I thought it would be fun to look at the subject of luck in gambling and what kinds of casino superstitions various gamblers believe in.
I’m a tough-minded, hard-nosed realist, so I’m not superstitious at all.
In fact, I’m a little bit of an intellectual snob when it comes to things like magical thinking.
But it is fun to think about how things like luck work in a casino.
Luck in Gambling Is Just Statistical Deviation
Any time you deal with an uncertain event, you measure the likelihood of that event happening with a unit called probability. It’s just like measuring time with units like minutes or distance with units like miles.
And probability is just as exact.
The difference is that random events are, well… random. You can make predictions, but you can’t be sure.
Ask anyone who placed a bet on Hilary Clinton to win the election in 2016.
The experts had her as a huge favorite, but even when someone has a 70% probability of winning something, that isn’t a sure thing. In fact, a 30% probability of winning is still huge. Ask anyone who lost with a pair against an opponent’s flush draw at the Texas holdem table.
You’ll expect someone to win or lose when gambling at a certain specific rate based on probability, but with random events, you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the short run.
The ultimate example of the short run is a single event.
For example, when looking at roulette odds for betting on black, you have a 47.37% probability of winning and the casino has a 52.63% probability of winning.
But you’ll either win or lose.
You won’t get 47.37% of your money back. It’s one or the other.
And in the event of two random events in a row, well, you might win once and lose once, or you might win twice, or you might lose twice. They’re not equally likely, but that happens all the time.
What Kinds of Things Don’t Affect Probability?
Suppose you wear your lucky hat to the casino. Does the probability of winning a bet on black at the roulette table change?
Superstitious gamblers believe that the probability does change based on that hat. They think they’re more likely to get lucky.
Realists, on the other hand, understand that probability has a formula, and it only accounts for two things:
The number of ways an event can happen compared to the total number of possible events.
That probability isn’t affected by your lucky hat or shirt. It’s not affected by someone giving you a quick kiss for luck, either. (Sorry, Luke Skywalker.)
Carrying around any kind of good luck charm doesn’t matter, either. Why would it?
If it did matter, wouldn’t you be able to guarantee getting rich at the casino?
After all, the house edge is generally a small number. You wouldn’t have to sway it much to change from a loser to a winner.
Why Are Gamblers Superstitious?
The human brain is programmed to look for patterns and make sense of them. It’s a survival instinct that stood them in good stead when the cavemen were trying to evade saber toothed tigers.
But that doesn’t mean that all the patterns the human mind detects are accurate predictors of the future.
Humans also experience something called confirmation bias. I know countless people who visit the casino a couple of times per month or more. They always talk about their winning sessions, but I rarely hear them say anything about their losing sessions. Most of them are convinced they win as much money as they lose. They’re convinced they’re breaking even.
But I don’t know any of them who are keeping records and can actually demonstrate on paper that they’re breaking even.
What About Psychic Powers?
I have a friend who’s a psychic. He’s never asked me if I believed in his psychic powers or not, and I never felt the need to tell him what I thought. I suspect he really believes in his own psychic powers, though.
He once wrote a blog post about how to use your innate psychic powers to win more often at poker. I never played poker with him, but I’d sure like to.
We went to a restaurant once, and the waitress had an accent. He was flirting with her, and he asked her what country she was from. She said she was from Belarus (or something like that), and he replied, “In a million years, I never would have guessed that.”
Okay, so you’re psychic, AND you have a big clue – you can HEAR or accent.
And you still can’t guess where she’s from?
After all, there are only 200 or so countries in the world that are possibilities. You can eliminate a lot of them just by the process of elimination. She was obviously not from Canada or Mexico, for example.
No one has ever demonstrated proof of psychic powers, though. The James Randi Educational Foundation used to offer a million dollars to anyone who could demonstrate any kind of paranormal abilities under rigorous testing conditions.
No one ever won the million dollars – not even famous psychics like Sylvia Browne.
This isn’t a challenge that was only available one year, either. The challenge was offered consistently from 1964 until they ended it in 2015.
In 50 years, they never had anyone demonstrate believable proof of psychic abilities.
Maybe those psychics were too busy predicting lottery numbers and winning poker games?
Yeah, I doubt it, too.
What About the Gamblers Fallacy, Is That a Superstition, Too?
I write about the Gamblers Fallacy a lot here, too. It’s the mistaken belief that past events have an influence over the probabilities of future events. For example, if you’re playing roulette, and red has come up 6 times in a row, you might think red is less likely to come up on the next spin.
This doesn’t mean you’re superstitious except in the most literal and generic sense.
It just means you don’t quite grasp some of the subtleties of probability as a mathematical concept.
That’s why they’re called “independent” events.
Blackjack is a notable exception, by the way. As the cards get dealt in blackjack, the composition of the deck changes. This DOES have an effect on the probabilities while you play.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you’re playing blackjack from a single deck, and the four aces have already been dealt. Unless the dealer shuffles the deck before dealing the next hand, your probability of getting a “natural” or “blackjack” on the next hand has dropped to 0%.
You can’t have a blackjack without an ace, and there aren’t any more aces left in the deck.
If There’s No Such Thing as Luck, How Can I Win at Gambling?
For most people, winning at gambling on any kind of consistent basis is an unrealistic goal. Most people just don’t want to put in the effort to change the odds. And, with a lot of games – most of them in fact – nothing you do can change the odds anyway.
Blackjack is an exception because you can learn how to count cards.
Sports betting is another exception because you can look for inequities in the odds offered by the sportsbook to get a mathematical edge.
Playing poker for real money is another exception because you can use a variety of skills to play better than your opponents, giving you a mathematical edge.
But none of that has anything to do with any kind of psychic powers or good luck charms.
Yes, you can get lucky and win at gambling.
But unless you’re the exception to the rule – an advantage gambler – you have no control over that happening. You just pay your money and take your chances.
Your best bet is to assume that your gambling activities are a form of entertainment. In the long run, you’ll lose money gambling, but that’s okay as long as you’ve enjoyed the ups and downs on the road to going broke.
Of course, if you maintain a realistic budget for your gambling, you won’t have to worry about going broke, either.
How does luck work in gambling?
It’s just a matter of deviation in the short run. In the long run, every poker player gets the same cards over and over again.
Be realistic. Treat gambling as entertainment. Budget for it and have fun knowing that your expectations for the experience are realistic.