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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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You Can Improve Your Chances without Reducing the Edge

8 February 1999

You've probably read or heard about betting schemes, quitting strategies, profit-pocketing procedures, and other ways insiders improve their odds of success. Such money management methods are among the most deeply deliberated aspects of casino gambling -- after how to get a "comp" for the buffet, of course.

The topic is controversial. All gambling gurus worthy of the mantle agree that no such manipulations can eliminate the house advantage or edge; in fact, some systems worsen it. Yet you'll find experts explicating everything from trite epigrams like "hit and run," to rococo rules for breaking bankrolls into session stakes, hedging, and using trends as criteria for sizing bets.

Further, many solid citizens hold money management as an article of faith. They recall winning using some secret the big bosses didn't want anyone to know, and losing when they reverted to the old ways. Casino personnel are often also believers. They base judgments on players they observe regularly doing well or badly.

Both sides are right. You can't overcome the negative expectation inherent in the game -- the money the laws of mathematics say the casinos should and do hold after an extended number of decisions. But you can affect your own chances of winning or losing more or less in particular sessions of reasonable duration.

These conclusions are not self-contradictory. To understand why, picture a "fair" game with no house edge. This gamble should essentially be a wash after sufficient play. Of multiple bettors, however, not many will come out even. Some will finish ahead, others behind. Results will be distributed such that most have small wins or losses, with fewer and fewer soaring to higher and higher glory or falling to lower and lower ignominy. Introducing edge isn't fatal; it just biases the distribution downward.

Various betting, quitting, and other money management techniques influence where a person is apt to fall along this spectrum in any sitting. Proficient players tailor their approaches, singly and in combination, to coincide with their personal preferences to win smaller sums more often or larger totals less frequently.

Do you want a high probability of a modest profit? Try these approaches. Set an earnings target as a minor fraction of your loss limit; for instance, playing until you win $50 or exhaust your $500 stake, you'll average ten successes for every failure. Or make "lay" bets, where the odds favor your winning but the payoff is less than the amount at risk. A typical lay bet is $31 "no nine" at craps, with 60 percent chance to pick up $20 versus 40 percent chance to drop the $31; another lay bet is $5 on each of two columns at roulette, with 63 percent chance to win $5 versus 37 percent chance to lose $10. Likewise, boost your chance of a small profit using a "negative progression" on even-money wagers like those in blackjack, raising your bet every time you lose and returning to a single unit whenever you win; you'll usually recover and win a small amount before the cold streak goes too far, but once in a while you'll get wiped out.

Maybe you'd rather go for broke, elevating your goal but knowing you're cutting the chance you'll reach it. Several methods are applicable. One is to consider intermediate earnings as a means and not an end. Another is to bet mainly on longshots like individual numbers at roulette, or on jackpot-oriented variable-payoff propositions like the slots or Let It Ride. A third option is to use a "positive progression," raising your bet after one or more wins and dropping back to a single unit whenever you lose.

None of this cancels the edge, eliminates the luck factor, or guarantees success. Good odds of a small win or a slim chance at a major score are choices a player can make, but are always balanced by the possible loss of a bankroll. The only certainty in the casino is its inherent uncertainty. Sumner A Ingmark, the bettors' bard, said it like this:

A session of length realistic,
Won't zero in on the statistic.
The odds by players are adjusted,
To size a win or go home busted.
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.