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Reason #1 I like Bovada:

Play for free
with no hassles

Most online casinos annoy the hell out of me. They insult you with popup windows and spam, and do everything they can to separate you from your money. Even if you want to just play with fake money for free, they make you register for an account so they can pester you by email trying to get you to deposit real money.

On the whole Internet, I found exactly one online casino that's different: Bovada. You can play their games for free, with absolutely no hassles. And that's the main reason why I promote them exclusively.

Here's what I mean by no hassles:

  • Completely free. It's not one of those "Buy 1 get 1 free" kind of deals, it's absolutely free. You can click over and start playing with fake money right away, with no cash out of pocket. Here, go ahead and try it.
  • No registration required. Most casinos let you play for free, but there's a catch: They make you register an account first. That's not just a hassle: after you do it you can expect them to badger you by email trying to get you to deposit real money. But Bovada lets you play right away with no registration required. One click and you're in. Honest. Here, try it.
  • Plays right in your browser. If you'd rather not download the casino software to your hard disk, you don't have to. The games play right in your web browser. Nice.
  • Works on Macs. The play-in-browser games are MacOS compatible! Before Bovada, Mac users were pretty much out of luck for gambling online. Not any more.
  • No popups. I'll never understand why companies think it's a good idea to annoy their visitors, but that's standard practice at most online casinos. Bovada is one of the rare exceptions -- no popups, no popouts, no browser hijacking, just the website with no B.S.

All in all, I think Bovada is the best bet for U.S. players.

Visit Bovada

Gambling problem?
  1. Call the 800-522-4700 hotline or get online help
  2. See these horror stories.
  3. Know that Parkinson's drugs encourage gambling.
Play these
free slots now

Gambling problem?
  1. Call the 800-522-4700 hotline or get online help
  2. See these horror stories.
  3. Know that Parkinson's drugs encourage gambling.

Gambling 101

This article is about gambling in general.  If you're looking for info on how to play casino games, then see our Crash Course on table games instead.


Last update: February 2018

The three kinds of people

As a Vegas visitor, you're going to be in one of these categories:

  1. People who don't gamble at all.  (Yes, there are lots of them.)
  2. People who gamble smart (playing the games with the best odds, for small stakes).
  3. 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 stupid.

But there's a catch:  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?  I dunno, but in any event, 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:

  1. Set a daily loss limit and a trip loss limit for gambling, and stick to it.
  2. Play the games with the best odds (blackjack, craps, baccarat, video poker).
  3. Use the proper strategy for those games.
  4. Avoid the bad games (everything besides those listed above, but especially slot machines).
  5. Bet small, and play slowly.

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 much faster than 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.

Betting Systems

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 betting systems.

Gambler's Fallacy

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.  But 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 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.

How to take money to a casino

If you want to gamble $1000 or less, then just carry it.  A money belt is a good idea.  If it would devastate you to lose that sum to a pickpocket or other random mishap, you shouldn't be gambling that amount anyway.

For larger amounts, you have two options:

  • Get a cashier's check from the bank and bring it to the casino's cashier ("the cage").
  • Apply for a line of credit at the casino.

For cashier's checks, be sure to fax a copy of the check to the casino cage at least a day before you arrive.  You'll want to give them time to verify that it's good.  If you arrive in the evening, they won't be able to verify the check with your bank until the bank opens in the morning.  Note that if you're staying in the hotel, you can deposit that money at the cage so you don't have to carry it around with you all the time.

For a line of credit, call the casino and apply ahead of time.  If approved, then when you sit down at the tables or the machines you can ask for a "marker", which is a draw on your line of credit.  If you're in the red at the end of your trip (and you probably will be), the casino generally gives you 30 days to send them a check to settle up.

Using a debit card tied to your checking account in an ATM is okay, but your bank probably limits the amount you can withdraw per day to $500 to $1000, and the casino ATM will charge you at least $4 on top of what your bank charges you.

What you absolutely should not do is to get a cash advance on your credit card, whether with a live teller or with a machine.  First off, they'll start charging you interest from the millisecond they give you the cash, and most credit cards charge 20% per month or more.  And if you get the advance from one of the machines in the casino, they'll tack on a whopping fee of their own, a minimum of 2% of the total.  Ouch.

How to buy chips

Just sit down at the table and lay your cash down.  It has to be cash, they don't take credit cards at the table.  If you have a line of credit as mentioned above, then you can ask for a marker, and they'll give you chips as a loan.  You don't have to draw your full line of credit, of course.  If you have $10k of credit, you can draw a $1k marker, for example.  The dealer handles cash, but if you're drawing a marker then you'll need to ask one of the people roaming around in suits to handle the marker for you.

After you've laid your cash down you might have to wait while the dealer finishes dealing the current hand.  After that, she'll count out your money, and count out some chips, and slide them over to you.  The denominations are $5 (red), $25 (green), $100 (black), $500 (purple), and $1000 (yellow).  She may ask you "How do you want that?", meaning do you want all green chips, all red chips, or a mix?  Dealers don't make change, so 100% of any money you put on the table will be changed into chips.  Of course, you don't have to bet all of them, and you can turn your chips into cash when you're done playing.

When you're done playing you'll "color up", which is to turn your chips into higher denominations so you have fewer chips to carry to the cashier.  Just push your chips towards the dealer and say, "Color up, please."  She'll change your chips and give you the larger denominations.  If you're not going to gamble any more then walk your chips over to the cashier (the "cage") to cash them in.  You can't cash your chips in at the table.

All the games use the same chips, except roulette.  With roulette each player uses a different color, so it's easy to see who bet on what.  You can buy roulette chips with regular chips or with cash.

Why do people gamble?

Studies show that men gamble more for the adrenaline rush, or to bolster their masculinity, while women gamble more to be part of an escapist fantasy, or to be sociable. (Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario, Electronic Journal of Gambling Issues)

And of course, some people gamble because of a compulsive addiction that is not easy to control.  The good news there is that it's definitely possible for individuals who gamble compulsively to stop. (American Journal of Psychiatry, Natl. Center for Responsible Gaming)  Related to this, certain prescription drugs encourage gambling behavior, especially those used to treat Parkinson's Disease.  A friend of mine with not much gambling history suddenly became a compulsive gambler after he started taking medicine for Parkinson's.  It sent his life into a downward spiral, but the good news is that once he realized the connection to the meds, he switched to different medication and now has been completely gambling-free.

One of the more interesting findings from psychological research is that we're more interested in something when the rewards are inconsistent.  If a test animal gets a reward every time it presses a lever, it quickly loses interest in the lever.  But if it only sometimes gets a reward and sometimes doesn't, then suddenly the lever becomes fascinating.  Slot machines have tapped into that concept perfectly:  They give inconsistent rewards, and keep us trying to chase the next win. (Live Science 2005)

Here's something that's crazy to me:  When someone wins a huge jackpot, say $1 million or more, what do they do next?  Many people go right back to playing slots!  I don't mean the next day or the next week, but just minutes later, like the person who won $2.9 million on the Wizard of Oz slot in December 2010. (LV Review-Journal)  What exactly is the point?  What do they hope to get out of continuing to play?  In my mind, when you hit a jumbo jackpot, you won.  You beat the house.  You achieved that ultra-rare event.  Congratulations.  You can stop playing now, because there's nothing more to gain by continuing.  Yet many jackpot winners keep going.  That smells like compulsion to me.

Here's my rule of thumb:  If you're smiling when you're playing, then it's entertainment. If you're not smiling, then you're not really having fun, and ought to consider quitting, or at least taking a break.

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.

What's missing from this article?

Help me improve this article by letting me know what else I should include here.