You saunter up to a blackjack table, put $5 down in the betting circle. You lose.
To make up your loss, you double your bet, putting $10 on the next bet. The dealer has a blackjack.
“No problem,” you say, doubling up your bet again, now putting $20 on the felt.
This is the essence of the “Martingale” betting system. You double your bet after a loss in order to eventually make a profit. It’s used by novice gamblers in games like roulette, blackjack, craps and baccarat.
And it never works in the long run.
The problem with the Martingale betting strategy is that, on the surface, it sounds like a completely reasonable strategy – one almost guaranteed to make you win. I know I thought that way the first time I went to Las Vegas, when I invented the Martingale system on the flight there.
Ok, so I didn’t actually invent the Martingale, but I thought I did. “Hey, I have this system!” I told my buddies, some of whom were as dumb as I was and actually believed me. And in fact, there countless gambling novices like me, (and even experienced players for that matter), have thought they “discovered” this system – a system they feel is sure to help them leave the casino a winner.
You can certainly understand the appeal. It’s simple, and seems like a sure way to win. After all, if you keep making a blackjack bet, you’re sure to win eventually right?
Yes you are.
The problem is that there are many times when you’ll either run out of money, or reach the table betting limits before you win. And long streaks where you do not win are much more common than you may think.
Let’s use blackjack as an example.
The exact percentage changes with variations in the rules, but the house edge in a standard six deck black jack shoe typically found in Las Vegas Strip casinos is anywhere between .5 and 1%. (And that’s if you are playing perfect strategy).
So it’s basically a coin flip. With a coin, you normally don’t flip, say, “heads” ten times in a row right? It’s this mindset that causes many gamblers to feel that the Martingale betting system is a sure-fire strategy. And it’s this mindset that causes them to lose.
I’ve personally lost 12 blackjack hands in a row, playing perfect strategy. (Trust me on this figure. One tends to remember such losing streaks).
Streaks where you lose, say, ten hands in a row, are not as uncommon as you may think. Sure, if you stroll up to a table once, and use the Martingale system to double your bet after a loss, you may very well win. But using it continuously will leave you either busted, or (if you have the bankroll), bumping up against the house limits in no time.
Using a Martingale betting system in blackjack, you would start off with a $5 bet. Assuming you lose and double up, your bets would look as follows:
Only at many tables, the maximum is $500. So in this example, you’ve reached the $500 betting limit after just seven losses in a row. Not to mention the fact you have already lost $635 thus far in those seven losing bets. Even if the table’s maximum bet is $1,000, you’d have only one more “double up” chance, with your $640 bet.
“So?” I hear some of you saying. The chances of losing 8 hands of blackjack in a row are slim. This is true. However at this point in the Martingale strategy, you would put out $640 of your hard earned money out there in hopes of the dealer not winning an 8th time in a row.
(Related: Definition of the Gambler’s Fallacy).
And if she doesn’t win? It’s not exactly party time, considering you’ve just made a profit of…..$5. (You had already lost $635. Then you bet $640 and won. $640 in winnings minus $635 you lost the first seven hands equals a $5 profit).
In a great article by Frank Martin on the brilliant and insightful WzzardofOdds.com website, he illustrates the surprising frequency of long losing streaks.
In his article, Martin’s computer simulations show that when tossing a coin 200 times, the probability of a streak of either 8 heads in a row, or 8 tails in a row is 54%.
We cannot apply this exactly to games like blackjack or roulette, since they are not exact 50/50 propositions, (because of the house edge). However the gist of the math remains: if you play 200 hands of blackjack, there’s an over 50% chance you’ll either win 8 hands in a row, or lose 8 hands in a row.
(Go here to read about the Martingale roulette system).
Keep in mind, this is just for playing 200 hands. I imagine you’re going to play a lot more than 200 hands in a trip, not to mention your gambling life. And playing more than 200 hands gets you closer to the probability that you will lose 8 hands in a row. And losing 8 hands in a row, starting at $5, means you will have lost $1,275. (Hopefully a pit boss will comp you a buffet).
So hopefully you can see how the Martingale betting system is a flawed strategy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t use it. I’m very stupid that way. But I use it knowing it won’t work over any length of time. The times it does work, (and it’s more short term luck than the Martingale system working), is when I start with, say a $20 bet and lose, then double the bet to $40 and win, resulting in a quick $20 profit. As long as I can walk away, the Martingale has sort of worked. Again though, this is a result of short term luck, rather than proof of a successful betting strategy.
I didn’t invent the Martingale system. You didn’t either. Be thankful, because no one would want to claim credit for inventing a foolish system that has given false hope to countless gamblers, just before breaking them with a blackjack, roulette or baccarat losing streak of seven, eight or more in a row. (Photos courtesy of dktrpepr and Perry Quan via Flickr).