Have you heard the story about the MIT Blackjack Team?
Made famous in the book, Bringing Down the House, it’s the story of an unlikely group of nerds who took casinos throughout the United States for millions upon millions of dollars back in the 90s by doing the unthinkable: they “beat the House” by playing perfect blackjack, counting cards, and knowing when to bet big and when to bet small. This story was then further immortalized in the Kevin Spacey flick, 21, and they will forever be remembered as “the group of kids who crushed the casinos.”
That… wasn’t supposed to happen.
Hence the expression “The House always wins.” You see, if you were supposed to have an advantage in Blackjack, the game wouldn’t exist in a casino! In reality, there is a series of small and seemingly insignificant rules that casinos employ to give the House a teeny tiny advantage (say 50.1% to 49.9%) in the game of Blackjack. They know that if you play long enough, statistics eventually kick in and they will take all of your money.
Just as the tiny percent “house edge” advantage results in enormous and consistent long-term profits for the Casino, a few “house edge” decisions we make on a daily basis result in long-term weight gain over the years.
It’s why we wake up a decade later, look down, and say “where the Hell did this gut come from?” Like a casino slowly bleeding us out of our chips, our weight slowly creeps up until we realize, “The house won. I’m fat.”
Today, we turn the tables and move that slight edge back in our favor.
Addicted to gambling, video games, and food?
I love gambling.
I’m also dangerously close to being a fat and lazy slob.
It all started when I was 5 and my dad taught my brother, sister, and me to play Poker with Duplos — giant legos — as our gambling chips (thanks dad!). In college, I made most of my spending money by playing 6 tables of online poker every night (sorry mom!). There was even that one time when I lived like James Bond in Monaco, tux and all, and MADE money on the weekend.
In addition to a love of gambling, I also have a very addictive personality for pretty much everything and struggle to stop anything that I start. One episode of Daredevil becomes 10. Eating one Sour Patch Kid means I eat a family sized bag until my tastebuds fall off. I could eat a Costco-sized tub of Animal Crackers without batting an eye.
Video games? Yikes. “The Witness” on PS4 resulted in a 4-day, 40+ hour marathon. I’m currently hooked on Witcher 3. In fact, I almost never started this website because I was hopelessly addicted on Everquest 2 until my computer blew up.
So, how did I get in good shape and not let Life get the best of me? After all, I SHOULD be the guy who loses my shirt in the Life Casino. I SHOULD be the guy you find in a gutter the next day complaining about the “bad string of cards.”
Instead, I’ve learned to beat the House: I’ve packed on 20+ pounds of muscle, begun practicing gymnastics daily, learned to play the violin, built a company out of thin air while traveling the world, and even wrote a book about helping others do the same.
Not bad for a lazy addictive slob!
How? By learning the system, “counting cards,” and putting a “Life Casino” strategy in place.
Life Casino Wants You Badly
Right now, imagine you are wandering around gigantic Life Casino — the game is rigged. You might not get seduced with free rooms and free booze like you do in a regular casino (which is done so you play longer and lose more money), but there are plenty of parts of Life Casino that are designed to subvert your best intentions.
If you are trying to get healthy, hit the gym regularly, eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, and work on something that’s interesting to you (reading more books, learning a language, etc.), it’s a bit like trying to win in a casino where everything is designed to take your money.
Learning a strategy to live healthy is the equivalent of counting cards. Casinos don’t like it and they want you to subconsciously make bad decisions (and thus give them your money instead). They’re really good at what they do.
Casinos battle each other with brighter lights or better seeming odds (but still in their favor) to get you to gamble at their casino instead of a rival one.
Life Casino has fast food restaurants locked in an arms race to see who can offer more calorie bombs for less and less money. Why eat a healthy nutritious meal at home when you can drive through a window and get 5 delicious cheeseburgers with fries for 6 bucks?
Casinos offer you the convenience of an automatic card shuffler so you can play more hands faster and thus lose more hands per hour!
Life Casino offers you the “convenience” of Netflix autoplaying the next episode so your default behavior is to “watch just one more” episode. Ugh. I’m currently doing this with Daredevil.
Casinos pride themselves on debaucherous behavior. They champion the big gamblers, encourage you to make big bets, and tell you that having some fun is worth it. You always want to say “one more hand” and they’re willing to accommodate it.
Life Casino comes with coworkers and friends who often tell you “come on, one more drink” at happy hour, or stay out one hour later, or to join them in eating just one slice (“Live a little!” and “We need you for one more round!”).
Life Casino knows that most of the decisions we make every day are close to 50–50 odds, with the odds tipped SLIGHTLY in their favor.
“I’m so tired, meh I’ll order out tonight” and “I’m gonna skip this workout, but I’ll probably go tomorrow” are how the casino gets its edge. It doesn’t seem like much in the moment, but over time, one decision here and there you’ve lost all your money (aka, become out of shape).
But there’s nobody telling us in Life Casino, “sir, you have played enough and you’ve lost too much money.”
I don’t know about you, but my brain would much rather play video games all day, eat pizza, and watch every TV show. And the pull to do those things is real. As is the struggle.
Once you realize these 50–50 decisions (“I SHOULD do this” or “I really want to do that”) can go either way, you need to put a system in place to beat the house and come out ahead.
Create a Life Casino Strategy
Read any book on gambling and they’ll tell you the same thing: avoid games with terrible odds (read: slot machines). If you are going to gamble, play perfect blackjack, bet in a certain way, and set strict limits on how much you’re betting with and when you will walk away from the table. You’re trying to move the needle as close to 50/50 or slightly in your favor (if you can count cards properly).
Casinos hate people like that.
Instead, they prefer the clueless folk: ones who bet based on superstition (I have a feeling about this one!), who aren’t aware of “gambler’s fallacy” (the last 9 spins were red, so this one HAS to be black), who try to get rich quick (betting the numbers in the middle of the craps table) or who just like the pretty lights and sounds of a slot machine.
So, how can you beat the Life Casino?
1) Know what you’re walking into, what game you’re playing, and take back control ahead of time! I know when I walk into a normal casino, everything is designed to keep me trapped and take my money. I know Life Casino isn’t much different: my week will be a disaster if I don’t go in expecting this. It will be a disaster if I don’t plan ahead for what I’m going to eat and exactly when I’m going to work out. So I plan ahead and don’t let emotion (read: my hangry stomach or the convenience of the snooze button) get in the way.
- Start by pre-cooking your meals for the week on Sunday. Read up on our two-part series on how to prepare batch meals and what specifically to cook here. Pre-cooking not in the cards? Try one of our easy recipes, or simply put fitness first and let yourself buy something healthy when you need the power up.
- Put your workouts in your Google Calendar and set up alerts to remind you when specifically you’re going to work out. No more iffy workouts.
- Make changes as you learn yourself. If you are somebody who gets so emotionally drained after work that you often skip your workout, change your strategy. Try working out in the morning and getting it out of the way before going to work or before your kids get up. If life jabs right, duck and give it a left hook.
2) Have an “If this then that” strategy. In Blackjack, there is a specific set of rules you can follow for perfect blackjack: “If I get dealt an 11, I double down. I split 8s. When dealer shows a 4, 5, 6 and I have a 12 or above, I stay.” I can play blackjack blindfolded because there’s no emotion attached to my decisions. If I get this and the dealer has that, I do this. Done!
You need the same for life:
- “If I eat out at a restaurant, I will get the salad with chicken.” Check the menu ahead of time and decide before you get there.
- “If I get hungry in the middle of the day, I will eat the healthy snack I brought rather than the vending machine.”
- “If I want to skip my workout, I will call my friend Paul who will remind me that I have to go or he will donate my money to the political candidate I despise.”
I gamble like a Robot so I can do it effortlessly. In short, I live many elements of my life like a Robot too so I don’t have to involve emotion! Try our article on living like a robot for more.
3) Set your limits.
When I walk into a casino, I know I am able to lose $200 per session and no more. So I don’t bring more than that with me! I put these rules in place so I don’t go “just one more hand” when I’m losing and keep digging myself in deeper.
Life is no different.
If I can’t afford to lose it, I don’t bring it with me to the casino. If I can’t afford to eat a lot, I don’t bring it with me to my house! This means I’m only buying small amounts or skipping certain foods entirely at the grocery store. When I buy junk food for friends when I’m throwing a party, I throw it all in the trash right after they leave so I’m not tempted to eat all day.
If it’s easy to get, I know I’ll eat it… so I don’t let the house have that advantage on me.
You don’t have to win every hand
If you play flawless blackjack, you will still lose many, many hands. Even if you are counting cards and have the edge, one hand here and there might go REALLY badly for you.
That’s called gambling, sucka. If you don’t want to ride the rollercoaster, get off. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option in Life Casino, but the adage still applies.
In both life and Blackjack, stop expecting to win every hand. You don’t need to eat perfectly every day. You don’t need to exercise every day either. Sometimes you’ll be stuck in an airport and the only option is eating shitty food. Or you’ll be on vacation and you can’t work out because you want to spend more time with your grandparents or kids.
Losing one hand isn’t an excuse to go on tilt and throw all your money away. It’s just a part of the long term odds.
So if you have a bad day, don’t freak out. Instead, see the big picture… it’s just a part of the long term ups and downs. Have a great day tomorrow. And the day after. Remember: 51% to 49% is what wins in the long run.
If you’re just getting started on your fitness journey, I want you to think up the average number of “hands” you play a day: meals, snacks, beers after work, hours of video games, etc.
Moving forward, I want you to win just one more hand than you lose normally:
- Make your breakfast be healthy every day, and don’t change up your lunch or dinner.
- Swap out 1 mountain dew for water, but still drink the other 5.
- Go for a 5 minute walk before you start playing video games, and then play for 4 hours.
Just like a one hand advantage can make all the difference in the long run with blackjack, making one healthier decision daily can make all the difference in the long run, too.
Make more healthy decisions than bad decisions on average, and be okay with that. It’s how my friend Leo lost 60 pounds effortlessly, by winning a few more hands over many months than he lost. Read the article, and you’ll see that he really nerded out over the stats, like counting cards and studying blackjack strategy before sitting down at the table.
Shuffle up and deal
It’s a tough world out there in this Casino of Life.
It’s time to put the odds back in your favor. When you walk into any situation where the odds are stacked against you, you need to know yourself and go in with a strategy.
Start today: Every day, when you have a chance to “win” a hand (make a healthy food decision, get to the gym, get a full night’s sleep), put a check in the win column. When you “lose” a hand (skip your workout, eat poorly, watch more TV than allotted), put a minus. After a week, add up the number of wins and losses. If it’s positive, you’re winning. Negative? Time to study more blackjack!
I’d love to hear from you.
How can you leverage what you’ve learned today in this strategy to move the odds so that they’re now in your favor?
What’s one small change that can shift the balance?
Be VERY specific below, and leave a comment.