14 ways to Gamble Smart

Last update:  August 2023

Licensed from Dan Piraro of Bizarro.

I know, "gambling smart" sounds like an oxymoron.  After all, betting money games where you'll probably lose does sound kind of dumb.  As one person told me, "If I ever feel like gambling, I just drive by the casino and throw some money at it."  So if you don't want to gamble, I don't blame you.  I even made a huge list of other things to do in Vegas.

On the other hand, with proper strategy, you can expect to lose less than $10/hour on average.  That's about what you'd spend on a movie, and a lot less than many other forms of entertainment.  For someone who can easily afford a $10 loss, I have a hard time calling that stupid.

So if you're intent on gambling, let's learn how to do it right.

What to play

1. See how much you'll lose at various games

Check out my calculator to see how much you can expect to lose depending on what game you play and how much you bet.

Turn your phone sideways for a better calculator!
Average Loss Calculator
Game Rounds / Rolls
Per Hour
Bet per round House Edge Average Avg. Loss for
hour(s) hrs
of play
Slots $ 
Roulette $ 
Video Poker $ 
Baccarat $ 
Craps $ 
Blackjack $ 
These are mathematical averages based on infinite play.  You could lose more or less.
Play online casino games with fake money!  It's better than losing real money.

This should inform your decision about what games to play…and what not to play. About that…

2. Don't play slots.

Slots bleed you dry quickly.  If you scrolled past the Average Loss Calculator above, scroll back up and take a look.

3. If you must play slots, play online

I strongly recommend playing just about anything but slots, since slots suck your money away rapidly.  (Of course, if you're betting 25¢ total or less per round, or if you're rich, then more power to ya.)  If you must play slots for any significant amount of money, then it's better to play at an online casino like Bovada, where your money will last twice as long as in a land casino. (see disclaimer)  Land casinos have to pay rent and utilities on huge casinos, as well as for the physical machines.  Those expenses aren't cheap, and so their slots are a lot tighter than what you get online.  Online casinos typically take about 5% of players' slot bets on average, while at land casinos it's usually closer to 9%.

Besides playing online, also see my other slot strategies.

4. Play only Craps, Baccarat, Blackjack, or Ultimate Texas Holdem

As you can see from the Average Loss Calculator above, craps, baccarat, and blackjack don't bleed you dry quickly like the other games.  Ultimate Texas Holdem is also a good choice, though not in the calculator.  Video poker can be a good bet if (1) you can find a decent machine, like 9/6 Jacks or Better, but those are extremely rare on the strip, and (2) you use the proper strategy.  About that…

5. Use the proper strategy for whatever game you're playing.

The figures shown in the Average Loss Calculator assume that you're making the best plays.  If you make bad bets or bad strategy, your loss will be much higher.

  • Craps doesn't require any special strategy, except to make only the Pass Line bet (and if you like, the Odds bets).
  • Baccarat doesn't require any special strategy, either, just don't bet on Ties.
  • For blackjack, learn the basic strategy.
  • Ditto for video poker.  If you just guess at the strategy for video poker, your loss will be so high that you might as well be playing slots.
  • Here's the strategy for Ultimate Texas Holdem.

Where to play

6. Play at locals casinos

The Strip and Downtown casinos have the worst odds.  The locals casinos have the best.  You're likely to lose three times as much on blackjack and five times as much on video poker on the strip versus at a locals casino.  Near the strip (not on it), try the Orleans, Gold Coast, or Palace Station. 

Downtown slot returns are only a little better than the strip.  The best machine odds are the Boulder Strip casinos.  For table games, three of the downtown casinos have the worst blackjack in Vegas: Golden Nugget, Fremont, Binion's, and Four Queens. (source, 11/21)  Find which casinos have the best games at Vegas Advantage.

Once you leave the strip, table minimums are lower, too.  The Downtown Grand offers $1 blackjack, as does OYO, near the Strip (current as of 6/2021).

Craps and baccarat have the same basic odds everywhere, but the strip casinos still get you with very high table minimums.  Some casinos are experimenting with "digital craps" and "stadium blackjack" which allow lower minimum bets, so look for those games.

The one exception about not playing on the strip is for high rollers:  High limit rooms typically offer good 3:2 blackjack (much better than 6:5), and sometimes some decent video poker.  And high rollers won't care about the higher table minimums for craps and baccarat.

7. Play at full tables

The more people at the table, the slower the game.  That means fewer rounds dealt per hour, and that means smaller losses.

How much to bet

8. Figure out how much you can bet on each round

If you overbet then you'll run out of money quickly.  Use my Bet Size Calculator to see how much you can afford to bet each round for a given gambling budget.

9. If you play table games online, bet less.

Table games in brick-and-mortar casinos are played slowly, but online they're played at lightning speed, and faster play means bigger losses.  If you're playing a game like blackjack online, play for smaller stakes than you would in a land casino.  Whatever you'd bet in a land casino, bet only 1/5th of that online.  And if you're playing online for more hours than you'd play in a land casino, reduce your bet size even further.

10. Bet small.

The more you bet the more you'll lose.  So bet small.  The non-strip casinos have the lowest table minimums.

You can play blackjack for a mere $1/hand at OYO and the Downtown Grand.  It's 6:5, but for $1 a hand, you certainly can't complain.

Money Management

11. Set a daily loss limit.

There's a sure-fire way to avoid losing too much:  Set a daily limit for how much you're willing to lose, and when you lose it, stop playing.  I know, you'll say that's either too obvious or no fun, or I'm trying to harsh your mellow.  Whatever, but the fact remains, if you make a loss limit and stick to it, then you'll never get in over your head.

Don't set only a trip limit, because you might lose it all on the first day of your trip.  A trip limit and a daily limit is the way to go.  Set it and respect it!

12. Quit while you're ahead.

You'll do this by setting a session win limit.  Pick an amount that you'd be happy to win, say $50, $100, $300, whatever.  If you get ahead by that much, then stop playing, at least for a while.  If you keep playing, you're likely to just give your winnings back to the house.  You'll have blown not just your winnings, but also the opportunity to feel like a winner for more than a few minutes.  So stop, and do anything besides gambling.  (Here are some ideas.)  Whatever it is you're doing, you'll feel like a winner while you're doing it.  It beats feeling like a loser, which is how you feel if you turn around and give your winnings right back to the casino.

13. Bank your wins.

Set a win goal, and if you hit it, put at least half that money away and don't gamble it.  For example, let's say your win goal is $300, and at some point you're ahead $300.  Sock away at least $150 of that, and don't use it for gambling on this trip.  Even if you lose the rest of your bankroll, you'll still have these winnings when you go home.

If you make your win goal, set a new win goal.  If you're lucky you'll be able to bank multiple wins.

Get the player’s card

14. The player’s card is where it's at!

Every casino has a Player's Club desk where you can sign up for a Player's Card, and it's always free.  This is absolutely the best deal in Vegas, for many reasons:

  1. You often get something good just for signing up, like a hat, a deck of cards, or valuable coupons that are actually worth using.
  2. Just by signing up for the card, there's a good chance you'll get mail offers for free or deeply discounted rooms.  Even if you don't gamble at all.
  3. If you do gamble, you can get even more goodies like free meals, show tickets, and rooms.  See my article on getting comps.

Related articles:

Practice gambling with play money

Before you throw down your hard-earned cash in a casino, PRACTICE FIRST!  Learn the games with play money where it doesn't cost you anything if you lose.  Seriously.

You can play Bovada's games (below) right away without registering for an account.  Most every other online casino makes you give up your email address just to play the fake-money games — ugh.  That's the main reason Bovada is the only online casino that gets advertising space on my site.  (When you see the registration box, you can cancel it and proceed to the game without registering.)

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