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To win big bucks, parlays can beat playing the slots

4 July 2011

More casino visitors, by far, play slot machines than table games. One reason is that the slots are simpler and less intimidating. Almost anyone can figure out just what to do, with hardly any – often no – instructions. Another reason, arguably more important for solid citizens who gamble often enough so the investment in learning strategies and etiquette would be worthwhile, is that small bets can bring large returns. The latter feature, not coincidentally, explains why many table games now have variations that include high-payoff bonus or “side bets” – typically requiring a wager of only $1 above and beyond the money placed at risk on the primary action.

In theory, you can earn big bucks with small bets on table games without the bonus feature. And, it turns out that the chances of success often exceed those on the slots.

As an example, consider a hypothetical slot machine on which a $1 bet can yield a $100,000 jackpot. On such a game, the chance of this hit would be less than one out of 500,000 or 750,000.

Alternately, say you play craps, betting $1 on Pass. The chance of winning even money on each round of this bet is 49.29 percent. In principle, it’s not totally impossible to make the bet 100,000 times and win each one, although the probability is indeed negligible. And it would require 75 to 100 years of steady play to undergo enough throws for this to occur. Mixing wins and losses to net $100,000 would and take even more time and not appreciably alter the prospects of success.

A different choice would be to start with $1 and parlay the winnings as often as necessary, betting amounts that follow what’s known as a geometric progression – $1, $2, $4, $8, and so on. A mere 17 successive Passes would get you to $65,536; 18 wins in a row would yield $131,072. The probabilities here would be one out of 167,148 and one out of 339,110, respectively. Compare these figures with those mentioned above for the prototype slot machine to see that chances are still small, but much better with the craps approach. Moreover, 17 or 18 passes in a row could have you in the lap of luxury in under an hour. Of course, in a practical sense (not that any of this is actually practical), you’d be unlikely to find a casino nowadays that let you bet as little as $1 on the Pass line to start; and, if one did, few if any bosses would allow you to exceed the normal upper limit on bets and wager the $32,678 or $65,536 needed to reach your goal.

The increasing bet size associated with parlaying raises another issue. An individual who brings a $100 or $200 stake to a casino is apt to be comfortable betting $1 at a time at the slots. Pretend, instead, you begin with this much of a bankroll, hoping to parlay $1 bets on the Pass line at craps into that $65,536 or $131,072. A loss simply drops you back to the starting point, squeezing another buck out of your fanny pack to try again. In terms of the money you shook out of your piggy pank before leaving home, you’re making a series of $1 bets.

This differs from playing the slots for $1 per spin in two ways.

• First, on the slots, you may not hit the jackpot but still get a return. Your bankroll therefore doesn’t automatically decrease by $1 every time you fail to strike it rich; in fact, it may increase at a satisfying rate. With the parlay, your fortune declines on every miss-out.

• Second, each coup on the slot machine involves risking $1, a sum you presumably consider of little consequence because you budgeted 100 or 200 times as much for your gambling session or visit. And a buck is nothing more than chump change these days, anyway. With the parlay method, after even a short run of Passes, you’re apt to forget that the amount you’re betting is really only the dollar you withdrew from your stash. After five hits, you’re putting $32 on the line; after 10, the dough up for grabs is $1,024. Since you can always quit and pocket the $32, $1,024, or whatever, you might well lose sight of your original notion that it’s only $1 – because, in fact, it isn’t. And, assuming the initial $100 or $200 was an amount you thought you could afford to lose, just how nervous would a $1,024 bet make you?

Maybe you’re like the folks on “Deal or No Deal” who scorn offers of good money, hoping for those keys to Fort Knox. The program would be dull if everybody took a $5,000 or $10,000 offer early. Just because most of the contestants who get on the air go all the way – usually pretending afterwards they’re not crying on the inside for doing so – doesn’t mean that many people are like this. The producers of the show spend a lot of time screening large numbers of applicants to find a few who they think will make for captivating television.

The bottom line is that it’s easier to win big at the casino by parlaying even-money bets than going for the gold at the slots. Easier, mathematically. Psychologically is something else. As the Bobby Burns of bettors, Sumner A Ingmark, observed:
What use is there for gambling schools,
When in the end, emotion rules?

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.