Strange But True: How Physicists Win At Roulette

Brian Roberts
B. Roberts|08.10.16

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Dr. Richard Muller is a professor of physics at UC Berkeley. As you can imagine the professor and author of Now, The Physics of Time is surrounded by smart people all day. In a recent Quora post, he outlined the story of how one colleague and fellow physicist -then just a graduate student at the time- managed to create a device that beat the odds. You'll learn how in a second. But first, here's some background.

Roulette, like all casino games, is about odds. Most casinos allow people to bet after the wheel has spun and the ball is set in motion (although I imagine it's being phased out). This is where physicists and mathematicians cash in. If the wheel is tilted in anyway, it further increases the odds of a winning selection. In those brief seconds, using small computers, they're able to calculate enough information that can double their odds.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Muller's post on how his colleague's device worked:

He built a device with a switch for his toe in which he tapped each time the ball spun around; with a separate switch he tapped each time the wheel turned. This provided enough information for his small pocket computer to signal him back (with a tap to his leg) where he should place his bet. (He had to calibrate each wheel, but he did that by watching and testing before he started betting.)

But Dr. Muller's colleague wouldn't be the first intellect to perform such a feat. Albert Hibbs and Roy Walford, two Chicago University students, documented (and capitalized on) irregularities back as 1940's. Time Magazine documented the phenomenon in the 1950's. In 1969, Edward Thorp wrote about how to predict the outcome of roulette for Review of the International Statistical Institute.

Thorp determined that if a roulette wheel is tilted, which according to his findings one third of Las Vegas roulette wheels were, it would increase ones odds by 15%. With the aid of the small computer like the one Dr. Muller's colleague used, it would increase ones odds by an additional 44%. In the late 1970's, using Thorp's paper as a starting point, Doyne Farmer, Norman Packard and others capitalized too.

The most recent research was done in 2012 by researchers Michael Small from the University of Western Australia and Chi Kong Tse from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Two pair were able to calculate the rate of wheel spin before the ball began to bounce and, therefore, able to skew the odds in their favor.

As you can imagine, these calculations all require considerable knowledge and skill. These intellectual heavyweights surely posses the aptitude, but your average dice roller might not. A roulette strategy simulator may help, but results may vary. And if you do have the wits to outsmart the casino, it's not likely you'll last very long before being figured out.

As Dr. Muller recounts:

The casinos don't have the right to search you, so how can they guard against devices such as that? To do that, they have lobbied to make a law that they can exclude any person without cause. They choose to do that only when they see someone consistently beating the odds. They can't get their money back, but they can stop losing.

Indeed, my friend (who was then a gradate student at Berkeley) was put on the list. His name and photo were shared by all the casinos in Nevada (and maybe world-wide), and his gambling for profit career was at an end.

What's your experience been with Roulette? Have you used methods like this? Or do you do it for fun?

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