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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Perseverance in Gambling Pays…to a Degree

2 November 1998

You can get lucky in a casino. You can start any game with a small stake and end up with big bucks. Maybe a gigantic jackpot within your first few tries at a machine. Or a hot streak from the getgo at a table. It's reasonably tough to go home a loser when this happens - although some folks know the secret.

The opposite can occur, too. A game starts badly and stays cold. Maybe you remain at one spot, hoping it will turn. Perhaps you move. Or take a break and return later. But luck continues against you. You win some bets, but can't seem to get over the hump. These are times that separate the jetsam from the flotsam.

A cardinal rule of smart gambling is to size your bets to your bankroll so you won't go broke during a normal downswing. You have no chance of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat if you exhaust your stake, and aren't foolish enough to hit the credit or bank card machine for more than you'd planned to risk.

It also helps to appreciate how games fluctuate. This can keep you from getting disgusted and acting rashly under conditions which are adverse but in the range to be expected occasionally. You may think it was brilliant to go for broke with a last big bet when it happens to win and you recover everything at once. Overwhelmingly often, you'll regret having acted impetuously.

The implication is that perseverance pays. It often does. But not always. Even if your pockets are deep enough to support your betting style and you're highly disciplined. There's always a chance you won't get back to break-even before you reach a financial, physical, psychological, or other limit.

One reason you may never recover is that the casino has a mathematical edge on every bet. The more you play, the tougher it is to overcome the accumulating hurdle that edge represents.

What if the house has no advantage? Probability alone may still leave you always behind. The following values show the phenomenon for sessions of various lengths. They're for an idealized game: you flip an unbiased coin, winning $1 on heads and losing $1 on tails. The edge is zero because you'll break even if you win half - the statistically-correct number - your bets.

number
of flips
probability
of always
being behind (%)
10
24.6
50
11.2
100
8.0
250
5.0
500
3.6
1,000
2.5
2,500
1.6
5,000
1.1
10,000
0.8

The figures confirm that, as you stretch sessions with no edge, the likelihood decreases you'll remain in the hole. The effect is strongest for moderate durations, since incremental improvements diminish with extended play and the probability never reaches zero. For instance, you have a 24.6 percent chance of always being behind in a 10-flip session. After 100 tries, the chance drops to 8 percent. Do it 1,000 times and the chance is 2.5 percent. If a million marathon flippers play 10,000 rounds each, about 8,000 - 0.8 percent - will never see the light of day.

In real games, probability of always being behind is worse than what's indicated on the list. Part of this is due to the edge. Another mechanism applies when solid citizens take longshots - bets with small chances of high returns. An extreme case would be a wager with a million to one odds against collecting $1 million on a $1 bet, and everything else loses. In 10,000 tries, a player would have a 1 percent chance of being at least $990,000 ahead at some point, and a 99 percent chance of always being behind.

Ultimately, if you're having a losing session, you have to decide for yourself. Keep trying for recovery and risk losing more, or cut your losses? Contrary to any money management malarkey you may have read, there are no hard and fast rules. That persistent poet, Sumner A Ingmark, advocated adaptability when he wrote:

Don't set your gambling goals too rigidly,
Or you could grieve when games go frigidly.

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.