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Roulette Guide for Beginners

Roulette is the first casino game many beginners first try their luck with. There are obvious reasons, such as the fact that it doesn't require any "hands on" role for newbies, but perhaps much of its appeal is due to its image.

For many, roulette is the classic casino game - the image of casino life. The sound of the ball rattling in the wheel, the hush before it finally lands, and the cries of delight and disappointment afterwards are not just the stuff of movies - you can catch it any given night in a casino. 

The Wheel Goes  Round: A History of Roulette

There is historical evidence that the roulette wheel is the fortunate by-product of a failed experience. French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal was one of many inventors who tried his hand at creating a perpetual motion machine-i.e., a device that, once started, would never stop and never have need of external action to keep going. His attempt, so the story goes, gave us the Roulette wheel. 

(As a side note, Pascal's attempt to come up with a formula for an early version of craps was the foundation of probability theory. This is the primary mathematical strategy used with random games, such as online games, where there is no limiting structure, such as having a 52 card deck. Pascal also applied the odds against the gods in his theological theory called Pascal's Wager.)

Roulette was played actively by the end of the 18th century. Contrary to popular belief, the use of the double 0's originated in Europe, not the U.S. The double 0's give the house an advantage as they are neither red nor black (so those betting red or black lose in this case). European roulette later got rid of the 00, which lowers the house advantage, but the use of the 00 in the U.S. is actually a holdover from the older European system.

The basics of roulette - i.e., bet on the number that you think the ball will land on - has not changed. What has changed are the different rules regarding 1) how many numbers can be covered by a single bet and 2) the odds given on different bets. 

Roulette Strategy versus Luck

The first thing many outsiders will tell you about roulette is that, no matter how hard you stare, blow, wish, or scream, you cannot control where ball the ball lands. We don't disagree. But you can control 1) where you bet, 2) how much you bet, and 3) avoid stupid bets. 

The most important rule is to do a little reconnaissance before you play. You are looking for a game with the highest RTP (Return to Player) or lowest house advantage. American roulette has the higher house advantage (and usually the highest house advantage of all the games in a casino, excluding some slots), so that's generally to be avoided unless you're feeling very lucky. Second, a game with partage rules works to your advantage. Under partage, the house splits (French: partager) the losses with you if you roll a 0. American roulette happily takes your money. Guess which is better for you!

Where to bet

Roulette provides you with a number of bets you can make. The likelier they are, the less they pay out. The unlikelier they are, the more they pay. All numbers are equally likely, so forget about finding a most likely number, or pair of them.

There is some strategy involved here as you want to have money on the most likely places. For starters, outside bets cover more numbers and have lower returns. Here, you bet for odd/even or red/black. Unless a 0 comes up, you have a 50% chance of being right. You get a 2x payback for betting correctly, which is, as far as gambling goes, a safe bet. Additionally, you get 3x for correctly betting on sets of 11 to 12 different numbers in the columns. 

Inside bets, on the other hand, are more specific, less likely, and pay out more. These pay anywhere between 7x for numbers 00 (if you're playing American Roulette) to 3, to 36x for guessing the winning number correctly. Inside bets can be bets on between 1 and 5 different numbers. 

How much to bet

How much to bet depends very much on your 1) bankroll and 2) stamina. In other words 1) how much do you have to play with and 2) how long do you want to play. If you're a high-volatility type player (i.e., if you wear your "Go Big or Go Home!" t-shirt to the casino), you'll want to go for those inside bets almost exclusively. If luck is on your side, you'll go home with a bigger bank (thanks, t-shirt!). 

For those who want to play for a while and look to make some smaller wins that will prop up the losses, stick to the outside bets and manage your bank roll with the smallest amount available. 

Those are the extremes for either type of player. But, if we're honest, roulette is not the strategist's game; it's the game you go to if you're feeling lucky. So with that in mind, why not have a little bit of both? Give yourself a 2/3 strategy: 2 out of 3 of your bets are "safe" (i.e., outside bets), and you take one riskier bet. Smaller wins will cut your losses, and bigger wins will add substantially. Prolong your game and still get to enjoy the rush of going out on a limb.

Bad Roulette Bets

Roulette has more "bad" bets than good ones, and those are the single number bets that pay out to the tune of 36x. Your odds are bad, but you already know that. But cutting your winning in half by betting on two numbers does not double your chances at winning. So you're looking at half the winnings and less than half of odds. Bad bet. If you're going to go out on a limb, don't go out on two!

Roulette and the Gambler's Fallacy

Second, remember that the roulette wheel does not cancel itself out or keep track of its history. You know this in your head, but are you betting that way?

Avoid the Gambler's Fallacy. This is the (statistically invalid) belief that, if something happens frequently during a certain period, then it will not happen again in a second period. For example, if the ball lands on 23 once, it is impossible (or so the fallacy says) that it would happen again. In fact, it is just as possible and just as likely as any other number.

Online Roulette versus Roulette in the Casino

Many casino-based players who are used to the structures of physical play lose a few times online before they learn the rules. There are three important differences between online and casino based roulette:

  1. Bets. You can place smaller bets online than you can in most casinos. Of course, you can also bet very large bets and still win big, but if you're looking to prolong your playing, you can certainly do that online easier than in a casino.
  2. Speed. Online roulette games are faster as you don't need to wait for a physical ball to stop on a physical wheel, and - more importantly - for other bettors to decide on their bets, place down chips, blow on their hands, etc.

These two points are important, but what online and physical roulette players both know, or should know, is that roulette is completely random. While blackjack players try - unsuccessfully - to bring their card-counting strategies to the online game, there should not be any illusions around roulette and randomness or strategy. Expect the unexpected, and you're already a step ahead in roulette.

The Call of the Wheel

While roulette calls out to many new comers, it is still loved by experienced players. We can speculate why, but perhaps one reason is that luck is the great leveller. While experienced players may be able to play longer by betting smarter, there is nothing to stop the rookie from walking in, plopping down all their cash on a winning number, then skipping away. 

All casino games involve an aspect of luck and an aspect of strategy. Roulette is obviously a game where luck is queen, but that doesn't mean you can't play smarter, play longer, and increase your chances of walking home a winner. 

Sources: 

Tom M. Apostol, Calculus, Volume II (2nd edition, John Wiley & Sons, 1969)

Daniel L. Chen, Tobias J. Moskowitz, and Kelly Shue. "Decision making under the gambler’s fallacy: Evidence from asylum judges, loan officers, and baseball umpires." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 131, no. 3 (2016): 1181-1242.

William Wood, Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall: The Secret Instinct (Oxford, 2015)

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Brandon

11 October 2019

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