Roulette was the first casino game I ever learned how to play. It’s also one of the most popular casino games in the world, especially in Europe, where the rules variations make it a mathematically gentler game than its American version. The purpose of this page is to explore the history of roulette, explain how to play, and provide some insight into which strategies for winning at roulette actually work, if any.
Roulette has a more colorful history than many other casino games. It originated in France, and in fact, the word “roulette” literally translates as “little wheel.” Blaise Pascal invented the first roulette wheel in the 1700s as he was trying to create a perpetual motion machine. The game spread quickly in the 1790s and later, but it really took off in the 19th century, especially in the United States and Europe.
Over time, two distinct forms of roulette became popular—American roulette and European roulette. The only difference between the two games is the number of zeros on the wheel. American roulette has a 0 and a 00, while European roulette only has a 0. This seemingly small difference makes a major difference in the mathematical advantage of the game. A single zero roulette game offers the house and edge of 2.7%, but a double zero roulette game offers the house an edge of 5.26%.
The house edge is the percentage of each bet that the casino expects to win based on the math of the game. If you’re betting $100 per spin, over the long run (which is thousands of spins), you’ll lose close to the house edge of $2.70 per bet on a European table, but you’ll lose $5.26 per bet on an American-style table. That’s almost twice as much for the same game.
One of the reasons for the perpetual popularity of roulette is the simplicity of the game. The wheel has a number of pockets in it—38 on an American wheel, and 37 on a European wheel. The 0s are green in color, while half of the other numbers are black and the other half red.
The player bets on where the ball lands. The most basic bet is on a single number—for example, if you bet that the ball will land in the pocket with the 38 in it, you’ll win if that’s where it lands, and you’ll lose if it doesn’t. You can also bet on whether or not the ball will land on a particular color, whether or not the ball will land on an even number, and so on.
The harder it is to win, the more the bet pays off. On a single number bet, you’ll win 35 units for every unit you bet if you hit, but the chances of winning are 37 to 1 against you (36 to 1 on a European wheel.) On a black or red bet, you win even money, but the odds are slightly against you because of the green zeros on the wheel.
Almost all casinos offer classes on how to play the various casino games, including roulette. These can be worth the time, but in the case of roulette, the game is so simple that anyone can catch on very quickly.
Roulette appeals to players who are looking for a slower-paced game where they can socialize with the other players at the table. The game moves slowly, but it’s still a lot of fun. People who want to make decisions that affect their chances of winning will find little appealing about roulette, as it’s a complete guessing game. No decision made by the player can make a difference in terms of the odds except for one—the decision about whether to play an American roulette game or a European roulette game.
In the movie Havana, the Robert Redford character helps Lena Olin at the roulette table—he moves her bet to one of the even money bets. She asks him if that will help her to win, and he explains, “No, you’ll still lose. You’ll just lose more slowly now.”
That scene sums up roulette pretty well.
Many people shill various “winning strategies” for roulette on the Internet. The math behind all of these winning strategies is bogus. The only winning strategy for roulette that actually works is crossing your fingers and hoping to get lucky.
The most popular of these flawed strategies is the Martingale System, which has a seemingly endless number of variations. The idea behind the Martingale is to always bet on an even money bet, and double your bet after each loss. When you eventually win, you’ll be ahead by one unit.
For example, suppose you’re playing roulette using the Martingale System, and you bet $5 on black. You lose, so on your next bet, you play $10. If you win, you’ve won back the $5 you lost on the previous bet, plus you’re ahead by $5.
Seems foolproof at first, doesn’t it?
The problem is that players underestimate a couple of things. They underestimate the dramatic effect on the size of their bets that doubling after each loss has. And they also underestimate the likelihood of a bad streak.
All casinos have a maximum betting limit. At that $5 roulette table we talked about earlier, the maximum bet is probably $500. How many times in a row would you have to lose before your next bet would be greater than the table limit? Let’s look:
The first bet is $5. The second bet is $10. The third bet is $20. The fourth bet is $40. The fifth bet is $80. The sixth bet is $160. The seventh bet is $320. The eighth bet is $640.
So if you lose seven times in a row, the system breaks, because you can’t place a bet large enough to recoup your losses.
Keep in mind, too, that the Martingale System forces you to risk large amounts of money to win an eventual payoff of only a single unit. If you win that seventh bet of $320, you’re only going to be up $5 for the whole session. Anyone who’s willing to bet $320 to net a win of $5 is delusional.
The probability of losing eight bets in a row is 1 in 207. So it’s possible that if you have a large enough bankroll, you could play the Martingale System for a long time without losing much money, but you won’t book much of a profit during your winning streak, either. And if you play any negative expectation game long enough, you’ll eventually lose your entire bankroll.
This isn’t to say you should avoid roulette. If you enjoy the game, by all means, play. I play roulette all the time, and I’m a bit of an expert on casino math. Just don’t think that some bogus betting scheme is going to tilt the odds in your favor, because that won’t ever happen. Enjoy it when you get lucky, and accept that the losses are just part of the game when you lose—that’s a way to guarantee that you’re winning even when you’re losing.