Breaking The Bank

The famous "Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo" was an English engineer, Charles Jagger, who discovered a biased wheel.

Jagger and his associates recorded all the numbers that came up on the wheels at the Beaux-Arts Casino Monte Carlo for several days in 1873. Jagger waded through the statistics until he found a bias on one wheel. Over several days, he continually played the biased numbers, along with others to throw casino personnel off the track. Jagger won more than $400,000.

Finally the casino discovered that the bias was caused by the frets, or walls, between numbers. The problem was corrected, and Jagger began to lose, but still left Monte Carlo, never to return, with more than $300,000.

Roulette Betting Strategy

Roulette is a game of pure chance, and barring exceptional circumstances, no strategy can overcome the built-in house percentage. Play your birthday, your anniversary, last week's winning lottery numbers -- in the long run, it makes no difference. Either you get lucky or you don't. For most players, roulette has no element of skill.

That being said, rare exceptions do exist. Sometimes a bored longtime dealer gets in a groove and releases the ball at exactly the same angle and velocity nearly every time. A very small number of players can spot what numbers are passing as the dealer releases the ball. With that knowledge, they can predict at a better-than-chance rate approximately where the ball will fall. The player then either bets or signals a partner to bet accordingly.

The second exception comes when the wheel itself shows a bias. Perhaps the wheel is off balance, or a slight track has been worn on the wood leading down to the numbers, or the metallic walls, or frets, between numbers are of slightly different heights or tensions. This is rare, for most casinos check the wheel carefully on a regular basis. And spotting a truly biased wheel means tracking play for thousands of spins -- the same number showing up three times in half a dozen spins does not mean the wheel is biased.

Many casinos now have an electronic display at roulette wheels showing the last 12 or 18 numbers. Some players like to play any number that shows up twice or more in that span -- or to bet the last several numbers that have come up -- in hopes that the wheel is biased. Others like to match the bets of any other player at the table who has been winning, hoping the other player has discovered a bias. Neither system is likely to pay off, but they're as good as any other system.

Betting Systems

Perhaps because roulette moves more slowly than other casino games, players seem more inclined to use betting systems, especially on even-money bets. In the long run, none of them helps. No betting system can change the game's percentages, and some systems can be financial disasters for the player. Here are a few that have persisted for decades.

Martingale: The player doubles his bet after each loss. When a win eventually comes, it leaves the player with a profit equal to his original bet. That is, if the player bets $5 on black and loses, he then bets $10; if that loses, he bets $20, and so on. A win at the $20 level overcomes the $5 and $10 losses and leaves the player with a $5 profit. The player then goes back to the original bet level.

This sounds good in theory -- keep betting until you win once, and you have a profit. In practice, you run into very large numbers very quickly, and run up against maximum bet limits. Staying with the $5 starting point, the fourth bet is $40, then $80, $160, $320. If the table maximum is $500, you're past it on the next bet -- after seven losses, you cannot bet the $640 necessary to wipe out the $635 in previous losses and start a new sequence.

Streaks of seven or more losses do happen about once in every 121 sequences, and you have no way to tell when a streak is going to happen. And on that eighth bet, the house still has a 5.26 percent edge, as it does on every spin. The wheel has no memory -- it does not know that seven consecutive red numbers have come up -- and the streak does not change the odds on the next spin. Besides that, having lost $635, do you really want to risk $640 more for a $5 profit?

Grand martingale: This is an even worse, even faster way to lose money. Instead of merely doubling the bet, after a loss the player doubles the bet and adds another unit. So if the starting unit is $5, the next bet is $15 ($5 doubled, plus another $5 unit), followed by $35, then $75, $155, and so on. The Grand Martingale player runs up against a $500 limit after only six losses, by which time he will have lost $600.

Cancellation: Not as dangerous as the Martingales, but no solution, either. The player starts with a number or series of numbers and bets the total on either end. If he wins, he crosses off -- cancels -- the numbers just played. If he loses, he adds the total just played to the end of the series. When all numbers have been canceled, the result is a profit equal to the sum of the original numbers.

For example, let's say our $5 bettor starts with the series 2-3 for the $5 starting point. If he wins, he has a $5 profit and starts a new series. If he loses, the series becomes 2-3-5, and the next bet is $7 -- the sum of the numbers on either end. A win at $7 would cancel the 2 and the 5, leaving $3 as the next bet. A win at $3 completes the $5 profit.

All very tidy, but a perfectly ordinary sequence such as a loss, a win, two losses, a win, three losses brings the sequence to 3-3-6-9, with a $12 bet on the line and two wins needed to close out the sequence. The cancellation player doesn't run into the huge sums of money a Martingale player must bet, but can wind up making bets considerably larger than the starting point and running up losses.

Roulette looks like an easy game to try because it relies solely on chance. But the real skill comes in knowing how to bet before the wheel stops.

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