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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Casino Buffs Aren't Alone; Everyone Looks for Patterns

11 December 1995

mblers often look for patterns in outcomes of casino games. Things such as cycles, results following series, or events presaging one another. We find them as byproducts of our ability to discriminate signals flooding our six senses. Unfortunately, the notion of patterns in casino games is meaningless. The pattern seen in the past don't project into the future because the data, while constrained by law, are governed by chance. Like the formation of birds in a flock.

Solid citizens want this to be otherwise. We want some quirk in the rules to impose order on the chaos. Of course, we want to be the only ones to detect the anomaly so the casinos won't get wise and take countermeasures. And we want to believe that nobody's having found the effect yet is no proof it doesn't exist.

I'm not saying I never sought method in this casino madness. I once gave the search a good try. Here's the story.

The roll of a single die on a craps table is a random event. Each side is as apt to land on top as any other; over a long period, they'll all show equally often. But, when two dice roll and the spots are added, the sums have different probabilities. As examples, out of 36 possible combinations, one totals 2 (1-1), three total 10 (4-6, 5-5, and 6-4), six total 7 (1-6, 2-5, 3-4, 4-3, 5-2, and 6-1), and so forth. The rolls may be random but the odds of various results follow a repeatable distribution.

Craps rules and probability laws add another layer of order. Line bets win eight and lose four ways on come-out rolls, numbers must show twice for line bets to win after the come-out, to cite a few.

This stuff gets complex. Were there patterns, only computers could find them. So I used mine for the job. I wrote a program simulating extended craps play and fed the results through a Fourier analyzer. Regularities buried in the results would yield to this fancy math.

The first computer run had me ready to mortgage the farm. Out popped three dominant and a host of minor frequencies. This suggested hanging around a table and betting in synch with the cycles to catch hot shooters. Happily, it was at night and the mortgage office was closed. A second computer run found four major and several secondary cycles, none resembling the first set. More runs, more patterns, always different. I learned a lot. About chaos theory. About entropy. About making a silk purse from a sow's ear.

Casino buffs aren't alone. Financial wizards and statesmen look for then act on patterns in matters of national and global significance. And birds? Like snowflakes, no two flocks are exactly the same, and each changes unpredictably with time and outside influence.

Euromoney magazine surveyed the currency traders who affect world commerce by buying and selling huge blocks of dollars, marks, yen, and whatever. "Chartists" who extrapolate zigzags in price histories, vastly outnumber fundamentalists who read economic, political, and psychological tea leaves. Over the years, both schools have had equally spotty track records.

James Reichley of Georgetown University underscored the same point, reviewing the '94 election in the Wall Street Journal. He discounted Arthur Schlesinger's theory of political cycles in the US having phases of four presidential terms of liberalism alternating with four of conservatism. This would explain Clinton's win in 1992, he claimed, but not the 1994 Republican landslide. Another popular theory, said Professor Reichley, held "that American politics has changed its essential direction, not every 16 years, but every 30 to 36 years." But, he argued, this proved wrong in the '60s. "The basic flaw in most theories," he then revealed, "is that they fail to comprehend that major cycles have extended ... 60 to 70 years."

And so it goes. In casinos, in finance, in politics, in flocks of birds. New data don't fit patterns we thought we saw. So we find another pattern to trust until it also fails. Sumner A Ingmark, whose prosaic patter is poetically patterned, put it aptly:

Patterns lurk in random data,
But when found they do not matter.
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.