On beating roulette: part 1
Beating roulette seems like a fool’s errand, much like beating the markets. After all, the roulette wheel is a physically random system isn’t it?
Being a great fool myself, I’ve thought about this rather a lot. I thought about it to the point where I thought I had a novel way to beat the roulette wheel, and invested a bit of effort and treasure into seeing if I could make it practical. As it turned out, my idea wasn’t so good. In the interests of inspiring some other fools out there, and because this was a fun project to think about for a while, I’m going to talk about some of the issues involved in designing a way to beat roulette. I have no intentions of following up on this project with another one, though I can think of two offhand which would do very well at beating roulette, if you have the engineering resources to dump into it. I probably won’t tell you about these, but anyone who reads this series ought to be able to figure them out on their own.
The way I see it, there are easier ways to make money: ones which don’t involve any risk of having your teeth kicked in by casino thugs, and which don’t involve substantial R&D costs. My idea was simple enough it had a chance of working in a period of time which would have been worth my efforts, which are otherwise better spent on other fool’s errands, like beating markets and chasing pretty girls.
History time: most say the roulette wheel was invented by Blaise Pascal in 1655 while he was attempting to create a perpetual motion machine. Ironic, as I was sort of looking at it as a perpetual money machine. Really though, Pascal invented the rotor part of the roulette wheel; the part which spins around at a deterministic speed. This isn’t the interesting random part of the device. Randomness is introduced by the scattering bumps and the pockets inside the rotor. Roulette was first played in its present form in the late 1700s in France. There are 36 numbers on the rotor of a roulette wheel, along with one or two zero pockets, which provide the house advantage. For the purposes of this discussion, the only important strategy is betting on a number. The payout on a number bet is 35:1, which makes it an exciting game. The house advantage on a single 0 wheel is 2.7%. For double zero wheels, 5.26%. This is a fairly small advantage to beat, so a forecasting algorithm doesn’t have to do very well to give you a reasonable probability of a profitable game.
There have been quite a few dumb ideas floated for beating roulette. The dumbest are pure bet sizing systems. If you go look at the literature, or just “gambling times, ” there are a number of examples of people who thought they had a bet sizing system which would have allowed them to win. The problem, of course, is the house edge. Bet sizing systems are important, but they’re only important when you have an edge. Quite a few smart people thought they could use martingale betting to do this.
Another less dumb idea was looking for a dealers signature: the idea being that the croupier who sets the ball to spinning could bias the outcome. This makes a little more sense, but has an obvious downside: you need a roulette croupier confederate to make any money at it. As it turns out, it is not possible for the dealer to bias the outcome in any case.*