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Are Your Bets Too Big for Your Bankroll?

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Win more, and play longer, by using these money management tactics

by Basil Nestor

He was a young, fresh-faced guy. Spiky blond hair, blue eyes, sun-tanned face, dark-gray hoodie, smoking a cigarette and drinking Jack n’ Coke. He ordered a refill, then sat down two seats to my right and laid out five Andy Jacksons on the felt. The blackjack dealer pushed him twenty reds. Spike proceeded to bet $15 to $20 per hand. It took about fifteen minutes for him to toast the short stack. Back into his wallet he went for another $100, and that evaporated even faster. The next time he opened his wallet, there was only a $50 bill left. Spike hit a nice streak and recouped some of his money, but about 20 minutes later it was all gone.

With a sad sigh, he opened his wallet one last time. He checked the empty folds, as if some cash might have magically grown there since the last inspection. Then he shook his head and gave me a good-natured grin as if to say, “Should I have expected anything else?” He turned with a snort and left the table.

Well, yes, Spike should have expected something else. He substantially contributed to his own losses by grossly underfunding his session bankroll. About five minutes after Spike left, the dealer went through a cold streak and everyone at the table won a bunch. I scooped ten of twelve hands. Two of my hands were double downs, and one was a split. That was my entire profit for the evening.

Players like Spike tend to blame bad luck and the toughness of the game for their woes as their stacks shrink to the felt. But in fact, luck and the game have little to do with it. Even optimal play is only minimally responsible for keeping a player in the contest over the short term, which is typically three hours or less.

Bankroll

The biggest influence on staying power is bankroll management. A lousy player who manages his bankroll correctly may lose money, but he will never go broke at the table. Conversely, a card counter who knows all the right moves can be quickly cleaned out if he uses poor bankroll management.

All successful professional gamblers (including the casinos themselves) use bankroll management to safeguard their money and maximize their profits. The same strategies can be useful for you.

Size Matters

The basic premise of bankroll management is simple. You want to bet big enough to maximize profit when the gambling gods are with you, but you also want to bet small enough to minimize risk and keep yourself in the game when you catch a bad run. Good and bad streaks are inevitable, but you cannot be a winner if you bust out and stop playing five minutes before a hot streak begins.

How much should you bet? How big should your bankroll be in relation to the size of your bets? Professional gamblers use mathematic formulas to determine optimum bet size and/or bankroll size. But I won’t drag you through those calculations.

Instead, I’ll just tell you that a bankroll for a two-to-three-hour session playing slots should be at least 250 times the size of your average bet when the denomination is pennies or nickels. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy in for that amount, but having the money available will keep you playing for up to three hours in most circumstances (typically 90% to 95% of your three-hour sessions).

If you’re playing quarters or dollars, then your session bankroll should be at least 200 times the size of your average bet. On five-dollar slots and above, 150 bets should keep you going up to three hours.

Note that the number of bets needed for your session bankroll goes down on slot machines as the denomination increases. That’s because higher-denomination slots are generally looser (meaning, a higher overall payback) than lower-denomination slots. Also note that video poker machines don’t get looser at higher denominations, although sometimes the pay tables get better.

Session Bankroll

Game Decisions per Hour Recommended Minimum Session Bankroll (3 hours)
Penny Slots 500-600 250 bets
Nickel Slots 500-600 250 bets
Quarter Slots 500-600 200 bets
Dollar Slots 500-600 200 bets
Five-Dollar Slots 500-600 150 bets
Video Poker 400 150 bets
Table Poker 40 100 bets
Blackjack and Other Table Games 50-100 50 bets

Blackjack and other table games are best played with a minimum of 50 bets. The only exception to this rule is Let It Ride, which requires 150 bets (see my Playing the Tables column in this issue for an in-depth discussion of Let It Ride). For table poker, it’s 100 bets.

Why are table game bankrolls smaller compared to slots? Most table bets pay 1:1, or sometimes 3:2 or 2:1. Roulette’s top payout is 35:1. In contrast, slot games have jackpots that pay 1,000:1, 10,000:1, and even more. The money for those big jackpots has to come from somewhere. Games with big payoffs tend to have fewer small wins and longer stretches of losing.

When calculating the size of your bankroll, also keep in mind that an average bet is not necessarily the lowest bet. For example, if you bet max credits on a 25-cent video poker machine, and you play single hands, then each bet is $1.25. Multiply that by 150, and your session bankroll should be at least $187. But if you play ten hands per game, then each bet is $12.50, and the session bankroll should be at least $1,875.

Similar caveats apply if you cover a lot of numbers in roulette and craps, or play two or three spots in blackjack. And if you can’t fund your bankroll properly to fit the action, the best strategy for long-term play is to decrease the size of your bets.

Spike was betting $15 to $20 per hand, so he needed 50 bets, somewhere between $750 and $1,000, to keep him going for a few hours and give him a fair shot at catching a hot streak. Playing with only $250 gave him about 30% chance of busting out in 100 hands, and that’s exactly what happened.

Don’t let it happen to you. If you want to survive the streaks and win the max, be sure your bankroll and bets are in proper proportions to each other.

Enjoy the game!

Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.

Are Your Bets Too Big for Your Bankroll.

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