How speed of the game affects results

June 04, 2002 12:01 PM


Among the most intriguing yet overlooked aspects of gambling are the opportunities afforded players to make trade-offs. Intriguing because of the variety of ways bettors can tailor games to suit their fantasies and foibles, hopes and fears, and what passes for skill and luck. Overlooked because folks typically learn or deduce one way to play, then assume they and it are right while everyone and everything else are wrong.

One such trade-off is the high probability of a small gain versus the low likelihood of big score. Among the options players can use to position themselves somewhere between these extremes are choosing games, picking wagers within games, sizing bets, and setting criteria for quitting at various win or loss levels. I should mention calibrating casino visits with the full moon, too.

The speed of the action is another dimension along which players can shape the characteristics of the gambling experience. The velocity of a game has obvious implications for those who prefer a leisurely and relaxed or animated and exhilarating atmosphere.

But speed has another, more subtle, effect. This, because solid citizens tend to more than just factor time into their gambling plans. They often give it priority over nominally weightier monetary milestones. For instance, patrons may enter a punting palace intent on playing until they win "enough," lose their bankrolls, or run out of time before reaching either of these limits. But they’re probably also envisioning three to four hours at the machines or tables during an afternoon or evening. If they tap out but it’s long before the closing gong, the temptation is strong to dig deeper for more money. Similarly, if they hit what in retrospect might seem like "enough" but it’s still early, powerful pressures prevent them from quitting in the middle of what’s obviously a record-shattering hall-of-fame hot streak.

The tempo of a game, whether personally-paced at the slots or set by dealers at the tables, determines how many decisions are resolved over any interval. And, all else being equal, the number of decisions controls the probability of depleting a bankroll or of achieving a specified gain during some time span.

Here’s an illustration of what I mean.

Say you’re a roulette buff. You have a $1,000 stake and know from experience that a $500 profit is a reasonable win goal with your usual style of betting. Suppose your strategy is to drop $5 on each of 10 red numbers and $2 on each of 10 black numbers. That’s 10 chances out of 38 to net $110 on one of your reds, 10 out of 38 to net $2 on one of your blacks, and 18 out of 38 to lose $70 on a number you meant to pick but didn’t. You also want, perhaps unconsciously, to play for about three hours. This will give you lots of excitement, yet still leave ample time to dine at the all-you-can-eat buffet, browse the fine art, and gawk at the high rollers before returning to the real world.

In a slow roulette game, you might get 30 or so spins per hour ”” maybe 100 decisions in a three-hour session. At tables where the dealers move things along, you could get twice as many ”” about 200 decisions during your three hours.

With the indicated bets, what are the odds of winning $500 or losing $1,000 before three hours are up, either way? At 30 spins per hour, you’ve got about 34 percent chance of reaching your win target and 32 percent chance of losing your bankroll. At 60 decisions per hour, prospects increase to 42 percent that you’ll get $500 ahead and to 59 percent that you’ll go belly-up.

Do you see the trade-off? With additional decisions, you’re more apt to reach your win goal during the session. But you’re also more likely to bust. Which do you hold more important ”” earning bigger bucks or avoiding a rout? The former favors faster games, and the latter slower. The wily wordster, Sumner A. Ingmark, wryly rhymed this reason that you can’t run it both ways:

Experience yields this

Success sows seeds
of self-destruction.