Written by guest blogger Christy Keenan
Everyone thinks that they’re right.
If each of our lives were a movie, we would all see ourselves as the hero. As any Breaking Bad fan will attest, it’s incredible the lengths we can go to to avoid honestly evaluating our own actions. A serious punter must be honest; he cannot be an ostrich or fall prey to his own hubris. In short: Walter White would make a shitty gambler.
When my local golf pro back home found out what I did for a living, he was fascinated. Every time I went to the course, he would probe me for information. I asked him for his betting strategy, trying to subtly ascertain what level he was at. ‘Well, I’ve never told anyone this,’ he whispered conspiratorially, ‘but when I’m playing roulette, I hang around the table watching the action. As soon as I see Red come in four times in a row, I lump on Black. I mean, what are the odds that Red would come in five times in a row?! You wouldn’t believe how successful it’s been for me!’
There are three issues in play here: one is a simple fallacy called Continuous Probability; the second is the Fundamental Attribution Error, and the other is our old friend Intermittent Reward.
It’s simple science
In games of chance such as roulette, there is no such thing as continuous probability. In simple terms, what has gone before has no bearing on what comes next. Now, the golf pro was right: the odds of Red coming in five times in a row are extremely small. However, what he failed to consider is that the previous four Reds have absolutely no impact on the upcoming spin of the wheel. This isn’t a dynamic game like golf, where a player’s confidence, experience and talent will improve their chances of sinking the next putt. At roulette, the likelihood of any spin coming in Red or Black is precisely 50:50 (excluding the Green 0). So before Spin One, seeing a single colour come in five times in a row is about as likely as bumping into a Chelsea captain at an Affirmative Action seminar. However, before Spin Five, it is the same 50:50 as any given spin. Using the previous four spins to predict the fifth is about as useful as using a weather vane to predict the sex of your child.
Now, this fella is a brilliant golfer. He sees the target 250 yards away, waggles, takes two practice swings, and G’DOOOOSH! He drops it on a sixpence. He is an expert, and clearly a smart man. Yet how could his gambling strategy be so fundamentally flawed? Well, as we’ve seen before, ego plays a large role. He truly believes that he’s so smart he’s managed to outwit the house. He has no recollection of his losses; the intermittent rewards that are intrinsic within gambling occur often enough to perpetuate his blissful ignorance. You and I know his sitting watching for patterns is a colossal waste of time. However, he’s a recreational gambler and the main problem with recreational gamblers is a blind spot when it comes to their own results and abilities. Just like Walt, he secretly believes that the rules don’t apply to him.
FYI, it’s FAE
Another concept that most recreational gamblers (hell, most people) struggle with is the Fundamental Attribution Error. The first time that I heard the FAE defined was in an article by Jonah Lehrer, during my Psychology of Sport Master’s. He used the Tiger Woods sex scandal as an example of a man perceived to have super-human concentration and self-discipline. People simply couldn’t believe that the talents Woods displayed on the golf course did not translate elsewhere. This freak of nature, this model of control, could not crave strippers like Jeremy Clarkson craves a steel toecap to the stones could he?
Think of it another way: if you placed the ball 30 yards from goal, lined up a wall and a goalkeeper, David Beckham would very likely bend the ball into the net. In this regard, he is a master of geometry. Ask him to even pronounce geometry, however, and he’d probably stumble like your granny on an icy morning. In simple terms, master of one discipline does not necessarily translate to master of another. Moreover, master of one discipline in Situation A does not necessarily translate to master of the same discipline in Situation B.
Exploit the exploitable
So we have established that my local golf pro had mad skillz on the course, yet performed worse than Kevin Twaddle and Michael Chopra’s lovechild in the casino. We have established that the reason for this is a combination of Intermittent Reward, Fundamental Attribution Error, and an erroneous belief in Continuous Probability. So what could he do to improve upon his dismal showing in the pit?
Well, the obvious answer is to stop gambling on unexploitable pursuits. Roulette is a game of pure chance, so the only thing you will get for over 9,000 hours of practice is a bankruptcy order. Spend that time working on a zero sum game like poker instead and watch your profits soar. There is very little that is as satisfying as experiencing your hard work pay off. Similarly, sports betting is incredibly difficult to beat long-term, but it is possible. You will have to show Max Moseley levels of discipline (minus the handcuffs) and take all emotion out of your decision-making. Sites such as Betfair are actually a godsend for the serious gambler as you will have a better chance of finding profitable wagers than in a straight face-off with the bookie. If you’re going to pursue it seriously, you’re going to have to juggle that toughest of dichotomies: unwavering self-belief – without ego. Just remember that gambling for an income is about as stable as Walt Jr’s crutches after a night out with Skinny Pete and Badger.