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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Don't Be a Good Player but a Bad Gambler

3 November 1997

Casinos are packed with good players and bad gamblers. They're often the same people.

What makes a good player? Mainly, knowing how to optimize the outcome of a bet.

The optimization may involve decisions with the greatest expected return or highest probability of winning, in games where choices affect outcomes. Examples are cards to hold at video poker or when to hit, stand, split, double, or surrender at blackjack.

The optimization may also mean choosing bets to balance edge, odds, amount at risk, and payoff - for different games, variations of the same game, and alternate bets within one game. Illustrations are propositions at craps versus numbers at roulette, eight decks in blackjack with pair resplitting versus six decks with no resplits, and Player versus Banker at baccarat.

What makes a bad gambler? Lots of weaknesses contribute. But heading the objective part of the list is ignorance of the influence betting practices have on chances of session success.


As an example, I'll tell you about Beatrice, a blackjack buff. Beatrice is a pro at picking games according to the available options and following the corresponding versions of basic strategy. But, at betting, she's bush league.

I saw her, recently, playing at a $25 table. She was winning, but annoyed by smoke from a neighbor's cigarette. "Does this pit have a smoke-free table?" she asked the floorperson. "Yes," he replied, "I'll save you a seat there." Beatrice went over and found the new game had a $50 minimum. She stayed anyway. And tapped out during a run of bad hands she ordinarily would have outlasted.

Beatrice violated two key betting canons.

The first of these precepts involves the link between bet and bankroll sizes. It influences the magnitude of expected upswings and downswings. For instance, in six-deck blackjack with four spots in action - Beatrice's game that day - a player typically gets 16 hands between shuffles and has about 10 percent chance of being behind by over 12 bets after four shoes. Games this cold would hit a player for $300 with constant $25 bets; a $500 buy-in would be adequate. At $50 a pop, these losses would be doubled and $500 would fall short.


The second betting principle that hurt Beatrice involved strategies for increasing wagers during a game. Solid citizens can follow "negative progressions," raising bets after losses and dropping to the base amount after wins. With sufficient bankroll and wide table limits, this approach is viable and yields sessions with frequent small wins and occasional large losses. Using "positive progressions," bets are raised after wins and returned to the base after losses. This is also practical and leads to occasional substantial wins and frequent moderate losses.

Beatrice uses a form of negative progression. In the game I watched, she lost three hands in a row - $50, $50, $100 - then bet $200 and got a blackjack. This paid $300, a $100 net for the four-bet series. Instead of dropping to $50, though, she bet $300 again, saying she'd quit if she won. She lost, followed with another losing $300 bet, and didn't have the money to continue.

Later, over coffee, Beatrice bawled about bad breaks that began with the cigarette smoke. I started to say she'd forgotten about betting strategies, but quickly realized she didn't forget... she never knew. She had no idea of the buy-in needed for a $50 game. Worse, she wasn't raising her bets after losses for a good chance at a small session profit; it was because after losing a few, she thought a win was due. So I referred her to the refrain written for just such situations by the beloved bard, Sumner A Ingmark:


A gambler's depravity,
When fortunes are down,
Is thinking that gravity,
Will turn things aroun'.

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.