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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Gambling Is More about Trade-offs than Right of Wrong Choices.

2 November 2005

You can learn a lot in the casino that will help you in the workaday world. And vice-versa. Number 17 on the list is that few real problems have "best" solutions in any absolute sense. Rather, they present ranges of possible trade-offs with varying costs and benefits, many of which are highly subjective.

In a casino, for instance, players who think strictly in terms of right and wrong ways to gamble may choose what they believe to be the only game or strategy that makes sense. And it may, for them. But this doesn't make it correct for everyone or even anyone else. It may, likewise, not be right for them all the time.

Competent gamblers realize they have options at every stage. Casino patrons start by deciding what to play. One trade-off here is whether to go for a game that's pure chance, or offers alternate propositions on which to bet, or requires decisions about how to complete a round. Slot machine, craps, and blackjack players may debate which is preferable. And, among those who favor one type of game or another, disputes are common as to what bets are best -- Place versus Come at craps, for example. Questions like these have no single answers, however, because people set the balance according to their own predispositions.

Another range of alternatives among or within certain of these games involves the choice of bets with strong chances at small returns, long shots at big payoffs, or something either in between or combining these extremes. Players may likewise have choices that offer low edge but little or no opportunities for major scores or high house advantages with returns that can change winners' lives in just one stroke of fantastic luck.

Bet sizing also involves trade-offs. Solid citizens tend to think of this exclusively in terms of table games, but slots that accommodate bets from as low as $0.01 on a single line to $0.10 on each of 10 lines simultaneously offer machine aficionados what proves to be a wider spread than the limits on any table permit.

With this capability, bettors can elect to wager the same amount on every round, in which case the balance involves how much they're exposed to lose versus what they hope to win on a single coup. Players can also raise or lower the amounts placed at risk based on anything from hunches or perceived trends to the current sizes of their bankrolls. By doing so, they can manipulate the chances of results such as making a bundle during a hot streak, going belly up during a cold spell, and getting a lot of action with a decent chance for a modest profit on an affordable budget.

The decision to quit or continue playing is another trade-off. A person in the hole may weigh the chance of getting in deeper by throwing good money after bad, versus that of pulling out. Or, folks who are ahead face the trade-off of using what may seem like "the house's money" since they didn't have it when they began, to win even more, as opposed giving some or all of it back and possibly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

These aren't simply instances of the "law of unintended consequences," where the response of a system to an action can't be predicted. They're cases in which the trade-offs can be anticipated in advance and decisions made -- sometimes one or the other but more often in the form of a compromise.

There's another factor. In understanding that you can juggle the costs and benefits of alternatives and there's no single best way to gamble, nothing requires you to adopt a strategy when you cross the threshold of your favorite casino and stick with it come what may. You can proceed step-by-step, making new calibrations as fate, hunger, the clock, your spouse's nagging, or whatnot suggest. This isn't to suggest you leave home with no notion of what you're going to do. Rather, that your plan should be flexible enough to allow for the circumstances you encounter once you're in the thick of things. For, as the prescient poet, Sumner A Ingmark, artfully argued in this quintessential couplet:

Adjust your alternatives incrementally,
Or hope for a victory accidentally.

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.