All casino players know that gambling is streaky, you win some, you lose some, you win a lot, you lose a lot and in the end, which means the long run, the casino extracts whatever its house edge is on the total amount of money you bet at the game or games of your choice. The casino is then happy, it made money; you’re happy, hopefully at least, because you got the thrills you wanted from gambling with real money on the line.
Mathematicians have a name for the kinds of winning and losing streaks that gamblers experience, “fluctuations in probability.” This seems like a bloodless term, and some even give arcane mathematical formulas for what to expect over time in terms of such fluctuations. Gamblers though call these fluctuations good luck or bad luck.
Now, in order to understand the kind of fluctuations that can go on in casino gambling, it helps to understand the types of patterns that each individual game has. All casino games have recognizable win/loss patterns that reveal themselves over extended periods of time even though many casino players are not aware of these and become concerned that they have been cursed by the gods when experiencing bad streaks or, worse, blessed by the grace of God when on a tear.
But these are just fluctuations and the inherent patterns that the underlying math produces. Take a closer look.
Let’s take something simple, like a coin flip, and let’s break it down as simple as possible. You always have a 50/50 chance of winning the next flip. Of course, you rarely go for prolonged periods of time winning one and losing one, winning one and losing one, winning one and losing one. The experience usually looks more like this: you win one or two or three in a row, lose one or two or three in a row; win one, lose one; win two, lose one; lose two, win one. Back and forth, up and down, give and take and, occasionally, something really outlandish happens like winning eight, nine or 10 (or more in a row).
A coin flip therefore hasn’t got much of what mathematicians call “volatility.” It isn’t explosive in its pattern, although again, weird things can happen the longer you flip the coin, like an incredible run of heads or tails.
In casino games, where the house has the edge because it wins somewhat more decisions than the player does such as blackjack, roulette on the even-money bets, craps on pass and come bets, baccarat on the player bet, etc., the players’ experience tends to be win some, lose some, win some, but then lose slightly more bets than you win. Over time, the casino streaks will be slightly longer than the player streaks. Over a really long time, the casino will make a lot profit from those slightly longer winning streaks of theirs, but losing streaks of yours.
In games where the house doesn’t win more bets but takes a tax out of your bets, you’ll find that even if you win the percentage of time that probability indicates (which rarely happens in the short or even semi-long run), you’ll still be a loser because you aren’t getting paid the fair value of the bet. But the patterns on many of these games will be explosive. For example, take betting an inside number at roulette. You will find long and sustained losing streaks when you bet this way and then, all it takes is your number hitting once and you get paid 35 to 1. Rarely will your number hit twice in a row, but if you play long enough, you’ll experience that, too. And you might even get to experience three in a row.
But sometimes there are freaky streaks that you get to witness. Barney Vinson, author of Ask Barney and The Vegas Kid, and a former Caesars Gaming Instructor, saw the number 7 come up six times in a row on July 14, 2000 at Caesars in Vegas. I once saw the 12 come up four times in a row at craps. A blackjack player at the Maxim (now the Westin Casaurina) won 23 hands in a row in a six-deck blackjack game.
But even these streaks are not quite as mesmerizing or freaky as sustained winning streaks by individual players such as “The Million Dollar Bum,” who came to Treasure Island with some $400 in a social security check and ran it up to approximately 1.4 million in a little over a week. To enjoy such a streak where you start out betting red chips ($5) and finish up betting orange chips ($2,000), the largesse from Lady Luck has to be monstrously large – a true once in a lifetime lightning-strike that will probably never be duplicated by that individual.
Slot machines, too, have their win/loss patterns, very much reminiscent of roulette inside numbers. All slot machines are programmed to have what is called a “hit frequency.” A hit frequency is defined as how often a machine returns some money, not necessarily a win. If you put in three coins and get two back, that’s a loss, but it’s also a hit. Most slot machines have hit frequencies hovering around 10-20 percent, which just means that you can expect that you’ll get something back on 10 to 20 percent of your spins. Another way to look at is that you’ll not get anything back 80 to 90 percent of your spins.
What does that mean for streaks? Long losing streaks, punctuated by a hit, which might occasionally be for substantial sums – enough to scream and cause a commotion over. Slot players do not expect to have long streaks of winning spins. A hot streak for them might be to win one and lose one (or two or three), since winning one and losing one (or two or three) will usually mean they have a comfortable winning margin and might even be heading home with a win tonight.
Slot players have been conditioned by the machines to be very patient. A slot player will usually endure 10 to 30 spins in a row without collecting anything before starting to get antsy. At the now-defunct Desert Inn, John Robison, author of the Slot Experts’ Guide to Playing Slots, once went over 70 spins without a single hit, much less a single win. That’s patience.
Yes, streaks and certain patterns of wins/losses are inherent in all casino games, but sometimes streaks occur that are truly freaky in nature, although mathematicians will tell us that the longer someone plays a given casino game, the more likely they are to see the unlikely. Now, that’s freaky!