The Gambler’s Toolbox: Beware the System

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I have a fascination with sports betting systems, but for all kinds of different reasons. One exercise I like doing with my Twitter followers is proposing a hypothesis, like “NHL playoff games are typically closer than they are in the regular season, and the margins between teams are small in general,” then testing it with something like “if you bet every +1.5 (underdog puck-line) for the NHL playoffs, what would happen?“

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Those who have followed me down that path are down quite a bit this year (a little over 10 units at last check), after winning much more last year, but that isn’t really the point, because the whole purpose of an exercise like this is to conduct an experiment, not to make millions of dollars as quickly as possible. I view these things as experiments, and while I hope they are profitable, I am totally cognizant of the fact they may not be, ever.

In your life as a gambler, you will encounter many who take a different approach to betting systems, who try to tell you that you can’t lose, and you should be wary of all the things they may try to sell you.

For example, the Martingale. You may have never heard that word before, but I guarantee you’ve tried something like this. It’s basically a system of increasing your bets off of a loss on any 50/50 proposition, usually doubling your bet, with the idea that at SOME point, the coin has to land heads, or the roulette ball has to land on black, or whatever. So if you keep losing, you double your bet, and double your bet, trying to get your original bet back along with a tiny profit.

This may seem like a great idea, because of COURSE it will come up heads at some point. But in reality, you have no idea how long that will take, and you risk a losing streak that will absolutely cripple you. The real problem is that you are basically tempting fate every single time you undertake an action like this. In a casino game, you are actually doing much worse than tempting fate, because the bets aren’t even 50/50. The house edge means the longer you play, the more you’ll lose, and you’re getting the worst of it on EVERY single spin. This is a type of bet you should actually avoid at all times, but people play table games because they’re fun, and if it’s fun for you, great. But don’t ever dare assume you are getting the best of it because of a system. It’s negative expected value every time the wheel spins, no matter how much money is out there, or how many times you’ve doubled. The amount you bet can’t create expected value magically.

In sports, you’ll see people try the Martingale in different forms. “I’m going to bet on the Yankees every day, and keep doubling, because at some point, they will win. I mean…they’re the Yankees, right?” The thing about this strategy, what makes it so alluring, is that a lot of the time, you will get your small profit, and you’ll think you’ve stumbled onto the holy grail. A friend of mine did this with the Cubs last year. I mean they’re the Cubs, they’re going to win like 100 games, right? They lost 6 in a row, and by the 7th game he was risking over 5-thousand dollars to get his initial 100 dollars back. Do you have any idea what a terrible proposition that is? Also, at some point you’re going to run into a losing streak that causes you to make a bet too big for any sportsbook to take. Remember, the streak that bankrupts you is lurking constantly when you choose to play blindly this way.

You’ll also see, more subtly, a form of the Martingale take place with losing touts all the time. How many times has a tout you’ve followed had a bad month, and then, surprisingly, here’s their 10-star max bomb the next weekend? What interesting timing. It’s almost like they’re trying to double their bet to get out of the losing streak they’re in. These things are all called something different on the surface, but those titles are masks, and they are easy to spot when you know what you’re looking for.

Other systems aren’t based around doubling, but their difficulty lies in how rigorous they are to follow. Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say they bet a game because of a reverse line move (where tickets are coming in heavily on one side and yet the line moves towards the other team). Sites like DonBest and BetLabs allow you to monitor such activity, and I think the term “reverse line move” or “RLM” has actually become more a part of the vernacular of folks who even bet casually. The problem is, those “systems” involving playing every reverse line move require you to essentially be at your computer 24/7/365 in case one happens, and most of them are NOT long-term profitable anyway, even if it seems like they should be. If anything has been proven by the emergence of BetLabs, it’s actually that most “indicators” are nothing but noise, and absolutely not information you should act on exclusively. Systems involving public action, bet %, # of steam moves, etc. all require you to basically give up all of your interests outside of staring at an odds screen, because they may happen at any time, and again, most of them don’t produce any tangible value. Some of the bets may be +EV, but how would you even know? You’re not the one doing the work. Again, you’re flying blind.

The most important thing to remember about all those systems, is actually not that they are faulty, or they don’t guarantee success, or even that they have nothing to offer (some actually indicate very valuable theories about how people bet and how line value is created. The important thing to remember is that if you want to be good at this, spending ALL of your time robotically following what others are doing, or what a system tells you to do, does exactly ZERO to make you smarter or make you better. For those of us who are intellectually curious, this is the most mundane and least desirable part about anything like that. Are you getting better at handicapping by waiting for reverse line moves all day? Are you improving your ability to power rate teams when you double your bet on every Cubs loss? If your goal is to get better, your time is so valuable, and betting systems sap you of the thing you should value most.