The allure of turning blackjack into a career is undeniable. It’s no different from kids who dream of becoming pro athletes—who wouldn’t want to get paid for playing their favorite game day after day? But no less so than professional sports, making a living at blackjack is a real job. It takes hard work and practice to reach a level of skill capable of turning a pastime into a livelihood. And to earn truly serious money as a blackjack pro requires not only the drive, business sense, discipline and risk-taking will of an entrepreneur but also the ability to avoid becoming a threat to the casinos that make it possible.
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The View from the Top
Those who have aspirations of playing blackjack as a professional will probably have read Lawrence Revere’s 1969 classic “Playing Blackjack as a Business” several times over. They will certainly have heard of Kenneth Uston, the author of “Million Dollar Blackjack,” and Johnny Chang, manager of the famed MIT blackjack team. Such blackjack “geniuses” proved that it is possible to win millions at the table in a relatively short period of time.
For a more contemporary example of success, look to Don Johnson—not the 63-year-old actor but the 50-something card counter—who took $15 million from three hotel-casinos in Atlantic City within six months in 2011. Then, in February of 2012, he returned to the Jersey shore and beat the Tropicana for another $2 million, clearly demonstrating that it was no fluke. Johnson is the current rock star of blackjack pros, wagering $100,000 a hand, winning consistently and banned at the tables of all Caesars Entertainment properties.
Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the likelihood of quickly becoming a millionaire playing blackjack is remote for most. A much more realistic scenario for earning millions is that it will probably take at least a decade of consistently successful play. It will mean lots of long hours spent at the tables with plenty of ups and downs, gradually building up a bankroll large enough to play exclusively in the high-limit rooms, where the game rules tend to be more liberal and the betting limits pose no barrier to big wins.
Getting There from Here
According to one instructor of professional blackjack, “Playing blackjack for a living is more like owning your own business or working for 100% commission.” He says that how much can be earned is a function of the “expected value” of each hour of play, which is in turn dependent upon such variables as the rules of the game played, number of decks in play, the average wager size and spread (min-max), deck penetration, the counting system used and number of hands dealt per hour, which is typically 180~220 if playing heads up against the dealer. The proficiency of the player must be a given.
Taking all of the above into consideration, a good player might be able to expect to win from $275 to $390 per hour when wagering $50 to $500 per hand. Actual time spent at the table per week might be 15 hours. That would yield a potential weekly income of around $4,750, which amounts to somewhere in the vicinity of $228,000 annually—a professional level income.
However, the player will have expenses similar to those of any sole proprietor. He or she must be responsible for taxes, including self-employment tax as well as state and national income taxes, plus healthcare coverage, a self-funded retirement plan and travel costs to and from casinos outside one’s own area. There will probably be weeks of earning much more than expected offset by ones with net losses. It can be a real rollercoaster ride with no guarantees.
On the upside, the blackjack pro has no boss to report to, sets his/her own schedule, and receives comps for rooms, food, beverages and shows in addition to getting paid in cash. Hopefully, such benefits make up for a smoke-filled work environment and the lack of a regular paycheck. Just as in sports, not all pros become stars, but it is certainly possible to make a solid living by playing the game that you love.
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