Increases your chances of winning, but you lose more when you do lose

The Martingale betting system increases your chances of winning in the short term.  It’s a fact.  How can we say this when the most respected gambling math authority on the planet, the Wizard of Odds, says that “all betting systems are worthless”?

Simple: The Wizard’s only criteria for the worth of a system is whether it beats the house edge in the long run.  But the point of a betting system isn’t to overcome the house edge in the long run, it’s to make you more likely to win in the short run.  Most of us play for a few hours while on vacation.  For short gaming periods like this, a betting system can make it more likely that you’ll finish your session a winner.  Even the Wizard wouldn’t dispute this.

Here’s how the Martingale can make you more likely to win in the short term:  You’ll win most of your sessions, but your wins will be small.  Then on the rarer times that you lose, your losses will be much greater.  Like most things in life, it’s a trade-off.

What is the Martingale?

The Martingale is one of the oldest betting systems around. Here’s how it works:  You make your standard bet, say $5, on an even-money bet, such as red in roulette or the Pass Line in craps.  Every time you win you make the same bet for the next hand.  But if you lose, you double your bet for the next hand.  When you eventually have a winning hand after a series of losing hands, your net win will be $5.  In fact, every time you win a bet, you’ll be up another $5, regardless of past losses.

Here’s an example:  You bet $5.  You win, so you bet $5 again. Then you lose, so you bet $10.  You lose again, so you bet $20.  You lose again, so you bet $40.  You lose again, so you bet $80.  Man, it’s not your night!  Then you win.  Your net win on that series was $5, and since you won $5 before your losing streak, now you’re ahead a total of $10.

If you could always double your bet when you lose you’d be poker online guaranteed to always come out ahead.  But in real life you can’t always double your bet.  First of all, you’ll run out of money at some point and be unable to double your bet. If you start with $5 and lose thirteen bets in a row (it happens), you’ll have to cough up $40,960 for your next bet.  Ouch.

Bet even if you had that much money, you couldn’t bet it anyway, since most casinos limit maximum bets to $500-1000 on a $5 table.  And usually, the higher the maximum on a table, the higher the minimum, too.

So that’s the risk of the Martingale: If you lose enough times in a row, you’ll go broke and not have enough money to make the next bet, or you’ll bump up against the table limit.  So while the Martingale can work in the short term, the longer you play, the more likely you are to have a long losing streak during which you couldn’t double your bets high enough.  How short is short enough?  Well, the shorter the better, but an hour is about right. You can certainly play for longer, but the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose.

An example: Increase your odds of winning from 46% to 82%

So now that we know how the system works, exactly how much does it increase our chances of winning? The answer depends on many factors: which game you play, the amount of your initial bet, and how much money you have to gamble (your “bankroll”).  Let’s take a game of roulette, where you bet $5 on red, you play for an hour (30 spins), and you have $1000 total to play with.  Betting $5 every time (no Martingale), you’ll win only about 46% of the time, with an average win of $16.  You’ll lose the other 54% of the time, with an average loss of $28.

Now let’s use the same setup except we’ll use the Martingale, and double our bet after every loss.  All of a sudden our chances of winning our one-hour session shoot up to 82%!  But when we win our average win is only $66, and when we lose our average loss is $462.  Bing!  There’s the tradeoff.

Remember that the Martingale works best in the short term. The longer you play, the more likely you are to lose, because the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose several bets in a row and then run out of money or run up against the table limit. In fact, if we use the example above with an eight-hour session, then our chances of winning with the Martingale are only 38%. (Our chances with flat-betting $5 every time are 22%.)

Another thing that decreases your chances of winning is having a smaller bankroll. You have to have enough money to double up your bets when you hit a long losing streak. In our one-hour example above, we had an 82% chance of winning if we brought $1000 to the table. But if we bring only $500 to the table, our chances drop to 72%.