Know what you can and can’t control in the casino

January 29, 2001 6:31 AM
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Other than "live" poker, casinos tender tests of chance, not skill. Good gamblers master the optimum decisions in card games such as blackjack and video poker. They also show cunning in other situations. For example, at craps they take or lay maximum odds on Pass, Come, Don’t Pass, or Don’t Come. They make Come rather than Place or Buy bets. They avoid hedges.

Practices like these trim — occasionally even overcome — the casino edge. But they let players reach, and not go beyond, inherent limits ordained by odds and payouts. That is, players can get just so good and no better with respect to edge.

This doesn’t mean that folks filing into their favorite punting palaces must rely purely on luck, fate, secret systems mailed to their homes in plain brown wrappers, or the prognostications of their 1-900-PSYCHIC advisers. Over an extended gambling career, edge will dominate an individual’s performance. But the time or number of rounds involved, depending on the particular game, can be lengthy, certainly longer than a specific casino sojourn or even years of regular visits.

In the context of a single session, day trip, weekend, or vacation, players are more concerned with the likelihood that, given a definite bankroll, a) they won’t go bust during the normal downswings of a game, and b) they’ll reach a profit level they consider worth the risk they took.

Here players have a lot of control. Edge is certainly a factor. Gamblers can choose games and sometimes the way they play to trim this element to the bone. Bet sizing relative to bankroll is also a consideration, as are quitting criteria and whether or how wagers are varied during the action.

In some games, players can also influence session characteristics by balancing the probabilities of winning and the corresponding payoffs. Roulette offers the opportunity without changing the edge or the amount placed at risk during a spin.

Say you’re at a 00 roulette table with a $350 bankroll. You’d like to double your money or, failing to do so, get a two-hour ride for it. The accompanying list shows six ways you could bet the same $10 total per spin, giving the chance of winning and the net payoff for success.

Six alternate $10 bets at double-zero roulette bet chance payoff single spot 2.6 percent ($350).

2-number split 5.3% $170

3-number row 7.9% $110

4-number corner 10.5% $ 80

6-number double row 15.8% $ 50

12-number column 31.6% $ 20

Edge is 5.26 percent for all the bets indicated. Were you to play 100,000 spins at $10 each, you’d bet $1 million overall and would be close to $52,600 in the hole. But two hours is, at most, 120 spins. And it’s incorrect to assume you’ll be 5.26 percent of $1,200 or $63.12 behind when the dust settles.

The next table shows that, by spreading your $10 over more numbers and getting a better chance of a smaller hit, the likelihood decreases that you’ll double your money, but it increases that you’ll survive the fluctuations of a two-hour session.

Your chances of doubling a $350 bankroll and of surviving for 120 spins, with alternate $10 bets at 00 roulette:

(see chart below)

single spot 47% 39%

2-number split 44% 52%

3-number row 41% 62%

4-number corner 38% 69%

6-number double row 32% 79%

12-number column 13% 95%

The upshot is, you can tailor a session to suit your preferences, but you can’t have it both ways. Concentrating the bet gives you more chance of doubling your money and simultaneously tapping out. Spreading the bet across multiple numbers lowers prospects of going belly-up and also of scoring a big return.

It’s as the immortal Sumner A. Ingmark, the bettors’ bard, astutely advised:

Consider the day of reckoning,
Whenever a scheme is beckoning.