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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Aggressive Pressing Pits Big Wins against Wipe-Outs

15 January 1996

Players who've logged time at the likes of blackjack, craps, roulette, or baccarat know how to make big bucks at even-money table games. This doesn't mean they can, but they know how. The key? Pressing -- civilians call it "raising" -- at what turns out to be early in a winning streak, then backing-off when the run fizzles. The more aggressive the pressing, the better the timing, and the longer the streak, the more money to be earned.

When aggressive pressing succeeds, bankrolls blossom. When it fails, fortunes fade. The result is that although time-averaged bankrolls track time-averaged bets, peaks are higher and dips deeper than experienced by players with comparable steady wagers.

It sounds trite -- like "buy low, sell high." Still, after grinding away at, say, $5 a pop, drifting up and down while a progressive punter makes a mint, you suspect there's a reason. Bettors who press aggressively think so. But the more of these players you ask, the more reasons you'll get. And, while explanations are all variations on the same two themes, both themes are bogus.

The first notion cited as underlying progressive betting is that pumping wagers with profits from previous wins is playing with "their money." Wrong. Once you've collected on a bet, it's your money. Their money is what's racked-up in front of the dealer.

The other idea mentioned to support progressive betting is that gambling runs in streaks and pressing exploits the effect. Wrong. A run of past wins and losses is just a random-length chain with no future implications.

Progressive betting does, however, have technical roots. They're in chaos theory, the study of random or disordered phenomena. This theory holds that steady bets in even-money games of chance with low house edge, such as baccarat or blackjack, should result in erratic fluctuations from gradually-declining average bankrolls. Solid citizens win by quitting when a random deviation is high enough to overcome the decline imposed by the edge.

Various ordering mechanisms can reduce the randomness of gambling and other nominally chaotic processes, driving them in a specific direction rather than letting them fluctuate haphazardly. But, it's uncertain which organizing modes will lead where, and when.

Our feathered friends offer a familiar non-gaming example. Birds in flight don't flap about every which way. Reinforcement of individual tendencies by aerodynamic, visual, and other factors induces formation of flocks. But shapes of flocks aren't predetermined. They vary continuously and can't be predicted in advance.

In gambling, modifying wagers based on previous outcomes promotes a degree of organization. Most progressions involve positive feedback, pressing after a win to magnify an earlier success. Order may also be enhanced by negative feedback, pressing after a loss to compensate for a past setback.

Both of these approaches, and many others, are legitimate organizing mechanisms. They tend to increase volatility -- bankroll swings. But nobody can forsee the ultimate magnitude of particular spikes, when they'll occur, or if they'll be up or down.

More bettors press after wins than using any other criteria because failure with this mode of reinforcement is least dangerous. Positive feedback only risks giving back previous earnings. Negative feedback can wipe out a stake, making it impossible to continue. The upper betting limit can also be significant in these two cases. It only puts the brakes on profit when pressing after wins. It stops recovery in its tracks when pressing after losses.

Should you press your bets to increase volatility? When you're winning? When you're losing? When you have a hunch? Chaos theory shows there's nothing mystical about the decision. It boils down to two questions. Will you be happy without the upswings? Can you weather the downswings? As Sumner A Ingmark, the progressive player's poet, penned for posterity:

Progressive bettors let nothing faze them,
They make their wagers and then they raise them.
Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.