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Keeping An Open Mind

by Ed Miller |  Published: Nov 08, 2017


The wake of the terrible massacre in Las Vegas has dragged gambling into the mainstream news. I don’t really want to talk about the shooter or his gambling habits in this article. But I do want to talk about some of the discussion surrounding gambling that I’ve seen in the news.

Reports came in that the shooter was a relatively high-stakes — perhaps winning — video poker player. Immediately, commentators swooped in to claim that being a winning video poker player is an impossibility, since the machine pay tables have a house edge.

In fact, a few of these commentators, including some relatively famous folks known partly for their connections to the gambling world, took this claim further. They said it was essentially impossible to win legally at any gambling game except blackjack (by counting cards), live poker, and sports betting.

This claim isn’t even remotely correct. In fact, most gambling games can be beaten legally in one way or another. That includes blackjack, poker, sports betting, fantasy sports, as well as video poker, reel slot machines, baccarat, roulette, and many other table games. Even video keno. Even the lottery.

Most gambling games can be beaten legally in one way or another.

This is a fact. Yet I see many otherwise logical thinkers swear up and down that this is not true. That the games with a house edge are unbeatable because of the math. Not possible, they say.

One thing I’ll say is that you should be very careful about saying things are impossible. There’s usually a way if you go looking hard enough.

How To See What Others Don’t

To see how these games are beatable, you have to think a little bit like a computer hacker. Yes, if you just walk up to any old game in the pit and start playing, you are almost certainly playing a losing game. So think about the weaknesses. In the game you’re looking at, what would have to change to turn your disadvantage into an advantage?

Card counting is the most well-known of these plays. Okay, blackjack is not a beatable game as designed. But what if you removed some cards from the shoe? What cards would have to be removed in order for the game to be in your favor? If you can’t remove the cards by hiding the cards in your sleeve (that’s illegal), is there any way to know that the cards you want removed will be likely out of play when you make your bets?

Card counting is one way to know this. You just let the game play out and watch to see if these cards happen to randomly be removed from the shoe through normal play. When you see this, you start betting more.

This is obviously not very efficient — waiting for things to happen randomly is rarely the fastest way to get something done. Perhaps there is a more active (yet still legal) way to know that certain cards are unlikely to enter play.

How about roulette? An unbeatable game if ever there was one, right? But what if on each spin you could identify three or more out of the 38 numbers that were unlikely to come up? If you could do that reliably, the game would all of a sudden be profitable.

Is it impossible to do this? Well, it’s probably impossible to know for absolute certain the three numbers will not come up. But is it possible to know that, say, ten numbers are somewhat less likely to come up? Is that crazy? I’m not saying it’s easy to do this—I certainly cannot beat a roulette game. But I would also never claim that it’s impossible for anyone to do. You can watch the ball and watch the wheel. It certainly seems possible to train yourself to partially eliminate certain outcomes—enough to make the game profitable.

Seeing Things Others Don’t In Poker

The key idea here is, “What would have to change to make this unprofitable situation become profitable?” Or, “What extra information do I need to make this unprofitable situation become profitable?”

In most of these gambling games, the edges are small enough that just a little change to the game can tip it in your favor. A seemingly modest promotion. A loss rebate that doesn’t sound extravagant. Just a little bit of extra information. A small change to the base starting conditions of the game.

To claim that winning is impossible, you’re saying that these little extras are completely unobtainable in all circumstances. When put this way, it should obvious that keeping your eyes open can help you find opportunities many others miss.

So how do you apply this same thinking to poker? First of all, I think it helps to think in terms of extra information. Rather than think, “What is the ‘solid’ way to play this hand?” think, “What information would really help me make a better decision?”

For example, say your decision hinges on whether or not your opponent could be bluffing with a flush draw. If you could refine your estimate of this even just a little bit, it could swing your indecision into a clear, profitable decision.

Think about ways to gather this information. You can use information about the cards in your hand or information inferred from the play of your opponents. You can probe for information directly by asking questions of your opponent. You don’t need your opponent to tell you what he has. Just a few hints about what he doesn’t have can be enough information to help with the decision.

Another way is to turn this thinking around. Is there a way you can turn a profitable situation for your opponent into an unprofitable one? Let’s say your opponent is in a comfortable pattern and is tending to bet and get you to fold when you miss. Sometimes it’s better to take a risk that will confuse the situation than to allow your opponent to proceed profitably.

The key to either of these options is to think in terms of information. Finding extra, reliable information for you is good. Creating less reliable information for your opponent is also good.

Final Thoughts

“Solid” gambling advice — for all sorts of games from poker to blackjack to video poker and on and on — tends to have one thing in common. It all assumes that you are playing the game in its base form, as designed, with no access to any extra information or extra reward.

But you don’t want the base game. You want to find and exploit the angles. You want to think, “What needs to be different for me to win? What extra information do I need to know?” If you ask those questions at the poker table, you’ll start finding the opportunities that the naysayers with blinders on will always miss. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site