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No Such Thing as a SURE THING

With roulette, some betting systems cross the line from “harmless fun” to dangerously bad advice

By John Grochowski

 

The telephone rang. Someone was looking for a little publicity.

“You’ll want to talk to me,” said a deep male voice. “I’m the only one who has figured out how to beat roulette.”

And so it began, the latest exchange with a series of “only ones” who had figured out how to conquer one of the oldest casino games. Modern-looking roulette wheels with 36 numbers—a 0 and, yes, a 00—have been traced back to France in the late 1700s.

The math of the game has been well-established through the centuries. Barring an equipment failure, or perhaps a dealer who re-leases the ball in the same rhythm every time, the house edge on roulette is the same on every spin of the wheel: 5.26 percent on every wager on a double-zero wheel, except the five-number bet on0, 00, 1, 2 and 3, where the house edge rises to 7.89 percent.

Casinos trust the math. They know that in the end, $5.26 of every $100 wagered on roulette is going to wind up in the till—plus a little extra from those who insist on making the five-number bet. There’ll be winners every day, too. After all, if there weren’t, no one would play. But overall, the game will earn its keep.

That doesn’t stop players from scheming to try to beat the math. Here are some of the flawed ways in which they attempt to do so, and the cold reality behind it all.

PLAYING “HOT” OR “COLD” NUMBERS

You walk up to a roulette table and see on the board that the ball has landed on the number 17 three times in the last 12 spins. What do you do? Do you jump on board, betting on 17 or on combinations that include 17, figuring it’s a hot number? Or do you avoid 17 altogether, thinking that it’s due to go cold?

There are players who swear by hot numbers, and those who swear by playing those that are “due.” Truth is, there is no tendency for hot numbers to stay hot, nor for cold numbers to stay cold. The wheel doesn’t know what numbers have come before. The odds remain the same on every spin, and eventually unusual streaks just fade into insignificance.

I once decided to run a real-world trial. Over the course of several months, I kept an eye on the roulette results boards at the casinos on my rounds. Whenever I saw a board that showed the same number had hit three or more times in the last dozen spins, I took note. I also took note of the next 38 spins, to see if the number in question would hit more or less than the 1-in-38 average we expect of any number on an American double-zero wheel. I kept track until I had 100 trials, leaving me with a record of 3,800 spins of the wheels. In 3,800 spins, any given number should turn up an average of 100 times.

My 100 hot numbers came up a grand total of 102 times in the 3,800 ensuing spins. Had you been betting $1 on the hot number on each of those 3,800 spins, you’d have lost $128. Not quite what a systems player would be hoping for.

BETTING COMBINATIONS

“Tell me what you think of this system,” an e-mail began. “You bet $10 on black, and then you bet $5 on of the third column. The third column has eight red numbers, so now you have 24 numbers covered. The column pays 2-1, so if any of your eight red numbers hits, your $10 payoff cancels out your $10 loss on black. If any of the four blacks in your column hits you win $10 on the column AND $10 on black. And if any of the other 14 black numbers hit, you lose $5 on the column, but win $10 on black, so you have a profit of $5. Bottom line: You show a profit on 18 numbers, including four where the profit is $15. And since you have 26 numbers covered, there are only 12 numbers that can beat you.”

Well, the problem is that on every one of those 12 losses, you lose both bets. Every loss costs you $15, and in the end the house has its 5.26 percent.

Whether you’re combining single-number bets with four-number corners and six-number double streets, or scattered numbers plus the zeroes, dozens plus evens or odds, or any other combination, the arithmetical ways comes back to the same house percentage.

BETTING OPPOSITES

On a busy night at a Las Vegas casino, I sat at a coffee shop counter and overheard a man and a woman planning their roulette attack. One would bet red, the other black. Wins would balance losses. They wouldn’t lose any money, but they’d get their comps for free.

Or so they thought.

What they’d neglected to take into account that whenever the spin was 0 or 00, they’d lose both bets.

Let’s say the two of them were each betting $5 on red, for $10 at risk on each spin of the wheel. In a perfect sequence of 38 spins in which each number —1 through 36, along with 0 and 00—occurred once, they would risk a total of $380. On the 18 red numbers, they’d collect $180 in winnings plus keep their $180 in wagers. So at the end of the sequence, they’d have $360, and the house would have $20 of the original $380.

Now let’s say one wagers $5 on red and the other wagers $5 on black. On 36 of the 38 numbers, the red and black wagers would cancel out. One bet would win, the other would lose. That leaves two more numbers, 0 and 00. On those, both red and black lose, meaning the couple loses $10 on 0, and $10 more on 00.

That’s a total of $20 in losses. At the end of our 38-spin sample, the couple has $360 of their original $380 in wagers, and the house has $20—the same as if they’d bet opposite sides.

Those $20 in losses from $380 in wagers comes to 5.26 percent in the casino coffers. Yep, the same house edge we’ve been talking all along.

THE MARTINGALE

Sooner or later, every discussion of systems gets around to this one, the old “double-up” system—and instead of being harmless if ineffective fun, this strategy is actually quite hazardous to your financial well-being.

It goes like this. Pick a wager with an even-money payoff, such as red/black or odd/even. Each time you lose, you double your bet. When you eventually win, it cancels out all your losses and brings a profit equal to your original bet.

How can it lose?

The answer is: easily.

Casinos foil the Martingale by placing limits on wagers at each table. At a table with a $5 minimum and a $500 maximum, a Martingale player on a losing streak could bet $5, $10, $20, $40, $80, $160, $320…until the next bet in the sequence is $640, which no player who starts at $5 a hand is going to cover.

We all hit losing streaks—a few bad hands in a row, or more. It’s part of the game. While the average bettor can withstand these swings, they are ruinous for Martingale players.

Even if there were no table limit, how far would you be willing to go to chase a $5 profit? If you did place that $640 bet, it means you’ve already absorbed $635 in losses. Do you really want to risk having those losses grow to $1,275 for a one-spin chance of turning a $5 profit?

Aside from that, the Martingale fails because the house edge is still in effect on every spin. No matter how many losses you’ve absorbed in a row, on the next spin your even-money bet gives you 18 chances to win and 20 ways to lose. This is a system to avoid.

WHEN THE NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP…

So what about my caller, the one who said he was the “only one” to figure out how to beat roulette? What he was pitching to me was a modified Martingale, in which the player increased wagers by a percentage after losses and decreased by a percentage after wins. He sent me a long, detailed computer simulation that showed a profit after a run of one million decisions.

There were problems, of course. The starting point for all betting sequences was a pass wager of $1.And the simulated bets grew to nearly$12,000. Just eliminating those exceeding $10,000 took the run into losing territory, and I have yet to see the casino that allows you to spread wagers from $1 to $10,000 at the same table.

That’s far outside the “harmless fun” territory of making combination bets, or betting the streaks. And when it comes to any roulette systems, harmless fun is the only way you should view them.

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