We didn’t win the Powerball last week. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this if we had; I’d be meeting with lawyers and accountants and, possibly, plastic surgeons. The fact that we even played is unusual. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool realist in such matters and never indulge in the awful odds of a lottery. But my wife, Katie, insisted we participate in the vast national hullabaloo and contributed $20 to the cause. Every cell of my body knew we were wasting money, but I have to admit I spent several seconds considering how wonderful it would be to have her tell me “I told you so” for the rest of our lives.
The trajectory of my gambling career is modest. It reached a peak with my first effort, at about age 18, when I won a then-lordly sum of $50 at roulette in the newly opened Atlantic City. So enthused was I with this windfall that I briefly pondered gambling trips as a regular activity. Over the next several years, however, my one win receded into the mists of memory, never to be repeated. My losing streak now measures fifteen-twenty well-spaced efforts over nearly forty years.
Only once did I approach gambling with a systematic plan to win. When I was in my forties and had some time and cash available, I accompanied Katie on a visit to Atlantic City during the State teacher’s convention, where she marketed an educational book she’d written. Though I spent several hours with her, manning a booth at a book show, I also spent an afternoon at the roulette table. I’d read several articles about the strategy of “doubling up,” and I looked forward to my assured success.
Doubling up involves placing a bet not on a specific number or numbers but on the color black or red. There is nearly a fifty percent chance on each turn of the wheel landing on black or red, except that there are also two green slots on a roulette wheel. The latter afford the casino their near-six percent advantage. For my purposes, however, I viewed my chances on each spin of the wheel as fifty-fifty, and I felt confident that if I lost $20 on the first try, I could move my bet up to $40, then $80, etc. Surely I would win eventually and then start over at $20. After six wins, for instance, I would be ahead by $120. The betting would not be exciting, and would not reward the superstitious selection of family birthdays or “lucky numbers” or any of the other “strategies” that people employ to play roulette. But VICTORY would be mine. Accordingly, when I started, my wallet contained $1,000 in twenty dollar bills.
Feeling smug as I walked several blocks from the convention center to the casinos, I thought to myself: “How foolish real gamblers are. I might be the only one with enough discipline to make certain I leave with more money than when I arrive.”
Not wanting to loiter long on Atlantic City’s less-than-inviting streets, I entered the closest casino. To me, they are interchangeable, with the same garish décor, noise and smoke. In retrospect, I hope I didn’t patronize one of Trump’s but, at the time, it made no difference to me.
I walked past the clanging slots area, where guests deposit their money as fast as possible into machines aptly named “one-armed bandits.”
I continued past the blackjack tables with players deep in concentration, confident beyond reason, in my opinion, that they will outsmart the dealer and the cards. Past the craps table, I continued, amazed at the hopes fixed on players’ faces, most destined to be disappointed. Finally, I found the roulette wheels, a relatively quiet oasis.
I observed several rounds before I traded my cash for $20 chips. $1,000 makes a satisfying pile of chips. I felt like a real “player,” and yet, I knew that I was more than merely playing. I was there to make money.
Three or four people at the table selected their favorite numbers with looks of concentration completely out of proportion to the likelihood their “choice” would be advantageous. In fact, I knew, there was no way to “beat” a roulette wheel except through my strategy, the impersonal, unemotional, but patient doubling up.
Finally, I waded in. I looked forward to watching my pile of chips grow, however slowly. I put $20 on red. Around and around went the wheel. It landed on black. I lost. No problem.
I put $40 on red. I wondered if house management would eventually tell me to leave the table, after they realized my strategy couldn’t lose. The wheel circled. Black again. Okay.
I put $80 on red. I felt pity for the players around me as their hands hovered in indecision over one number or another. I was free from such mental anguish. Geez, it landed on 00, a green space. “What are the chances?” I said to myself, though I knew they were one in nineteen, and shook my head in commiseration with several other players, losers all. After all, no one’s birthday is 00. The dealer, a young Asian man, wiped away my chips again.
I put $160 on red. “This is going to take longer than I’d hoped, but it’ll come around,” I thought to myself. The wheel landed on black again. Now, several of the people around the table were looking at ME with pity.
I counted out $320 in chips and placed them, with a sigh, on red. Even the dealer broke his stone face and established eye contact with me. He spun the wheel. “Did he think me a fool or a wise man?” I wondered, as the wheel circled. It stopped between two numbers, a red and a black, the needle perched for a long moment between them. It settled, agonizingly, on black.
Having now lost $620, in order to continue my strategy, I would have had to bet $640 on the next spin. I couldn’t do it; my nerve had receded along with my pile of chips. I put one lonely $20 chip on red. Against all rationality, I decided I had to break the losing streak, somehow. Yet, my mind was also torn. If I won with a $20 bet, I’d only earn $20 back in winnings. I’d still be $600 behind. I almost hoped to lose. Such cognitive dissonance! I lost.
Feeling both foolish and, now, morose, I continued up the sequence to $40 and $80, losing again and again. I started over again, at $20, and lost three more times. Only $280 remained from my original $1,000 and the wheel had landed on black eleven times in a row. The chance of that happening, I calculated, was one in 2,048.
Now, I realize the chances of each individual red or black spin, like a coin flip, is one in two. But my mind began to fixate on the CERTAINTY that my “luck” was bound to change. The wheel could not, the now resurgent irrational part of my mind insisted, land on black again. I placed my entire $280 collection of chips on red. The dealer spun. I took a deep breath. I lost again.
A one in 4,096 set of circumstances had occurred to cost me an even $1,000. I refused to look at the dealer or the other players as I trudged out of the casino. I didn’t know if I felt more stupid or more unlucky. Either was bad. Katie was sympathetic. “Well, at least you had fun,” she said. “Didn’t you?” she added, hopeful.
I shook my head. “There was nothing fun about it,” I said. I admit now, fifteen years or so later, that I only owned up to having lost $500. When she reads this, she will learn for the first time that the loss was $1,000.
Other than a couple of near instant losses of $10 in slot machines, I am fully reformed. Since I want intelligent analysis to dominate my financial decisions, I don’t gamble. My money is invested in SAFE places, RATIONAL places, LEGITIMATE places, such as the stock market. Hmmmmm.