How many Americans make their livings gambling?

The following article first appeared in Chuck Weinstock’s (Conjelco.com) newsletter circa 1997. It underscores my continuing concern with the ethics of poker. It not only speculates on how many professional gamblers there are in the United States, it speculates on how many of them are honest. Whether you’re playing poker in real-world casinos or at Planet Poker — where we do everything we can to police our games — you should always play honestly and expect others to play honestly. Poker is a game where it is mandatory to play only in your own best interests as an individual. When you do anything to help another player during a hand or accept help from another player, you are violating the core values of poker. This is called collusion. It is cheating, pure and simple.

Why is it that every time I agree to do an interview, the questions are the same? For instance: When was the first time you played poker? Who cares? I mean, let’s be honest — I don’t even remember that first time. I was a little kid, for godsakes.

What interviewers should really ask is: What didn’t you know the first time you played poker that would have prevented you from getting kicked in the ass? Truthfully, I don’t remember that, either; but I can speculate.

The first time I played poker, I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to try to win the pot. I mean, it just seems obvious when you’re a little kid that winning the pot is what poker is all about. Unfortunately, most casual players bring this little-kid attitude to the tables as adults. If you went to the table the first time knowing that you’ll get paid in the long run for making quality decisions, knowing that throwing a hand away (and surrendering any chance at the pot) actually can put money in your pocket, you’d be successful almost immediately.

What else didn’t I know in that first poker game when I was a little kid? Let’s see. Oh, I didn’t know that anyone actually played poker for a living. I probably thought it was a game of luck, like Old Maid. So, here’s the really intelligent question I’ve never been asked:

How many Americans make their living gambling?

Many millions, if you define gambling as the art of taking chances, including business ventures. But that’s not what you mean. You mean games of chance and formal bets on the outcome of events. First, let’s qualify this by specifying that not everyone who is money ahead from this sort of gambling is making a living at it. I’ll exclude two categories: (1) Those who are currently ahead, but whose results are luck based and who can’t expect to win regularly in the future; (2) Those who are skillful enough to win and augment their incomes gambling, but not by enough to make a living from it.

So, now — under that definition, how many American’s make their living gambling? Well, wait! Do you we include those that are on the business side of legalized gambling, such as casino owners and even employees? No, we’re not talking about them; we’ll only count players who make their living beating the casinos, players who make their living beating other players, gamblers who make their living on winning bets on the outcome of events, or gamblers who combine any of those.

Are we ready now? I guess not, because we need to define what a living is. Does it mean not working, but barely scraping enough to get to the tables while begging food and sleeping in the back of a car? No, not in this definition. To qualify, let’s say a gambler must make at least half as much as he would if he held the job he’d otherwise hold and must make a minimum of $30,000 a year gambling. There, now — even though we still have things to quibble about — we can work with this definition.

To sum it up, I’m about to tell you how many adult Americans win and have a winning expectation of at least $30,000 a year, that sum being at least half of what they could earn if they chose another profession, who are primarily involved in formalized wagers or games of chance (as opposed to taking business risks) and who are not benefiting from the casino’s side of it. We will also exclude illegal bookies, considering them to be more like casinos with a built-in edge.

Here’s the over/under: 32,813. Don’t ask me how we got that number, just some rough estimates here and some wild speculation there. But, I think it’s very accurate. In other words, I’m saying there are just as likely to be 32,812 or fewer American gamblers earning a living as there are to be 32,814 or more.

If that sounds like a large number, just keep in mind that it means fewer than one in 5,000 adults makes a living gambling. But let’s break this figure down some more.

How many of these don’t cheat? Answer 19,124 (again a ridiculously exact number arrived at by compromise). Repeating, there are only about 19,124 honest gamblers earning a living in the United States under my previously explained definition. That means, of the estimated 32,813 total gamblers making a living, only 58 percent make that living honestly. The rest have various schemes or angles going for them. This includes some blackjack players who go against the house, although the vast majority of these do so honestly — if you consider counting cards as honest. I do; casino management sometimes doesn’t.

But let’s take poker. First of all, of that 32,813 gamblers making a living in America, how many are primarily poker players? OK, you want another over/under, here it comes: 18,100. How many are totally honest in the way they exact this living? It’s 6,914. That means 62 percent of American poker players making a living are scamming.

Why so high a number of cheats? First, you should know that the figures are probably similar for other card games for which there are a far fewer numbers of professionals. Gin rummy and hearts come to mind. There is also a considerable amount of cheating in games like backgammon.

Since poker is an easy game to beat through skill, why would more players choose to beat it through cheating, instead? Interesting question, but there’s a profound and powerful answer. More players do NOT choose to earn a living at poker by cheating. By far the majority of players capable of earning a living at poker are strongly opposed to cheating. The reason the percentages are as stated is simple: Honest poker players with great skill seldom win when they end up unknowingly in games where unscrupulous poker players with lesser skills cheat. The result is that the original pool of potential players who could make their living at poker is overpopulated with predators.

Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you so that, assuming you’re an honest gambler and especially if you’re an honest poker player, you can redouble your vigilance. Don’t play in games where you worry about being cheated. Even if the game turns out to be totally honest, you will waste valuable mental energy on your concern that you’re being scammed. When that happens, you don’t have your full mental faculties available to make best-quality strategic decisions.

As many of you know, I’ve fought against unethical poker practices for over 20 years. I even had an independent office at the Bicycle Club Casino near Los Angeles when it opened in 1984. Players were invited to report any facts or suspicious to my Cheater Monitoring Service. You can still bring scams, unethical behavior, and poker partnerships to my attention by e-mailing caro@caro.com.

Published by

Mike Caro

Visit Mike on   → Twitter   ♠ OR ♠    → FaceBook

Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

One thought on “How many Americans make their livings gambling?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Let's make sure it's really you and not a bot. Please type digits (without spaces) that best match what you see. (Example: 71353)

  1. These numbers are shocking!! You can’t just leave me with this, I need a heads up on what to look for to spot cheating at my local cardroom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Let's make sure it's really you and not a bot. Please type digits (without spaces) that best match what you see. (Example: 71353)