Why betting systems don't work: debunking popular myths

Betting systems debunked
Posted on: February 27, 2023 07:30 PST

Plenty of gamblers have developed or implemented a system of play that they think will help them restack the odds in their favor. The reality is that there is no scientific method that can change the math at the tables, no lucky number that you can bank on for a big win when you need it most.

Want to play casino games? Pick an amount of money you’re happy to lose and treat the experience as entertainment. Meanwhile, let’s take a look at a few of the most popular betting systems out there, along with some of their inescapable flaws.

Flat betting: why consistency doesn't pay off

System: Non-progressive/flat betting

What it is: No betting system is more basic than the flat system. Players simply choose a bet size that is appropriate for their bankroll and repeatedly wager the same amount regardless of the outcome.

Why it doesn’t work: Flat betting is perhaps the most responsible way to play in the casino. It’s not a winning strategy, though.

The laws of statistics tell us that consistent bets will simply lose to the mathematical house edge over time. Flat betting does remove the potential for a life-changing loss of money on a single hand of blackjack, but it is simply not a path to long-term profit in games where the house has an advantage.

It’s also important for players who use this system to carefully determine their base betting unit in order to avoid the risk of losing too much money in a single session.

Casino games are always stacked against you and betting systems won't help

Martingale betting system: chasing losses and hitting limits

System: Negative progression (Martingale, Fibonacci, D’Alembert, Labouchere betting systems)

What it is: Betting systems that fall into the category of negative progression rely on the tactic of increasing the wager amount after every loss and reducing it after every win. They’re designed for even money wagers.

Perhaps the most widespread of the bunch, the Martingale betting system simply requires players to double their losing bets. Each win meanwhile resets them back to their base unit with a small profit.

Imagine a $1 coinflip. You lose the first (-$1), double the wager and lose again (-$3), and then double and lose again (-$7). Your next bet of $8 is a winner, leaving you with a $1 profit.

Bet Result Profit
$1 Lose -$1
$2 Lose -$3
$4 Lose -$7
$8 Win $1

Fibonacci betting system

Similar to the Martingale, players using the Fibonacci system will also inversely adjust their bet amount based on the results of their previous wager. This particular strategy is rooted in the Fibonacci sequence, a seemingly mythical construct where each number is just the sum of the previous two (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.). After a loss, the Fibonacci player will increase their bet to equal to the sum of their last two bets. After a win, they’ll reduce their bet by two numbers.

Another variation of the Martingale, the D’Alembert system does away with the scaling mechanic in favor of a steady incremental change. D’Alembert players will simply increase their bet size by one unit after every loss and reduce it by one after each win.

Split Martingale or Labouchere

The Labouchere, sometimes called the Split Martingale, involves an individualized set of numbers to determine the bet size based on the amount the player is seeking to win. Gamblers who use the Labouchere system typically add the first and last numbers of their set together to create a new one. If the bet wins, the player crosses the two numbers off the list. If it loses, the player adds that number to the end of the set.

Why it doesn’t work: What seems like it could be a foolproof system is full of holes.

First, the bankroll required to sustain this style of negative-progression play is unfathomably large. It’s not uncommon to lose five, six, or more hands of blackjack in a row, and the amount of money needed to fuel this system gets very big very quickly. We won’t crunch the numbers here, but the inevitable result of playing a system of negative progression is risking many multiples of your typical unit hoping to win a bet before you run out of money or run up against the table limit.

Not only does it not work, but the bet-a-lot-to-win-a-little approach can be outright dangerous for players wooed by its apparent simplicity. Some casinos won’t even allow the Martingale, for that matter, creating a persistent risk of being backed off during a string of increasingly expensive losses.

The other systems in this category fall under the same line of logic that debunks the Martingale itself. Previous results have no impact on the future when it comes to gambling, and these little “tricks” eventually run out of headroom – whether it be because of bankroll or table limits.

Negative progressions are also objectively dangerous from a responsible-gambling standpoint, as the whole system is built upon the problematic notion of chasing losses. The math is simply too steadfast for this simplistic tool to be successful against it.

Betting systems are a quick way to set your money on fire

Positive progression betting systems: maximizing wins or misunderstanding statistics?

System: Positive progression (Paroli, Pyramid, Parlay)

What it is: The Paroli by any other name is another system that requires players to adjust their bet according to previous results, but it is essentially the opposite of the negative-progression systems. Pyramid betting is the primary positive-progression system in which players will increase their bet amount after each win and reduce it after each loss.

The conceptual goal of this “let it ride” strategy is to maximize profit during winning streaks and limit damage during losing streaks.

Why it doesn’t work: While it might help some players manage their exposure to risk, employing a system of positive progression represents another fundamental misunderstanding of the mechanics of gambling and the nature of statistics.

Every shoe of blackjack or spin of the roulette wheel is an independent trial with an outcome that is not affected by the previous results. Winning or losing eight hands of blackjack in a row does not change the odds for the ninth, and this fallacy has created plenty of victims out of players who’ve tried to play the Paroli (or any other progressive betting system). It even has a name: The Gambler’s Fallacy.

Beyond the conceptual woes, all positive-progression systems fall victim to the same practical limitations as their negative counterparts: bankroll, time, and table limitations.

Working out your optimal bet

System: Kelly criterion

What it is: The Kelly criterion is a complex mathematical formula used to calculate the optimal bet size based on the player’s bankroll and the actual odds of a win or a loss. Using this system requires a good deal of math, both rational and theoretical.

The formula for the Kelly criterion can be simplified like this: f = (bp-q)/b

  • f = portion of bankroll to bet
  • b = decimal odds of the bet
  • p = probability of winning
  • q = probability of losing

In plain English, this formula says that the optimal bet is the percentage of a player’s bankroll equal to the difference between the probability of winning and the probability of losing, divided by the odds.

Why it doesn’t work: The Kelly criterion is perhaps the most robust of all the gambling systems, and it actually can work in the right spots. But it has its limitations.

It is an ultra-advanced concept, for starters, and the math is generally inaccessible to the average person. Relying on Kelly requires a near-perfect understanding of the house edge for a given game or a given situation, something that most players simply cannot calculate.

More importantly, the Kelly criterion is only useful for situations in which the player has a long-term edge – something that is typically not found in any casino game outside of the poker room. If you run a hand of blackjack through the Kelly formula, for example, it’ll tell you that the optimal bet is less than zero.

In that way, it could be said that the Kelly criterion works pretty darn well.

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