A betting system is a methodical approach to sizing your bets in an attempt to beat casino games. The goal of a betting system, of course, is to beat the odds against the player.
Systems aren’t limited to casino games, by the way. In sports betting and horse racing, betting systems abound. These usually involve tying past performance of athletes or horses into the sizing of bets. Even when such systems have an effect on your probability, it’s hard to overcome the edge that a horse track or a bookmaker has over a bettor.
Most betting systems work okay with games that aren’t especially volatile. They don’t actually help you overcome the house edge, though—at least not in the case of casino games. And I draw a distinction between a betting system and an actual advantage play technique like counting cards.
One of the most famous betting systems is the Martingale System, which has been thoroughly debunked by better writers than I. But the thing about the Martingale System is that it DOES improve your probability of booking a small winning session. It’s just that in the long run, you’re guaranteed a big losing session which will wipe out all the small winning sessions previous to that.
Betting systems are most appropriate for games of pure chance, like craps or roulette. In games where skill plays a major role, like blackjack or poker, you’re better off learning the skills it takes to win. You also need some self-control to use a system, especially with a game like craps, where you have a multitude of terrible bets that the dealers are constantly trying to sell you.
This post looks at the pros and cons of some of the different betting systems as they apply to casino games. The biggest con, of course, is that no system can overcome the house edge in the long run. The best you can hope for are some occasional small wins and a little more fun at the tables.
The Martingale System is possibly the most famous casino game betting system. It’s an example of a “progressive” betting system. It’s also sometimes called “the doubling up system.”
The Martingale System might be the simplest betting system ever devised. After you lose a bet, you double the size of the bet on your next wager. If you lose again, you double up again. This “progression” continues until you win a bet.
The size of your 1st bet is your eventual net win with this system. If you start with a bet of $1, no matter how many times you lose in a row, you should eventually book a win that gives you a $1 profit. Here’s an example of a 4-bet progression starting with a $1 bet.
That 2nd number is your cumulative loss after losing those 4 bets in a row. The next bet in the progression is $16 (double the last bet of $8), and if you win, your net profit is $16 – $15, or $1.
Seems foolproof, doesn’t it?
The problem is that people don’t realize how quickly the numbers get very large when you double them repeatedly.
If I told you that I’d work for you for a penny a day as long as you double my pay every day for a month, you’d probably think I was crazy, wouldn’t you?
But the reality is that in 30 days, I’d get paid over a million dollars. That’s how fast the numbers get big when you’re doubling a number.
In the example above, where you start by betting just a dollar, you’ll have lost over $500 after 9 bets. Since most casinos have maximum betting limits, you’ll have trouble placing your next bet. And that’s assuming you have a big enough bankroll to cover that bet.
And if you lose the 10th bet in a row?
You need over $1000 to cover the next bet.
The Martingale System is usually used at the roulette table with the even-money bets. You might think it’s unthinkable that you’ll see 9 or 10 losses in a row, but keep in mind that winning an even-money bet in roulette is only a 47.37% proposition.
What happens in reality with this system is that you book multiple small winning sessions, but you eventually have a big losing session which wipes out all those winnings and then some.
Still, if you want to impress a date, you probably have an 80% chance of walking away a small winner at the roulette table using The Martingale System. Once you’ve lost 4 or 5 times in a row, your date will probably get a kick out of placing such a large bet on black, too.
Unlike most gambling writers, I’m not down on The Martingale System. I think it’s a fine system to use as long as you understand that it won’t guarantee you any kind of long-term success with a negative expectation game like roulette.
One popular variation on The Martingale System requires you to double the size of your bets and then add another dollar on top of it. The logic behind this system comes from The Gambler’s Fallacy, which is the belief that the odds of winning increase after a lengthy losing streak. Since you’re putting more money into action after each loss, you’re supposedly increasing the size of your eventual win.
Here’s what that progressive betting system would look like, starting with a $1 bet:
If you bet $31 on the next bet, which is $15 doubled with $1 added, you’ll have a net win of $5 instead of a net win of $1.
But notice how much more you’re already having to risk to get to that point in your progression.
The net effect of this “doubling up plus one” system is to increase the speed with which you bump into the betting maximums or the limits of your bankroll.
Another popular betting system in roulette is called The Labouchere, but it’s often also just called “the cancellation system.” Like The Martingale System, The Labouchere System increases the probability of having a small winning session. But eventually, when you do have a big losing session, you’ll wipe out all your previous wins. This is the nature of gambling systems in the presence of a house edge.
You start by setting a win goal for the system. Let’s assume you’re playing at a $5 minimum roulette table, and you’ve set a win goal of $30.
Next you break that down into units. The most common method is to divide it into 3 units. These can be the same, or they can be different. You write down the 3 units, like this:
$5 – $10 – $15
$10 – $10 – $10
When you book wins, you’ll cross numbers off the list. When you book losses, you’ll put more numbers on your list. Once you’ve crossed all the numbers off the list, you’ll have hit your win goal.
You start by adding the 1st number on your list to the last number on your list. You bet that amount on one of the even-money bets at the table, like red or black.
In either of the above examples, the total of the 1st number and the last number is $20, so that would be your 1st bet. If you win that bet, you cross those numbers off the list. Then you just bet the number that’s left.
But if you lose the bet, you add the loss to your list of numbers, making your list now look like this:
$5 – $10 – $15 – $20
$10 – $10 – $10 – $20
You start again, adding the 1st number to the last number to determine the size of your next bet.
The Labouchere System has the same problem in the long run that The Martingale System has. The size of the bets gets bigger than you expect it to faster than you expect it to.
Let’s look at what happens after 5 losses in a row:
$5 – $10 – $15 – $20 – $25 – $30 – $35 – $40 – $45
$10 – $10 – $10 – $20 – $30 – $40 – $50 – $60 – $70
The rise in the size of your bets is gentler with The Labouchere System, but you’ll eventually run into the same problem you’ll have with the Martingale System. You either won’t be able to place the next bet because you’ve hit the maximum betting limit, or you’ll be unable to place your next bet because the size of your bankroll won’t allow it.
You can find plenty of other progressive betting systems, but these 2 are the most popular. Another, even gentler progressive system, involves adding one unit to the size of your bet when you lose and subtracting one unit every time you win. The size of the bets rises slowly, but you’ll still eventually go broke if you play a negative expectation long enough.
To some extent, these progressive betting systems assume that The Gambler’s Fallacy is true. The Gambler’s Fallacy is the idea that after a certain number of losses (or wins), the probability of winning (or losing) the next bet changes.
In other words, if red or black is “hot” at the roulette table, you can get an edge by betting on the hot color. One gambler might wait for red to win 5 times in a row. At that point, he places a big bet on black. He figures that the probability of red coming up 6 times in a row, so his bet on black is a better bet. After all, the ball has to land on black eventually to “even out” the odds.
Another gambler, though, might assume that if red is hot, it’s going to stay hot. That gambler might bet on red thinking that the hot streak is likely to continue, at least for a little while.
Both these gamblers are operating from a faulty premise. The Law of Large Numbers does indicate that eventually the results should even out and come close to the mathematical expectation.
But 5 or 6 spins in a row isn’t a large number. The Law of Large Numbers looks at thousands of spins, not less than a dozen or even less than 100.
The probability of winning that next bet—regardless of whether you bet red or black—is exactly the same. It’s 47.37%.
Here’s how you calculate the probability of an event happening:
You look at the number of ways that such a bet can win, and you compare it with the number of ways the bet can turn out.
In roulette, you have a wheel with 38 numbers on it. 18 of them are red, 18 of them are black, and 2 of them are green.
You have 18 ways to win a bet on red, out of 38 total possibilities. This gives you a probability of 18/38, or 47.37%.
Each spin of the roulette wheel is an independent event. The number of outcomes doesn’t change based on what happened on the previous 5 spins.
If you were able to place a bet at the beginning of a series of spins on whether red would come up 6 times in a row, then yes, you would have something interesting.
But you’re NOT betting that red will come up 6 times in a row. You’re betting that red will come up on the next spin. What happened on the previous spins have no effect on the probability of that next spin.
I’ll start this section by pointing out the biggest drawback of using betting systems in actual practice:
You can’t use a betting system to overcome the house edge in the long run.
If your goal is to get an edge, a betting system just won’t do it for you. If that’s your goal, I suggest learning to count cards in blackjack. Or maybe becoming an expert poker player, which is both easier and harder than most people think.
The other drawback is that when you do face an eventual loss with a betting system, it will often be devastatingly large. You might have had lots of wins prior to this, but the nature of the house edge is to eventually catch up with you.
But that’s not to say that betting systems don’t have their advantages.
For one thing, betting systems are easier to use than actual advantage play techniques. Counting cards isn’t hard once you learn how, but it’s harder than just raising and lowering the size of your bets based on previous wins and losses.
You might debate whether something being easier is an advantage if that something doesn’t work, but it’s hard to deny that raising the size of your bets after losing doesn’t take a lot of brainpower.
Another advantage is that betting systems do increase your probability of booking a small winning session in the short run. The number I read was that if you’re playing 1-hour sessions of roulette, you have an 80% or so chance of booking a small winning session using The Martingale System.
The problem is that 20% of the time where you’ll lose. Not only will you lose, you’ll usually lose enough to wipe out all the wins from your other sessions.
I like the idea of taking someone who knows nothing about gambling, sitting down at the roulette table, and having an 80% probability of showing them a winning session.
But I hate the idea that we might have a big losing session right off the bat. And a 20% chance of that is not insignificant at all.
Still, as long as you’re having fun, why not?
Gambling against the casino when they have an edge is a losing proposition no matter what. If you’ve accepted that and are willing to play anyway, you should play any way you want to. Your goal should be to have as much fun as possible.
Betting systems don’t work, except when they do. Most gambling writers understand that betting systems can’t overcome the house edge in the long run. They don’t go into much more detail than that.
But betting systems can increase your probability of having a small winning session. For some gamblers, that’s good enough. It’s up to you whether it’s good enough for you or not.
And if you really want to learn how to get a mathematical edge in the long run when gambling, learn to count cards in blackjack. It’s easier than you think.
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