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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Can You Win in the Casino without Doing Your Homework First?

17 August 2005

Everybody likes to win money at the casinos. Second best is being able to participate in the action for a satisfactorily long session on a stake that seemed sensible before leaving home. A distant third is not tapping a spouse, friend, or debit/credit kiosk in the lobby in a desperate effort to continue or recover.

Frequent players know they can enhance their prospects by diligently studying their favorite games. They learn or devise strategies for decisions, alternate wagers, and betting combinations and progressions fitting the games they enjoy.

These strategies let them fine-tune their play. Their criteria may be anything from minimizing house advantage to balancing a strong chance at a small win against a weak shot at a big payday, or not going broke and wondering what to do the rest of the time.

But, regular patrons aren't the only solid citizens who visit the posh punting palaces of the planet. Lots of people gamble as an occasional, maybe a once in a blue moon or in a lifetime, recreational activity. By and large, these folks want to fantasize about winning or at least breaking even, have fun, feel the verve, and get a free voucher for the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Most such civilians don't want to make gambling more of a burden than a pleasure. By and large, they don't want to spend days digesting the nuances of a game they'll be playing for a few hours. And the majority don't want to be confused by instructions they have no way to as much as guess are gospel or gibberish.

Bettors who do their homework would like to believe that anyone who doesn't is only giving money away. Yet, every practiced player has had the agony of losing by doing everything "right," while a rank amateur a seat or so away is raking in the dough by doing everything "wrong." Sure, some of it's simply serendipity -- the luck of the draw, the bounce of the ball, the roll of the dice, the spin of the reel. It's more than that, though. Nothing in the laws of probability says you can't win if you don't play optimally. What the math does tell is how various alternatives affect the chances of achieving desired outcomes.

To envision how this works, picture two groups of 1,000 blackjack players each. The first group follows Basic Strategy to the letter. Its members hit, stand, double, and split "by the book," shaving house advantage in the game to about half of one percent. The second group knows almost nothing about casino blackjack except that the dealer must draw to totals below 17 and stand on anything else. It comprises individuals who figure if these rules work for the bosses, mimicking the dealer should be good enough for them, too. They give the house roughly 5.5 percent advantage.

Pretend that the 2,000 hopefuls have $250 bankrolls and begin each round with $10 bets. They all play at tables with bets on a three total spots. Effectiveness may be compared in several ways.

Assume they'd all like to play four hours without depleting their resources. This will be about four hours with three active spots. Of the 1,000 who adhere to Basic Strategy, 700 are projected to survive. The figure for the 1,000 who mimic the dealer is 410.

What if the performance target is to play a four-hour session and be ahead, by any amount, at the end of it irrespective of intermediate up- and downswings? Roughly 480 of the 1,000 competent players would achieve this objective. About 180 of the bezonians would have reaped a profit.

A third measure of attainment might be, irrespective of time, the chance of winning $125 before losing $250. Here the figures are 630 for Basic Strategy and 260 for mimic the dealer.

In each instance, more of the masterful than the maladroit met their goals. But a reasonable fraction of those who merely came for pleasure, and took a shot, went home wondering whether they'd wandered into the back door of Fort Knox. Obviously, they missed this musing by the bettor's bard, the beloved Sumner A Ingmark:

Those who by gambling would earn daily bread,
Ought think of getting a day job instead.

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.