SKILL-BASED GAMBLING


OK, real talk / disclaimer time before anything else happens here.

The casino industry has, since the very beginnings of organized gambling, made their money in one of two fundamental ways:

1) They only operate games that they know they have a long-term mathematical edge at. Some players will win in the short run, but the house will always profit off the greater number of losses in the long run.

2) In the case of games of skill conducted between players, like poker, the house takes a "rake" (or "vig", or "juice", or "gabagool", or "uomo con palle favolose") from each winning hand. So you not only have to win consistently, but win enough to beat that over time.

You'll see a lot of hoopla about "skill-based games" being introduced to both online and offline casinos in a bid to woo Millennials and Generation Fortnite Dance or whatever they are. Keep in mind that this does not mean that casinos are giving up their core profit model. If you're playing the house, they have a long-term edge of some sort baked into the game. If you're playing other people, they're taking juice from somewhere.

That said, casinos don't always get their edge right - exploitable slots, video poker and blackjack pay tables that favor skilled players who always make the right play, and so on. That's especially true in emerging markets like this one. This page is about exploring that potential, plus covering head-to-head gambling games of skill that it's possible to consistently make money at if you're a high-level player.

The following is an overview of the currently-available options for skill-based gambling. Esports (and general sports) betting is excepted, because that's slated to be covered in depth on its own page.


TABLE OF CONTENTS










Skill-Based Slot Bonus Rounds


The casino industry's first tentative step toward skill-based gaming was to simply slap arcade bonus rounds into standard slot machines. You play a normal video slot, but once you either get the right combination of bonus symbols or collect enough of them to fill a meter, you go into a bonus round where you play the vidya game. Your score in the bonus round determines how much money you win.

A number of major slot manufacturers were perfectly positioned for this sort of thing, because they're former arcade game developers that gradually transitioned to gambling over time ... for example, Konami and Bally (now a subsidiary of Scientific Games).

The way you would expect the developer to structure the game to retain the house edge is to make the maximum bonus round payout still be low enough that the return to player (RTP) over the life of the game is still somewhere south of 100%. So it kind of becomes like blackjack or video poker - the player's skill at the bonus round can increase the RTP somewhat, but even if they play as well as is humanly possible they still expect to lose money over time to the house edge.

That's not necessarily always a bad thing, though. The way many people make money off of casinos is to play games that have a high but still negative RTP, like 98 to 99%, and then make up the difference in losses through the comps the casino gives them. Slots are usually the most heavily comped game in the casino, because they make the casino the most money and are among the most short-term volatile and long-term unfavorable to the player. If a skill-based slot is comped like a 90% RTP slot but you can get the actual RTP up to 98% with skilled play, that could easily create a positive expectation situation in terms of comp return.

The other moneymaking possibility here is exploits. These usually aren't illegal, but casinos may ask you to leave the property and not come back if they suspect you of pursuing them. Most slot exploits involve somehow recognizing when the machine is close to entering a bonus round (if it is on some sort of a schedule), hopping on and playing through the bonus win, then taking off and looking for another "primed" machine. You usually won't find slot exploits by Googling, though, especially for newer games - people who figure these things out usually guard them carefully, as once they get widespread enough casinos start either software patching exploits out or simply removing those games from the floor. Exploits are generally found by experimenting with games yourself, or going to a casino floor and looking for certain signs of sharp slot play - a bunch of people spending a lot of time on one game type, getting shifty and protective of their seat if someone comes around and starts watching them.

Here are the slots with skill-based bonus rounds currently out there in the wild:

Centipede


Developer: IGT

Description: The classic garden pest elimination game from Atari has had two slot iterations thus far. There was an initial three-reel that had you play Centipede rounds as the sole bonus mode, and there's a newer video slot that lets you choose whether to play Centipede or just get some free spins.

Resources:

* Amazingly in-depth analysis of the game
* Trap trick
* Centipede arcade version for PC
* Mini mobile joystick similar to the slot cabinet
* PC mini joystick


Frogger


Developer: Konami

Description: Konami released this Frogger slot back in 2016. This is different from the later release Frogger: Get Hoppin', which is entirely skill-based with no slot play. The original Frogger slot has you play an actual video slot until you get to the Frogger bonus round.

Resources:
* Game Guide
* Frogger TV plug n' play with mini joystick


Space Invaders


Developer: Bally / Scientific

Description: One of the first big arcade hits is the intellectual property of Bally, now primarily a casino gaming company. You play a fairly standard video slot that has a bet range of 50 cents to 2.50 per spin. As you spin you'll collect "laser shots", and you get to play the Space Invaders bonus round once you've banked 50 of them. However, you can opt to keep banking up to 150, and if you do you will keep any over the 50 or 100 you need to spend to initiate the bonus round (where you are limited to the 50 or 100 shots you enter with). Each alien you hit in the bonus round pays back a certain amount of money, and you get three "waves" until you either run out of shots or are destroyed.


Resources:
* In-depth review of the slot
* In-depth game tips
* Video tutorial
* Taito Legends (includes Space Invaders)
* Space Invaders Tiny Arcade (w/ mini joystick)

Race Ace Arcade


Developer: IGT

Description: Race Ace was first shown at a gaming expo a few years ago, and at the time it was offering a bonus round that was a full-fledged Mario Kart clone with a joystick for steering, weapons pickups and everything. I've also seen a version around that has no steering, you simply pick a racer then mash a button to make them go as fast as possible while they auto-drive.

Resources:
* 2018 article showing a new sit-down cabinet with a steering wheel

IGT Pinball Slots: Cleopatra and Texas Tea


Developer: IGT

Description: These two pinball-themed slots are based on two classic slot properties from IGT that have been around for years and that are known for low volatility. You play a normal five-reel video slot, the pinball bonus round is triggered when you land three of a certain scatter symbol on any given spin. You then actually play pinball, you try to hit coins scattered about the table to increase your win, plus just hitting bumpers and such builds a "pyramid meter" gradually that takes you to the next table (with a big completion bonus) when it fills. There are three tables in total that you can clear each bonus round if you play a mean pinball.

Resources:
* Video overview
* IGT Texas Tea for PC
* IGT Cleopatra II for PC
* Pinball Arcade - good collection of video pinball games
* I thought these looked really similar to the way the old Epic Pinball tables played (also Extreme Pinball though that doesn't seem to be for sale anywhere for PC anymore)

Vegas 2047


Developer: Nanotech Gaming Labs

Description: I'm not sure if this game ever made it to casino floors; it was being shown at gaming expos in 2014-2015 but I think this Nanotech company may have gone out of business (their news page hasn't been updated since 2015). It's worth noting here because it's a very neat idea, though. It's basically a purpose-built pinball machine with a digital screen. That and the handcrafted steampunk look are cool on their own, but the concept is also very unique. You start each round by manually adjusting your win/loss odds. The better the odds, the more of a bet you have to pony up. The actual win comes from a RNG slot-like spin at the end of your pinball round. But, the longer you keep the ball in play and the more points you score at pinball, the more the wheel spin odds tilt in your favor. The company promised that a skilled player could eventually tilt the edge in their favor to over 100%, guaranteeing they win the slot spin at the end. The big catch with this one is that the minimum bet is $100 (!) and it would have been placed in high roller areas only, probably why it didn't see the light of day. Even if it is dead, it's an interesting concept for someone else to maybe build off of.

Resources:
* Thread in which the lead designer answers questions about the game





Competitive Multiplayer Casino Games


These games employ the other fundamental casino model of making money - taking a rake from players playing against each other.

Each has their own style, but the general pattern so far has been to require at least 2-4 players to participate and to generate a random pot size for each round. The players play whatever the game is, and the winner gets the pot minus some sort of rake amount. That's pretty much it for this branch for the moment.

Early examples include:


Gamblit Poker


Developer: Gamblit

Description: At least two players (max four) are required. Each player gets one card to start the game. New cards come out of the deck one at a time, and the first player to pound their red button (hehe) gets that card. As soon as any player has three cards in their hand, only six more cards will come out. Best three-card hand at the end wins the pot. The rake is 10 to 20%, set by the house. The jackpot is randomly generated each hand and depends on the bet amount - at $2 tables it can go up to $480, at $5 tables it can go up to $1200.

Resources:
* Thread with great analysis


Cannonbeard's Treasure


Developer: Gamblit

Description: This is also by Gamblit, and is similar to Gamblit Poker (in spite of the nautical theme). It switches that core formula up by adding elements that are similar to a dice game. Each hand starts with a "point" being established by adding up the values of three cards off the top of the deck. As with Gamblit Poker, each player starts with one card and has to be the first to slap a button to claim cards as the dealer reveals them. But instead of trying to get the best hand, you're trying to get as close to the point as possible. As with Gamblit Poker, the jackpot for each hand is randomly determined.

Resources:
* The cocktail all-electronic version in action


Pac-Man Battle Casino


Developer: Gamblit

Description: Not to be confused with Pac-Man Cash Chase, also from Gamblit but a single-player gambling game. It's competitive Pac-Man for money, using the Pac-Man Battle Royale arcade game as its base. You score points like traditional Pac-Man, eat up pellets and fruit and scared ghosts. When you get a power pellet you grow, and can push the other Pac-Men backward - which you can deploy strategically to knock them into ghosts. At a bet of $5 the jackpot can range from $15 to $600.

Resources:
* Battle Casino in action
* Pac-Man Battle Royale operations manual
* Play Pac-Man Battle Royale in Pac-Man Museum

"Fish Hunter" Games

Developer: Various

Description: This is a genre of games that has been big in certain Asian countries since the mid-2000s but hasn't been seen on any Western casino floors as of yet ... however they apparently are available at either "grey market" or outright illegal underground arcades in the United States. Hawaii, California and Denver seem to be the hotspots for them. Basically, each player at the table gets a variety of weapons and pays real money for their shots. You hunt the fish (or animals), which pay back credits when they are bagged, which means you can theoretically win more money than you spent on ammo.

However, an apparent analysis by Gaming Labs International (by way of Vice, who don't provide a link to the actual paper) indicates these machines tend to have an RTP of about 93 to 97% and appear to often scale difficulty depending on how much the player is winning or losing. Surprisingly, 93% to 97% is equal to or better than a lot of standard slots out there! The intriguing possibility with these is that they appear to increase their payouts if one person is dumping a lot of money and losing - so basically find a table with a rich ploppie who slaps the button constantly and take advantage.

These machines are apparently legit in Hong Kong, which explains the relatively standard RTP - the illicit gambling parlors are just importing them to territories where they aren't allowed. Examples of these games include King of Treasures, Dragon Hunter, Ocean King, Fishing Epoch, and Insect Doctor.



Resources:
* List of Fish Hunter games
* Ocean King instructions
* Fish hunting games tip channel



Poker




Poker is a huge world to dive into, and we can't do it justice on just a segment of a page like this. I'm going to try to just give you a broad introduction to the ways in which you can make your living at it, and point you in the right directions for further reading.

You can break professional poker players down into three basic categories:

1) Players good enough to consistently beat most other players, to the point they can make a good living just going around winning games
2) "Rakeback pros" who play competently enough online to at least break even over the long haul, then come out ahead overall due to rakeback bonuses
3) Poker grinders who play competently enough to break even or come out a little bit ahead each month, and supplement their income with casino comps earned through their volume of play

Category #1 is a relatively small number. Most of them get into the professional tournament scenes like the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour since that's where the biggest money is. If they win consistently enough at a high level, they often get bankrolled by someone as a form of investment (bankroller gives them X amount to play with and gets back Y % of their winnings over the course of a year or so in return).

Category #2 is mostly online-only because brick-and-mortar casinos generally don't do rakeback bonuses. These players are looking to just make enough cash to make playing worth their time, and often have to play multiple games simultaneously to make it profitable.

Category #3 is mostly a brick-and-mortar thing, because online poker sites do rakeback bonuses instead of comps (they usually comp either poorly or not at all). I live in Vegas and I know a couple local poker grinders. They are a special breed. You have to really love hanging out in casinos and playing poker all day every day, or just really have no better options. I would say the average grinder makes the equivalent of $10-15 an hour altogether, but they often play six or seven days a week for at least a few hours a day. You also have to move to a place like Vegas where there are a lot of different games available at all times and a bunch of casinos you can live off of.

How to Get Started

Regardless of the path you want to go down, the first step is in mastering the basics of the game - learning the rules backward and forward, getting comfortable, and getting a good handle on what the mathematical best plays are in any given situation.

A good first step for very new players is to practice with an offline game or trainer against an AI. You'll see all sorts of MFers jumping out the bushes telling you "DON'T DO THAT YOU'LL PICK UP BAD HABITS" but they're thinking from too advanced of a perspective and not putting themselves in the shoes of a total newbie. Live games move too fast and tend to be too confusing/overwhelming just for learning the basics, plus you're limited in terms of hands you can play (even free sites often give you limited chips to work with). So you want something that allows you to take as much time as you want, lets you play unlimited hands, and ideally gives you some helpful feedback to learn the ropes. That's a game against an AI opponent.

I'm not a big poker player so I haven't tried these myself, but I've seen good feedback on all of the following in multiple places:

  • PokerGenius (Windows, Mac; 72 hour free trial then one-time $69 payment)
  • Advanced Poker Training (Web Browser; $40/month subscription or one-time $500 payment)
  • Poker Fighter (Android, iOS; freemium)
  • PokerSnowie (Windows, iOS, Android; free 10 day trial then $99/year subscription)


It's also a good idea to get familiar with poker tracking apps/software as early as possible. You won't need these when playing the games against AI, but you'll want to have them going as early as possible when you start playing actual games online against other people. Nearly every poker professional uses some kind of tracking software to manage their bankroll, log and analyze their past performance, keep notes on other players and get help from a HUD during online games.

Some examples:


Next up, you can hit up some social casinos. These are good because you can play against other people for free, and they often have some sort of rewards component. The only reason not to stop here first is that you'll have a limited amount of free chips unless you want to pony up cash for more.

Social casinos that have poker tables include:


From here, it gets a little messy. The next big step is to play low-level (preferably microstakes) games to get practice in real money situations with actual people. There are tons of ways to learn and supplement your game alongside this, however. Some ideas include:

  • Reading books, articles and blog posts
  • Browsing and engaging with popular forums (like TwoPlusTwo and CardsChat)
  • Watching tutorial videos on YouTube, or streamer videos with commentary on Twitch
  • Private coaching



Pachinko



Originating in Japan in the 1930s, pachinko is that country's most popular form of gambling. Though Japanese pachinko parlors collectively pull more gambling revenue than major casino destinations like Las Vegas and Macau, the game has struggled to find a footing outside of its home country.

As to why that is, I can't really come up with a great concrete answer. You'd think it would at least spread to nearby gambling-hungry Asian countries, but not so much outside of scattered parlors in South Korea and China. It's virtually unknown in the West unless you're into Japanese pop culture.

Basically, if Chinese tourists don't have strong interest in a game then you won't see it spread out to Western casino markets like Vegas. My best guess is they feel they are doing just fine with slots and the table games they know how to manipulate and don't really want to experiment. Other theories are that the pachinko market is almost entirely controlled by the Yakuza and Korean organized crime, or that the game is potentially beatable.

Wait, potentially beatable? Well, at least in theory, and at least with the analog-style games that are somewhat like pinball. As with rolling dice at craps, it's at least theoretically possible to control your shot once you know the table ... the thing is that all those physics variables in play are so subtle that it's unrealistic to think the human eye and hand can manage to clock them just by eyeballing things.

Though there are pachi addicts who swear by setting the dial at a certain spot, advantage play at pachinko actually centers around jackpot timing - much like beating certain progressive jackpot slots. If you're at a machine where you know when the odds of hitting a jackpot change, you simply bet low during the low odds period and bet high during the high odds to come out ahead over the long run. Or, you can "vulture" machines (as is done with certain exploitable slots) to pounce on ones that have been primed to hit a jackpot when a clueless or tapped-out player steps off of them.

Much is interesting about pachinko - it's potentially beatable over the long run in multiple ways, and it usually has a naturally low house edge due to the established customer base of low rollers. This is all kind of a moot point unless you live in Japan, however, as it just isn't present most anywhere else. And if you do live in Japan, you'll probably need an unusually high tolerance for loud J-Poppy noise and dense cigarette smoke to play it at parlors for any length of time.

As far as online options go, I don't think you'll see much outside of Asia. The tiny handful of games I can find are at casinos that cater to the UK / Europe and they're more of an oddball bingo hybrid than straightforward Japanese parlor pachinko.



Resources:

*
Interesting history of pachinko
*
Interesting article on the skill aspect of the game






Who knew Chuck E. Cheese would raise a generation of hustlers?

Most of this scene centers around "adult Chuck E. Cheese" chain Dave and Busters. I assume advantage play has been going on since these stores started opening, but broad public awareness and an online community developed around 2012 or so.

You can't win cash, but Dave and Busters has all sorts of good prizes with high resale value and low shipping weight available. The idea is to spend less than the prize value and then flip it, usually by selling online. People seem to particularly focus on the games that run up big jackpots.

The reason this works is that unlike a casino, many D&B games are legitimately skill-based or at least have some little hink or oversight by the developer that makes them exploitable. There is some investment in actually practicing the games and getting good at them. Aspiring advantage players will also probably have to learn the ropes of becoming an eBay or Amazon seller to most efficiently and profitably move their prizes.

There is also an inherent difficulty here in that the more information is made public about exploitable games, the more people abuse them and thus the more likely they are to get nerfed or disappear. For example, detailed guides to winning games were posted on the D&B Reddit up until around 2015 or so. Too many people used them and started putting big dents in D&B margins, so the company nerfed all the games in question.

D&B isn't the only opportunity going, though. The company's current iteration has been around for almost two decades now, so a lot of local independent knockoffs with similar games and prizes have popped up. Also, you can find these games in onesies and twosies all over the place - everywhere from casinos to convenience stores.

Arcade AP is all about pounding the pavement to see what's around you and keep up with new releases. You have to actually get out and observe the games, using personal knowledge and any manuals / online info that can be found to determine if they are beatable (in the sense of consistent money out > money in). It's basically like slot hustling, but not confined to casinos and with way less of a degenerate community. It's all about doing your own due diligence, though. The easier an opportunity is to find from a trail of online breadcrumbs, the more likely it is that other people have already blown up the spot or will very soon.



Resources:

* Dave and Busters AP Introductory Guide
* Ten Commandments of Dave and Busters AP
* Wired article that originally blew up the spot
* Interview with one of the most prominent Dave and Busters APs
* Intro to arcade AP
* Claw machine tips



Single-Player Casino Skill Games


Single-player skill-based games just began hitting casino floors a couple of years ago. They're basically a cash-prize adaptation of Dave and Busters-style games. One of the most common in the early going is the Gamblit Tri-Station, which has all sorts of games that resemble stuff you would play on a mobile device.

So ... given the examples of people APing the hell out of Dave and Busters, isn't this a recipe for disaster for casinos? Nope, because these things are way tighter and harder to win. Difficulty ramps up in response to the player doing well, to the point that some players report games eventually going into an unwinnable state (i.e. in a game where you're supposed to shoot zombies, shots eventually stop having an effect on the zombies). Either that, or you play for spins on a prize wheel and it's hard to win anything good off of the wheel.

Basically, there seems to be a hard cap that you eventually hit no matter how good you are that limits the damage the house takes. It's also harder for people to learn the ins and out of the games as the manuals for casino games are almost never made public.

As with arcade APing, I'm guessing this is all about getting out there and testing the games yourself to see if there are any beatable conditions or glitches in them. Doubtful that people are sharing exploits as openly as they tend to do with non-casino games, however.

If you're interested in these, here are some of the current examples going around:

* Gamblit games
* Next Gaming games
* GameCo games
* Konami games
* SynergyBlue HAWG games
* Steve Aoki's Neon Dream
* Competition Interactive games