A Degenerate Gambler’s Guide to Effortless Weight Loss

dice gamble

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?

lego casino 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

cards

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

Zelda: Link raising sword in victory

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

blackjack joker

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.

THAT’S OKAY.

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

blackjack cards

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.

Good luck!

-Steve

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photo: Lego casino

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36 thoughts on “A Degenerate Gambler’s Guide to Effortless Weight Loss

  1. This is a great article. I am a very logical person (as I’m sure many of your readers are), but when emotions/hunger/fitness come into place, it can get very dangerous. I’ll use “logic” to tell myself I can skip a workout, or stop for fast food because I’ll workout/eat healthy another time. I really like the if/then statements so here it goes…

    If I want a 2nd/3rd cup of coffee at work, I will finish my water bottle first and have a healthy snack with it.

    If I want to skip a workout, I will… (this is a tricky one!). The politician idea is a good idea, but maybe I will tell my husband to take a dollar out of a jar for my fitness prize, and one gets put in for when I get a workout done.

  2. The hardest part of doing this for me is keeping that perspective over a long period – of understanding, weeks or months from now, that this crappy day where I did none of the right things does not negate all of the hard work I have done up until now, and it also does nothing to excuse any or all hard work in the future.

    So … I set up a tool to help me maintain and visualize that perspective. My goal is to lose a pound a week for 104 weeks (2 years). A pound a week. Win a few hands more than I lose, and I can lose a pound this week. I’ve been at it for awhile, and this chart is how I can see it visually. Now I know … if I have a rough week, and lose no pounds (like last week), or even gain one, I can see the real perspective that such a week does not mean it is time to go eat a whole bag of Oreos for dinner. That would be a disaster, not least because I WANT to eat a whole bag of Oreos right now, and this chart is one of the few things holding me back.

    To kill your analogy – you’ve got to keep track on where you are against the house. If I lose a $20 blackjack hand when I’m up $500, I can live with that. If I lose my last $20 in that hand, that’s a different animal. Kenny Rogers was wrong in Life’s Casino – you gotta count your money while you’re sittin’ at the table.

  3. This article hit home with me as I have a struggle with my computer right now and how much I use it. Originally I used it to wean myself off television (once you figure out the shows are there for the commercials and not the other way around it gets easier to avoid) but now I spend too much time ever surfing for nonsense.

    One small change I have en route thanks to Kickstarter is a Superbook which allows me to use my phone as a laptop. I will only use my computer for photo editing. Hopefully when it shows up my surfing time will go down. Batcave upgrade!!

  4. Over the weekend I stacked the deck in my favor a little bit by switching out the chair in front of my computer. This one is less comfortable, which encourages me to do two things differently: sit up straight, and spend only a half hour at a time in it. (It also has no arms, so I can’t use the excuse “I might scratch my guitar on it” to skip practicing.)

  5. Oh my goodness I needed this article! Lots to think about and process. My exercise is not a problem, but boy do I need to get my nutrition on lockdown.

  6. Hey Steve,
    Here’s one very specific change I am making – I am leaving office at 6:30 PM. I am used to being a workaholic – and that causes me to make my work-hours longer. Now, once this change is made – I’ll be able to hit the gym at 7:00 pretty much everyday! (hopefully)
    The one thing that’s changed for me while reading this is that I am now thinking of work a bit more unemotionally – if I have leftovers -I can pick it up after I reach home at 8.

  7. Well, the point of the article is not that you win or lose at the ‘casino’, but that you keep playing. You have to be aware that ‘gambling’ will be a long term process until you learn to ‘read the game’ and knowing ‘when to back off’.
    I am 25 now, in a terrible shape, my second workout and i’m sore as f***. I know that it will take a tremendous amount of time and effort to get myself into shape (at least two years, and three more until i look fit – i am 78 kg with stomach fat and tiny man boobs – i am disgusted of myself.)

    But imagining a guy at the table going red in his face as i pull the chips to me is a very satisfying image in my mind after a workout, a nice cooked chicken with veggies or after a 30min walk.

    I’m tired, i’m grumpy but i know i ‘cleaned the house’ – and i’m smiling.

    Goddamit, i’m smiling 🙂

  8. It is okay to go to casino to play with a certain amount of money to play. But you can’t go to the casino saying ‘i will win *amount* today’. The house will clean you out. You go with certain odds.

    Telling you right now, that losing a pound a week is going to be impossible. I’m not discouraging you. I’m realistic. Genetics play a big part too.

    I was 120 kg 2 years ago. Now i am 78. So, in the period of two years i lost 42 kg. 730 divided by 42 means i lost a kg every 17.3 days.
    It might be more or less in your case.

    It’s great to go to a casino to play, but knowing the odds is very important too.

    Wish you all the best.

  9. I learned poker when I was 9, with matchsticks (thanks Dad).

    Never made too much online but I crush those saps at home games! At least back when they invited me.

    A lot of the advice in this column reminds me of the book “The Procrastination Equation” which talks in length about the battle in our brain between the limbic system (urges) and the prefrontal cortex (logic).

    Just being aware and mindful of the dichotomy happening up there has helped me make much better decisions.

    Another little jewel called, “Level Up Your Life”, has inspired me in many other ways and propelled me of the couch (though it has made me feel guilty about all this solar system naming in “No Man’s Sky” that’s been going on).

    I’ve already (mostly) quit soda and reduced my fry intake to none or smalls, but I really don’t need them, so as of today, consider them excised.

    Also I like the idea of doing something active before gaming, so if I haven’t worked out in sone form that day, no playing. Ought to remove some of the laziness guilt.

  10. this article was really fun. I was sort of doing that last week. I wanted to see if I could go home and bring my gym bag with me to the gym… I didn’t go to the gym last week. So this week I am going back to bringing my gym bag with me to work… I love nerd fitness. The more I read the easier it is. I can totally related to the addictive personality thing. 1 chip a whole bag same deal right? lol. Well thank you for the fun and smart article.

  11. I like this a article a lot.
    Yesterday I had more losses than wins. Today I consider myself a loser at this moment because it’s 9:51am and I had lucky charms for breakfast, but I also began drinking water so by the time I’m finished with my water, I’m going to start my warm up and work out. I did the benchmark test yesterday and my legs are sore from the squats and the lunges. Lol but I’m glad because that means I actually did something. What I do to win with being healthy and with life in general (I have a LOT of debt and I can’t spend money on junk food or just junk in general) I take $100 for two weeks and that’s what I use to spend on food for those weeks until I get paid again cause I get paid bi weekly. The rest of my money goes to bills or in my bank account while my mom has my card so I don’t get tempted. Then I meal prep and spend all of that $100 so I can’t buy junk. That’s how I have started to win.
    I just started doing that this week so hopefully it’ll work. 🙂

  12. Cool article – thank you for all the practical posts on Nerd Fitness !! My go to favorite is a good lunch every day – work days – telework days – weekends – holidays – you name it. It works every time and gives me confidence. Somehow lunch is easy for me to pack or plan. This is from a person (me) who skipped lunch most days for my entire life. Now every day is a party at lunchtime !! At work, we eat lunch together one day a week and bring “potluck.” Fun and good/healthy eating ! Guess where I got the idea to make *one* change and stick to it – Nerd Fitness !! Now lunch has taken on a fun life of its own. By the way, I lost 5% body fat in one year just by this one change in eating habits.

  13. Great article! “Know yourself and have a strategy” was exactly what I needed to hear. My biggest struggle is food. I don’t eat a lot, I just know that I can clean up my diet a lot better. But I HATE cooking and preparing meals. Like, the stepping-into-my-kitchen-gives-me-anxiety kind of hate. (Plus I have young, clingy children who take up most of my attention.) So if I can embrace my limitations and work with my strengths, then maybe I’ll have a better chance.

  14. It works out almost exactly the same.
    A kilogram is just a bit over 2.2 pounds. Losing 2.2 pounds over 17.3 days means an average of 0.127 lbs lost per day, or an average of 0.89lbs per week.

    In essence, the OP wants to lose just eleven-hundredths of a pound more per week than you did. Clearly not impossible, especially when one considers genetics, activity level, starting point, and myriad other factors.

    To be sure, in the long run, those hundredths of a pound add up over time, for good or ill, but your own math shows that it’s not nearly the insurmountable challenge you’re suggesting it is.

  15. Hi Steve, I want to share a resource that helped me do just that: move the odds just a bit more in my favor. I’m following a pretty relaxed diet, I switched bread for lentils and red/black beans, but otherwise it’s all the same. I walk to work and do a 2-3 minutes of calisthenics every day. I started summer at 85.8 kg, weighing myself everyday, it’s the summer, I did not expect any miracles. However, a friend shared this website where you can put in your weight and food and see the nutritional impact below and over time

    https://cronometer.com/

    The free version is pretty good on its own. In four days it will be three months since I started using it; I’m now at 79.6 kg. I think most of if was just being more aware of what I ate and how it impacted my health and weight on a daily basis.

    Your article was insightful and it helped me put things into perspective. Thanks.

  16. Love you suggestions. Health is definitely an ongoing thing. What’s also crazy is that some of the health issue we have are because of these big money hungry food companies. For instance its possible to lose weight by just eating leaner meat, that come from grass fed animals etc…http://www.solvedhealth.com/

  17. Great article that I’ll be sharing with as many people that will listen. Life can be so busy as we age and take on more responsibility, that we become blind to our own health. The OMG I’m fat moment, doesn’t have to happen if we can just keep our health high on our list of priorities. Gambling at a casino responsibly, is a whole other story. The lights are so bright and beautiful .

  18. As a fifty something female, I’ve been able to gain muscle and keep the dreaded middle age spread at bay. I’ve employed many of your suggestions in doing so but am glad to have a few more in my arsenal. Thanks for the great article. As an aside: often I’m predecided on what I want to order at a restaurant and yet still manage to fall off the rails from time to time.

  19. Very interesting post man. Love your topics and your attempt to come up with fresh stuff. Keep up the solid work. @dadsgym:disqus

  20. Hey Steve. Great post. I exercised for 15 years before I finally figured out what worked for me (now I get to blog about it at http://proc13.com). Knowing both your limits and your abilities is important to success. Limit what goes into your body, and exert every ability you have in every workout.

  21. Awesome article! One trick I’ve used for not skipping a workout is similar to the “if this then that” strategy; I’ll simply cut my workout in half. I’ll either do have as many exercises as I planned or half the sets. If it’s cardio, I’ll just do half the amount I originally planned. This has been helpful in keeping me consistent while cutting myself some slack too.

  22. I know this is a little off topic, but yesterday a friend of mine and I signed up for a personal trainer at our gym. After the first introductory session, I really feel like they care and know their stuff.

    However, the trainer’s information sometimes contradicts what I’ve been seeing here on this website. For example, this site promotes free weights while my trainer had me doing both body weight exercises and an exercise on a leg machine. The rebellion promotes just one thing at a time to try and slowly get the results you want and a step in the right direction is important. The trainer threw a lot of nutritional information at me yesterday including something called “macros” and what my body specifically needs.

    I’m getting conflicting information here and there and I’m not sure really who to believe or to trust. I’ve decided I’m not changing my diet any more than I already have until I get used to the habit of going to the gym… but I wonder about the advice I read here versus advice I’m given from these people who have said they went to school specifically for fitness science.

    Should I go with the trainer I’m working with or follow more of the ideas on this site? Will picking the wrong one end up in failure again? If it does, it won’t keep me from trying again… but still.

  23. Awesome article! For those with the emotional eating issues and compulsive personality it’s a great way to stay on the right path, even if we lose a few hands here and there (which is when I tend to despair and throw all of my progress away).

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