I’ve read about casino gamblers who “scout” tables before deciding where to sit down and play.
These gamblers use criteria like how many of the gamblers already at the table are smiling and how large their chip stacks are to decide where to sit.
They assume that a table with lots of smiling players and tall chip stacks must be full of winners.
Presumably, the games at such tables are running hot.
Such gamblers want to avoid cold tables and only play at hot tables.
Such an approach presents a big problem — it doesn’t work.
This post examines why.
Do Casino Games Get Hot and/or Cold?
Casino games DO get hot or cold, but you can’t predict when those games will be hot or cold.
All casino games — including the table games — provide the house with a mathematical edge that can’t be overcome by normal means. That edge doesn’t change just because a table got hot or cold.
All tables get hot occasionally, and they also all get cold occasionally.
But you cannot predict when that’s going to happen.
In fact, a table getting hot is something that ONLY happens in retrospect.
Even in blackjack, where the probabilities change every time a card leaves the deck, the house edge usually doesn’t change much.
If you want to look for hot tables and only gamble at them, you can do so without fear. It doesn’t hurt anything to do so.
Just don’t make the mistake of assuming that doing so is going to help you win.
Sitting Down at a Cold Table Instead of a Hot Table
Another approach you might take — and many gamblers do — is to look for tables that are cold. Find tables where the players are frowning, have few chips left, and seem unhappy.
The idea behind this approach is that a table that’s cold is eventually due to get hot, so you might as well be playing at that table when it happens.
This doesn’t work, either, making it just as invalid an approach as scouting for hot tables.
Having Fun at the Craps Table
You can have fun with this approach. You can create good karma by going to a table where everyone’s been losing and trying to cheer them up.
You’ll have the most fun doing this at the craps table, in fact, which is a game where most players are rooting for the shooter to succeed.
Right betting, in craps, is when you’re betting on the shooter to succeed. I have more fun as a right bettor than as a wrong bettor because it’s more fun to root for someone than to root against them.
Also, the other gamblers at the table are usually betting for the shooter to succeed, too, so I get to enjoy that camaraderie.
Money Management and Hot or Cold Tables
Never play at a table for higher stakes than you’re comfortable with just because it’s hot or cold, though.
Scared money always loses.
If you’re a $5 blackjack player, don’t sit down at the $25 minimum tables just because the table seems hot. You’ll just lose more money faster by doing so.
Even in blackjack, which has the lowest house edge in the casino, you’re facing insurmountable odds in the long run.
The Gambler’s Fallacy
You’ll find other players and sometimes even dealers giving you advice about whether to play at a table or not based on whether it’s been running hot or cold.
You can safely ignore such advice.
The reason that ignoring whether a table is hot or cold is the same reason that progressive betting systems don’t work. Both lines of thinking rely on the gambler’s fallacy.
The gambler’s fallacy is the belief that eventually, the real results must turn around so that the mathematically predicted results become real results.
In the long run, this is true in a sense, but the long run is so much longer than most people think that it’s irrelevant in a single gaming session.
The House Edge
Understanding these concepts starts with an understanding of the house edge and how it works.
You obviously already know that the casinos make money.
They don’t profit from cheating, though. The games are random. It’s just that the payouts differ enough from the probability of winning that in the long run, the casino will always win.
The casino usually uses a single factor to give them an edge over the player.
- In roulette, they have two green numbers on the wheel — the 0 and the 00 — which give the house its edge.
- In blackjack, they force the player to go first. If the player busts, she loses, even if the dealer loses later in the round. The dealer acting last is what gives the house its edge.
- In casino war, the game is even unless you get a tie. In the event of a tie, you must put up more money to continue to compete. That’s where the house gets its edge.
The probability of winning can be expressed in a format called “odds format.”
You can compare the probability of winning with the odds paid out to determine the house edge for a casino game.
Here’s how that works.
In roulette, you have 38 numbers on the wheel. If you bet on a single number, your odds of winning are 37 to 1.
You have 37 ways to lose versus 1 way to win.
The payout for a single-number bet is 35 to 1, though.
Do you see how the casino stands to profit from that situation?
If you played 38 times in a row, you’d win (on average) once, and you’d get paid off 35x your bet.
But you’d lose (on average) 37 times, losing 37x your bet.
Average that difference out over 38 bets, and you’ll lose an average of 5.26% of whatever amount you’re betting.
And what happens on previous spins of the roulette wheel doesn’t change the odds.
If the ball lands on the number 12 multiple times in a row — say five times — the odds of the ball landing on 12 on the next spin is the same as it was previously — 37 to 1.
It doesn’t change based on what happened before because all the possibilities are still there on the wheel, and they’re all equally likely to come up.
The Law of Large Numbers and the Gambler’s Fallacy
One of the interesting things about probability is that in the short run, it doesn’t mean much.
It’s just a mathematical way of expressing how likely something is to happen.
Some things are more likely to happen than others.
But it will sometimes win.
On any given spin, it’s impossible to see results that mirror the house edge exactly. If you win a single-number bet in roulette on a single spin, or even once in five or ten spins, you’re going to see a profit.
But if you play long enough, your results should eventually start to look like the mathematically predicted results. This is called the Law of Large Numbers.
The Law of Large Numbers SEEMS to be at odds with the gambler’s fallacy, but it’s not.
- The gambler’s fallacy is based on short-term predictions.
- The Law of Large Numbers is based on long-term results.
Most gamblers underestimate (by far) how many trials it takes to get into the long run.
In point of fact, you don’t reach “the long run” until you get to infinity.
But every trial brings you one trial closer to the long run. It’s almost paradoxical.
How Card Counting Works If You Can’t Predict How Hot or Cold a Blackjack Table Is
Counting cards is one way to predict with some degree of accuracy the likelihood that a blackjack table will get hot. It’s one of the only table games in the casino that “has a memory.”
Here’s how that works.
When you play roulette, you have 38 numbers every time the wheel spins.
When you play blackjack, though, you have 52 cards in the deck to begin with. After each card is dealt, the deck gets smaller, changing the odds based on which cards have been dealt. The odds continue to change until the dealer reshuffles.
And sometimes the ratio of the cards becomes such that you’re more likely to get a blackjack, which pays off at 3 to 2.
When that happens, you should bet more.
Card counters keep a rough accounting of how many low cards have been dealt versus how many high cards have been dealt. When more low cards have come out of the deck than high cards, you wind up with a higher proportion of high cards versus low cards.
High cards, in this context, are aces and 10s. You can only get a blackjack when you have a two-card hand made up of an ace and a 10. If there are more of those in the deck relative to low cards, your odds improve.
Most of the time, this just means keeping a mental tally where you add 1 to the count every time a 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 is dealt. You subtract 1 from the count every time an ace or a 10 is dealt.
When the count is positive, you raise your bet. When it’s 0 or negative, you bet the minimum.
The higher the count, the more you bet.
Some card counters won’t even play at a blackjack table until the count is positive. This is called “Wonging,” after Stanford Wong, a famous card counter who popularized that technique.
Wonging is similar in spirit to scouting hot tables, but it’s different because it’s based on actual changes in math rather than just whether people have been winning or losing at the table recently.
Progressive Betting Systems
I mentioned earlier that the search for a hot table operates from the same fallacy as a progressive betting system. I want to discuss what a progressive betting system is and how it works in this section.
A progressive betting system is one where you raise the size of your bets based on what’s happened previously. The most famous example is the Martingale System.
Bettors who use the Martingale System double the size of their bets after every loss.
This recoups their losses and eventually results in a small profit. Most Martingale bettors play roulette.
Here’s an example of how the Martingale System works in action.
You bet $10 on black, which has an almost 50% chance of winning. (The two green 0s ensure that the probability is actually lower — 47.37%, in fact.)
You lose, so you bet $20 on black on the next spin.
You lose again, so now you bet $40 on black, and you win.
You’ve won back the $30 you lost on the first two spins, and now you have a $10 profit to show for it.
This seems like an unbeatable system, and it would be if you could ensure that you had two things:
- An unlimited bankroll
- A table with no betting limits
The problem with the Martingale is that eventually you’ll run into a long enough losing streak that you’ll either be unable to place the next bet in the progression because you don’t have enough money left or the bet would be higher than the table maximum.
At most roulette tables with a $5 minimum, the maximum bet is $500.
It seems like you’d have to lose an insane number of times to get to a $500 bet, but look at the actual numbers below:
You only have to lose seven times in a row before you must place a $640 bet to continue.
That sounds like it might be next to impossible, but it happens every day in every casino that offers roulette.
And you have no way of predicting when it will happen.
In other words, the roulette table is always going to get cold eventually if you play long enough. You just have absolutely no way to predict when.
What happens to Martingale players in the long run?
They have some winning sessions, but those profits are always small.
After all, at the end of each winning progression, you only win a single unit.
You might bet $160, but if you’ve gotten to that point in the progression, you’ve already lost $150. If you win, you only have a profit of $10.
You guarantee yourself a lot of small profits.
But you’ll also eventually see a big loss.
That occasional big loss will be big enough that it will wipe out your small winning sessions, and your losses will eventually get close to the 5.26% loss rate you’d expect.
Trying to find hot or cold tables in casino gambling is a tactic you can use to try to win.
But it doesn’t work in the long run.
The math behind the casino games’ edge is, for the most part, unassailable.
And you definitely can’t predict when a hot streak or a cold streak is going to happen. Those phenomena happen all the time, but they’re only visible in retrospect.
Here’s the good news, though.
The house edge doesn’t get any larger if you use this tactic. You’re still facing the same disadvantage, mathematically, either way.