Professional Gamblers – a rare breed indeed By Paul Sculpher, Special to CDC Gaming Reports July 3, 2019 at 2:45 am All of us working in the betting and gaming industry will have seen plenty of people who claim to be professional gamblers – it seems to be an intoxicating profession, with the clichéd qualifications of vast intelligence, nerves of steel, encyclopaedic knowledge, and the will to avoid the tedium of a “normal” job. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s looked with a pretty extreme degree of scepticism at a fair few people who claim this as their living. It certainly is possible to make a living from gambling, in a variety of ways. I’d like to touch on a few here, accepting that there’ll be plenty of options outside the scope of this piece. However, the common thread for all the pros I know is the time they have taken to develop their craft, often to the extent that I wonder how much better off they’d have been if they’d followed a more traditional path of employment or self-employment. All of those who’ve worked in casinos will have heard that guy who claims to be a professional table player. We all know that table games can’t be beaten except by deploying something along the continuum from advantage play to cheating, so the natural thought is that anyone claiming to make a living from table play most likely has a side income they’re less keen to discuss. However, every casino with a poker room, regardless of size, will have one or two people who make a living out of it. You can usually spot them – they rarely talk about their play (as opposed to countless loudmouths telling the lesser players how to play), they pick their games very carefully, with weekend cash games being a hot favourite, and certainly in UK casinos outside London they spend an inordinate amount of time grinding away. Playing cash against fish is the dream scenario, with tournaments a tad volatile, and cash games generally plagued by better players, but if you can keep your head (stay sober) while all around you are losing theirs (by multiple adult beverages) then you may be a winning player, my son. Online poker professional play is something I’m less qualified to talk about, save to say that clearly it’s a hell of a lot harder than it was 10 years ago. I’ve known several people who used to make a good living online, then found their edge eroded as the mass of players improved beyond all recognition, driving them down the limits until it was no longer viable. The prevalence of bots in Sit and Go tourneys, and the formerly easy pickings offered in Double or Nothing games – super prone to collusion – are symptoms of how tough it now is. A basic principle of economics is that where someone’s making super-normal profits, especially without deploying much capital (or in this case, effort) then new entrants to the market (in the shape of new players bent on deploying their intelligence) will compete those profits away. Nobody in their right mind would try to start as a poker pro from scratch now, and although the advent of heavy sponsorship may have given the trade a second wind – if you’re an interesting enough character and a good enough player, you don’t have to be able to beat the game, still, making your fortune out of poker isn’t a growth industry. Sports betting is the next area where we’ll find a lot more professionals. I’ve written elsewhere how there’s a huge difference between US and UK sports betting markets for now, with the major opportunity for non-in-play profits being the multitude of secondary markets that the forces of competition will surely lead to. With factoring and limiting strategies in effect, a key component of winning sports bettors will likely be “beard” accounts – accounts in other people’s names which haven’t yet been limited. One strategy for the winning sports bettor’s armoury is timely knowledge. This starts with the obvious – if you know before the market does that the star striker slipped while washing his dog and shredded his ACL, you’re going to back the opposition for the next game, and probably the rival team for the championship, and will be well ahead instantly. However, in a world of exchange betting, timely knowledge looks more like being aware of game events a fraction of a second before other gamblers do. “Courtsiding” – so named for where the practice originally came into public view, at major tennis tournaments – involves being live at the event, so seeing events in real time while people watching on TV at home see it a few seconds later on their screens – ample time for the courtsider to take advantage of the delay and snatch any “lazy” money before the counterparty even knows what’s happening. These days it’s a competitive business, and once again where there’s easy money, competitors increase in number and improve in skill, but there’s still money to be made. Presumably the early adopters have made life-changing money already and have, in many cases, stepped out of the market. Finally, there are plenty of professional sports traders out there, with a mindset closer to the Forex or commodity traders than anything that looks like a sports bettor. Odds fluctuations measured in fractions of a second and an absolutely comprehensive knowledge of the minutiae of the competitors lead to fractional edges that, when compounded over time, can lead to a solid living. Tennis and cricket are two sports with plenty of professional traders, although one assumes that tennis will be the first to become less profitable, due to the relative ease of modelling almost all material variables in the game. Soccer, for example, from an in-play perspective, is reducible to a reasonably manageable set of stats, although with the liquidity available being so gigantic on the beautiful game, a tiny edge can be worth huge money. There’s a reason why a game like baseball is unlikely ever to prove profitable to traders – much of the reduction of the game to a bunch of stat packages on two legs has already been done by the sabermetricians. For now, a game like cricket remains a trader favourite, with the ideal combination of high liquidity, discrete game events, and a huge number of variables – that and the fact that it seems a huge amount of non-price sensitive money is in the market from high-margin Indian bookies, makes it better than a zero sum game from the trader’s point of view. Still, all of these potential career paths suffer from the same weakness – they rely on the status quo. I’ve seen a couple of poker players get themselves in a mess when they figured their three-month losing run was variance, when in fact the world moved on and nobody told them. Making bandit money for a few years is no doubt a great feeling, but unless you’re winning sportsman-level money, you’ve still got a lot of your life left after five years of life as a pro, and possibly a pretty tricky hole in the CV/resume to explain, should you return to “normal” life. The wiser pro gamblers will always be looking for their next edge.