R. Paul Wilson On: Strategy and Systems in Gambling
Casinos have a simple, indefatigable advantage against players, which allows them to build enormous resorts filled with attractions to attract money from all over the world.
This seemingly tiny mathematical edge builds cities, employs millions, and will always, always return a healthy profit over time. Meanwhile, gamblers and advantage players are at the sharp end of that equation but have options that might improve their odds. Let’s take a moment to compare gambling strategies and decide which (if any) might be worth the effort.
As discussed in my last piece, players need to properly assess a system not just in terms of results but with regard to how much time is needed to make that gambling system profitable, associated expenses and long-term expectations and there’s another important factor we will discuss at the end.
For the sake of brevity, we will leave the mathematical details to another time and talk in broad terms with particular attention to practicality.
Optimizing Your Odds and Navigating Casino Games
This should be any player's first objective! A little research and a lot of practice can improve a player's odds purely by learning to avoid the worst decisions one can make at the table and memorizing better - sometimes best - alternatives instead of shooting from the hip or “following your gut”.
It only takes a little effort to adopt a basic Blackjack strategy and know when to hit, split or double based on a dealer’s up-card. This can narrow one’s losses to a tiny percentage and, for advanced players, is a critical step towards more demanding gaming strategies such as card counting.
With a little research, you can also learn which betting options make the most from your action. In craps, some bets are better than others, but as with most games, odds being paid by the house usually indicate which bets should be avoided, yet, our lizard brains keep drawing us to shoot for that easy win, but most of the time we’re just giving away our money.
Unfortunately, the best approach is often the least fun for true gamblers, but learning a few spreads and avoiding the terrible odds can make the game fun without just betting the pass line and taking odds.
Roulette has so many betting ‘strategies’ that it would be impossible to assess them all without a good computer program and a massive spin history from hundreds of live wheels. I enjoy watching players on YouTube test betting patterns to maximize wins or minimize losses (or both).
In the end, there is simply no system of betting that doesn’t rely on a random outcome, and unless the wheel is flawed or biased, each round of betting has the same odds as the last, and these betting systems only influence how much you win or lose in a single spin. The goal is to design bet increments that take advantage of positive outcomes and limit one’s losses once the tide turns (if it ever comes in).
This - like playing the pass line and taking odds in craps - can stretch your bankroll and is certainly better than putting it all on black for one heroic round of “take my money”. Just remember, the casinos are perfectly happy to let people play this way and given how much trouble they make for true advantage play lovers, that ought to tell you something.
Hit and Run - Gambler's Dance with Luck and Timing
For any method of play, the idea of hitting the game and stepping away as soon as a pre-determined profit is reached seems entirely practical and honestly, I can’t argue against the concept but the odds against us are not changed by a player’s intention to take a walk once they double up.
Playing smarter increases the chances of getting to whatever finish line you may have decided but can take time and effort, and often, a player’s bankroll will flirt with a desired target but consistently pull back and force you to play longer than anticipated. Or you might hit pay-dirt in a few hands and be back at the bar before the ice in your last drink has melted.
Personally, if I’m not employing more advanced methods, I tend to decide at the moment whether I’ve lost enough or won enough to satisfy internal checks and balances. A quick hit and run strategy may defeat the objective of playing to have a good time, but can be deeply satisfying to get away with house money - at least until the next time.
Is the hit-and-run gambling strategy effective? Advocates say, of course, it is (and there’s more to it than this simplified description), but personally, I still think it’s a way to take advantage of luck and limit losses, but the frequency of those losses is not changed by your intention to leave.
Chasing the Edge and the True Advantage
Finally, we reach the level where the casino edge can be flipped, and players can actually enjoy a mathematical advantage against the house.
Well— sometimes. Playing an advantage such as counting cards, shuffle tracking or ace locating requires practice, experience and enough money to ride the waves of wins and losses that are bound to occur, regardless of how well one plays. And that’s the thing: it takes time to get good and time to conceal how good you might be, and while you might win during that learning phase, you can also lose (a lot), which must be counted in your assessment of how successful any chosen strategy might be.
Truthfully, most people who try to count cards or locate aces or track shuffles never get good enough - or lack the discipline - to make real money from a real advantage, so frankly, the additional losses borne by playing these methods poorly are likely a fair counterbalance to the minor amount won by the tiny percentage of expert players.
Whatever system you like, if it offers a true advantage, there will be mathematical evidence that allows a player to estimate and assess future play, whereas playing methods that rely on anecdotal evidence without mathematical proof will almost certainly lose in the long run.
The key takeaway here is that playing this way is just like running a business, so it requires work and constant analysis to ride out negative swings while waiting to surf a big wave of wins.
These represent a simple selection of approaches to gambling with something for every palate, but as promised, there’s another perfectly legitimate (sic) approach we should always consider.
Playing Purely for the Fun of It
For some, that might seem like madness, and there are dangers for anyone prone to over-indulging or becoming addicted to that dopamine high gambling can offer, but let’s be honest; most people who gamble lose money most of the time and only win occasionally but manage to enjoy themselves either way.
If that’s you, then good luck but do please limit your losses to what you can afford and stay away from your savings and mortgage payments.
A healthy interest in gambling systems like those discussed above might one day encourage you to improve your odds or manage your play more effectively, but that all requires work and discipline, and for many players, the casino is a place to escape all that.
Whether you’re someone who plays within their means or manages a complex spreadsheet of wins, losses and expenses while beating blackjack, or you’re tossing your cash on the layout just for the thrill of that big ‘maybe’, playing against the house will always pay the house in the long run - it’s up to you how much of their guaranteed profit comes out of your pocket.