The Martingale System is arguably the most famous betting system in history. It’s an example of a “progressive betting system”. In this case, progressive means that bets get progressively larger until the player has a win—you shouldn’t confused the word’s use with its use when discussing slot machine jackpots, for example.
The Martingale System is easy enough to learn to use. Find a gambling game which offers an even money bet. The pass line bet in craps would be one example, as would betting on black or red in roulette. (This system is especially popular with roulette players.)
Then place a one unit bet. If you win, pocket your winnings. If you lose, double the size of your next bet; i.e., bet two units. If you win this time, you’ve won back the bet you lost on your first bet plus one unit. If you lose, you double up again on your next bet, this time wagering four units.
The system is designed to result in a profit of one unit after each inevitable win.
Here’s a fictional example. You bet $10 on the pass line at the craps table and lose. On your next bet, you bet $20, and you lose again. On your third bet, you bet $40, and you win.
You lose $10 on the first bet and $20 on the second bet, for a total loss of $30. When you win on the third bet, you’re up $10.
At first glance, this seems like an unbeatable betting system, and it actually would be unbeatable if it weren’t for two things:
It might seem unlikely that your next bet would be so high that your bankroll couldn’t cover it, but let’s look at the actual numbers. Assume you have a gambling bankroll of $5000. How many times in a row would you have to lose before you ran out of money?
The progression looks like this: $10, $20, $40, $80, $160, $320, $640, $1280, $2560, $5120…
So you only have to lose ten times in a row in order to need to bet more than your entire bankroll in order to continue using your system. But what’s worse is that all those bets were eating into your bankroll before that point, so you’re actually out of money after nine bets, not ten.
Some might think that with even money bets it’s extremely unlikely that you’d ever lose nine times in a row on an even money bet, but it happens more often than you think. And when it does happen, it’s a devastating loss.
But that’s not the only problem with this system. The other problem is betting limits. Casinos don’t let you wager any amount you want to. They have a maximum bet (and a minimum bet) at any table.
It’s not unusual to find a table where you have a minimum $10 bet and a maximum $500 bet. You only have to lose six times in a row in order to be unable to continue your progression.
So on a practical level, the Martingale doesn’t work. You’ll never have an unlimited bankroll, even if you find a casino with extremely high betting limits.
The other problem is that eventually you’ll have to place such a large wager that you’re putting a tremendous amount of money into action of a tiny net win. Do you really want to place a wager for $320 in order to see a net win of just $10? Common sense would tell you that’s a bad deal.
A related betting system is the “Reverse Martingale”, which is also sometimes called the “Anti-Martingale”. In this variation of the system, you increase your bets when you’re winning, and you reduce your bets when you’re losing. The theory is that you’ll benefit from your hot streaks while minimizing the damage from your inevitable losing streaks.
The Reverse Martingale proceeds from a mistake in logic called the gambler’s fallacy. This is the belief that if something has happened several times in a row, it becomes less likely to happen again, and vice versa. The reality in almost all gambling games is that each bet is an independent event, and the odds don’t change.
In other words, if you spin a roulette wheel five times in a row, and it lands on red each times, the odds of the ball landing on black the sixth time are still the same. They don’t increase or decrease based on the previous events.
All casino games have a mathematical edge over the player. No betting strategy changes that mathematical fact. Betting systems like the Martingale can be fun in the short run, and they might even occasionally show a small profit. But if you play a negative expectation game long enough, you’ll eventually see a net loss. That’s how casino gambling works.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You just need to understand it so that you can have the right attitude about gambling. It’s entertainment, and you should treat it as such. Don’t pin your ability to make a living or pay your bills on the false hopes offered by progressive betting systems.
On the other hand, if playing using a progressive betting system makes the game more fun for you, then by all means indulge yourself. Gambling is supposed to be fun.