Issue 100
August 5-11, 2002
Volume 3
page 3

You Can't Win at Gambling Just by Quitting When You're Ahead
By Fred Renzey

Between live poker and blackjack, I spend about 1000 hours per year at the gambling tables. No matter which game, I constantly see players trying to beat that game by merely quitting when they're ahead -- as if it could actually do something. It can't!

I know, it seems to make sense that if you leave the casino with some winnings in your pocket, then you have in fact won. But that's only part of the picture, and it takes the whole picture to make you an honest to goodness winner. Let me try to prove my point by asking you this question:

What do you suppose your chances are of beating an honest coin flip game? I mean, it's a balanced coin and you're getting even money on every bet. The answer is: you're a 50-50 shot, of course. But did you know there's a way to book a winner on roughly 80% of your playing sessions in this game if you manage your money right? How? Simply by quitting every time you get one flip ahead! The only losers you'll book are when you lose your first flip and never get ahead -- even for a moment.

Sound like a winning strategy? It's not! There's still one problem you can't get away from. No matter what, you're going to end up winning 50% of all your flips. And at even money per flip, where does that put you? Dead even, doesn't it? "Well, how can this be if I win most of my sessions?" you ask. Let me show you with a similar poker illustration.

Suppose you've been a dead break even poker player over the last five years. So to gain a little extra edge you decide you're going to quit every time you get ahead, even if it's after the very first hand. Now let's say that on two separate days you won the first hand you were dealt and were up $300 each time. True to your game plan, you locked up the $300 both times and high-tailed it home. For those two sessions, your poker log would look like this:

Win +$300
Win +$300

Total +$600

That's two neat little wins, no losses and a $600 gain. By quitting winners you've averted the possibility of a loss and can start out fresh next time -- with another 50-50 shot. The only problem is, you've also averted the equal possibility of a larger win. You see, as a break even player you'd have been as likely to win a few more dollars as lose back that same amount had you kept on playing. In fact, if you played onward both times, winning an extra $500 once and losing back $500 the other time would be perfectly normal and average for you. Then your poker log would look like this:

Win +$800
Lose -$200

Total +$600

Now you'd have one win and one loss, but the same $600 net gain. Stop right here and think hard about that. The only thing quitting winners accomplished was averting further swings in both directions. So it improved your win/loss record, but not your bottom line. That's because you can't improve your chances of winning overall just by stopping and starting at selective points.

When you come back to play next time, there'll be no difference between that last hand you didn't take because you quit and the first hand of your next playing session. To the cards and the chips, they're both just the next hand. The only place there was any effective break was in your mind. But actually, gambling is all one long game even if we don't think of it that way. You see, you're eventually going to end up right where your own personal gambling compass is pointed, whether you take one long trip or many short ones.

In our minds, we tend to measure our progress by the day. But our pocketbooks can't feel where one day ended and the next began. When you quit just to lock up a guaranteed winner, you're merely stopping to admire your progress at a favorable interval, but you're not altering that progress. You might as well sit at the table and say to yourself, "Okay, I'm $300 ahead, I quit." Then get out a notebook, log down your $300 winner and make your next bet. It's the same as leaving and coming back tomorrow!

Perennial losers do it all the time. If they slip to just a few dollars ahead, they quit to preserve the winner because winners don't come that easily. If they're losing, they keep pressing and pressing until they either climb a little in front, or get hopelessly stuck and finally give up. All they've done is trade an equal number of similar-sized wins and losses for lots of small winners and a few ugly beatings.

Remember this: when we gamble, we're on one continuous journey landscaped with endless hills and valleys. Each of us is headed towards our own individual destination determined only by the quality of our play. We can almost always park on a hill rather than in a valley, but we're still following that same road.

If you're a losing player, you're more likely to lose than win whether it's right now or tomorrow. There's simply no day on the calendar where you can hide from that. I'm sorry, but trying to time your luck just won't work. And the more you focus on irrelevant game tactics such as these, the less attention you'll devote toward figuring out how to play an honest to goodness winning game. Then you'll be just another frustrated loser, and won't even understand why.

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