, for small stakes, and avoid the bad games. Slot machines will suck your money away hand over fist, while low-stakes blackjack with proper strategy will just sip your money away.
So, putting all that together, here's your game plan:
- Set a daily loss limit and a trip loss limit for gambling, and stick to it. If you lose your limit, stop playing.
- Set daily win limits, and stop if you win your limit. (more on this below)
- Play the games with the best odds (blackjack, craps, baccarat, video poker).
- Use the proper strategy for those games.
- Avoid the bad games (everything besides those listed above, but especially slot machines).
- Bet small, and play slowly.
Win limits are just as important as loss limits. For example, you might set a win limit of either $500 or 50% of your bankroll. If you hit your win limit, you should stop playing, just as if you'd hit a loss limit. If your goal in playing was to win, then congratulations, you did it, and you beat the odds. If you continue to play you'll likely lose. So lock in your win and quit. If you absolutely must continue to play, then set your winnings aside and never play them; play only your original bankroll.
How much money should I gamble?
The most important thing with gambling is to decide beforehand how much you're willing to lose for your whole trip. Don't plan on having any money left over when you're done, because you can't guarantee that you will. Once you figure out your loss limit, that's how much you'll take with you for gambling.
Once you've figured your trip budget, then divide it into daily budgets. If your trip budget is $300, then your loss limit per day for a three-day trip is $100 each day. If you lose it all then stop playing, and do something else.
Once you know how much you're willing to risk, you can use
my separate article to figure how much to bet
per hand or per spin.
How are the odds stacked against you?
The house has the edge in all games of chance. They don't make their money by getting lucky, they make money because the odds are stacked in their favor. However, the odds aren't drastically in their favor. You do have a chance of winning. You'd have to, otherwise no one would play. If everyone lost every time they played, no one would come back to the casino. But if 20% of customers win, they'll definitely be back. And for the 80% who lost, they were probably ahead at some point, so they know that winning is possible, which will encourage them to return to try again.
Let's take roulette. If you bet $5 on red, you can win another $5. What are your chances of doing so? There are 18 red slots, 18 black slots, and 2 green slots, for 38 slots total. So you have an 18/38 chance of winning, or 47.37%. Of course, the flip side is that you have a 52.63% chance of losing.
The difference between these two numbers is the house edge, which is the average casino profit per bet. 52.63% - 47.37% = 5.26%. That means the casino expects to keep 5.26% of all the money ever bet on its roulette game. A $5 bet loses $0.26 to the casino on average. You don't lose that amount from a single wager—on one round you either win or lose $5. But in the long run, your average loss will be 5.26% of the total amount bet.
Each game has its own house edge. Blackjack, craps, and baccarat have an edge of less than 1.5% if you use the proper strategy. The worst game is slots, with an edge of around 5 to 13%, depending on the denomination and the casino's preference. This is compounded by the fact that slots are played at a lightning pace compared to table games. Clearly, to lose the least amount of money, you should choose the best games, bet small, and play slowly. My crash course in table games will help you do just that.
Strategy is important
Even you play the best games, without the right strategy you'll still lose more than you should. If you play craps but make the sucker bets, or make lots of bets at once, you might as well be playing a slot machine. And with blackjack, you need to know whether to hit, stand, split, or double down on each hand, not to mention how to identify the best games. (For the strategy, you can see my blackjack strategy table, or buy a similar one at any Vegas gift shop for $1.50.)
The difference between playing smart and playing on a whim is staggering. Play craps, blackjack, or baccarat for $5/hand with proper strategy and you'll lose only around $8/hr. on average. On a $0.25 slot machine you'll lose $36—and have a much lower chance of winning overall. Heck, even a nickel slot machine loses twice as much per hour as one of the $5 table games I recommend.
Don't put a dime on the table until you know what you're doing.
If you want to practice, you can use Bovada's free
online practice games.
A betting system is a plan of how much to bet, based on whether previous rounds were wins or losses, to increase your chances of winning in the short term. No betting system works in the long term, which is another way of saying that no betting system can overcome the house edge. The fact that you're more likely to win in the short term is balanced by the fact that when you do lose, you'll lose big—bigger than if you hadn't used a betting system.
Here are two examples. The Martingale Betting System has you double your bet after a loss. Say you bet $5 and lose. Next time you bet $10. If you lose you bet $20. If you lose you bet $40. At the end of the sequence when you finally win, you'll show a $5 profit. The main problem with this system is that if you lose a bunch of bets in a row you won't be able to afford to make the next bet. The other problem is that even if you could, the casino will limit how much you can wager.
A less dangerous system is to increase your bet by 50% every time you win. Say you bet $8. If you win then you'll increase your bet by half that ($4), so next time you'll bet $12. If you win that then you'll add $6, so you'll bet $18. If you win that then you add $9 so you're betting $27. Whenever you lose you start over with $8. This is safer than the Martingale because you bet more when you're winning, not when you're losing.
Another system is to bet half,
one-third, or one-fourth of your remaining chips on each hand.
That gives you a much greater chance of reaching a large goal (such
as to double the amount you started with) vs. flat-betting
(which means to bet the same amount on each round).
Betting systems are fun, but they never tilt the odds in your
favor. In fact they don't even decrease the odds. They
do make it more likely that you'll win in the short term, with the
tradeoff being that when you do lose, your loss will be large.
For more, see my separate article on
If you're playing roulette and red has just come up ten times in a row, should you bet on red or black for the next spin? The answer is that it doesn't matter. Each result is equally likely. Past results do not influence future results. Many a gambler's downfall has been the mistaken belief that you can discern any kind of pattern in the results. It simply doesn't work that way. If it did, the casinos would not be standing. In reality, the casinos are happy to encourage people's delusions by providing pads of paper for them to keep track of previous spins, and they even have a marquee at the roulette table which shows the results of the last several spins. The casinos have no fear in providing this because they know there's absolutely no benefit to you in having that information. This is not a gray area, and it's not something that the experts disagree on: Every single mathematician on the planet will tell you the exact same thing, that each spin is absolutely random. For more, see my separate article on the gambler's fallacy.
Why do people gamble?
"Why people gamble" and "Gambling Addiction" are now on a separate page.
Is investing a form of gambling?
It depends on how you define it. Yes, both gambling and investing means putting your capital at risk for the chance of getting more capital. (And I've certainly lost more money in the stock market than I ever have at the casino!) The reason we don't usually consider investing to be gambling is that with most forms of investing you'll probably win, while in the casino you'll probably lose. InvestorGuide has an article about investing vs. gambling.
Help me improve this article by letting me know what else I should include here.