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Winning Has More to Do with Character than You Might Think

16 May 1994

By Alan Krigman

Anyone can win money at a casino. With or without knowing anything. Following or flaunting the exhortations of the experts. That's what games of chance are all about.

But forget for now the few fortunate folks who fall felicitously upon the right guess at the right place at the right time. Certain regular players seem to win frequently while others lose consistently. Is it luck? Skill? Knowledge? Maybe something Kellogg's puts in the Corn Flakes?

Let me tell you a story. A scorpion wanted to cross a river but couldn't swim. So he asked a frog to carry him. The frog said, "If I let you on my back, you'll bite me and I'll die." The scorpion replied, "That makes no sense. I want to cross the river and you're my only means." The frog, seeing the logic, told the scorpion to climb on then jumped into the water and began to swim. About half way over, the scorpion bit the frog. Both started to sink. "I don't get it," gasped the dying frog. "Where's the sense in this?" The drowning scorpion responded, "There's no sense in it at all. It's my character. I had to go for the kill."

So it is with casino gambling. The idea is to win. And winning, on a long term basis, means playing percentages. Frequent winners are guided by the probabilities governing the games, as known from math, experience, or both. Consistent losers don't understand the odds, or it's in their characters to ignore them and go for the kill.

Here's an illustration. The other day, I was at a blackjack table when a fellow bought in for $1000. This turned out to be his whole stake, or all that remained of it. The money would have been enough to start betting $25 or even $50. But he jumped right in at the $100 level. When he lost his first three hands, he got disgusted and bet $200, looking for a quick come-back. He was dealt an eleven against a dealer five, doubled down with another $200, and pulled a four for a weak fifteen. The dealer turned his hole card, a three, then drew an ace to beat the player with nineteen. The player bet what was left on two spots for $150 each. He was dealt a twenty and an eighteen against a dealer ten. An ace was in the hole. The player lost both hands and left with nary a nod nor a nickel.

This guy, obviously no greenhorn, could've anticipated the downswings of a normal game. He didn't allow for enough hands to await a favorable run of high cards, or a few splits and doubles against weak dealer up-cards, to put him over the top. He went for the kill. It was in his character.

Here's another example. A pal and I were playing craps. The table was cold. We were losing. Saying, "We're due," he pumped his bets. I hoped he was right, but kept my bets the same size. The next shooter was hot, putting my friend just over the top and bringing my loss into my "comfort zone." The upswing was enough for me to walk. He stayed, exulting, "We're on a roll." When the dust cleared, he was back down, crying he should have quit with me. He knew enough to stop after a good shooter got him out of trouble. But he went for the kill. It was in his character.

Gamblers going for the kill occasionally win big but usually lose. Some don't know any better. With others, it's apparently in their characters to jump first and read the parachute instructions on the way down. Sumner A Ingmark, poet laureate of the wagering world and betting balladeer extraordinaire, put it perfectly in "The Lament of the Last Loser," the manuscript of which is preserved for posterity in a cement overshoe at the bottom of a river near a permanently docked gambling boat.

A gambler having common sense
Displays a happy countenance.
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 were focused on those interested in gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.