Gambling superstition

Learn to recognise when you’re betting smart and when you’re just going by your gut.

Gamblers are, historically, a superstitious bunch, often trusting a lot of their bets to ‘gut instinct’ or a ‘good feeling’. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but you need to know when you’re being irrational to avoid groundless ‘betting systems’ on games of chance as these can cost you a lot of money.

Heuristics: every gambler’s worst enemy

Basically a fancy word for ‘rules of thumb’, heuristics are the root of all irrational approaches to gambling.

In the case of gambling, heuristics manifest in superstitions and false pattern recognition. Listed below are some of the more common examples of heuristics overriding good judgement in gambling.

The gambler’s fallacy

The gambler’s fallacy is the mistaken belief that you can predict future outcomes based on previous ones, even if they have no statistical connection.

Every bet in a casino game is statistically independent from the last. Assume the ball has landed on red in roulette 50 times in a row. This does not make it more (or less) likely to come up red a 51st time when you come to place your bet.

This is because, while the odds of getting continuous heads doubles with every spin, the chances of getting red on each individual spin is always one in two (1/2). Presuming the wheel is fair (i.e. not biased towards a particular side or quadrant), each spin is independent from the previous one.

Anchoring

When presented with a figure, even with no relevance to a given situation, we will often use it as an ‘anchor’ for making estimations and decisions. This phenomenon is often exploited by casinos to keep us playing.

A good example is when a roulette croupier rattles off ‘hot numbers’ – i.e. the numbers that have seen the most wins that night. As soon as those numbers are in your head, your brain is already leaning towards either betting on or close to those numbers.

You should also look out for anchors in bet wording, and understand how spread values and handicaps will influence your judgements when playing.

Availability bias

Unsurprisingly, we find it much easier to remember events that leave a strong impression. We attribute greater significance to these events and assume that they will happen more frequently after they have happened once.

Availability bias is particularly notable in sports betting because bettors tend to overestimate the frequency of events like red cards and corners, having falsely remembered them occurring more regularly in previous games.

In casino games, big wins and losses stick in our heads more than breaking-even (or minor wins/losses). This can result in ‘double-up’ strategies with no statistical basis.

Diversification

A heuristic phenomenon that will be very familiar to fans of slot games. When presented with multiple, simultaneous options, we generally ‘spread’ our choices to maximise diversity.

This is the basis of placing spread bets, or plugging coins into various slot machines rather than sticking with one. While spread bets can result in a better chance of winning, they do not always translate to a positive expected value and players should be mindful of this.

Escalation of commitment: ‘sunk cost’

This is our desire to ‘get our money’s worth’ – once we’ve paid for something, we like to persevere rather than incur additional cost, even if the thing we’ve bought isn’t satisfactory.

You regularly see novice poker players fall victim to this heuristic trap. Once they’ve bluffed their way to the turn with a lousy hand (raising over the odds in the process) inexperienced players will often call rather than swallow a smaller hit. Once they’re in, they are compelled to see their hand through.

Superstition in action

Slots  Gambling Superstition Explained slotsSuperstition in slots

The classic example from old-fashioned, land-based slot machines is the ‘bar, bar, cherry’. Any outcome where you are one symbol away from a jackpot can feel like you ‘nearly won’ but is, in fact, a loss. Don’t think you will have better chances on the next spin.

 

Roulette  Gambling Superstition Explained rouletteSuperstition in roulette

50 consecutive ‘reds’ on roulette does not predict a higher or lower probability of reds on the next spin. Every spin is mathematically independent from every other, which is why ALL roulette strategies are false.

 

Blackjack  Gambling Superstition Explained blackjackSuperstition in blackjack

So-called ‘voodoo betting’ strategies in blackjack, just like ‘roulette systems’. are based on gambler’s fallacy, with players increasing their wagers on the back of wins/losses rather than following a proper count.

 

Gambling Superstition Explained baccaratSuperstition in baccarat

As a negative-expectation, house edge game, all baccarat strategies are based on the gambler’s fallacy or some other heuristic psychology.

 

Lotteries  Gambling Superstition Explained lotteriesSuperstition in bingo and lotteries

Buying multiple cards in bingo and lotteries is a form of diversification that carries an ultimately negative expectation.

 

Sports  Gambling Superstition Explained sportsSuperstition in sports betting

Sports bettors have a tendency to remember wins more clearly than losses; an availability bias which can negatively influence future bets.

 

Financials  Gambling Superstition Explained financialsSuperstition in financials

Similarly to sports bettors, financial investors struggle with availability bias and are subject to ‘gut feelings’. These irrational impulses can cause them to lose sight of their sound judgement and abandon long-term strategy on a whim.

 

Poker  Gambling Superstition Explained pokerSuperstition in poker

While poker can become a positive expectation game with practice, many players succumb to the same heuristics that plague fixed-odds casino games, misunderstanding (or ignoring) poker mathematics and strategy.