VEGAS MYTHS BUSTED: A Roulette Color Can Be ‘Due’

Five red roulette numbers in a row doesn’t mean a black one is more likely on the sixth spin. Even if you recognize the truth of this statement, whenever that sixth spin lands on black, it can still be difficult to resist learning incorrectly from the experience.

“A common misunderstanding is that long-term averages within a random process must immediately correct in the short term,” Anthony Lucas, a professor of casino management at UNLV and former gaming industry operations analyst, told “It’s the way our brains are wired.”

Gamblers play roulette at The D Casino in downtown Las Vegas. A streak of one color on a regulation roulette wheel, no matter how long, never increases the odds of a different color coming up next. (Image: Reuters)

Our brains evolved to see patterns in the world around us. When those patterns exist, this ability helps us. Spotting the telltale signs of a predator in the bushes helped our ancestors survive.  However, in situations where patterns don’t exist, such as on a casino floor, this ability is the opposite of helpful.

The reality of a roulette wheel, Lucas explained, “is that streaks are a normal occurrence within any random process.”

Ray, my childhood friend, once believed he had a system for winning at roulette. He would take me along as he checked out every roulette table in whatever Las Vegas casino he happened to be staying. Whenever Ray found one with four or five consecutive red or black spins, he would always bet on the other color to come up next.

Ray’s system actually seemed to work. He’d walk away from every two-hour session I witnessed about $500 up.

“See, I told you,” Ray would boast, then question my logic for not betting along with him.

According to Lucas, this is similar to the slot-machine jackpot myth we busted two weeks ago. Both involve sampling with replacement.

“What the typical gambler does not seem to understand, or want to understand, is that the outcomes from independent and identically distributed variables in roulette often feature large runs of red or black numbers,” Lucas said. “This is normal, and there is no immediate self-correction required.”

These short-term imbalances always dissipate over the long term, Lucas explained, so that red and black outcomes occur equally. But in the short-term, which is the only term in which gamblers are able to play, anything can happen.

“It’s a very common myth,” Lucas said. “Hence, the electronic outcome boards used by casinos to accommodate this mindset. Many casino managers believe this stuff as well. There are some really good ones. But most tend to think more like gamblers than managers.”

It’s a Shame About Ray

Walking in late on one of his gambling sessions, I noticed Ray, red-faced and pacing the casino floor like a caged animal. He was obviously down a lot of money. How much, he wouldn’t admit to me until years later.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get it back,” he told me. This is when I learned that doubling down after every loss was part of Ray’s system. (This is known as a Martingale betting system, Lucas explained, and no, it doesn’t work, either.)

Luckily, it only cost Ray $5,000 to finally learn the lesson that the only system that works in Las Vegas is the one that gives the house a slight edge in the long run.

“Your friend is lucky,” Lucas said, “in the sense that things could have gone much worse for him.”

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