Every gambler has thought about what it’d be like to earn a living through casino games. This spawns visions of making a 6-figure salary, feasting on comps, dressing like James Bond and traveling the world.
But is being a professional gambler really this lucrative?
Let’s begin discussing the matter by defining what it means to be a pro. You and I will also cover the salaries that pro gamblers make in different games.
How Do We Define a Professional Gambler?
The term “professional gambler” is sometimes used interchangeably for both people who earn part-time and full-time income through gambling.
This makes sense because both groups have the skills to earn long-term profits. Therefore, you can technically be considered a pro gambler as long as you’re making profits of any kind throughout the year.
But I keep a much tighter definition of a professional gambler.
A true pro not only makes profits through gambling, but enough to pay all of their living expenses. This includes rent (house payment), utilities, car payment (transportation), insurance, meals, clothes and anything else deemed necessary.
A semi-professional is somebody who makes enough to supplement their income, but doesn’t earn full-time living through gambling. I’m only going to cover full-time professional gambler salaries in this post.
What Casino Games Offer the Chance to Make a Living?
The gambling world doesn’t offer an abundance of opportunities to make a living, but there are a few different games where you can earn some nice profits.
Here’s a list of the most common games that you can make long term profits with:
- Blackjack card counting
- Daily fantasy sports (DFS)
- Sports betting
- Video poker
Blackjack and video poker both see you try to win money directly from the house.
Casinos do everything in their power to hinder successful card counters. This includes using continue shuffling machines, multi deck shoes and watching for counters.
Anybody who’s caught counting cards is often kicked out of the casino and banned. This is why it’s so important for card counters to blend in with normal players.
Casinos don’t usually worry about advantage video poker player. In fact, some games are set up to offer positive expected value (+EV) to players who use perfect strategy.
Another problem is that it’s now harder than ever before to find video poker games offering over 100% payback like Deuces Wild (100.76% payback), Double Bonus (100.17%) and Double-Double Bonus (100.07%).
DFS and poker both see you compete against human opponents. The house merely takes a small cut of tournament fees or cash game pots (poker).
Sportsbooks create lines in an effort to get equal betting action on both sides. The sportsbooks make their money by taking 10% vigorish (juice) from the losing group.
Every form of advantage betting has its pros and cons, but the key is that each of these activities offers the chance to make a full-time living.
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Salaries for Professional Gamblers in Different Games
People have been making a living through card counting since the early 1960s, and despite all the obstacles that casinos have put in players’ way, it’s still possible to earn profits with card counting today.
You need a sizable bankroll in order to properly spread your bets and survive variance. The bare minimum you should aim for is $20,000, but it’s better to have closer to $50,000.
How much you make depends upon several factors, including the following:
- Skill level – Successful counters have between a 0.5% and 1.5% edge on casinos.
- Hands per hour – 50 to 200 depending upon dealer speed & table size.
- Bet spreading – Difference between your lowest and highest bet.
- Deck penetration – The further into the shoe you get, the more confidence you can bet with.
- Counting system – Some systems are more accurate than others.
- Game rules – You want the best rules possible in order to lower the standard house edge.
- Tips – $5 per hour for the dealer is standard.
Now, let’s set up an example by creating variables behind your counting session:
- You have a 1% edge based on the rules, your skill level and using the Hi-Lo counting system.
- The dealer is dealing 100 hands per hour.
- Your minimum bet is $25, and you spread up to $175 during favorable counts (i.e. 1 to 7 spread).
- You get 70% deck penetration before the shoe is reshuffled.
- You tip $5 per hour.
Here’s how this example would play out in terms of profits:
- Your average bet is worth $50 ($25 minimum; spread up to $175 for favorable counts).
- $50 average bet x 100 hands = $5,000 in hourly bets.
- 5,000 x 0.01 edge = $50 hourly win.
- $50 hourly win minus $5 tip = $45 hourly profit.
Some counters make $100 or more per hour by improving their edge up to 1.5% and/or increasing bets, but many players are happy with a $45 per hour rate to start with.
The final step is to figure out how many hours you’ll play and convert this into an annual salary. Here are a few different figures on how much you’d make per year:
- $45 x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks = $93,600 per year
- $45 x 30 hours per week x 52 weeks = $70,200 per year
- $45 x 20 hours per week x 52 weeks = $46,800 per year
- $100 x 40 hours per week x 52 weeks = $208,000 per year
The last figure shows what’s possible for a really good card counter who makes $100 per hour. The $45 calculations show that even decent counters can make good money.
The keys, though, include keeping an accurate count amidst casino distractions and blending in with normal players.
Daily Fantasy Sports
DFS is the newest game that offers skilled gamblers an opportunity to make money.
Daily fantasy sees you pay an entry fee to enter contests and compete against other players. The goal is to create lineups that score the most points and rank the highest in tournaments.
Daily fantasy sports experienced a big boom in 2015, thanks to clever marketing campaigns that make it seem like any sports fan can win.
The truth, though, is that only a small percentage of those who play actually win. A McKinsey study from 2015 showed that 1.3% of daily fantasy baseball players collect 91% of the winnings.
Despite these long odds, many people still enjoy trying to win in daily fantasy, but what exactly can you expect to win if you’re among the small percentage of DFS pros?
The potential for big winners is there for the most skilled daily fantasy players.
Saahil Sud, profiled in a WBUR piece, said he made over $3 million in profits in a single year. Former poker pro Aaron Jones switched over to DFS and won a DraftKings contest worth $5 million in early 2016.
Of course, the average professional DFS player doesn’t earn quite this much. To determine a standard DFS salary, let’s consider the following factors:
- Entries per day— Most DFS pros enter several hundred contests every day.
- Stakes – Typical entry fees range anywhere from $1 up to $1,000.
- Fees— DFS sites tack on a 10% fee to each buy in, which is where their profits come from.
- Skill level— Some pros have a bigger edge than others.
Now, let’s input variables to come up with an average daily profit:
- 300 entries per day
- $100 + $10 (fee) average buy in
- 300 x $110 = $3,300 daily fees
- You’re playing for $3,000 after subtracting fees
- Expected value based on skill is 115%
- $3,000 x 1.15 = $3,450 winnings
- $3,450 – $3,300 = $150 in daily profits
If we multiply $150 by 365 days, you’ll earn an annual salary worth $54,750.
Of course, DFS is filled with variance, and you won’t always feel like you’re on the path to a solid $55k per year. This is why it’s key to have a large enough bankroll to survive the ups and downs.
Poker has long been one of the most viable options for becoming a professional gambler. The reason why is because you’re competing against other opponents instead of the house.
It’s tougher to make a living in poker these days because strategy is more prevalent. Online poker gives players a chance to rapidly accelerate their learning curve by seeing more hands per hour.
You can still become a profitable player with enough hard work and experience though. In fact, some pros still make six or seven figure annual incomes with the game.
However, the vast majority of pros these days earn between $40,000 and $100,000 per year.
Poker is unique in that there are essentially two types of professionals: tournament and cash game pros.
Most rounders mix up their play between both platforms. However, the majority of poker pros also specialize in either tourneys or cash games.
Let’s look at the different considerations for cash vs. tournament play:
- Profit measured in big blinds (BB) made per hour.
- House takes 5% rake from cash game pots for running games.
- More control over annual salary than tournaments.
- Profit measured by rate of return (ROI) on buy ins.
- House adds 10% fee to buy ins (e.g. $10 + $1 fee).
- Only top 10 15% of field makes money.
- Tournaments have more variance than cash games.
A cash grinder needs to figure out what stakes they must play to make a comfortable living based on BB earned per hour.
An example is if you played $10/$20 no limit Texas hold ‘em and made 1.5 BB per hour. This equates to $30 per hour, $1,200 per week for a 40-hour workweek and $62,400 for a full year.
A tournament pro must decide what buy-in level they must choose to make a high enough ROI to live comfortably.
If you spend $20,000 on tourney buy-ins in a week and make $22,000, then your RIO is 10% ([22,000 20,000 / 20,000). This means that you’ll earn a $10 profit for every $100 you spend on tournament buy-ins.
One more consideration here is whether you’ll dedicate the bulk of your time towards live or online poker.
Online cash games and tourneys offer more volume because you can play multiple tables. Plus hands and tournaments go much faster, giving you an opportunity to boost your hourly wages.
Another Internet poker advantage is that you cut out extra expenses like traveling, hotel stays, meals and dealer/waitress tips.
Nevertheless, many players find that their win rate is higher in live games. The most lucrative tournaments are found in land-based casinos, too, such as the World Series of Poker events.
The good thing about sports betting is that you don’t need to have a massive win rate just to book profits.
Sportsbooks only take 10% juice from the losing side. This differs from DFS and poker tournaments where you must pay an extra 10% fee regardless of whether you’re a winner or loser.
The juice can be lowered or adjusted based on where the sportsbook is trying to push action, but 10% is generally the amount you’ll see taken from the losing side.
The end result is that you need to win 52.38% of your bets to break even. How do we arrive at this number?
You need to bet $11 to win $10 when the juice is 10%. You must win 11 out of every 21 bets to break even at this rate, which is a 52.38% winning percentage (11/21).
This doesn’t sound intimidating when compared to how good you must be at poker or DFS to win long term, but it’s also really tough to continually find value because sportsbooks are so good at setting lines.
Professional sports bettors usually win anywhere from 53.5% to 55.0% of the time.
Some handicappers brag about higher win rates ranging from 58.0% to 60.0%, but these figures are almost impossible to sustain long term.
Pro sports bettors must be very adept at handling their bankroll since they’re dealing with such a small profit margin. They also need to make larger wagers than the average bettor to increase potential profits.
The general rule of thumb is to never bet more than 1% to 2% of your bankroll on any given contest. If you have a $100,000 bankroll, you’d never put more than $2,000 of this on any single event.
Some sports bettors like Billy Walters and Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris have made millions of dollars with this model. But the average bettors are looking at more modest salaries ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 annually.
The key to figuring out how much you can make involves determining your ROI just like a poker pro. For example, if you make $10,000 worth of bets during a week and earn back $10,500, then you have a 5% ROI for the week ([10,500 10,000 / 10,000).
You then need to expand this to cover an entire year. Let’s look at an example below:
- You place $1,000,000 worth of bets during the year.
- You win $1,060,000.
- Your profit is $60,000 for the year (1,060,000 1,000,000).
- Your ROI is 6% ([1,060,000 1,000,000] / 1,000,000).
A 6% ROI is extremely high for sports betting, but this is just a simple way to show how to calculate your ROI and salary.
Video poker has good and bad things going for it these days.
The good news is that you can virtually guarantee yourself profits if you become a skilled enough player. The downside is that there are fewer and fewer +EV machines in casinos today.
Your best bet is to find a full-pay Deuces Wild machine, which pays back 100.76%. You also need to take advantage of as many double and triple comp point promotions as you can.
You can find which land based casinos offer full pay Deuces Wild by visiting the site vpFREE2.com.
Once here, navigate to the “Casinos” tab and look in the Las Vegas section. I see 13 different casinos that offer full pay Deuces Wild at the time of this post.
Unfortunately, the highest coin denomination for these machines is only $0.25. In past decades, you could find $1 denomination machines that quadrupled your potential profits.
Even under the right conditions, the odds of you making a good living with video poker are slim. Let’s run the math on what you can expect:
- You play full pay Deuces Wild (100.76% payback).
- You bet 5 coins per hand on a quarter denomination machine ($1.25 per hand).
- You play 1,000 hands per hour, which is extremely fast.
- The casino is running a triple loyalty point promotion.
- The casino comps 0.1% of your total bets, or 0.3% for triple points.
- 1,000 x 1.25 x 0.0076 = $9.50 regular hourly winnings.
- $1,200 total bets x 0.003 = $3.60 in comps
- You earn $13.10 per hour.
Even if you spend 50 hours in the casino, this only works out to $655 per week, and you’d earn $34,060 when we stretch this out for an entire year.
Most people can get by on this salary, but it’s far from what anybody envisions when becoming a professional gambler.
Being a pro gambler has some obvious benefits, including flexible hours, being your own boss and the ability to increase your income.
Some gamblers, such as Saahil Sud and Bob Voulgaris, have even gotten rich with their skills. Of course, you may be perfectly happy making mid 5-figures, as long as you get to enjoy the aforementioned benefits, but there are also some downsides to be aware of. These include risk, highs and lows, no sick days and the potential to lose everything.
It’s up to you to weigh the good and bad before ultimately deciding to pursue a professional gambling career.
The potential rewards can be great in the case of card counting, DFS, poker and sports betting, but you also have to be disciplined and good at handling risk.