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Wednesday 5 October 2022

The Professional Gambler: Fame, Fortune and Failure

An interesting piece of research by David M. Hayano. (July 1984)

Hayano investigates the pursuit of the professional gambler with his insightful research. He is currently a professor of anthropology at California State University, Northridge.   


He investigated the history of gambling from amateurs to professional gamblers. Hayano describes how since the 1930s the social organisation of gambling has changed due to legalisation of casinos and cardrooms. This led to a completely new breed of professional gamblers. He describes four distinct subtypes: the worker-professional, the outside-supported professional, the subsistence professional and the career professional who may enjoy casino online usa. The majority of professional gamblers eventually succumb to the pressures of gambling and encounter some degree of devastating social and financial failure. A small minority find relatively lasting fame and fortune. In this modern era, gambling is seen as a kind of leisure activity, aided by casino and betting promotions, often followed by by national media and publications. These conditions have helped professional gamblers pursue their specialised art with much more publicity, safety and potentially greater reward than ever before.

Professional gamblers have been hailed as free and independent spirits and also vilified as worthless scoundrels. Scholars have neglected the objective study of professional gamblers. 

However, Hayano's research offers an inside view of the professional gambler's life and play. This research used source material as well as over 10 years of research including participation and observation (mainly poker players in California and Nevada).

The concept of a ''professional gambler'' is vague, often abused by self-glorification and self-deception. The term full-time professional gambler should be used guardedly. It carries connotations of specialised training and education, membership in a guild or association, written rules of conduct, and additional formal traits. 

One of the earliest attempts to describe the professional gambler comes from Albert H. Morehead (1950). The May issue of The Annals, a publication devoted to gambling in which he discussed four subtypes of the professional gambler: the banker, the cheater, the compulsive gambler and the percentage gambler. 

Hayano detailed that Morehead's typology was much too broad with subtypes overlapping or not relevant at all. For example. the banker may be the owner of the casino or cardroom and, as such, a businessperson. Also, the cheater shouldn't be considered a gambler, much less a professional gambler. The compulsive gambler, a perpetual loser, should be placed in an entirely different category.   

Morehead's description of the percentage gambler as a skillful player with a feel for probabilities and odds seems to apply to some contemporary professional gamblers of an older generation unlike those who play real money pokies online australia. But this characterisation is misguided for many young professional gamblers of blackjack and poker have not acquired their skill through what Morehead termed their ''innate aptitude'' but memorizing and calculating specific mathematical formulae in their head (card counting).     

The professional gambler typologies vary with others such as the social, economic& compulsive gambler. It is established the professional gambler is skilled in one or more gambling games, reliant on skill, knowledge, and experience to win consistently. 

The basic definition of a professional gambler is someone who derives all or a significant part of their income from gambling activities. 

Hayano found four subtypes:

The Worker Professional:

This includes men and women who work on the side, but spend a large proportion of their time gambling. They are not gambling as a full-time career and seen more as a serious hobby than an occupation.  

The Outside-supported professional: 

This gambler has a steady income from savings, investment, and retirement fund or other sources. This includes retirees, housewives, and students who are trying to eke out a small profit from week to week. For example, their commitment to playing poker as a total way of life is minimal. 

The Subsistence professional:

This gambler is a consistent winner (but small wins). Their goal is to win enough to pay the bills and yet have a bankroll to play the next day. There is little commitment to betting with higher stakes and from a poker perspective playing tougher competition.    

The career professional:

Has made a social and psychological commitment to gambling as an occupation (even if totally broke). Most will not seek work but borrow money in order to return to gambling. Many bet high stakes and enjoy the lavish attention that accompanies high rollers.

It's interesting the desire for upward mobility of this subtype is moderate to high (compared to the other groups which are moderate or non or little).

It is worth noting that the subtype of any gambler is rarely permanent. This may vary from game to game or year to year. This change may be behaviourally, psychologically, and financially (which make studying/research difficult). In fact, all subtypes can merge with the ebb and flow of success or failure to win. Thus professional gamblers and non-professionals weather many changes of mood and fortune. The image of the totally controlled, unemotional, economically motivated professional gambler who wins year after year is a serious distortion of the facts. 

Games And Background of the Professional Gambler:

The aim of the professional gambler is to win enough money to sustain himself or herself (possibly others). This relies on their chosen game/sport. They do not make a living from pure chance as their talent is skill-based. Games such as roulette, craps, lotteries, dice, dominos, slot machines are fixed odds so long term the gambler will lose (or virtually impossible to win). 

With regard to poker, it is based on skill and chance. This includes blackjack (with regard to card-counting). Other games may include strategic board games (chess, backgammon, etc), football, horse racing using skill to analyse past information to predict the future. However good the professional gambler, it is only a possibility they could win it isn't likely or easy. 

Unsurprisingly, people who said they would like to be professional gamblers like to take chances in general. Twice as many men as women chose this profession, a so-called masculine activity. In addition, there is a marked difference in games of chose with regard to sex.

Hayano's study of professional poker players revealed that many more men than females gamble as full-time work. The average poker player is male, white, aged 25 - 60, with some high-school education. Interestingly, it encompasses virtually every regional, religion, age, ethnic, and educational group.  Most poker players live in urban settings where casinos, card rooms, and associated gambling locations are found. The old days of professional gamblers travelling to find private games have turned into a sedentary lifestyle (especially these days of online gaming). This is beneficial to winning gamblers, as they are less likely to be robbed or highjacked.

The pursuit to be a professional gambler usually starts in adolescence, having some success gambling. The success may be so overwhelming that the individual never seeks non-gambling work (or something you do to get by if the gambling turns sour). Gambling can be seductive when viewed with job dissatisfaction, quick money, and ease in gambling opportunities. As Hayano says: ''Work and play, fun and games, merge''. These distinctions no longer exist. 

Professional gamblers tend to specialists rather than generalists. Some are only skilled in one game of poker or favour this compared with others. Or than horse racing gambler who specialises within a given age group of horse or race type. However, others may be more versatile perhaps playing poker and blackjack, while they gamble at golf while waiting for the football results.

Professional gamblers vary in how they bet. Some will bet their entire bankroll on a single game while others never risk more than a fraction of their wealth. In this sense, they can be fearless while others are very selective.  


In the old days, a professional gambler's reputation was based on word of mouth. This modern era sees winners reach newspapers, television and news outlets. Publications such as The Gambling Times have helped with promotion and the legitimisation of gambling. 

In fact, an industry has been built to help would-be gamblers learn such skills. These aspects have helped fuel fame and fortune of those at the top of their game. 

Las Vegas hotels and casinos often sponsor gambling tournaments, which has helped with promotion and social acceptance. These include the World Series of Poker (Binion's Horseshoe Hotel, downtown Las Vegas), which offer dozens of competitions which contestants can choose. By far the largest group of professional gamblers come from poker players and draws large congregations. Young and old players compete to win perhaps 50 times their bankroll. 

The major professional poker gamblers rely on these games to accommodate such rich play which is unlikely outside major tournaments.

Many poker players refer to themselves as superstars or world-class players. This positive change in self-identity is a far cry from the days or ill repute and social negatives.

However, while many poker players enjoy fame others shun the limelight. This is certainly true of blackjack players whose major advantage is card counting. These players may be individuals or part of a collusive team.  Perhaps the most notorious of these was organised by Ken Uston, a former vice-president of the Pacific Stock Market, who in the 1970s turned to blackjack as a business and with a team won $1 Million from casinos around the world. Take a look at this publication The Big Player (1977).    


Here's a question, how much money does a professional gambler make a year? It's a difficult question to quantify. Gambling winnings and losing aren't regularly or evenly.  Many high-profile poker and blackjack players have won and lost millions in a year. For many professional gamblers, the only relevant figure is their bankroll at any given moment (how much is owed or loaned). 


Permanent or cyclical loss is an occupational hazard for professional gamblers. Career gamblers must be able to cope with severe losses of both money and self-confidence after a fall. A major loss may see the need for a new bankroll this usually comes from close friends and peers. This is possible until the gambler has a reputation as a poor or erratic player or unlikely to be able to pay off debts. These transactions are often free of interest, often over the table, while the game is in play. 

This interaction raises the interesting question of how friends play against each other. This is borne out by the fact that high-stake game rarely sees a stranger come to the table. In fact, strangers are often treated with suspicion and judged by the way they handle their cards, chips and play specific hands. This is a vital skill of the professional gambler and one they are usually astute. They may be a good player, poor and even a potential cheat. 

Professional poker players would state they play hard against even opponents they have lent money. However, professional gamblers play in many different ways. 

Repeat losers face tough decisions regarding debts and failure. It may be time to stop gambling, play with smaller stakes, in different clubs, even another city or non-gambling employment. Often career professional gamblers can find the money to continue as they are more accustomed to highs and lows. In their eyes failure is temporary. They must find strength in the belief that their skill, perseverance, and new stake they will win. 

It is often the case, for years the same players will be seen sitting at the same gambling tables. Lending and borrowing may see friendships change. Gambling is the classic zero-sum game: winners win because others lose. Consistent winners move upwards to the tip of the competitive pyramid. This money comes from the middle and lower level players, from amateurs, hopeless losers, and former winners. 

Professional gamblers thrive on failure. 

It should be remembered in this new era of gambling has changed radically. Gambling has become more popular and more available. Professional gamblers are vastly more skillful, strategically sophisticated and sedentary than their historic counterparts. With greater wealth and leisure time, many individuals pursue gambling as a serious hobby on a daily basis. These two subtypes of worker-professional and outside-supported professional are appearing in greater numbers. This has made gambling more difficult for the full-time subsistent and career professional gamblers.