Casinos were built on one simple principle: The house always has the edge. If the house has a positive expected return in every game, they can weather the ups and downs of variance and consistently make money over time.
Naturally, not all players are satisfied with this arrangement. Many attempt to shift power back into their own hands by devising all sorts of creative techniques. We call them “advantage players”. The following list details 10 of their favorite methods for taking money from the house.
[Note that advantage play is very much “a thing” (albeit a quite risky one) in brick and mortar casino settings but much less in online environments. And if you want to go forward in your venture as an advantage player, live or online, please do so at your own risk. We are not encouraging the practice here, but it was a nice title idea for research and we wanted to be exhaustive. Even if you’re not an advantage player, you may bump into some. It’s always good to know what to be on the lookout for].
The Advantage Play Roundup
This isn’t a comprehensive list of methods. New ones are appearing all the time. The ones on this list are the tried-and-true tricks that have been in play on casino floors for decades.
1) Full Pay Video Poker
Full pay video poker machines were never very common to begin with. Unfortunately, they are only becoming increasingly rare with time. However, they do still exist, and are well worth your wagering dollars when you find one.
Depending on the rates of payout (the pay table), some video poker games carry a positive expected return to the player over time. The two that are most common are; 1) Double Bonus Poker 10/7 Pay (that is, a pay table that awards 10x for a Full House and 7x for a Flush); and 2) Deuces Wild 9/5 Pay (i.e. pay table awards 9x for a Straight Flush, 5x for 4-of-a-Kinf).
Both of these games have an expected value to the player of just slightly over 100%. But keep in mind, this figure represents a very large sample size of play. In the short term, variance can potentially cause the player to lose their shorts. That’s why video poker advantage play is for those with a thick bankroll and lots of patience. You also need to learn the perfect strategy for the specific game type and pay table that you’re playing. One imperfect decision, and you could be tossing the advantage back to the house.
Times Are Changing…
Video poker advantage play was a much richer field a decade ago. Both comps and pay tables were more generous back then. Thanks to the proliferation of internet information about how to hustle video poker, casinos are really tightening the screws. Machines with over 100% payback are very rare. When found, there will usually be a sign on them indicating that play is not comped. These days, most video poker advantage players look for situations where they are playing at a 1-2% disadvantage. However, the expected value of the comps returned to them evens it out, or puts them a little bit ahead.
2) Blackjack Card Counting
Made famous by films such as Rain Man and The Hangover, card counting is the most recognizable of all advantage play strategies. It’s a technique that can give the blackjack player a small advantage over the house; usually a positive expectation of somewhere between 1% and 5%.
Hollywood likes to give audiences the impression that card counting requires savant abilities. It’s almost as if the player has some magical advantage at any table they walk up to. The truth is, successful card counting relies on very specific conditions.
To be successful, the blackjack table has to have a rule set that is favorable to the player. It can’t use too many decks or an automatic shuffling shoe, either. The player must learn and employ optimal blackjack strategy. they simply cannot maintain that small advantage over the house otherwise. At the forefront is the player’s ability to make the best play (highest mathematical probability of a win) for each hand, while simultaneously sustaining the current card count.
It doesn’t take a genius to do this, but if that wasn’t enough, players also have casino management to contend with. Casinos actively look for card counters. One of the most effective ways is to watch their betting patterns. The card counter who is in it for the long haul must consciously alter their bets at certain junctures. Failure to throw the casino’s watchers off the scent can result in a quick ejection. While card counting is not illegal in most jurisdictions, casinos are able to ban counters from their property. Or at the very least, they may revoke their blackjack privileges.
3) Bonus Vulturing
Certain types of slot machines have some sort of accumulating factor that makes them more advantageous to play at certain times. These include:
- Slots with a progressive jackpot that promises to strike before reaching a certain amount.
- Slots in which some sort of tokens accumulate en route to a bonus round.
- Slot machines in a bank that award bonus rounds to one machine in a predictable manner.
Vultures simply hang around slots of this nature and wait for other players to leave them in favorable conditions. Then, the vultures pounces, jumping on the seat the moment the previous player abandons them.
One of the most famous examples is Ultimate X Poker. This game awards “next hand” multipliers to players that remain in place until they hit. Vulturing Ultimate X is so common, advantage players refer to it as “vuxing“.
Certain slot machines that accumulate bonus tokens are also notorious among the “machine AP” community. These include Double Diamond, Rock Around The Clock, Cherry Pie, Green Stamps and Star Wars. The exact favorable conditions differ a little with each machine. The basic pattern, however, remains the same. Watch for other players to jump off a machine that is primed, then jump in and play until the bonus hits.
Expect a Lot of Competition Among Vultures
Since vulturing is fairly self-evident and easy to do, expect to see a lot of people doing it. Casinos don’t bother trying to stop vultures, either. They will let this type of advantage play linger, simply because they aren’t getting beat by it. It’s the players who leave their seat too early who are taking the loss.
As competition among hustlers gets thicker, however, some cease to be content to just wait for opportunities. Some will actively try to steer people off of favorable machines by sitting nearby and being obnoxious. This is the worst type of vulture, but it is certainly effective; especially when the player they’re running off has no idea it’s a ploy. And if a vulture doens’t have the bankroll to actually play through to the bonus, some will camp the seat, offering to split winnings with anyone who wants to buy in.
4) Exploiting Loss Rebates
Though this is a “rich get richer” advantage play, it’s one of the best in the house. High rollers who have an established reputation with a casino can sometimes negotiate a partial rebate for any losses they take. With this rebate in place, a player who is exploiting a game with a very low house edge (such as blackjack) actually has a significant positive expectation over time.
There are also some casinos that promote loss rebates (a.k.a. “cashback bonuses”) for all active members. You’re a lot more likely to find cashback bonuses at online casinos. They use them to encourage deposits during slow periods. It’ll go something like this: ‘Deposit $50 or more on a Monday, and you’ll get 10% of your losses for the week paid back on the following Monday’. Stick to the lowest-edge games (within the terms of the promotion), and it’s easy to achieve an advantage.
5) Baccarat Edge-Sorting
Some decks of cards have non-uniform patterns on their backs. Others may have some sort of printing defect that makes it possible to identify the value without seeing the face. If a player is in possession of this information, and they can convince the dealer to sort the shoe a particular way, they can then play at a massive advantage over the house.
This isn’t as simple as it may sound. The defects in question can be very minute; as little as a millimeter’s difference in the way the pattern aligns to the edge of the card. Excellent vision alone won’t gain you any advantage from such observations. You also have to convince the dealer to rotate all of the cards so that high values face one way and low values the other.
The scheme was immortalized by poker legend Phil Ivey and a compatriot, who used it to nail casinos in Atlantic City and London for almost $20 million dollars total. The key to making it work was that the casinos weren’t previously aware of it. Ivey was able to pass off his desire to have the dealer rotate the cards as just another gambler’s superstition.
Edge-sorting is not thought to be applicable in other card games due to the sheer amount of unpredictable rotation the cards go through in being dealt and handled by players. Casinos can also defeat this technique by simply making sure that all of the decks they use have completely symmetrical patterns. But when security fails to complete these checks, it can leave players with big opportunities.
6) Card Marking
Card marking is exactly what the name implies. At a table game, the advantage player surreptitiously marks the backs of cards. Henceforth, they can identify what others are holding, or what is about to be dealt.
Marking can be as crude as scraping or coloring a card back with ink. However, these methods may be noticeable to casino staff. Successful systems with any hope of evading detection in a casino require the use of a paste, or solution, that can only be seen while wearing special glasses.
Daubing with such a paste is the method famous gambler Archie Karas was caught using in 2013. It is most definitely a crime and can result in a burglary charge.
7) Dice Influencing
Dice influencing is possibly the most controversial method of advantage play, in that many people believe it isn’t even possible, and that those who claim to be able to do it are frauds.
In theory, it should be possible to grip and throw dice in a repeatable way to get predictable results, even though it is extremely difficult. The point that skepticism centers on is the standard bounce off of the back wall at a craps table, which makes it nearly impossible to intentionally keep dice on the same axis.
Evidence for dice control is almost entirely anecdotal. The best data-driven study of dice control to date is found in Stanford Wong’s book, Wong on Dice, which concludes that it may be possible to correlate the rotation of dice on the same axis often enough to give the player a small advantage over the house.
8) Promotion Hustling
Promotion hustlers resolve themselves to playing at a disadvantage. They simply look to keep that disadvantage as low as possible, and only play when promotions are in effect that drive the total comp value up above the expectation of loss.
Promotion hustlers usually focus on games with a naturally low house edge. A classic example of promotion hustling is to only play when the casino is offering a significant multiplier on video poker comps.
9) Sports Betting Arbitrage
Sports betting arbitrage involves placing multiple bets on the same game with different sportsbooks. Each of these bets is at different odds, and the results work out such that the bettor either always wins or has very little risk of loss.
This method takes advantage of the fact that different sportsbooks will offer different lines on games, and these lines will also change over time. There are basically three possible outcomes to any game – the underdog team wins, the favorite team wins and covers the spread, or the favorite team wins but fails to cover the spread. If there is enough of a difference between two lines on offer, the bettor can create a situation for themselves where they win money off of two of those three possibilities, and only lose a token amount of money if the third possibility occurs.
10) Hole Carding
To put it as simply as possible, hole carding involves peeking at a dealer’s hidden card. At one time this was a very popular advantage play method used to take advantage of inattentive or inexperienced dealers, and sometimes one that dealers were in on.
The widespread adoption of hole card readers by casinos has largely curbed this method of advantage play. These devices prevent the dealer from knowing exactly what the hole card value is; they simply know whether or not they hold a blackjack. Not all casinos use these devices, but you can reasonably expect any major casino to have them at all of their tables.