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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Proficiency Helps Players Handle Victory as well as Defeat

17 March 2000

Players take results at games of chance personally. Winners, as well as people who come from behind to break even, strut from the machines or tables of victory. They credit their own talent for triumphs over odds that would overwhelm ordinary mortals. Losers, including those who fall from profit to break-even, skulk from the pits of defeat. They feel low self-esteem and internalize blame for what seem in retrospect to be inherent fatal flaws. They lament everything... playing in the first place when any idiot could tell conditions were bad, letting greed keep them going when an inner voice -- or their spouses -- said they were enough ahead or had staged an adequate recovery, maybe trying a new game their cousin told them was easy but they hadn't studied.

This, although competence no more ensures success than ineptitude guarantees failure. Gambling, after all, implies chance. The possibility both of winning and losing. The fact that an approach can flourish one day and flounder the next, or vice versa.

Which isn't to say that proficient players can't exercise some degree of control over what happens on the casino floor. Bettors can tailor their actions to achieve a high likelihood of a modest win, a small chance at a big bonanza, or something in between. They can also opt to go for a quick hit or grind out a slow score. Counterbalancing such choices is the risk of losing some or all of a gambling stake.

To picture how it works, make believe a casino game has zero house edge. Over extended periods, players should break even. However, expected bankroll swings will obviously differ for 50-50 propositions -- equivalent to flips of a coin -- paying 1-to-1, and for longshots with something like one chance in a thousand of winning 999-to-1. Similarly, bettors ultimately willing to donate $500 to the casino mortgage fund can expect winning sessions five times out of six by quitting when their earnings reach $100, but only once every two tries if their goal is to grab $500 or bust.

It's not too far fetched to ignore edge, since solid citizens can virtually eliminate its impact during particular sessions by their selection of games and strategies. And, to the extent it matters, the effect is of magnitude rather than kind. That is, there's still a trade-off between probability and amount of a win, only the relative values of the quantities are changed.

To a great extent, gambling acumen involves learning to make deliberate choices consistent with an individual's aims and temperament, developing the discipline to proceed according to plan, and accepting the consequences either way like a mensch. Players who acquire and practice these skills are not immune to flashes of belief that they're somehow able to "beat the system" when they encounter the upside of chance. And they're not impervious to being staggered when they run into the downside.

Good players, though, are less sensitive to these frailties than folks lacking a firm grasp on the situation. They're accordingly less apt to go on tilt and take excessive risks, heady with success or desperate with failure.

Players aren't the only participants in gambling who take the vagaries of chance personally. Casino bosses do, too, despite being in the probability business. Casinos lose when players win. When the winners happen to be low to moderate bettors, nobody gets nervous since cash flows average out over the customer base and the casino emerges with a net gain because of the edge. But, some winners happen to be high rollers. The types who fly to town on private jets and bunk in penthouse suites with parlors the size of Yankee Stadium. Then, the big bosses -- who may not have made the deliberate choices consistent with their corporate goals and temperament, may not have the discipline to proceed according to plan, and may not accept the consequences like menschen -- hold sessions that leave little bosses suffering low self-esteem.

The poet, Sumner A Ingmark, pondered the predicament like this:

Though knowledge is expedient,
When chance is an ingredient,
Then fate gets disobedient.

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.