Taking the mystery out of casino gambling

March 20, 2001 7:14 AM
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The 14th century philosopher William of Occam is credited with the maxim, "Simpler is better." The quote isn’t exact. He really said, "Pluritas non est ponenda sine neccesitateí­." (Plurality should not be posited without necessity). But my way is simpler, so Occam would probably agree it’s better. Albert Einstein updated this six centuries later, saying, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." And this is exact.

The problem is where and how to draw the line, to avoid the error of assuming something is more obscure or more transparent than it actually is, and to use complexity at one level to achieve simplicity at another.

Automobiles offer an example. Early automotive experts predicted the number of workers who could be trained as chauffeurs would limit the proliferation of these vehicles. That’s not what happened. Car makers developed cars anybody could drive. They did it with complex engineering that facilitated operation. Sophisticated at the designer’s level, simple at the user’s.

Casino gambling fits into the same category. Not long ago, this activity was limited to a select audience: mainly people who had immersed themselves in the nuances of the games and knew the underlying statistics. Today’s casinos couldn’t survive on this market. Not only are the profit margins on such patrons minimal, but the customer base is far too small to support the myriad of betting businesses now booming at seashore, in deserts, along riverbanks, aboard ships, and on Indian reservations near you.

One reason casinos are so appealing is that the games may be intricate internally, but are easy to play. Any solid citizen can place a bet, and can win when doing so.

The mechanics of the popular games can be mastered by briefly watching the table or machine — and maybe getting a little instruction or coaching from another player, a dealer or an attendant. Subtleties such as doubling at blackjack, taking or laying odds at craps, or deciding between the Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza models of the casino’s new hi-fi surround-sound slots generally prove less mystifying than they initially seem, once a person becomes comfortable with the general idea.

Some players, however, oversimplify. Blackjack buffs hit or stand because they think "the unseen card is a 10." Craps aficionados put money on the hardways corresponding to a point, "because it brings out the number." Slot devotees always bet the "maxim number of coins," regardless of whether there’s a bonus for doing so, and irrespective of bet-to-bankroll sizing considerations.

Other players overcomplicate. Baroque schemes involving wagers of different sizes on elaborate combinations of results at craps and roulette, rigorous betting progressions based on previous runs of wins and losses at blackjack, flip-flops between Player and banker at baccarat following patterns divined in the flow of the cards. These are mathematically meaningless yet magisterial mandates for breaking bankrolls into session stakes and switching tables or machines at precisely specified levels of profit or loss.

The one extreme is often a result of naiveté. The other is a consequence of a belief in loopholes that experts in mathematics and statistics have somehow overlooked all these years.

Going a bit overboard, either way is rarely suicidal — but it’s hardly optimal. Players who simplify but don’t trivialize have the best chance of achieving their personal gambling goals. This includes but transcends merely minimizing house advantage. It also involves obtaining the degree of volatility bettors seek in the action and achieving the balance they want between a good shot at a modest gain and a small chance of a big profit.

How do you find that happy medium? That’s where knowledge and skill — gained from study, analysis, and experience — arise. The intrepid inkslinger, Sumner A. Ingmark, put it like this:

Perception helps you verify,
What’s less and more than meets the eye.