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Hibbs and Walford, roulette and science and the chances of a repeat in 2017


11 Aug 2017

“No one can possibly win at roulette unless he steals money from the table when the croupier isn’t looking.”

This is a quote that has been attributed to Albert Einstein and the house edge of 5.26% existent on American wheels, containing both a 0 and 00, helps the theory that in the long run, the casino will always win.

When it came to science, and in particular quantum physics, on a simple level Einstein held the belief that if a person is able to understand everything as it starts and as it changes, the outcome can be predicted.

Despite Einstein’s assertion, in theory, roulette has the capacity to be a predictable game.

If the wheel always spins in one direction at the same speed, if the casino croupier always releases the ball with the same velocity in the other direction and all elements of the build of the wheel avoid wear and tear over time, roughly identifying the number in which the ball lands should be possible.

However, whereas slot machines are run by computers and blackjack at its heart revolves around mathematical probability, roulette can’t be so predictable.

From time to time the wheel will not be impeccably balanced, the croupier will not be robotic with their ball-spinning motion and areas of the wheel, such as the pockets that the ball eventually falls into and the frets which separate the pockets, will deteriorate with time and use.

Hibbs and Walford take advantage

Rewind 70 years and although roulette wheels may still have been made of metal and wood, casinos were not so hot on their maintenance. This allowed for biases to develop.

Among the first to really take advantage of these biases were the pairing of Albert Hibbs and Roy Walford.

The duo were friends at the University of Chicago, with Hibbs a maths graduate and Walford a medical student. They decided to take a break from their studies to head to Nevada in the hope of beating the casinos.

Hibbs later revealed on an episode of the TV show You Bet Your Life that he made about $12,000 from his days playing roulette.

The ‘system’ that Hibbs and Walford used was broadly similar to what many will now know as ‘clocking’.

This is simply the method of making a note of every winning number on a roulette wheel in the hope of spotting some sort of trend or pattern among the results.

When watching wheels in the city of Reno in Nevada, the pair deduced that one in every four was running with a bias of some kind.

One such example of their success came when analysing their results identified a bias towards the number nine. Within 40 hours, they had turned $100 into $5,000.

Overall, they made enough from playing roulette to buy a yacht and sail it around the Caribbean for a year.

Stopping the smart players

Even in the era of Hibbs and Walford when roulette wheels were poorly maintained, casinos still had a few ways to foil winning systems.

Establishments would swap around the locations of tables, meaning that although a favoured roulette table would still have a bias, it wouldn’t be in its expected position within the casino.

Of course, a person’s task of finding the new home of their favoured wheel would be much easier if it held any individualistic features. These may include scratches in the external finish or discolourations in any wood.

In reality, players nowadays would have to monitor and record wheel results for thousands of spins before any data could be considered a reliable sample and with casinos taking biases more seriously, the chances of emulating Hibbs and Walford are slim.

The casinos would arguably pick up on any bias before a player could use it to their advantage.

Low-profile wheels are now more popular, with research indicating the shape of the ball pockets as being the most influential in determining where a moving ball eventually comes to rest.

Pockets were previously deeper with steep frets, which were prone to erosion and as a result, bias. They are now shallower and feature fewer obstacles liable to trap a ball, which ultimately improves roulette wheel performance.

Remember, on a fair American roulette wheel, a player can expect to land on any of the individual numbers 2.63% of the time.

Should a slight wheel bias rule out a ball effectively never landing on half of the numbers, this percentage would increase to 5.26%.

Such an edge would mean sharp players would still get paid at 36/1 for an outcome that is effectively 19/1. This could lead to substantial profits, even beyond those achieved by Hibbs and Walford.