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Win more by using these tactics for managing money


It is the march of defeat, the walk of pain. Almost everyone has done it at least once, but some people do it more than others. It is the awful trudge to the money machine after a wipeout at the tables or slots, when a player wants to continue the game but finds his pockets are empty, except for plastic. The casino and the bank will charge big fees when he takes a cash advance on a credit card. And casino ATMs are expensive, too.

Players tend to blame bad luck, bad play, or the house edge for their woes as they pull out the plastic and make generous donations to the money-gods Visa and MasterCard.

But in fact, luck, optimal play and the casino’s edge have little to do with it. The game is not the source of the problem. Rather, it’s a question of “money management.” A person could be the worst player on the planet, but if he manages his bankroll correctly, he will never take the walk of pain. Conversely, a player who has an advantage can still be cleaned out if he uses poor money management.

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

Size Matters

The basic premise of money 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 ten minutes before a hot streak begins.

Here’s an example. Let’s say we’re betting on coin flips. If the coin comes up heads, you win $20. Tails costs you only $10.

Who would give you such awesome odds?

Nobody, probably, but the point here is that it’s a sweet bet. You could quit your job and flip a coin for a living with 2:1 payoffs like that.

But what if we take the same odds and make the base bet $10 million. Clearly, that changes things. Even with 2:1 odds in your favor, $10 million is an outrageous risk on a single coin flip. A smidgen of bad luck, just one loss, would leave you super-bankrupt, unless you’re a billionaire.

Now imagine that the stakes are only one penny. Even with favorable odds, it will take a while to earn substantial money. In fact, the game is hardly worth playing. But on the bright side, even the worst luck will have little effect when the stakes are so low. So you can play forever.

Following this concept one step further, let’s say you own a casino. When would be the best time to “quit while you’re ahead?”

Of course, the answer is never. Usually, a casino has an advantage. The more it plays, the more money it earns. The same is true for an individual player who has an advantage at blackjack, video poker, poker, or another game.

On the other hand, there is luck to consider. Let’s say you build a casino, but you have only $1,000 to cover all the bets on opening night. Yes, you have an advantage, but the smallest swing of bad luck could bankrupt you anyway. That’s one of the reasons why casinos have jackpot-reserve requirements, table limits, and a specific range of denominations on their slot machines. Nobody, not even a casino, can risk an unlimited amount of money.

It Begins With a Bankroll

If you’re like most players, you already have a bankroll. But just in case, we’ll briefly review the basics.

Main Bankroll: Everyone needs a bankroll for gambling (funds set aside for wagering). This keeps us from accidentally spending our grocery money. Typically, the bankroll is treated as a simple stop-loss—that is, the gambling stops when the money is gone. But if you are forced to stop, then it begs a question… Was the bankroll too small, or were the bets too large?

Session Bankroll: One method used by many players to protect a bankroll is to divide it into portions that are risked during “sessions.” Typically, these are two to three hours of play, once or twice a day. Some people have sessions that are four or eight hours. The particular length doesn’t matter, but the point is that the session ends immediately if the session bankroll dips to zero. Thus one bad session cannot nuke a whole gambling trip. Smart. But again, the system is less than perfect if it frequently stops you from playing.

Ideally, you should be in the same position as the casino, able to play indefinitely within your chosen range of bets.

Bet Size and Bankroll Size

So how much should you bet? And how big should your bankroll be in relation to the size of your bets?

Professional gamblers use a system called the Kelly Criterion to determine optimum bet size and/or bankroll size. The way it works is that a player arbitrarily chooses either a bankroll amount or a bet size, and the Kelly formula produces the optimum size of the other variable. The resulting bet-to-bankroll ratio gives the player the greatest probability of winning and the lowest probability of losing everything.

Unfortunately, Kelly tells us to bet zero dollars when the casino has an advantage. That doesn’t help much when we’re playing slots or games such as Caribbean Stud. There’s a calculation similar to Kelly that estimates risk of ruin (the probability that your bankroll will dip to zero), but I won’t cross your eyes with either of these formulas.

Instead, I’ll just tell you that a bankroll for a two to three hour session should be at least 250 times the size of your average bet when you’re playing penny and nickel slots. 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, sometimes longer.

If you’re playing quarters or dollars, then your session bankroll should be at least 200 times the size of your average bet. On $5 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 as the denomination increases. That’s because quarter slots are generally looser (have a higher overall payback) than penny and nickel slots, $5 games are looser than quarters, and so forth.

Note also that video poker machines don’t get looser at higher denominations (though sometimes the pay tables get better).

Why are table-game bankrolls smaller compared to slots? First, let’s remember that table-game bets are often bigger in actual dollars. So the total amount required for a blackjack game may be more than the amount for a video poker game, even when a blackjack bankroll contains fewer bets.

The main reason table games require fewer bets is that they tend to have lower volatility compared to slots and video poker. In other words, there are fewer extreme swings between winning and losing. 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.

If all this math makes your head spin, don’t fret. Just take your base bet and tack two zeros on the end. Double that amount. That’s 200 bets.

You’ll rarely go wrong with a session bankroll of 200 bets for slots or 50 bets for table games.

You should have a main bankroll of at least 3,000 bets to play video poker indefinitely with no house edge. And you’ll need at least 300 bets to play table games indefinitely with no house edge. If you’re playing against an edge, then eventually you’ll need to replenish your main bankroll or gradually step down in bet size as the casino steadily diminishes your fund.

If you’re playing with an advantage, or you’re lucky enough to hit a long winning streak, then you can grow your bankroll, increase the size of your bets and shoot for bigger wins. Or you can remove money from your bankroll and use it in other ways.

Working the System

What if you can afford only 100 bets per session for slots, or 25 bets for table games? Ideally, you should lower the amount of your base bet to fit the size of your session bankroll. If you don’t want to do that, then just accept the fact that you may bust in an hour or less, unless you hit a lucky streak.

What if you can afford 250 bets for one session, but not 1,000 bets for four sessions (or whatever you need for the length of your trip?) Happily, you will win sometimes, especially if you use optimal strategy. Let’s say you begin with a trip bankroll of 750 bets. You may find that it’s enough to cover four or even five sessions. But if you want to be sure that you can play the entire time, then play fewer sessions, or lower the amount of your base bet.

What if you want to play longer than two to three hours?

That’s okay, but take a break and begin a new session (with a new session bankroll) when you return.

What happens if your session bankrolls disappear too quickly?

Stop playing, and start thinking about your game. You’re either not correctly using optimal strategy, or you’re not funding the bankrolls correctly.

You’re a Big Winner!

What if you hit a jackpot or a hot streak at the tables? Ahhhh, profit! Depending on the size of the win, most of that money should go back to your main bankroll. You shouldn’t necessarily plow it all back into the game during the current session.

A good technique to manage this is a “rolling stop-loss.” It can be any amount you choose and there are various ways of calculating it, but the “sliding window” is pretty typical. Let’s say you start a session with 100 bets. If you win 50 bets, then the window slips forward by that amount. The original stop-loss was zero (a net loss of 100 bets); the new stop-loss has moved forward to 50. You always exit the session if you lose 100 bets from the highest point of the bankroll. That means you’re permanently in a profit zone after a net win of more than 100 bets.

Enforcing a stop-loss can be as simple as cashing out and handing money to your spouse, paying off a marker, or you can use a Winners Bank. It’s a nifty little tool (about the size of a wallet) into which you slip money and chips. The device requires a key to open, and you don’t bring the key with you to the casino. Voila!

You literally lock up profit. Check it out at

Cash n’ Carry

Handling cash and credit, storing your bankroll and so forth are important subjects peripherally connected to money management. We’ll explore the intricacies of financial transactions in another article. (For more on this subject, check out Playboy Complete Guide to Casino Gambling). But here we’ll say simply that you should always play with cash whenever possible. And get the cash before you hit the casino. If carrying large amounts of green makes you nervous, a good alternative is a casino line of credit; it works like a loan except there are no fees. Cool, huh?

You can ask for a line of credit at the casino cage.

The absolute worst way to fund a bankroll is with a credit card. Credit cards advances are ridiculously expensive. Avoid them if you can.

Why bother?

Sometimes you may be tempted to say, “Why should I hassle with all these calculations? Why not just go down to the ATM, get $300, and go play? The worst that can happen is I lose $300. Right?”

Well, yes. But without money management the $300 might be gone in 20 minutes. And then you’ll be tempted to go back to the ATM. Bad scene.

In contrast, a good bankroll strategy gives you endurance.

You play as much as you want, for as long as you want. You are in control. No regrets. No walk of pain. No ATM or credit-card slips as a silent testament to a wild night gone awry.

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