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Can You Really Gain the Edge at Roulette?

Today’s column is a bit different. We’re going to review a new gambling book called Get the Edge at Roulette. That in itself is not remarkable. But the subtitle, How to Predict Where the Ball Will Land, is nothing short of remarkable. Its author, who goes by the moniker the “Spin Doctor,” is Christopher Pawlicki.

Book reviews are not our usual fodder, but when our editor dropped this book in our laps and asked us to take a look at it, we agreed. After all, if you’ve got aspirations to continue writing, it’s always wise to follow your editor’s suggestions–he’s the one who sign your checks, so it pays to keep him happy. Our first thought upon reading the book’s initial pages was, “Oh no, not another piece of benighted blather about how to beat a game that cannot be beaten.”

The bookstores are full of this junk. We’ve been on a campaign for years to keep the public from getting suckered into buying books that purport to tell them how to beat the slots, the craps tables, the roulette wheels, the whatevers, that have been vacuuming the loose change from their pockets. These games cannot be beaten in the long run because the payout odds offered by the house do not allow you to overcome the odds against the event you’re wagering on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dice, a slot machine, the slots on a roulette wheel, or anything else you can place a bet on in a casino’s pit. These games should be played for the sheer fun of recreational gambling and the occasional wins that Lady Luck drops in your lap.

But this book read differently from the typical drivel. Mr. Pawlicki seemed to have done his homework. His analysis of the physics of the roulette wheel was, indeed, correct. Moreover, we learned a thing or two about the history of the game. And on page after page the author reminded us that roulette cannot normally be beaten, and emphasized that the game is a cash cow for the casino. He even had all the mathematics of the game right. But the title seemed completely at odds with what we were reading. If the game can’t be beaten, how did the author plan to teach us to beat it?

The picture gradually began to emerge. Mr. Pawlicki doesn’t actually tell us how to beat roulette. He tells us how he¾ along with what he refers to as a small coterie of professionals¾ beat roulette. Up until now we had never heard of, let alone met, a professional roulette player, even through the pages of a book. We’d always operated on the assumption that such a creature could not exist; in our books and magazine articles on gambling, we have asserted that in all the world one would never meet professional roulette, craps, or baccarat players. After all, these games can’t be beaten because the payoff odds for any given wager don’t allow the bettor to overcome the odds against the occurrence of the event they’re wagering on. No betting pattern, no wagering system, nor anything else one might try will produce a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

So, how do we treat Mr. Pawlicki? Is he is liar? A cheat? A fraud? Or is he indeed a real professional roulette player, one who can actually get the best of this game and beat it over the long haul? Which begs the question: How in the world could anyone predict where that little white ball is going to land?

Pawlicki claims to be able to predict which sector of the wheel the ball is most likely to land in by analyzing the physical parameters of individual spins. His book contains a well-reasoned discussion of the physical principles that govern spinning roulette wheels. There are a multitude of factors that determine the ultimate location of a ball on a roulette wheel. These include the speed of the wheel, the position of the ball when gravity exerts its downward pull and the ball falls from the groove in which it was running, the physical features of the frets that separate the slots, and the inherent “bounciness” of the ball.

The principles that govern the physics of roulette have been analyzed in considerable depth, and have been understood by both physicists and serious roulette players for some time. In a wonderful book with an odd title, The Eudaemonic Pie, Thomas Bass tells how a group of enterprising physicists and engineers built a portable computer with a video camera back in the 1970s, and programmed it to carry out the necessary calculations. Once the ball dropped from its track the computer would start crunching numbers¾ the computer used equations similar to those used to describe the orbits of spacecraft¾ and would then tell them where to place their bets. Once the numbers were crunched, the computer jockeys had roughly two or three seconds to cover the numbers predicted by the computer. The system worked to an extent, but it never became practical. The project was bedeviled by short circuits, programming glitches, and power failures. Ultimately, the state of Nevada passed regulations making the use of any such device illegal. And besides, back in those days when the wise guys ran the casinos, anyone caught using an illegal device was generally invited to visit a windowless room in the basement of the casino and view some frontier justice firsthand.

But no law ever stopped anyone from standing in front of a roulette wheel and carrying out these calculations in his or her head. And this is what Pawlicki claims that he and his fraternity of compatriots can do. He goes into considerable detail about how he learned to make these calculations. But it’s no get-rich-quick scheme. Pawlicki makes no bones about it. It is not easy. He claims it took him thousands of hours of practice and study to develop his skill, and he is quick to point out that it works only in isolated cases. If you’re confronted with a dealer who doesn’t release the ball in the same way each time, or varies the speed of the wheel unpredictably, it can’t be done.

It all seems reasonable and sensible… and it drove us absolutely nuts! After all, we’re “Humeans.” No, that’s not a typo. We’re referring to David Hume, one of the great philosophers of the 18th century. He voiced wise opinions on myriad topics, one of which he called his Dictum on Miracles. In its simplest form, Hume’s Dictum is nothing more than the motto of the state of Missouri: “Show me.”

Hume was deeply interested in science and was concerned by many unsupported, pseudoscientific claims that were being made (snake-oil salesmen were around in his day, too). Hume’s argument was as simple as it was compelling. When someone makes a claim that seems miraculous, purports to be able to accomplish the astonishing, or regales you with tales of the seemingly impossible, you have an obligation to be skeptical and to demand evidence to support the claims. In short, you must turn to the claimant and say, as any good Missourian would: “Show me.”

While we acknowledge the learnedness of Mr. Pawlicki and appreciate his analysis of roulette, we remain skeptics. We want to see the data. He says that a skilled “wheel tracker” can, on average, predict the seven-slot landing sector of the wheel and be correct once every six spins. If this were correct, such an individual would be playing this game with a positive expectation of 2.59 percent. Since roulette normally has a negative expectation of 5.27 percent for the player, this skill would be nothing short of miraculous. With an edge like this, a skilled player could quickly become a millionaire.

If Pawlicki is correct and this skill can be learned, roulette is likely to become the next battlefield of the casino. Ballistic ball charters will become the equivalent of blackjack’s card counters, calculating orbital descents in their heads and crushing the game from coast to coast while laying waste to the European casinos¾ where the wheels feature a single zero, instead of the double zeros usually found on North American wheels. Overseas, the wheel-tracker’s edge would be even greater.

But just because we’re skeptical doesn’t mean it can’t be done. When Edward Thorp and his card-counting disciples started running over the blackjack tables in the late ’60s and ’70s, the casinos were also skeptical at first. They said it couldn’t be done. It wasn’t until it became utterly clear that the counters really could beat the game on a regular basis that anyone paid attention. Maybe the wheel trackers can beat the game; maybe they can’t. If they can, roulette will have to adopt and change, perhaps by carefully training the dealers to randomize the speeds at which the wheel is spun and the ball is sent into its eventually declining orbit.

How this one will pan out is anyone’s guess. As good Humeans we’ll just sit back and wait for the data to come in. Once it does, we’ll either have the relatively easy task of walking right by the roulette wheel with nary remorse or regret, or face the more daunting prospect of learning to quickly calculate the landing zones of orbiting roulette balls. It might prove profitable, but it doesn’t sound easy. In the meantime, we’ll take Hume’s position. Show us.

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