3 Myths That Casino Customers Believe
You, dear reader, are smart. You know how casinos work. You’re well aware, for example, of the basic fact that casinos make money, and if you gamble for a few hours, you will likely lose. You’re also surely aware that if a coin lands on heads three times in a row, that doesn’t make it any more likely than normal to land on heads next time (or any less likely). That last misconception is so common among gamblers, it’s known as the gambler’s fallacy, and it applies to a lot of stuff even outside the casino.
You know all that — in a detached, intellectual manner. And yet, when people go to casinos a lot, they develop some strange ideas that fly in the face of what they ought to already know. I’m talking here about people who consider themselves seasoned veterans, who laugh at the rubes walking in for the first time. It’s these people who fall for such myths as...
Myth: Double-Down on Losses. That Guarantees You Make Money!
I’m going to describe for you a money-making strategy that sounds, on its face, like a bad idea. Then I’m going to describe it in more detail, so it sounds tempting, even foolproof. Then I’m going to describe it in even more detail, revealing that it really is a bad idea after all.
The strategy says that after you lose a bet, you next wager even more money, betting on the very same thing. In everyday life, we call this “throwing good money after bad” and is a path to disaster. If something has lost you money, that’s a good reason to avoid it, not to bet on it harder. This is especially true in the stock market, where frantic day traders often double down on bad bets in hopes of breaking even. The better idea is to double down on wins (a strategy called “pyramiding”), on the assumption that a trade that paid out a little will probably pay out some more.
The casino, however, is different from everyday life. If you are playing roulette, and you lose money betting on black, that does not newly reveal that black is a bad bet. It’s just as good a bet as before. If you bet on it again, you stand just as much a chance of winning as you did earlier. And so, we get the strategy of betting again, but betting bigger, a strategy known as the martingale system. It’s named after a casino owner who was named Martindale, not Martingale, which is your first hint that there’s an error in the system.
Under this system, you start with the minimum bet, let’s say $10. You could play any of various games where the odds of winning are close to 50 percent, but let’s stick to roulette. You bet on black. If you win, you get $10, awesome. If you lose, you bet again on black, this time wagering $20. If you win this time, awesome — counting your earlier loss, you’ve made a profit of $10. If you lose, you bet yet again, this time wagering $40. Win this spin, and even having lost $10 then $20, you’ve made a total profit of $10.
You might instead lose, even on this third spin. But you just keep on doubling your bets and trying anew. Black has to come up eventually. Three reds in a row is unlikely, four’s less likely still, and eventually, the chance of unbroken reds drops to nothing. In time, you will have your profit of $10. And then you can restart the whole thing, bringing your bet back down to $10 and continuing till you have another $10 profit. Then you get another $10, then another. Boom, infinite money!
Several times, when we’ve done articles on gambling or probability, we’ve had someone pop up in the comments laying out this concept, convinced they’ve figured out how to beat the house. We’ve never, however, had someone say that they’ve actually put this strategy into practice and made it work for long. Because it does not work. Try it, and you will lose everything you have.
The simplest explanation is this: The house has an edge in roulette, so any bet will more likely cost you money than make you money. Your previous bets don’t make the current bet any more likely to pay out. So, doubling on losses is merely a quicker way to flush your money away. The martingale gambler, after some wins, eventually hits a losing streak and doubles their bet to $80, then $160, then $320, then $640, then $1,280. Then even this final bet loses. They are stunned (even though this last bet was no less likely to lose than any other single bet). They find they have no money left.
“But it’s impossible for red to come up so many times!” they cry. It’s not. It’s very unlikely for any one bet to lead to a string of eight reds, but given enough time, such a streak will come up, and sooner than you’d intuitively expect. The odds are hard to show using simple math, but here's one example, with proof: The odds of six reds in a row is a slim 1.8 percent, but the chance of such a streak popping up sometime within 200 spins is a huge 80 percent. One computer simulation, with tens of thousands of streaks, showed three such streaks coming up every 200 spins.
Also, while red-red-red-red-red-red-red-red looks unlikely, it’s no less likely than red-red-black-black-black-red-black-red, and if that came up, that wouldn’t seem remarkable at all. Indeed, betting on black each time, hoping it comes up eventually, is exactly the same as betting randomly between black and red each time, hoping you will win eventually. If someone tries that, it’s more obvious they’re desperately tossing away their money, isn’t it?
Much like with that stock market thing I mentioned — which is not guaranteed to work, do not try it, this is not financial advice — you’d be better off raising your bet every time you win until you hit a goal, rather than every time you lose, and returning to the minimum bet when you do lose. This is called the anti-martingale system, and is also a losing strategy; the only way to win is not to play. But at least this way, unlike with the martingale system, you stand a chance of hitting a big win then quitting, and you stand no chance of ever losing everything on a single spin.
If I’ve convinced you, you might want to skip ahead to the next section of the article now, because that’s quite enough discussion of this one gambling strategy. If you’re not convinced, or you’re just interested in this topic, we can go even deeper into it.
When people are confronted about why they’ve never been able to make the martingale system work in practice, they mention two things. First, it requires a huge bankroll. Our imaginary gambler above gave up after losing $2,550, but if they had more money, they’d continue. Second, the casino limits bets, stopping you from progressing too far into this strategy. A roulette table may well max bets out at $1,000, so our imaginary gambler wouldn’t have been able to reach that $1,280 bet — once their $640 bet failed, they’d be done, having lost $1,270 in all.
Both those facts are true. However, even with more money and no limits, it’s a losing strategy. There is no real amount of money at which this system gives you an edge.
Let’s calculate that. When you bet on black, you have a 47.4 percent chance of your bet paying out. It’s slightly less than 50 percent because the wheel has a couple green zeros on it; this gives the house its edge. If you bet $10, there’s a 47.4 percent chance you’ll win $10 and a 52.6 percent chance that you’ll lose $10. Your expected payout after this bet is (10 x 0.474) minus (10 x 0.526), which is -0.53. So, if you bet $10 on black, you can expect to lose 53 cents.
Now, the double-down gambler tries again, betting $20. The expected payout of this bet is (20 x 0.474) minus (20 x 0.526), or an expected loss of $1.06. It is, of course, double the expected loss of the previous bet. Combined, the two bets have an expected loss of $1.33 (the math here takes into account that if the first bet won, the gambler would have bet $10 the second time, not $20). Meanwhile, if the same person bet on black each time without raising their stake, or bet randomly between red and black, the expected loss would have merely been 53 cents followed by another 53 cents, or $1.06 total. The martingale strategy didn’t guarantee a profit. It increased the likely loss.
That’s just after raising once. What if you double again, and again? The math becomes complicated if we have to track both the probability of your final bet and also every single way the other branches in this tree could go. Below’s a table showing your expected gain from winning at various spins, plus the expected gain from losing your 10th spin and having to stop because you had only around $10,000 to bet. I patterned it after this analysis from a German university, except the German one uses European roulette, which favors the player more. “R” here represents either red or green coming up, either of which counts as a loss. If you’re able to wait out 10 spins, you'll probably never have to wait out 10 spins because you'll win first, but you stand a small chance of losing enormously, adding up to a total expected gain of -$6.70. That’s a loss, and is a greater loss than just betting $10 on black every single time.
Let’s say you instead walk in with over a million dollars, enough to double your bet 17 times. At this point, you still wind up with an expected loss, and it still loses you more than from just always betting $10.
Of course, red is overwhelmingly likely not to come up 18 times in a row. You're betting it won't, and unlike most casino bets, this bet will most likely pay out. The problem is, it pays out just $10, and you're risking $1 million. Even a guaranteed $10 would be a complete waste of time if you're a millionaire, and it's not really a guaranteed $10. Throughout it all, there’s the larger-than-you’d-think chance that you will eventually get wiped out, losing everything, a probable loss that overall outweighs your probable gain.
That's a reversal of the casino experience people seek. Rather than a (slim) chance of a jackpot, you have a (slim) chance of bankruptcy. Which doesn’t sound so bad — if you’ve reversed the normal gambling odds, that’s like you’re the casino, right, with the occasional chance of having to pay out big but also slowly making money the rest of the time? The difference is, when the casino steadily rakes in money and occasionally pays out big, they have an edge and an expected gain. You have none and an expected loss. Play long enough, and you lose money.
Of course, if you had a strategy that guarantees you make money long-term, the casino would simply ban you from playing there. Speaking of which…
Myth: The Casino Kicking Out Winners Is the Ultimate Evidence They’re Cheats
If you’ve figured out some strategy that gives you an edge over the house, that’s called advantage play. There is no such thing as advantage play with most casino games. One exception is counting cards at blackjack, and even that has become increasingly hard thanks to shuffling machines. The most sophisticated of these machines make counting cards impossible.
One myth about card counting, and other kinds of advantage play, is it’s illegal and will land you in jail. It’s not. The casino doesn’t have a rule against it. But if they suspect you of counting (in such places where counting is still possible), they will refuse to keep dealing you cards and may ask you to leave the casino altogether.
When some people learn of this, they consider it proof of deep new dishonesty on the part of the casino. “Ho, ho, ho!” they say. “You’re very happy to keep the game going so long as I’m losing, but as soon as I turn the tables and start winning, you shut it all down? What hypocrisy! Also, considering I play blackjack at a table, I bet this is where the phrase ‘turn the tables’ originally came from.”
That person is wrong. “Turn the tables” comes from backgammon. Also, I’d say they’re wrong about being mad over getting kicked out. In fact, when Cracked put together a recent video exposing casinos, I couldn’t bring myself to include a bit on casinos kicking out advantage players because that’s not actually scummy.
If you figure out how to win at blackjack, or any other casino game, you haven’t broken any rule, but in a sense, you are cheating, in that you have violated the (ridiculous) contract between gambler and house. This contract says that when you play a game, you stand a chance of winning, but overall, your playing makes the casino money.
That’s not some dark secret. That is the way the game works, as laid out in the math behind the rules and as approved by regulators. The deception lies in how casino marketing exaggerates your chance of winning. The evil lies in how they exploit addiction. But the basic idea that the game is designed to guarantee money for the casino is an established and unquestioned part of how the casino runs. If the game instead loses the casino money, of course they won’t let you play it.
“But if I’m the one guaranteed to lose long-term,” says our outraged counter, “that’s somehow okay?” It isn’t, if you oppose the existence of gambling, but otherwise, yeah, it is. The gambler who heads to a table facing an expected loss still gets something out of the experience. Most obviously, they get a chance of winning big, even if that chance is more remote than they realize. They also get the thrill of the game (a gambler who breaks even and leaves, or just loses a little, goes away happy). They get the excitement of being on the casino floor, they get food, they get drinks — and I actually mock all these attractions in our video, but still, those are attractions and are the reasons a casino visit qualifies as entertainment.
The house enjoys none of that. The dealer is not thrilled to deal cards. The pit boss does not find walking the floor fun. Their only compensation in this deal is money. You are the customer, and you pay them. If you are instead costing them, of course they won’t serve you. The idea that they should be forced to is absurd, as absurd as saying a store should be forced to sell you goods at below cost. Or, it's absurd as saying that once you realize you're losing money at a slot machine, you should be forbidden from quitting.
You’ll probably feel justified in beating the casino by any means because they got that money by fleecing players, ruining lives. I’m with you there, but I also feel justified in breaking into the vault and staging a heist. That doesn’t mean I expect the casino to let me do it.
One question about casino strategy remains. If you do have a good strategy, is playing it fun? Well...
Myth: You’re Better Off If You Know What You’re Doing
So, you can’t get an edge over the house. However, you can reduce the house’s edge with some research. Surely, you stand a better chance at winning at craps if you first have some idea what exactly craps is, right? And if you’re willing to really study up, you can learn the correct way to play every single hand of blackjack. It’s not even that hard (it’s so basic, it’s literally called “basic strategy”).
Try this, and you’ll still lose money. The biggest difference won’t be that you’ll lose less. The biggest difference will be that gambling is now no fun.
When a complete novice joins a blackjack table, and they see their cards total 13 while the dealer has a 6, they sit and ponder what they should do to get closer to 21. Should they ask for another card? Or would that be too risky? Maybe they do ask for another card, they bust, and they feel the thrill of having pushed too far. Maybe they don’t and they win, and they feel vindicated, or they lose anyway, sending their brain racing over what they should do next time.
The expert next to them gets the same cards. There’s no puzzle here for him. He just sees his cards and says “stay,” because that is the correct thing to do. Maybe he wins, maybe he doesn’t, but either way, he knows he did the only thing he could have done — and so, there’s no thrill. As the hands get more complicated, the novice debates splitting, doubling, insurance, side bets, but the expert knows exactly what to do each time and he does so, robotically. Even having less fun, he’ll probably remain at this table hours longer than the novice, because he figures he knows what he’s doing. He’ll therefore probably lose more money than the novice, and even if he wins money, he’ll have done so on autopilot.
Over on the roulette table, our novice makes a bunch of tiny bets on individual numbers, on corners that cover several numbers, then changes at the last moment based on some irrational whim. The wheel spins, and one of their numbers comes up! And their other numbers didn’t, so they lost money overall, but it still felt like their choice mattered. Our expert, meanwhile, bets on black. He tries the martingale system, and he makes a little money, but it’s by just betting on the same thing every time, and then waiting, so much waiting. Even his day job is more interesting than this, and also more lucrative.
I’m not going to tell you never to go to a casino. But if you do go, I recommend you try to have fun.
Take a friend with you. Sit at a baccarat table for a while but leave soon, because you’ve experienced it, and now it’s time to try something else. Go to some game you don’t understand, where all the rules are in Chinese. Demand that another player explain it to you. They’ll be annoyed at first, but then they’ll enjoy it, and by slowing them down, you’re actually saving them money.
Go to the poker room. Some say poker’s your best chance at making money, since you’re playing against other customers rather than a house who has an edge. Casino poker’s really a great way to lose money, unless you’re very good at poker, because the other players are very good at poker. Play anyway. Try to get that stone-faced guy in sunglasses to laugh. Get up before you lose too much.
Sit down for blackjack. See your cards add up to 15. Double your bet, not because this is your strategy but because it's an insane move. Lose, as of course you were going to, but wouldn’t it have been cool if you'd pulled that off? “What is wrong with you?” says the person next to you. “That’s no way to make money!”
“If I wanted to make money,” you answer, “I wouldn’t be here.”