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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Quitting with a Profit Is the Toughest Gambling Decision of Al

14 February 2001

What's the toughest decision bettors make at the machines or tables? It varies among individuals. But, for many, it's whether to cash out or continue when they reach a logical closure point with a profit that seems less at the moment than it will later.

All functioning adults know what to do if they go bust. They call it a day and head for the all-you-can-eat buffet, forgetting foolish fancies like drawing dough from a cash machine, borrowing on a credit card, or hitting-up a soon-to-be former friend.

The dilemma involves the opposite situation. You make some money. By no means sufficient to change your life, but more than a few hours' pay at your regular job. Here are some scenarios.

You jump on the $0.25 slots with a $200 bankroll. After an hour or two, you hit a bonus -- although not the jackpot of your dreams. The credit meter climbs to 1,500 coins, $375. Almost double the stake that, admit it, took you a while to salt away.

You buy in at a $5 craps table for $500. You bet a nickel on the line and take double odds, then place two numbers. Someone picks up the dice and shoots until you've made a modest profit, then keeps on rolling. You press your bets. Half an hour later, when the seven pops, you have $2,000 in your rack. This $1,500 profit is more than you've ever made before in a single casino visit.

Other games have their own moments of truth. You're ahead at the end of a hot blackjack shoe, following a 35-to-1 payoff on $25 straight-up at roulette, after a full house win on the main and side bets at Caribbean Stud or on all three spots at let-it-ride.

Some solid citizens quit at such junctures. The good part is they keep what they've already won. The bad part is they'll never know what would have happened had they forged on. Even watching the machine or the table doesn't provide this insight because the act of leaving affects the flow of the game in indeterminate ways.

Others stay, seeing themselves on a streak. Those who go up think they're champs of chance. The rest rationalize "it's only money."

A third group keeps going, but sets loss limits which still leave them with a profit. Wonderful when winnings soar. When they sour, realistically, it's tough to stop on the way back down. Many folks tell themselves they will, then shift gears when they get there and try to regain the past peak -- maybe successfully, maybe not. As for those who do leave at the lower level, again the verdict is mixed. Some are satisfied at what they keep, others regret earning less than they would not being so greedy.

I'll spare you bromides like "quit when you're ahead," which are far easier to say than do. These are highly personal decisions, influenced not only by private goals but also by factors such as duration and frequency of play, swings undergone before reaching a natural break point, and the pain associated with a given loss in contrast to the pleasure afforded by some level of win.

It's wise to frame a philosophy in advance, apart from the heat of the action. Will you be happy with a modest profit or are you willing to blow an initial stake or intermediate winnings on a shot at a big return? Neither way is inherently superior to the other. Then there's the decision you have to make on the spot. How good will you feel taking home what you've won? How much better would you consider half again or twice as much compared to how much worse you'd regard giving half or more back?

What motivates one bettor isn't necessarily what inspires the next. Some players are aggressive, others are risk averse. And civilians abound who don't like to gamble at all. My own approach is to play conservatively, looking to grab the money and run at a break point when I'm ahead by more than a few units. Lots of good gamblers do differently. Who's to decree one or another approach as right or wrong? As the poet, Sumner A Ingmark, observed:

For gamblers the decision's tough,
Just how much profit is enough?
And how much sorrow later lingers,
O'er winnings that slipped through their fingers?

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.