Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Gamblers Dilemma

When I speak of gamblers I am not talking about a bet on your favorite football pool at the office or a game of cards with friends on Saturday night; that you can call entertainment and fun. What I am talking about is repeated bets in commercial casinos or state lotteries. Gamblers who gamble day after day or month after month will earn nothing at best.

Suppose you bet a dollar on the flip of a coin. For a head you win a dollar, for a tail you lose your dollar. Probably you recognize that bet as a fair bet; your chance of winning a dollar just equals your chance of losing a dollar. But suppose you play the game day after day after day. Each day your chance is the same, but after 100 days you might win 56 out of a 100 to be $6.00’s up. After another 100 days you might win 47 and be up only $3.00.

Keep playing and the laws of large numbers take over. Play the game 10 thousand times and you can only expect to win $5,000 and lose $5,000. Play the game long enough and in the parlance of chance, your expected return will be zero: nothing. Most investors will not be happy earning nothing.

What is true for a private game of coin flipping is also true for all fair bets. Parties to a fair bet will earn nothing unless one of them stops soon after they have a stretch of good luck. Now we all know the state lotteries and commercial gambling casinos are earning money. State lotteries and casinos earn money because they are allowed to tilt the odds in their favor and the laws of large numbers take over to earn them a return.

For decades gambling was discouraged or illegal and even by the late 1980’s gambling was limited to two travel locations where table gambling prevailed as the dominate wager. After twenty-five years of expansion gambling may already be available at a shopping mall near you, and it will likely be at slot machines.

A modern slot machine is a computer programmed to lure players into repeated betting, but it is not a fair bet. State gambling commissions allow them tilt the odds in favor of the house. Keep gambling and no matter how many jackpots you win and you will end with nothing.

“Real investors do not play at casinos.”

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