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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Can Gamblers Get Momentum?

16 March 2005

Momentum. Sports teams have it, can't seem to get it, are gaining it, or are losing it. At least, that's what commentators say in print and over the airwaves. Ditto for candidates during election campaigns. Momentum implies more than merely racking up a series of wins. It connotes progress being made that's hard to stop.

Can gamblers also get momentum? Do they have it when they're "on a roll?" And, if so, is the concept of any value as the basis of a theory of gambling that'll assist in making such nettlesome decisions as sticking with a machine or table or moving to another, continuing to bet "do" or switching to "don't" at craps, or going from one to two or three blackjack hands to "change the flow of the cards." The gurus have pretty much quashed notions of cold games coming due and systems based on trends or streaks. Maybe momentum is the secret solid citizens have been seeking.

It might help to have an idea of what momentum really is. And, especially, how momentum differs from simply "being on the move." With this understanding, it'll be possible to examine if momentum is valid or only a figure of speech when applied as it is to realms such as football seasons and elections, as well as whether it's relevant to casino gambling.

In the physical world, momentum is the tendency of a material object, once in motion, to continue moving the same way unless it encounters interference from an outside agent. The magnitude of the momentum depends on how massive the object is and how fast it's moving. The essence is not just motion alone, but movement combined with an element of permanence and stability, the mass.

Accordingly, heavier objects have more momentum than lighter for the same velocity, and faster more momentum than slower for equal mass. And if an external factor intervenes, the increase or decrease in momentum depends on the "impulse" to which it's subject ?? the strength of the force acting on the body and for how long. The metaphor in sports, politics, and gambling is that something making progress has a characteristic that keeps it doing so. The velocity aspect is clear. What of mass and impulse?

For athletes or sports teams, training, physical conditioning, and filling of rosters with an appropriate mix of talents are not only like the forces applied to an object but are also apt to bestow on it a form of corporeality or inertia. Attitude also has a substantive effect, inducing participants to try harder. When a winning trend can be ascribed at least in part to such elements, there is indeed a virtual momentum that may prove enduring.

Likewise, in politics, a candidate who begins to win for instance in primaries or polls receives media attention and attracts funding. These are like impulse. And their persistence, along with the image of credibility they engender among the voters, the penchant of reporters and contributors to jump on a bandwagon, and the display of confidence in public appearances, function as a type of mass.

In casino gambling, series of winning rounds on a machine or table can be considered comparable to velocity. By and large, though, nothing serves as equivalent to mass and endows a streak with the characteristics of momentum. Nor does anything act like an impulse which gets a trend started and somehow keeps it building. Skill and a growing bankroll superficially appear to operate in this manner. They may, to an extent, in live poker. Likewise, but to a far lesser degree, in craps for shooters able to control the dice and in blackjack when shoes become rich in 10s and edge shifts to the bettor. But not in any general sense.

So, a player "on a roll" isn't like a snowball careening down a hill, gaining momentum by gathering mass and being propelled by gravity. Anyway, pressing the "roll" imagery would lead to a discussion of "angular momentum." And here, you only wanted a little advice about when to stick or quit at a machine or table, not instructions on how to build your own space telescope. Sumner A Ingmark, a muse of moment if not momentum, said it like this:

Experience teaches it's wise to be leery,
Of something explained with an intricate theory.

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.