How I learned to gamble
As Nevadans, gambling and casino culture is part of our state DNA. Images of frontier gamblers are baked into our folklore of the Old West (See the Suicide Table at the Delta Saloon in Virgina City for a local example) and many of the first free-standing buildings in the state were casinos and saloons. In a more modern sense, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Nevada’s 289 casinos reported revenues of $11.9 billion in 2018. And, like thousands of other tourists and Nevada residents, at least a few of the dollars padding the casino industry’s near-record breaking earnings report came from me.
I’ve never been a good gambler, even after living in Reno my entire life. The only real bet I place on the Superbowl every year is whether or not the National Anthem will be sung in over or under two minutes, because I can usually guess at the celebrity singer’s taste for grandstanding better than which team will beat the other. Even at friendly poker nights, I’m more liable to leave after one or two drinks with my wallet intact than spend the time and money learning the game. Lately, however, as I’ve found a little more financial stability, I’d like to at least be comfortable in a casino setting, where, to me, the frenetic setting has always made the already stressful prospect of losing my money even worse. But I’m a Nevadan, dammit, and playing the odds is my birthright, so I asked a pro for help.
“Bob Stupak used to own Vegas World, and he said—it’s a funny line—’Our goal in life as casino owners is to take all their money and put a smile on their face,’” said Mark Pilarski, an ex-casino shift manager—among other positions—who wrote gambling advice in his nationally syndicated gambling column “Deal Me In” for over 20 years until he retired in 2015. He came to town by accident and found a multi-decade career in the casino industry. “I came up to go skiing at Lake Tahoe and got offered a job, and I was supposed to do something else, but I ended up in a hazmat suit—if you can believe it—cleaning kitchens at Harvey’s Inn. Initially, I lasted about two weeks, and then I got into Keno, and I just climbed the ladder.”
The internet is full of advice on how to win at casinos. Whether it’s scientific, or even helpful, is another matter entirely, and navigating different forums or sites takes a decent amount of knowledge on the vocabulary of betting in the first place. As a novice, I asked Pilarski where to even begin if I wanted to leave a casino with more money than I came in with.
“My whole concept with gambling is, well, first of all, only make bets with two percent or less house advantage,” he said. “And, finally, the smarter you play, that’s playing those bets, the luckier you’re going to end up being. That’s sort of my gaming thing in a nutshell.”
Pilarski explained that it’s important to conceive of betting as a math problem, and that the casinos win more often because they understand the math better than most players. Essentially, casinos not only calculate the odds of how often a shooter rolls a seven or the dealer turns a face card, for example, but how those odds change in the long run—which is often where they end up winning—called the House Advantage.
“And it’s real simple,” Pilarski said. “If you and I flip a coin, and every time you win I’m going to pay you 94 cents and every time I win you’re going to pay me a dollar, I’m going to win this game over the long haul. And, yes, you want to send out winners, because casinos want nothing more than to send winners out the front door, but only three to four to five percent of them because winners will tell losers.”
The math governing this phenomenon is called “negative expectation” and is explained by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Center for Gaming Research’s website like this: “The amount of money the player can expect to win or lose in the long run—if the bet is made over and over again —is called the player’s wager expected value (EV), or expectation. When the player’s wager expectation is negative, he will lose money in the long run. For a $5 bet on the color red in roulette, for example, the expectation is -$0.263. On the average, the player will lose just over a quarter for each $5 bet on red.”
With a basic knowledge of how certain games work and smart play, a player can find better odds, or games that can be manipulated through skill by what are called “advantage players.” Pilarski told me that there are a couple of games where the odds are a little friendlier to first timers.
“Craps is relatively a simple game if you make smart bets,” he said. “If you take the pass line and take the odds and learn that portion of the game and nothing else, the house is going to hold less than a percent advantage over you—percent and a half. But if you take odds, you can bring that down remarkably. If you are a blackjack player and you play haphazardly, the casino’s going to hold a 5% edge. But if you play good basic strategy and learn the game of blackjack, and all basic strategy is ’there’s a dealer face card, how do I play the two cards that were just dealt to me?’ … You can really bring that house average down to under a percent, percent and a half.”
While there are dozens of games available at a casino, the NGCB put out a monthly revenue report saying which games have the highest win percentages for the house in different counties. Over the past year, blackjack and craps have had two of the lowest percentages in Washoe county, at 16.84 and 14.79 respectively—compared to games like Keno and three-card poker at 26.8 and 27.59—so I figured they were a good place to start. Pilarski left me with me two more pieces of advice.
“I tell everybody walking in the front door: set loss limits, ’I’m going to lose this amount of money,’ and win goals, ’If I win any more than this, hey, I’m lucky, let’s walk,’” he said. “Most people can’t set win goals because if they made a 100, they got to make 200, and they never get to the two, and they lose it all.”
This type of money management is important, he said, as it helps create a reference for people to interact with gambling as a social practice—not a source of income. Walking into a casino trying to win as much as possible plays into the house’s long-term odds, Pilarski said. And speaking of odds, I was told to avoid the worst odds in the house.
“That’d be my number one tip: Avoid slots,” Pilarski said. “They’re just mouse traps for the casinos.”
Money where your mouth is
That weekend, I went to a downtown casino with my brother, Sean, and buddy Steve—who’s a much better card player than me. We started at the sports book so Sean could place a parlay bet on three different NBA games—meaning he needed to win all three bets to win the odds. Pilarski also mentioned the sports book was his favorite way to gamble because he felt like he got a better experience out of the complimentary items and low pressure.
“Here you are sitting and watching a game, say you’ve got $100 on a basketball game, they’re feeding you, bringing you free drinks,” he said. “Back in the day, they’d give me dollar hotdogs, dollar shrimp cocktails. It was like going to Buffalo Wild Wings, and you’re spending 100 bucks on food and drink. There, it was like five bucks, and you’re watching the same event.”
After we left the book, we found a blackjack table with a $10 minimum bet—or the minimum cost to play one hand. I told the dealer, Thomas, that I was trying to learn the game and he was very accommodating, as Pilarski said would be the case. It’s proper etiquette to tip a dealer, and they make more tips if you win more money, so it’s in their best interest to help you out if you have questions on what to do.
I traded $60 (my loss limit for the night) for chips, and we were quickly brought free drinks by the cocktail waitress—another house ploy to keep you gambling longer and with less inhibition. However, Thomas said that myself and people who got too drunk were in a rare position to win.
“The house can’t beat two types of people,” he said. “One, those who are too drunk to play predictably, because the house likes predictability. That’s not you, yet, so the other one is people who don’t know how to play in the first place, for the same reason.”
It was, I’m sure, just dealer schmoozing, but I felt encouraged anyway, and I was up before too long. In blackjack, the players and dealer both get two cards with the goal of getting a combined value of 21. The players decide whether to hit (ask for another card) or stand if they think they’re closer to 21 than the dealer, who always keeps one card face down (the “hole” card) until the player stays or busts (goes over).
I’d forgotten the strategy card Pilarski told me about, but Thomas said they rarely worked anyway. I quickly settled into the basic strategy for the game: assume the dealer’s hole card has a value of 10, and then hit or stand based on how your hand stacks up. The dealer has to hit if the value of their cards is under 17, so by hitting under 17 (the “Mother-in-law” hand, Thomas joked, “because you want to hit her, but you just can’t”) when the dealer is showing a high card and standing on anything above, the player will win more often. There are other bets and rules that can influence the outcome, but for the most part, this was how I won.
As another money management tactic, after I started winning, I took $60 in chips and put them back in my pocket. As long as I didn’t physically go in my pocket, I’d be playing with house money, and avoiding the physical act of going into where I knew my money was safe helped curb the “Just one more hand!” feeling that came with winning. After two whiskey sodas, two different dealers and an hour’s worth of play, I was up almost $200 when we left to try craps.
Like Pilarski told me, craps is essentially a simple game, except it’s one where the player’s skill can’t affect the odds. Players roll two dice across a long, felt board on which different tables and numbers are drawn. There are multiple bets that pay different odds depending on what number comes up, but the most statistically probable number to roll is seven—which, of course, means all the players lose and the new shooter is the player to the left of the old one. The safest bets on a craps table are playing the “pass line” and taking odds on the “point” number.
“If you don’t take odds, which means I’m putting five [dollars] on the pass line and there’s a number that’s posted on the thing, and the number might be four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 … you are betting that that number will roll before seven,” He said. “Odds means it’s money that’s standing behind them on that pass line … and you get true odds for that, which means the house has no advantage and that lowers your pass line. But just [betting] the pass line, the house edge is only a percent and a half against you.”
Essentially, if I just put the minimum bet—for our table it was $10—on the pass line, I would win the same amount if the shooter’s first role is a 7 or 11, and I would lose if it was a 2, 3 or 12. These are very good odds. Any other number establishes a point, which the player can again bet the on pass line that that number will roll before seven. If I placed the same amount on the odds, I’d win the same way but at a better rate. Theoretically, these two bets combined win more money more frequently than any other bet. I, however, quickly lost $50 and found that unlucky streaks from multiple shooters can wipe out winnings in an instant.
Still, I was up and didn’t feel like losing more, so I cashed out and took my $150 out the door with me, but not before seeing Pilarksi’s “mouse trap” theory about slots in action. Steve put $100 of his winnings into a slot near the cages and roll after roll showed combinations across the different lines—at one point, the over $40,000 jackpot was one reel away. Still, for every exciting win, there were three or four losses at $9 each, meaning I watched the total winnings climb from $100 to $200 and then back to 0 in a jagged arc that took around 15 minutes. Still, Steve had a good sense of humor about it, a necessity when losing, and reminded me that you have to think of your money as being lost as soon as you put it down. Everything after that is just a bonus.
Unfortunately, I also saw the house advantage up close when I went back to the craps table the weekend after. I was convinced I just needed to be a little more consistent with my betting, and played the pass line and odds religiously. I was up from my initial $60, but after getting confident, I started playing other bets like the “field” (which pays for numbers rolled besides the point) and the hard numbers (which are specific numbers). I lost all of my money after a few unlucky rolls, including a few by yours truly. I committed the gambling sin of trying to “buy” my winnings back by putting an extra $100 down—the last of my winnings from the other weekend. Before long, that was gone too, meaning I was back to square one and the house had won in the long run—in my case, one week.