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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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How Do You Know What's True about Gambling?

2 October 2000

What do you believe about gambling -- about identifying hot or cold tables or machines, forming or following decision strategies, progressing or regressing your bets, changing games or seats, quitting at some loss limit or win goal, and the like? How did you reach your conclusions? Why do many players with experiences comparable to yours strongly think just the opposite?

Dogmas diverge on profusions of points. Here are examples. Slot aficionados may be sure that machines are random, or cyclical, or programmed to obey the law of averages and accordingly most apt to pay after other bettors lose their bundles. Craps fans may know the dice always have the same chance of landing on seven, or are more likely than usual to show this result after going off the layout or hitting someone's hand. Blackjack buffs may be certain their chances of winning are best if the table is full, or playing heads-up against the dealer, or when the number of spots in action is synchronized with flow of the cards.

Solid citizens reach gambling truths along one or more of four principal paths. Their hunches tell them what's right, they've bought a book or system written or devised by a guru revealing secrets the casino bosses didn't want anyone to know, untold hours seated at the slots or bellied up to the rails provide the basis for understanding, or they've worked out -- OK, vaguely comprehended -- the probabilities underlying the games.

Equally interesting, bettors who've reached nirvana, one way or another, tend to belittle everyone who has found a different truth through an alternate means. Take roulette. Short-term empiricists who bet on red after three straight blacks, and long-run statisticians who calculate the chances of a black at 47.3684 percent on every spin regardless of what just happened or of patterns on the tote board, each snicker at the other. Members of both camps are steadfast in the verities revealed along the primrose paths their characters and world views have led them.

Is this an effect unique to gamblers? Or is the trait more universal? Is it yet another way that casinos distill the very essence of life, its vicissitudes along with the accompanying decision processes and consequences, into four- or six-hour sessions between bus arrivals and departures?

In Truth (St Martin's Press), scholar and historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto asserts that --; over the years --; society has followed one or more of four distinct roads to what's considered reality. These routes, he explains, lead to truths which are perceived or felt rather than demonstrated, revealed by some kind of oracle or sacred document, determined by theory based on logic and reason, or found by analyzing observed data. And, Dr Fernandez-Armesto notes, cultures which find their truths one way tend to discredit those who arrive at actualities by different means. For contemporary evidence, you need look no further than at Republicans and Democrats disdaining each other's methods and facts about the federal budget surplus and Social Security.

There's more. Gamblers often discover their realities through multiple paths -- maybe by reading venerable texts and also learning by doing. Faith is fortified when the truths coincide. But the elements may conflict. The experts say not to insure blackjacks when the dealer has ace-up, but a guarantee of "even money" may seem intuitively right, rather than risking a push to get a paltry extra half unit back. Which is gospel, which heresy?

Here, too, Dr Fernandez-Armesto finds a broad parallel. Cultures, past and present, derive doctrines variously from inner feeling, oracles, logic, and observation. Contradictions are therefore inevitable, he states. Witness contrary beliefs held today about the origin of the universe, as taught by the bible and the space program. Society must allow such variance, he argues, not presume there's unity of truth. Gamblers are less philosophical. They expect disparity. They call it luck. As the bettors' bard, Sumner A Ingmark, to whom only words are truth (and vice versa), wrote:

Gamblers showing perspicacity,
Know that chance beclouds veracity.
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.