When I was 25 years old I made a living playing poker. It was a much easier game back then, a few years before it went mainstream and people actually knew how to play before walking into a casino. Anyone with self-restraint and a quick mind for math could have made a decent living playing poker in those days. I put in a 40-hour work week and was very strict about keeping a log that included my playing time, as well as every other statistic imaginable.
I quickly learned that playing poker in Las Vegas was far more profitable than floating back and forth between the few Ontario casinos that offered the game, so I spent most of my time down there fleecing wealthy tourists and conventioneers. I generally played for about seven or eight hours a day, and I always made sure to get at least nine hours of sleep a night, but that still left me with a lot of time on my hands. I didn't drink, I only danced at gunpoint, and I wasn't going to spend any of my hard-earned money shopping at marked-up boutiques, so I spent most of that time wandering through casinos. While milling about one day in the MGM Grand, I decided to check out the action at a very busy roulette table. That's where I met Harry, the world's only professional roulette player.
You see, you can't be a professional roulette player – welll not for long, anyway. There isn't a casino game with worse odds than the North American roulette wheel (except for Caribbean Stud when the jackpot is under $90,000). Paying out at 35 to 1 with 38 numbers on the table, the casino holds a 5.26% advantage over the player on every single spin. Unlike blackjack and other card games, there is no method or skill involved to reduce those odds let alone turn them in the player's favour. I stood there watching Harry for hours. Most of the time he didn't put his chips in play, he just kept them there in front of him, but when he did play, he generally won. I just figured he was lucky, but I thought I'd ask anyway.
"What's your secret?"
He smiled with the corners of his mouth and responded, "I'm not playing the wheel. I'm playing the dealer, and the dealer is psychic." Then he winked.
This didn't make much sense to me. As far as I was aware, a roulette dealer had zero impact on the results of each spin. Sure he fired the ball around the wheel, but there were so many thousands of variables in play, even the dealer himself couldn't possibly know where the ball would end up. Even if he did, he certainly wouldn't announce it to the table. I wouldn't have though much more of it if it were not for the fact that the next day, while strolling through The Flamingo, I spotted Harry at the roulette table raking in the chips once again. He decided to take a break for a while so we headed over to the noodle bar to have a late lunch together.
I looked him up on my next trip to Sin City, and over a steak dinner at Binions, he explained his secret to me. He would wait at the table until three consecutive spins missed all of the following numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21, 25, 26, 28, 29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36. Sometimes it was quite a wait. As soon as this happened, though, his system was on. What he now had to do was wait until one of the above-mentioned number came up. If a 1-6 or a 31-36 come up, he would play all 12 of those numbers on the next spin. If a 10, 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, 21, 25, 26, 28, 29 came up, he would play each of those 12 numbers on the next spin. He maintained that his winning percentage with this method had him at a 4% advantage. I tried to explain to him that his math made no sense, and that since a wheel has no memory, playing those combinations still has him at a mathematical 5.26% disadvantage.
"You're right", he said, "the wheel doesn't have a memory, but the dealer does".
He then went on to explain his belief that the dealer, in his subconscious mind, knows exactly where the ball is going to land on every spin. Further still, under certain circumstances, he subconsciously influences where the ball is going to land based on his expectation of probability or regression to the mean. In other words, when the above-mentioned numbers do not come up for a period of three spins, the dealer expects for this to be made up, and thus influences the wheel on consecutive spins. He added to this that his system didn't work on computer-based roulette programs, that there had to be a live dealer. He also said that his system worked better when the dealer was unaware of the success he was having. It is for this reason that he always moved from casino to casino and only played at crowded tables. I thought this was a cute theory, but at the end of the day I couldn't accept the math. As far as I was concerned, it had to be luck.
But what if it wasn't luck? Could a roulette dealer really influence the ball with that degree of accuracy and not even be aware of it? Is one's subconscious capable of breaking down that many variables? The dealer still needs to go through the physical act of spinning the wheel in one direction and launching the ball in the other, with the precise amount of force and timing to achieve the desired result. Harry had attributed his success to the dealer's expectations, but what if it was he himself who was unknowingly influencing the ball? Could it be that the faith he had in his method was so strong that he was willing the ball into the correct slot? If so, did Harry have a special gift, or could anyone with that much conviction manipulate the ball with that much success? There is also the possibility that Harry wasn't controlling the ball at all, but rather the dealer. It had to be luck though, didn't it?
I stopped playing poker for a living at the end of that year. My wife liked the tax-free money I was making, but that kind of lifestyle as well as the travel back and forth wasn't exactly conducive to family life, so she convinced me to seek more stable employment. I said goodbye to Las Vegas and wished my friend Harry the best of luck, believing that the math would eventually catch up to him.
Last year, my wife and I decided to meet up with some American friends of ours at the Grand Canyon. My wife had never been to Vegas, and it had been about eight years for me, so I insisted on staying there for a few days after our Canyon adventure to show her around my old stomping grounds. In the last few hours of our vacation, as we wheeled our suitcases through the maze of the Caesars Palace casino, I spotted a familiar face at the roulette table. There was Harry, perched behind a stack of purple chips, the world's only professional roulette player, getting rich betting on the dealer's subconscious tendencies and defying math with every spin of the wheel.