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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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The Best Bet Size Is Somewhere between a Rock and a Hard Place

9 March 2000

Authoritative advice abounds about the best casino games to play and the best moves to make when options are available. However, aid is scant for the most mercurial element of all. With bounds on a bankroll, and even the highest rollers have limits, bet size transcends everything else. It's more crucial than luck. If not to final outcomes of given games, certainly to initial prospects.

The best size bet is somewhere between a rock and a hard place. Too high a portion of your poke per round lowers the likelihood you'll survive normal downswings during sessions of reasonable duration. Too low a fraction cuts the chance that normal upswings will yield enough revenue to fulfill your fantasies, or to dig you out of an abyss. Bigger bets bring greater gladness when you get the bear and louder lamentation when the bear gets you. It doesn't take a Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevskii to see the mathematical trends. But it might need an Ivan Petrovich Pavlov to understand the psychological implications.

Consider what should be the good news. You bet above your customary level and are further ahead than you've ever been. Solid citizens in this circumstance are inclined to assume a mantle of invincibility. A $100 gain, normally a nice hit, is suddenly chicken feed. Up goes the bravado. And, if proceeds start to dwindle, the setback must be temporary; a few more rounds will restore the former plateau -- the point now viewed as the proper target because it's already been achieved. A few folks recover or surpass their former peaks. Most don't. And some not only fail to hold at least a small profit, but drop into a hole.

What about overbetting and falling behind at the getgo? Enter, the scared money syndrome. Say you wouldn't fret about being $100 down at $5 blackjack. You can afford a $200 hit, and you've often eked out $100 recoveries. But now you're $500 down in a $25 game. This degree of damage makes you jittery. You've never had a $500 upsurge. The situation seems hopeless. Intuition you built at $5 a pop is gone. Maybe you quit prematurely instead of confidently riding through the valley. Or you visit the cash machine in the lobby for $200 you never planned to risk, then bet it all at once thinking $700 is no worse than $500. And hoping miracles happen.

Underbetting can also be dangerous. A common problem is that your profits may never soar to heights that satisfy your ego and give you bragging rights. So you continue, although you've won as much as you should expect based on your wagers. And, if your earnings dissipate or go negative, you get disgusted and skulk off.

The opposite happens, too. Occasionally, players who bet too low find themselves losing more than they'd anticipated. They keep at it, because upswings they've undergone in the past suggest that salvation is in sight. They forget that the lower bets aren't apt to bring comparable comebacks, so they don't quit where they'd ordinarily declare a moral victory and call it a game.

What bet size is best? No one mouse fits all traps.

Statistics can supply signals as to the bankroll swings you can expect for the way you play a particular game. For example, what if you bet flat and follow basic strategy at blackjack? The laws of probability show you could easily be ahead or behind by six times your wager at the end of a 35-round shoe, and twice as much in the interim. Betting $10, this is $60 and $120, respectively. Betting $25, it's $150 and $300. Frequent players can reach similar conclusions based on experience -- provided they don't tend to recall substantial wins and repress large losses.

Of course, personal preferences complicate the issue. What can you tell slot players with respectable $50 gambling budgets who think they're somehow too hoity-toity for the $0.05 machines? Or baccarat buffs with $500 stakes who sensibly play at $10 tables and maybe go up to $25 when they think they detect a run, but won't surrender their seats until they earn $1,000 or go belly-up? You could quote Sumner A Ingmark, the bettors' Byron:

Success oft lies in wise proportions,
And failure in naive distortions.

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.