I spent three days in Las Vegas last week, sandwiched around a completely mind-expanding 48 hours at the Grand Canyon. I am a compulsive gambler who rarely plays for fear of losing his shirt, yet here I was at the Mecca of gambling with a weekly challenge to come away from Las Vegas with a win. Well, I like a challenge…

Everyone has certain vices like this in their life, and as we get older, most functional people develop strategies to hide from them, or replace those major vices with smaller, less harmful vices (smoking cigarettes instead of hard drugs, perhaps). Why? Why run away from the defining characteristics that exist in our darkest recesses? These qualities make us who we are, they represent our boundaries, and I think they should be explored once in a while.

So, back to the compulsive gambler in Vegas. 72 hours of Sin City behind me, and I survived, spending only around $120 on gambling, and I feel fantastic. How did I do it? Well I’m so glad you asked:

Go with non-gamblers
I visited Las Vegas with my wife and a good friend of mine. They both dislike gambling and weren’t prepared to risk more than a small amount of money and time on playing. Their cynical attitude was initially infuriating but quickly led me to realise something pretty obvious: casinos (and other gambling havens) are seedy, unsociable places which are geared to trapping consumers in and extracting the maximum amount of cash from us. You probably already know this. I knew it too, but seeing the truth in the eyes of my shrewd and wary Vegas colleagues made me realise that it just isn’t smart to take a load of money into these places, and it goes against many of my own principals as well.

So why do it? Escapism, of course. Everyone wants to dispense with their own wisdom once in a while and cut loose. So if looking at the disgust on your bored friends faces doesn’t reign you in, there are other methods for limiting your loses.

Draw up a budget: spend what you can afford to lose
People often dispense this old adage so you don’t lose your shirt, but I see other benefits foo. Treat your visit to Vegas like any other major expenditure, arrive with a budget, divide it by the number of sessions/hours you want to play and see what you are left with. Taking this approach helped me to see that I was not playing to win (the house always wins) but was paying a certain amount of my budget, per hour, to imbibe the Vegas experience.

Having a budget also helped me define which games I should be playing in Vegas, and what maximum bets I should be playing with as well. For example, if you have $500 to spend over 3 days, you shouldn’t be playing on a $50 blackjack table.

Cash in, cash out
I withdrew the cash I was willing to spend at an ATM, then put anything else away. If I was taking a pause from playing, I cashed in my chips so I had hard cash again. If you play off a credit card (or a credit line from the casino, for that matter), you’re taking the approach the casino wants and distancing yourself from real cash and therefore distorting the value of your own money. So stick with cash for as much of the time as you can: credit is too easy to abuse and chips are just playing tokens, after all.

If you want to play poker, play tournaments
Don’t play poker at cash tables, they’ll wipe you out, and besides, tournaments are more exciting. I spent 2 giddy hours playing in a poker tournament in Las Vegas which cost me $40 to enter. I didn’t win (though I did make the top table and come 7th) but I did get great value for money in those 2 hours. Another way of saying this is that I spent $40 to play poker for 2 hours. I’m fine with that.

Avoid the slots and focus on low-margin games
Here’s where it gets interesting: you know the house always wins, right? But their win margin is bigger on some games and smaller on others. I read a great piece over at Vegasclick.com which explains that slots have the largest house margin (why do you think so much of the floor is taken up with slot machines), at around 8%, while Blackjack (when played correctly – see below) has a very slim house margin indeed, of only 0.5%. If you want to know what I mean, read this piece which explains the casino house edge on various games (Slots, craps, roulette, blackjack etc) in more detail, but safe to say, you want to be playing the games with the lowest house edge.

For me, this was another helpful pointer. I now knew what cash level I should be playing at, having set my budget, and I also knew what game I should be playing in order to prolong my playing time. Having such a rigid approach on entering a casino, rather than one of starry-eyed wonder,is very helpful indeed, believe me. You’re offered many choices on entering, and the ones which are most aggressively/repeatedly pushed on you are the games the house stands the best chance of winning.

Invest some time in learning basic strategy
The final point here is the most useful, and requires no more than a couple of hours preparation before you hit the casinos, and if you’re anything like me, channeling all that Vegas excitement into some preparatory research before arriving is a good way to keep your gambling urges sated!

Basic strategy is nothing to do with gamblers’ betting strategies, which often involve doubling down when you win, and continuing that strategy for x hands (or until you lose). Betting strategies are idiotic and will likely lose your hard-earned money more quickly, so resist them.

Basic Strategy is about giving yourself the best possible chance against the house, because the house margins I mentioned above only apply if you play the games correctly. My research up to this point had helped me decide that blackjack would be my game (lucky, since I already quite liked playing blackjack!), and I learned that there is a correct way to play blackjack which will limit your losses, and it’s called Basic Strategy.

Basic Strategy was devised by big cheese mathematicians and has been honed more recently by gambling guru The Wizard Of Odds. Here’s the simple cheat sheet for Blackjack Basic Strategy from Wizard Of Odds, which tells you what to do in each scenario. Playing blackjack using basic strategy keeps that house edge at a lowly 0.5%, meaning more winning hands (probably), more playing time and therefore more enjoyment.

I studied this article which explained how to play blackjack basic strategy, and this table from Wizard of Odds, and played around 1000 hands of blackjack on an iPad app during our long drive to Vegas. It sounds like a lot, but it was a relatively small time investment which allowed me to arrive in confident and realistic mood, and then play every hand soberly.

It isn’t always easy playing like this, many other players and dealers don’t know Basic Strategy and they’ll egg you on to make false moves, but if you have a plan and stick to it, you can derive maximum enjoyment from your time in Vegas.

Conclusion: so how did I do?
If going to Las Vegas with non-gamblers was the tip of my gambling reality-check iceberg, then learning Basic Strategy was the solid base to it. Over 3 days I spent $120. $20 of that was playing slots with my wife and friend to be more sociable, I spent $40 on playing in a poker tournament, and I spent only $60 on playing around 8 solid hours of blackjack, and one of those hours was made up of two expensive 30 minute sessions I played while wife and friend were hovering. If I’d have played those two sessions for longer, my losses may have evened out a bit more, and I’d have likely been closer to a zero net spend on blackjack – amazing considering how much fun I had while playing.

My new approach to gambling is forensic and rooted in reality, in fact it’s much closer to the way I operated when I was still running my business. I believe that I have, therefore, been on a journey of self discovery with this weekly challenge, explored a nasty, dark recess of my own personality and straightened it out a bit. Now that’s what I call a win.