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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Gambling Involves More, and Less, than Meets the Eye

22 August 2000

There's more to casino gambling than meets the eye. And, at the same time, there's less.

More than meets the eye, when options during the action affect chances of various results. More, when choices of single and combined bets yield different chances to win and payoffs for success. And more, when players size bets and establish goals for session duration and profit or loss levels at which they'll quit.

Less than meets the eye when solid citizens see cause-and-effect in situations that, in fact, are random. Less, when players find and ascribe meaning to streaks and other patterns in series of rounds, even though what they've observed has no significance.

Why these tendencies to apply what psychologists call gestalt to casino games? They may result from participants grasping for a sense of control in situations where they have little or no influence over outcomes. Or they may follow from the simple ways results of bets can often be described. Perhaps some of both.

Baccarat affords an example. Bettors can wager on three results -- Banker, Player, or Tie. They can decide how much to risk. That's it. The rest is automatic -- rules for drawing cards are fixed. And probabilities of outcomes are no secrets: 45.8 percent that Banker wins, 44.6 percent that Player wins, and 9.6 percent that Tie wins while Banker and Player push.

The odds are essentially the same on every round. But brigades of baccarat buffs believe the game is inherently streaky, or exhibits intricate patterns. Further, they confuse proficiency with trust in systems they think anticipate future hands.

In the simplest case, after several wins in a row on Banker or Player, streak bettors start parlaying profits to capitalize on the incipient run. When, by chance, a series continues, those who both press their bets and get out in time can make big bucks. What if the next hand, with the heavy bet, goes sour? Maybe it wasn't a run after all. Or, maybe it was. Just a round too short.

Faith that phenomena beyond pure chance drive a game often hinges on what seem to be high incidences of low-probability events. For instance, the chance that Banker will win six or more rounds in a row is about 1.7 percent. For Player, 1.4 percent. These figures are low enough so series this long would seem to be rare. But, during a weekend of baccarat, you could easily play 1,000 rounds. Here, probability alone says to expect more than one such repetition of each hand, with chances being 70 and 65 percent for six or more successive Bankers and Players, respectively.

Unfortunately, occurrences of these runs are purely random, so this information about the probabilities can't be exploited in a betting system. After five winning Bankers in a row, the chance is still 45.8 percent of another Banker, 44.6 percent of a Player, and 9.6 percent of a Tie on the next round.

So, what do you do? Say you bet $10 on Player, and parlayed it to $160 in four successive hits. Do you now bet the $160 because you think baccarat flows in streaks -- actually having 44.6 percent chance of earning $310, 9.6 percent chance of remaining at a $150 win, and 45.8 percent chance of falling to a $10 loss? Or, do you lock up $150 and drop back to $10 bet, figuring you've pushed your luck far enough -- having 44.6 percent chance of finishing the next round with $160 profit, 9.6 percent chance of remaining at a $150 gain, and 45.5 percent chance of ending with $140?

You must decide this for yourself. How gratifying is the $150 you've already earned? How eager are you for the $310 you think you're positioned to win? And, do you imagine you're only risking the $10 you originally took from your nest egg or the $160 on the table? Personal predilection prescribes the decision. Either way, good gamblers know what they'll do in advance, and don't look back when the hand is resolved. According to Sumner A Ingmark, who predicts the future by writing the last lines of poems first:

Delaying decisions 'till after the fact,
Is skill badly wanted, inherently lacked.

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.