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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Gambling Answers Only Help if You're Prepared to Use Them

2 October 2000

Slot players often quit at the low or high points of their sessions, reflecting a widespread motivation to risk everything on a shot at a major score. Table players, who are typically inclined toward moderation in risk and reward, more frequently call it a day after recovering a bit from low points or dropping somewhat from profit peaks. Either way, informed decisions about what and how to play involve knowing the stakes appropriate for a specific game and particular size or progression of bets, how big a win or loss to expect after a period of play, and how high or low a bankroll might go during the action. But where do solid citizens acquire this esoteric knowledge?

In the past, experience alone could provide a feel for such factors. Even then, intuition only held for particular games and betting strategies. Instincts hard-won at baccarat don't transfer to pai gow poker, for instance. And being used to the swings at blackjack risking $25 every round doesn't necessarily help anticipate the ups and downs of the game with wagers averaging $25 but varying randomly or systematically from $10 to $100.

Today, experience is reinforced by math and statistics. It takes countless and costly hours to gain reliable insight into a single game and mode of play. But computer models, once developed and verified, quickly yield the vitals for all sorts of situations.

Here's an example.

In a crowded casino recently, Nelda -- a neighbor who knows how to play but gambles infrequently -- saw me and elbowed her way over with a question. "I have $100," she said. "There are nickel craps tables but none under $15 for blackjack. I like both games. At craps, I'd bet $5 on the line with $10 odds -- so the money is the same as $15 blackjack. Which would be better to play?"

As asked, the question had no answer. "Better" is too vague a criterion. What was her objective? Play for a reasonable time without too much risk of tapping out? Garner desired proceeds then quit? Something else? I could easily determine the chances associated with performance measures of this type had I access to my computer. But I couldn't give guidelines off the cuff for such specific cases since my experience, vast as it may be, doesn't embrace these games at these particular bet and bankroll levels.

For curiosity's sake, I went to the computer when I got home and plugged a few numbers into my short-term session probability programs. For this exercise, I assumed Nelda wanted to last for at least an hour if fate was being unkind but would quit if she doubled her money in a shorter time span.

Betting $15 flat at blackjack, she'd have 57 percent chance of losing her $100 before completing 100 rounds -- about an hour at a table with four total spots in action. The probability she'd hit the $100 win goal before the end of the hour was 54 percent.

With $5 on the line and $10 odds at craps, she'd have 50 percent chance of exhausting her $100 stake before finishing 100 come-out cycles -- also about an hour. The likelihood of earning $100 before the end of the hour was 47 percent.

These quantities, or analogous values for other criteria, would have given Nelda a rational basis for her decision. Of course, the selection still wouldn't be cut and dried. Craps offers more chance to survive the normal downswings for an hour. Blackjack affords better prospects of hitting the profit goal. What to do?

I saw Nelda later and gave her the stats. She confirmed it was just as well I didn't have my computer handy at the casino because the trade-offs would have put her in a tizzie. Anyway, she played craps "because there was a space open at a table where everyone was shouting so I figured it was hot," once got as far as $80 ahead, and quit after two hours with a $65 profit and a comp for the all-you-can-eat buffet. Go figure! Or, as the very venerated versifier of vacillation, Sumner A Ingmark, verbalized:

While numbers having great precision,
May help all gamblers blessed with vision,
They vex those fraught with indecision.
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.