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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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When You Quit, You Wonder What Would've Happened

29 January 1996

How do you make a profit in a casino? Quit when you're ahead. Almost everybody can remember moments during a game they had some of the house's money. Why don't more players keep it?

Some say greed. Players aren't happy with a day's pay. They want the whole shebang, and blow it trying for a big score.

Others say superstition. Players believe so strongly in streaks that following a few hits, they're sure the force is with them and keep going even after the tide turns.

A few say inexperience and naivete. Players don't know what to expect. Having clobbered the odds, they don't appreciate their luck until the law of averages comes full circle.

There's those who say focus. Players look for the action, not a decent profit. "Stop now? I just got here. There's nothing else to do. It's too early to go home. I didn't rack up enough points to get a comp. Besides, I came to the casino to gamble."

Self-righteous civilians say compulsion. Players get hooked -- weakened by the liquor forced down their throats, the psycho-scents wafting through the vents, the hypnotic flashing lights, and the subliminal messages buried in the background music.

Maybe. But, for the fate-defying behavior to be so universal, there have to be more fundamental and overriding causes.

Part of the answer may lie in what I call the gambler's enigma. The fact that with certain exceptions, bettors can only tell what transpired when they continued to play. After leaving, they have no way to know what would have been the result of going on.

Solid citizens who fall behind and quit wonder whether they would have recovered, even won. Those who get ahead and quit fantasize about how high they might have soared. It's bad enough to stay and know just when you should've gone. It's worse to leave and never know whether you should've persisted. The uncertainty creates a drive to continue, "to see what happens." Sometimes it pays. Sometimes it doesn't. But the downside is usually more painful than the upside is pleasurable.

You can't avoid the gambler's enigma. But you can mitigate its impact. Do this by adopting a quitting strategy, exercising the discipline you need to follow it, and never looking back.

Some experts suggest quitting by setting loss limits and win goals. One method, which may help casual players, is to quit after you've passed your win goal then slipped back by some predetermined amount or when you drop to your loss limit.

More sophisticated strategies can be used by seasoned players. Bettors who understand expected swings and recognize natural cut-offs can manipulate their targets "on the fly." For instance, craps players who've crossed below their thresholds of pain might decide they'll quit after any roll that leaves them either ahead or with a comfortable loss. Blackjack players who've been ahead and grab multiple bets at once because of a split and/or double might decide they'll continue until the next losing hand.

Here's another case. Recently, I invited three friends to one of those fancy Sunday brunches some casinos now offer -- $30 each and well worth it. The casino was good enough to give us a comp for two; I had to pay for the rest. Saturday night, I was playing $25 blackjack, down a bit but not uncomfortably so. A few hands popped in a row; I pressed to $50, split a pair, winning $100, and was $90 up. Normally, I'd have stayed. This time, I quit. One of my friends was astonished. "You're on a run. Why stop?" he asked. "Easy," I answered. "I toked the dealer and have $80 left. That's the two brunches and tips for the maître d' and waiter."

The incident reminds me of the immortal improvisation by Sumner A Ingmark, the John Donne of decisiveness:

Carpe diem -- seize the day,
Clever gamblers win that way.

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.