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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Patterns Exist in Gambling, But They're Meaningless

4 December 1995

fellow sat at a blackjack table where I was playing, bought in for $75, and started with a $25 bet. He was astonishingly lucky and soon had $300 in front of him. He then bet $150 and lost. Resolute, he bet the remaining $150 and lost again. The fellow rose to leave, broke, muttering mantras reserved for XXX web sites. "You were doing great," I said. "Why did you risk so much all at once?" He replied, "I saw the pattern and was positive I was due to win. When the first bet went down, I figured I was only off by one so I gave it another shot. Something went wrong."

Comical? Sad? Common? False logic? Yes, to all of the above. Gamblers frequently search for patterns in results of games. Then they try to play according to the trends they detect. Bettors may be reassured to realize it's possible to distinguish patterns in past outcomes. But they'll be disappointed to discover the patterns have no rhyme or reason and therefore no bearing on the future.

I'll elaborate.

Most people have heard of, some have taken, Rorschach or inkblot tests. These are psychological exams in which subjects interpret what they see in various black-and-white splotches.

The idea behind the Rorschach test is that the mind tends to identify patterns patterns it unconsciously wants to find in signals it receives. If you haven't taken the test, you've probably had a similar experience when you imagined the shape of a fish or the profile of Richard Nixon in a passing cloud.

Often the signals represent real information, with a high level of inherent organization, and the images formed by the mind are the mechanisms which help us understand our environment. As an everyday illustration, the brain can detect patterns in the complex vibrations of the eardrum; it uses the patterns to distinguish things like words, music, and doorbells from the background noise.

Because we find and utilize patterns to survive, the mind is always seeking and uncovering them. We assemble pictures even when signals are random and don't really contain the perceived information. It's a manifestation of what head shrinkers call "Gestalt psychology." Political scientists do it when they invoke "cycles" of public sentiment to predict or explain phenomena like the last election. Gamblers do it when they ponder swings in the action.

Solid citizens find hot and cold streaks in random series of wins and losses. Most video poker players are sure there's some sort of regularity in the cards drawn. Big winners at reel-type slots frequently say they knew the jackpot was coming because of the series of results leading up to it. Roulette players favor tables with displays of past outcomes because they think they'll be able to discern the operating mode of the wheel. Blackjack buffs raise their bets after some number of successive wins or after the dealer busts a few times in a row, believing they're attuned to the flow of the cards. Craps players follow the same principle if they take down place bets after the dice go off the table or put more money on the pass line if a "natural" wins on the come-out roll. Such behavior is sometimes dismissed as superstition. But the superstition evolves from conviction that the games follow patterns.

A strato-cumulus silhouette is a trick of the mind. But gambling is a universe of pure numbers so patterns you see are really there. A blackjack player can get a string of hands with wins grouped in threes. A video poker player can encounter a period of straights following directly after triplets. Those are patterns. The mistake? Considering them significant. Presuming a repetitive sequence of events buried in a past random process is a trend that will extend into the future. Thinking chaos is a form of order waiting to be decoded. Believing Nixon's profile in a cloud proves he got to heaven. And nobody would believe that. Well, almost nobody.

As Sumner A Ingmark, the politico-poet-pundit who urged Nixon to give back Checkers if he wanted to stay on the '55 ticket, said:

Card players bold look for patterns to copy,
Trends hot or cold and if neither then choppy.
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.