Albert Einstein liked to do ?mind experiments.? For example, he once pictured himself on a train traveling 30 miles per hour and thought: ?If I shine a flashlight to the end of the car, the light will be traveling at 186,000 miles per second in relation to the interior of the train but what will it be traveling in relation to the ground? Do you add the speed of the train to the speed of light and come up with light traveling at an extra 30 miles per hour??
Einstein realized that the speed of the train had no effect on the speed of the light. Unlike a man walking at 5 miles per hour on a 30 m.p.h. train, whose speed would be 35 m.p.h. compared to the ground, light was traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per second both in the train and compared to the ground. Illogical? Yes. True? Yes. Weird?
So here?s my mind experiment: You have a casino game that is returning 300 percent of all the money wagered at it. In the long run for every dollar played at that game, the player can expect to win two dollars. However, the game is set up in such a way that you win a ?jackpot? of 1.5 billion dollars on average for every 500 million decisions -- all the other decisions are losers.
You then have a second game where the house pays you back $99.50 for every $100 you bet (on average) and you can expect to win approximately 44 percent of your decisions. (Astute readers will recognize this game as blackjack!)
Now, which game is almost guaranteed to break your bankroll (your bankroll, now, not Bill Gates? or Kerry Packer?s bankroll) and which game will give you a decent chance of coming home ahead tonight? Is it the game where the player faces a house edge of one-half percent? Or is it the game where the player has a whopping edge of 300 percent over the house?
For the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants on earth, the casino game that is returning two dollars for every one dollar wagered (or $3 if you count the original wager) will destroy us; while the casino game that is taking 50 cents of every $100 we wager gives us a good run for our money. The chance of hitting that one in 500 million jackpot is remote to say the least. The bankroll required to have a decent shot at it without going broke would dwarf the incomes of some small nations. The bankroll needed to play the other game with an almost positive assurance of not losing it all is minuscule in comparison and could easily be found in the bank accounts of some kids under the age of 12 in small towns all over the world.
What does the above mind experiment prove? That house edge as shown above, while important, is not the be-all and end-all of gambling. The speed of the game, the hit frequency, and the number of winning decisions are equally important in answering the following question: ?How much do I need to take to the table or slots so as to absolutely assure myself of not going broke??
Now, why would I be so obsessed with the idea of not going broke at a casino game? Because I?ve been there and it?s awful. I have the dubious distinction of being one of the few blackjack card counters to actually hit what the mathematicians call ?ruin.? It happened in the late 1980s on my second extended trip to Atlantic City during a 16-day stint playing the Tropworld 4-deck game. My wife, the beautiful AP, and I had hammered Tropworld for two weeks a month earlier and we had delusions that we would become professional blackjack players and (why not dream?) billionaires.
It wasn?t to be. To make a long, agonizing story into a short agonizing story -- we lost every penny we had won on the previous trip and (it hurts to even remember this) every single stinking penny AP and I had saved up for our gambling bankroll. Had AP not taken me for a long walk on the Boardwalk on that 16th day and suggested we go to see the Captain, my gambling mentor, I might have easily drained our bank accounts and continued playing.
I was on tilt. I was not thinking clearly. I had gone mad. Luckily AP had kept her wits about her. ?I saw a couple living on the Boardwalk. They had all their earthly possessions in two carts and I thought ?this could be us if we continue to lose.??
So we went to the Captain and the second he saw us he said: ?There they are with empty pockets.? It was plastered across our faces in giant dayglow colors: LOSERS!
He explained to us what had gone wrong. Even with an edge, the game of blackjack is a rollercoaster and you must have a huge bankroll to bet ratio to weather the storms. You have to have enough money to know that no matter how bad the session you?re in is, you can?t possibly lose everything. In fact, you should have enough money to know that no matter how bad the next week, two weeks, month or six months are -- you still can?t get wiped out. That allows you to play your game correctly without making mistakes or pressing.
His other advice, equally wonderful, had to do with internal and emotional factors. Suffice it to say, when AP and I next ventured into the casinos, we had a lot more money behind us and we knew that short of losing every single decision for the next six months, we would be in the game!
Of course, not everyone is playing with an advantage in the casino. Most players are playing against house edges of one to six percent or more. Still, the nature of gambling is such that in the short run anything can and, for good or ill, does happen.
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