Betting Systems

Downward Red Arrow on GraphWhether you like to bet on football or golf, roulette or blackjack or indeed anything else, the idea of a betting “system” has probably crossed your mind or your path at some stage. A betting system is essentially an attempt to improve your returns by altering how you bet and how much you bet, whilst WHAT you actually wager on is only a secondary concern.

Here we take a closer look at betting systems in general and gives details of how they (purport to) work. We will explain what they are and look at the two basic types of system. We will also draw your attention to some of the most well-known systems and also consider the gambler’s fallacy that underpins the thinking behind many of them.

What is a Betting System?

In this article we will use the terms betting system and staking plan interchangeably as essentially they are the same things. Certainly the betting systems that we will consider are perhaps more technically to be thought of as staking plans.

A staking plan is a means of determining how much you will wager on a given bet. Perhaps it is fair to differentiate such a plan and a betting system by arguing that a betting system usually relates to a sequence of bets as opposed to just a single bet in isolation. Also, it can be argued that a staking plan is a simpler tool that theoretically has a mathematical grounding, whilst a betting system seeks to take that theory and use it to achieve a bigger goal.

That goal is almost always, naturally enough, to profit. Moreover, many betting systems have at their core the belief that they can deliver a guaranteed, or virtually guaranteed, profit. That casinos and bookmakers still exist and make handsome profits should tell you something about the success, or otherwise, of these systems!

Betting Without a System

Crossroads SignpostIn some ways it may be easier to consider what a staking plan or betting system is by considering how stakes are decided without one. Many punters, be they betting on sports online, playing in an online casino or enjoying the tables of Vegas or Monte Carlo, will place their bets, for want of a better phrase, willy-nilly.

Stakes may be raised up or down according to how lucky or confident the bettor is feeling, the type of bet they are placing and odds at which they are placing it, or even just entirely, as far as is possible, at random.

In many ways this is fine, especially if you are viewing betting as a fun, recreational activity. Most people fall into that category given that being a professional gambler is exceptionally difficult and requires intense dedication, commitment and intelligence.

In other words, it is beyond the scope of most people and as such we would argue that gambling for fun, as a hobby and/or to add a little extra spice to an event is definitely the best way to proceed.

However, as with many things in life, winnings is closely connected to how much fun gambling brings and so even for the recreational gambler, utilising a system or plan of some sort is never a bad idea.

When one uses a betting system their stakes are determined not by whim and fancy but by some pre-decided method. That method may draw upon a wide range of factors, some of which may be considered, either subconsciously or less rigorously, by the bettor without a system.

By considering factors such as one’s overall bank, the confidence one has in the bet, the odds and probability of success, their aims and other issues, the gambler can seek to have more control over their outcomes.

Negative Progression, Positive Progression or Level Stakes?

Betting systems can broadly be grouped into one of three categories. These are: negative progression, positive progression or level stakes. There are many variations on these but most staking plans tend to fall into one of these three categories.

Negative Progression

A negative progression is a staking plan whereby you increase your stake after a losing bet. This can be applied to betting on match results or overs and unders in football, any roulette bet, blackjack – anything in fact.

The negative refers to the fact that your previous bet lost, whilst the progression refers to the increasing stake size. The underlying theory here is that as you are further away from your goal (of profit, be that a particular return or just in general terms) you need to bet bigger in order to get there.

There is, however, also an element of gambler’s fallacy attached to negative progression systems. We shall look at the gambler’s fallacy in more detail below.

Whilst a negative progression staking plan can be useful in recovering losses, the danger is that it requires you to stake larger amounts when you can least afford it. Equally, you are also betting more when your confidence is lower and whilst confidence isn’t a factor in games such as roulette, it can certainly impact your success with sports betting.

Negative progression systems are tantamount to chasing your losses and that is why we would almost always advise against them. Chasing your losses, that is to say betting more and more to try and recoup money already lost, is the worst way to bet. As such, negative progression systems get the thumbs down from us!

Positive Progression

Positive progression, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear, is the opposite of the above in that you raise your stake following a winning bet. Of the two systems we would always favour these types of plans.

You are increasing your stake in line, to some degree at least, with your balance. You are betting more when confidence and “form” are in your favour too and overall both of these factors make positive progression plans significantly better in our eyes.

The only real downside to such a staking methodology is that you run the risk of losing any gains made at a faster rate. Obviously if you enjoy a good run of wins you will increase your bank rapidly but, equally, any wins can be quickly wiped out by bigger losses.

Level Stakes

A level stakes betting system keeps your bets at the same flat level regardless of your wins or losses. This is also a good option, or at least better than a negative progression system, because your stakes are maintained at a level you have decided is suitable considering your balance and your aims.

Perhaps the biggest issue with such a plan is that it doesn’t take into consideration your balance at the time of each bet. A bet of £10 per hand of blackjack, for example, may be appropriate at the outset but a long run of losses or wins may alter that.

For example, if you lose your first 20 hands (unlikely but possible) and are down to just £100, continuing with your £10 bet may not be wise if your aim is to play for a set period of a couple of hours.

On the other hand, should you find yourself well up you may feel happy to risk more than £10 per bet, safe in the knowledge that your balance can afford a few losses, even at higher stakes.

Famous Systems

Betting has been around hundreds or even thousands of years and even casino games such as roulette date back as far as the 18th century, if not further. In that time man, in all his ingenuity and wisdom, has often sort a way to “beat the system” and to guarantee a profit.

A fool proof betting system is the holy grail of gambling, whether you are betting on horses or dogs, golf or tennis, football or rugby, darts or dominoes… you get the picture! As such, it is easy to understand why there are a huge number of different betting systems out there.

As said, many of these are variations on one or other of the system types listed above but with a tweak here or there. That said, of the hundreds of different plans conceived by gamblers looking for their own edge, some, for reasons not often logical, have stood the test of time better than others.

Martingale

Martingale is the most famous betting system of them all. You can read an in depth analysis of the Martingale system in our dedicated article on this site, but basically it requires a player to double their stake after a loss and revert to the base unit after a win. It is best applied to wagers at odds of evens with around a 50% chance of success. It claims, erroneously, to guarantee a profit but is a system we strongly advise you to disregard.

D'Alembert

Like Martingale, D'Alembert is a negative progression system with serious flaws. Again, it is not a staking plan we would advocate using and whilst the progressions in stake are more gradual than Martingale it remains a very good way to lose a lot of money very quickly!

Labouchere

Labouchere is sometimes called the split Martingale or the cancellation system and, yet again, it is not a plan we would recommend. It is basically a very complex way to achieve very little. As with the other systems, at first glance it appears to contain a simple logic that delivers great odds of success. Closer inspection reveals this simple logic to be flawed though. Back to the drawing board we’re afraid!

Do Betting Systems Work?

Crazy Scientist Failed ExperimentWe have largely taken a negative view of betting systems in this feature thus far and so it shouldn’t come as a real surprise that our very short answer to this question is “no”. As we alluded to at the start of this piece, bookmakers and casinos are rich, whilst most punters lose. That in itself should answer your question.

The quest for the Holy Grail goes on but even Sean Connery and Harrison Ford would struggle to beat the casino. There is a truism regarding staking plans that they cannot turn a bad bet into a good bet and ultimately that is why betting systems, in the sense of staking plans, fail.

Casinos

Every game in the casino is designed such that the casino itself has an advantage. The house edge, as it is known, is effectively the casino’s profit margin and this exists on every game they offer.

In simple terms it is easiest to understand this in relation to roulette. There are 36 numbers plus the zero for a total of 37 possible outcomes on every spin. When you opt to back a colour, be that red or black, you “get” 18 of those numbers. As such your chance of success is 18/37, or just under 49%.

If roulette was “fair” with no house edge, your payout would reflect this and you would get odds of just over evens for betting on a colour. However, as you only get paid at even money the house has its edge, in this case 2.7%. That means that for every £100 you stake you will lose, on average, £2.70.

That house edge is the same on every single bet in roulette. If you put £10 on every single number, £500 on black, £1,000 on zero or indeed any combination of bets, the house edge will always be 2.7% and the casino will always win, in the long term.

No betting system or staking plan can alter this fact and whether you double after a loss, treble after a win, stroke a black cat and halve your stake if you see a magpie or any other combination of weird and wonderful, the result will remain the same (as ever, with the caveat, on average/in the long term).

Sports

The picture is, paradoxically, the same yet different when it comes to betting on sports. Bookmakers have their profit margin too and on some bets, for example the coin toss in cricket, it is easy to understand and actually doesn’t differ at all from a casino wager.

If you decide – for some reason that you’ll have to explain very well – to bet on the toss of the coin before a game of cricket, you’ll find the odds for both heads and tails are around 10/11, or maybe even as low as 5/6.

The probability of either heads coming up or tails coming up is 50% but you are being paid at odds of, for example, 10/11. This is less than the evens required to make the bet “fair” and as such the bookie has their margin, often called the overround.

As with a casino bet, no matter how you vary your stakes and whether you wait for 10 tails in a row before calling heads, you cannot overcome this fact. The bookie has an advantage that a betting system cannot alter.

Where things differ somewhat with sports betting is that in most wagers the exact probability of a given outcome cannot be known in advance. For example, on a football match where the bookmaker assesses the probability of each outcome to be equal, the home win, draw and away win would all be priced at 2/1 if there was no profit margin.

Now, irrespective of the true probabilities, the bookmaker may price each match odds option at 19/10 instead, thus creating their overround. However, because the true probability of each outcome can never actually be known, the waters are far more muddied.

In reality the true probability of each match result may be more like 40% for the home team winning, 30% for the draw and 30% for the away win. In this instance the home win represents a value bet and is a “good” wager.

In our discussion so far this is the first value bet we have considered and so just as a staking plan cannot make a bad bet a good one, so too is it unable to make a good bet bad. As such it is fair to say that for the skilled punter who can regularly uncover bets at odds higher than they “should” be, a staking plan can be used positively.

The Gambler’s Fallacy

We have previously said that the gambler’s fallacy underpins many betting systems but what exactly is it? Well, this theory, also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy, is the incorrect notion that if something happens more frequently in a period, it will happen less often following that. On the other hand, if something happens less often to begin with, the gambler’s fallacy is that it will then subsequently occur with greater frequency.

The gambler’s fallacy applies to events that are genuinely random and whilst it is most often associated with gambling, and in particular roulette, it arises in a wide variety of situations.

There is, for an example, an element of the gambler’s fallacy in the belief that if it rains for several days in a row we are somehow “due” some sunshine. Equally, though not a perfect example, a golfer who makes several birdies in a row is inclined to believe that his run of “luck” must end.

Perhaps the best example of the gambler’s fallacy, which also happens to nicely span the worlds of everyday life and the gambler’s realm, is that of a coin toss. A fair coin toss is genuinely random, with the outcomes of different tosses being entirely, statistically independent of one another. Every time the coin is tossed, it has an equal chance of landing on heads and an equal chance of landing on tails.

So, if the coin has been tossed nine times and has delivered nine consecutive heads, the probability of each of the two outcomes on the 10th toss remains 1 in 2, or 50%. The gambler’s fallacy would have a less enlightened individual feel, argue and propose that a tails is more likely, or even that a tails “must” come up soon.

In many ways it is easy to see why people can fall into this trap. The odds on one head are 1 in 2, whilst two heads in a row is 1 in 4 and three is 1 in 8. Take that all the way up to the 10th toss and the odds of 10 heads in a row are a mammoth 1 in 1024. For the coin tosser who is unfamiliar with probability, that seems just too unlikely and so they conclude that a tails is more likely.

However, this ignores the fact that each coin toss is independent of the last, or to put it another way, the coin has no memory. Equally, whilst 10 heads in a row is hugely unlikely, it is only as unlikely as nine heads followed by a tails but as we already have nine heads “in the bank”, either outcome now becomes very likely.

Starting out from zero tosses of the coin, 10 heads in a row is just as likely as 10 tails or any other combination of outcomes. Heads and tails both have an equal chance of happening, so we would, in a sense, expect heads and tails to alternate and for us to see five of each after the 10th toss. However, a pattern of heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails, heads, tails is… you (hopefully) guessed it, just as unlikely as 10 heads in a row.

This leads us to another everyday gambling fallacy and this is the mistaken belief that the numbers 1-6 will never come out on the National Lottery. The lottery machine and balls do not see 1-6 as a special sequence, it is simply a human construct because they are consecutive numbers. The numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are as likely to come out as ANY other six numbers. That is to say, they are highly unlikely.

Gambler’s Fallacy in the Casino

Taking this into the casino, we can see the gambler’s fallacy in almost every game but certainly roulette is where it is most prevalent. For example, a player may see that a given number has come up twice in a row and believe that it can’t possible come up again. The odds of the same number three times in a row are huge, so his logic goes, ignoring the fact that it has already come up twice in a row. A run of 7, 7, 7 is as likely or unlikely as 7, 7, 1, or indeed two 7s followed by any other third number.

A player who bets on the colours may feel that if three reds in a row have come up, now could be a good time to bet big on black because a black is due. Again, this is the gambler’s fallacy. The roulette wheel, like the coin, has no memory, each spin is independent and the odds on black will always be 18/37.

The gambler’s fallacy is most closely linked to the D’Alembert, as you can see in our feature on that betting system. Indeed, D’Alembert more or less directly argued that each red (for example) effectively brought you closer to the next black as the overall distribution in the long term was equal.

That a hugely intelligent man such as Jean le Rond d'Alembert, a French polymath, could fall for such a fallacy, shows just how convincing the logic behind betting systems can sometimes seem. However, we must remember an old adage. No matter how compelling an argument may appear, when it comes to gambling, more often than not, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.