Money management helps—but it can’t make math disappear
By John Grochowski
Long, long ago at a park district far, far away, I was giving a seminar on casino basics for beginners. It was in a town with a brand new riverboat, so we were just talking about the basics of how to bet, playing some sample hands at table games, discussing slot paybacks and betting the max, and taking a quick peek at video poker strategy.
At the end of the day, one 20-something man piped up, “I was hoping you could teach us something about money management.”
What I told him wasn’t really what he wanted to hear. He was hoping I had a magic formula that could make the house edge go away. I have no such magic. When people ask about money management, I keep it to a few basics:
- Don’t bet money you can’t afford to lose. Set a budget for the day and not going to the ATM when it runs out. Beyond that, don’t risk too much of the day’s budget at once. If you have $200 to play for the day, you shouldn’t be playing $5 slot machines, where 20 two-coin bets can break you just like that, or even $1 video poker, where $200 is 40 five-credit wagers. That’s a 25-cent and below slot and video poker budget.
- Don’t give back all your winnings when you’re ahead. A woman once told me she’d won $1,000 on a quarter video poker machine, stepped up to dollars and lost it all the same day. I told her my first move in that situation is to put away half the winnings immediately. Keep it to go home, no matter what.
- Don’t chase losses when you’re behind. Neither slots nor video poker games are ever “due” to pay off, and that you’ve been losing doesn’t make you any more likely to start winning. The odds of the game just stay the same. It’s easy to let things spiral out of control if you increase your bets to try to win back losses. Chasing losses is a recipe for financial disaster.
There are some money management systems that can help. When on multiday trips, some players divide their money into daily bankrolls. If you have $1,000 to play for three days, then you might take envelopes filled with $330, $330 and $340—one envelope for each day. If you go through one day’s envelope, don’t touch the others. You’re finished playing for the day.
Or you might use a system of floating win goals and loss limits. If you start with $100 at a video poker game, you might decide on a win/loss goal of $50. If you drop to $50, you leave the machine. If wins take you to $150, most players won’t want to leave right away, so you adjust up. Now you leave the table if you drop to your original $100, and re-assess if you keep winning and shoot up to $200. That keeps you in the game when you’re winning, and gets you out before you spend too much of your stake.
But what if you’re playing a really good video poker game at a top pay table? What if you’re paying full-pay Deuces Wild with a theoretical return of 100.8 percent with expert play, or playing another near-100 percent game and also getting enough free play and other benefits to take it into positive territory?
That was on the mind of a reader who emailed to ask: “Can players who are playing a positive expectation game with additional benefits ignore the need and advice for win/loss goals? How would you respond to a comment such as this: “I have the advantage on every hand I play, why should I stop?”
If you’re good enough to play at expert level at those games—or if you play while using an accurate strategy card—that’s a reasonable question. If you have an edge on a game, the idea of win/loss limits doesn’t really apply. A well-financed video poker pro isn’t going to stop playing just because he’s hit a royal flush, or because he’s lost a few bucks. The pursuit of profit goes on.
I’d just add a couple of cautions:
- Even advantage players at any game need to be wary of fatigue. Regardless of whether you’re a blackjack card counter, dice controller at craps or a video poker player who sticks to expert strategy at the best games, if you play when weary you’re going to start making mistakes. Get some rest and come back to the games refreshed.
- Bankroll remains a prime consideration even if you have an edge. A pro that is sufficiently bankrolled, with tens of thousands of dollars in reserve, probably is just going to play on when he draws a $1,000 royal flush. He has an edge, and continuing to play is pursuit of profit. But if I go into the casino with $500 and win a $1,000 royal, leaving me with a bankroll of $1,500 minus whatever I’d already invested, I have to be aware that a long losing streak can wipe me out. Losing streaks happen to everyone, so in that short-bankrolled situation, I’m probably going to lock up my original $500 plus $500 more.
One advantage casinos have even over players who have an edge on the game is that they have more money than you do. They can withstand longer losing streaks than you can. So yes, unless players have very deep pockets, locking up some winnings is a smart way to go.
It’s a matter of protecting some of what you have. Money management is not a force you can draw on to change game math, but it can help keep you solvent.