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The Illusion of Gambling18 February 2002
The ancient Hindus called it "maya" and it meant illusion. To them the world, the flesh and the universe were just a figment in the mind of the Absolute and thus nothing was what it seemed to be. In fact, nothing was at all. Once you realized this you could free yourself from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
The Biblical book Ecclesiastes, which is attributed to the wisest human who supposedly ever lived, King Solomon, talked about life and all that life brings as "vanity" -- that is, illusion. All the things you care about; all the ideas you have; all the experiences you think are unique were nothing but illusions. "There is nothing new under the sun."
Perhaps, Shakespeare said it best (as he invariably did) when he has his character Macbeth comment: "Nothing is but what is not!"
I was reminded of these examples recently when a radio interviewer asked me: "Come on, Frank, everyone knows no one wins in the casinos, right?"
When I said to her that that wasn't exactly true, she responded: "Oh, come on, everyone knows that the casino has the edge at every game and on every bet in every game."
While I couldn't convince her that she wasn't accurate in her assessment of casino games, perhaps I can show you that the perceived wisdom that no one wins in the casinos is, like much perceived wisdom, wrong.
On a given night, plenty of people do win. They win at slots, video-poker, blackjack, craps, roulette, Let It Ride, Three-Card Poker, Casino War, Spanish 21 and even at the Big Wheel and Keno. In the short run, anything can and often does happen. I don't think anyone could seriously dispute this.
Yet are there any people who are winning in the long run -- say after ten, twenty or thirty years of casino gambling? If we forget about those who have won mega-jackpots, such as Megabucks, and have budgeted their money to last a lifetime in the casinos, there are still two types of players who are ahead in the long run: the players who play with an advantage over the house (for example, skilled card counters at blackjack) and the damn lucky.
I know people in both categories.
I know a husband and wife who have been gambling in casinos for twenty years. They are ahead an average of $60,000 per year. Yes, that's right, they have made over a million dollars, not because they play with an advantage over the casino, not because they cheat, but because they have been extraordinarily lucky.
How do I know that their incredible wins are just luck and not skill? Because they play video poker games that are not full-payback, using a strategy that maximizes getting the top jackpot at the expense of the lower payouts (and the overall return rate), and they have been remarkably lucky in the total number of jackpots they have received at video poker and on the slot machines they play. The husband plays craps and blackjack as well.
In blackjack, he plays basic strategy and faces a one-half percent house edge. He's up over $40,000 in that game. He shouldn't be, but he is. In craps, he is ahead a mere $4,000 but if you saw the crazy bets he makes, you would wonder how he could win on a given night, much less for twenty years!
If you take a look at any kind of gambling graph, you will note that 90 percent of the long-term results fall within a big bell-shaped area on the graph. This is the amount of money players lose based on the probabilities and house edges of the games they play. But out on the fringes of probability -- on that five percent on either side -- are the players who win more than they should and players who lose more than they should. And way, way out on the far end of the graph are those little nano-percentages that are at the end of the math universe -- meaning the twilight zone of calculations. With the tens of millions of people who gamble, there are bound to be some few who have defied the odds and have actually won large amounts over time. These are the damn lucky. (There are also those who have lost huge amounts out of all proportion to their betting -- these are the just plain damned.)
It is not unheard of for some games, at some times, to have bets that favor the players. In blackjack, about 20 percent of the hands are played in player-favorable situations. If you knew that you were in such a player-favorable moment, you would bet more to capitalize on it. Well, card counters do just that. But the fact is, everyone at the table at that time is in that player-favorable moment -- but most players don't usually know it. Any bets placed during that time will not favor the casino but will favor the player, assuming the player is playing proper basic strategy, of course.
Most casino games have some weaknesses that can be exploited by savvy players, albeit such players are rare birds indeed. These weaknesses might not be in the math of the games but in the physical dimensions of the game. Roulette wheels can be off; craps shooters might be changing the odds based on their "rhythmic rolls," and baccarat players might be able to follow Bank-favorable, Player-favorable, or Tie-favorable clumps of cards through a shuffle. These players can get an edge over the casino because of their skill in exploiting the physical dimension of a game.
So what is the truth about casino games then? It is this: most players will lose in the long run on the game or games of their choice because most of the bets do favor the casino. And most players will lose at, or close to, whatever the house edge is at that game on the totality of all the money they bet. But some few players, through skill or outrageous fortune, will actually beat the casinos. The players who utilize skill have the best chance of consistently doing so. The players who utilize luck had better be damn lucky. And, indeed, a few are just that.
This article is provided by the Frank Scoblete Network. Melissa A. Kaplan is the network's managing editor. If you would like to use this article on your website, please contact Casino City Press, the exclusive web syndication outlet for the Frank Scoblete Network. To contact Frank, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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