Sooner or later in your gaming travels you will encounter someone who will speak highly of a brilliant system they play, and encourage you to try it.
The worst and most common of these is the «double your bet after each loss» system, called a «Martingale» system. Bet $5. If you win, great, bet $5 again. If you lose, bet $10. If you lose that, bet $20, and so on. As soon as you win, go back to a $5 bet.
The idea sounds seductive. Each time you win your big bet, you win a net $5 (for example, when you win the $20 bet, you lost $5 and $10 on the way there; if you win a $40 bet, you lost 5+10+20 on the way there). As long as you don't hit a really long losing streak, you can't lose!
Using the same logic, I might point out that as long as you don't ever die, you'll be immortal! Losing streaks are mathematically inevitable, and when one arrives, your bankroll is gone. Let's say we use the $5 double-up method. How quickly do we reach the table limit?
|Hand 1 - $5||Hand 5 - $80|
|Hand 2 - $10||Hand 6 - $160|
|Hand 3 - $20||Hand 7 - $320|
|Hand 4 - $40||Hand 8 - $640|
Uh, oh. If you're at a table with a $500 limit (the most common kind with $5 minimums), you can't make bet #8. You can find $5 tables with a higher limit (as much as $10,000), but these are less common, and merely postpone the problem.
A seven-hand streak rates to happen once every few hours (the longer streaks which would break you at higher limit tables happen less frequently; I'm going to discuss the more common $500 limit here). You can't make the eighth bet; you can only bet $500, which does NOT win your $5; you're $140 short, IF you win the $500 bet, a big if.
Arriving at the eighth bet, you're already a $635 loser (5+10+20+40+80+160+320). Will you now have the courage (if that's the right word) to plunk down $500? What if that loses? If it does, you're down $1,135 (the $635 plus the $500), with no rule that says you're going to win the next hand, or the hand after that. You're now outside your system: you're just someone making $500 bets. Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't betting $500 to try to win $5 seem... nuts?
In practice, most Martingale players ditch the system before they hit the maximum bet. The first time they have to spring for $160, or maybe $320, they lose their nerve, which thankfully saves a few dollars.
So there lies the Martingale system, may it rest in peace. You can play it for 10 or 20 minutes and get lucky-but you can get lucky just as easily without a system that inevitably leads to ruin. You want to make big bets? Do it with the house's money. You work too hard for yours.
Andrew N.S. Glazer is a professional poker, backgammon and blackjack player, and an expert in virtually all forms of gambling.