On beating roulette: part 3
To my mind, the most mathematically interesting thing about roulette is the betting system you should use to maximize your wins. Bet sizing systems are important in all probabilistic games, and the types of lessons learned from a winning game of roulette are the same types of lessons you need to learn in betting on other things, like success in trading, or having an edge on the wiener dog races. The nice thing about a game of roulette is it is relatively easy to characterize your edge. Most people’s edge over the roulette wheel is negative, so you should not bet. If you built one of the computer gizmos I went over in part 2, you have a positive edge over the roulette wheel.
We know from results in information theory, that sequential bets in the presence of an edge should be sized according to the Kelly Criterion to maximize bankroll growth rate.
or, in more probabilistic terms;
where is probability of success.
It’s probably not immediately obvious why this is so, but consider a biased coin toss at even odds ($1 payoff for $1 bet). If your coin’s edge is 100%, you gain money fastest by betting your whole bankroll. If you have 0% edge, you shouldn’t bet anything. If you have a 1% edge, you should bet 1% of your bankroll.
Daniel Bernoulli came up with the same fraction a long time before by maximizing the geometric mean.
Kelly’s original paper figured this out by modeling how a better would place bets assuming he had insider information transmitted over a noisy wire transmitting a binary code; a beautiful way of thinking about predictions in the presence of noise. Kelly is a guy I wish had lived longer. He dropped dead at the young age of 41; in his short life he was a Naval aviator in WW-2, invented computer speech synthesis, made huge contributions to information theory, mentored important mathematicians (Elwyn Berlekamp, who went on to found Axcom/Rentech, based in part on Kelly’s insights) and had the kind of life that would be considered hyperbole if he was in a science fiction novel. They make big men in Texas. Kelly was a giant.
I’ve been known to take sadistic glee in making fun of economists. One of the most mockable economists in American history is (Nobelist -the Swedes have dry humor) Paul Samuelson. One could write entire books on the ways in which Samuelson was a scoundrel and a numskull who set back human knowledge by decades. One fact will suffice for this essay: Samuelson didn’t believe in Kelly betting. Explaining why he thought this, and why he’s wrong would be pointless; debugging an economist’s faulty thought processes is as pointless as explaining why a crazy lady is breaking dishes in the kitchen. If you’re interested, Ed Thorp is your man here also.
Following Ed Thorp’s original essay in the Gambling Times, as good little experimental physicists, we need to build up an error budget to figure out our edge. Thorp breaks down the errors in his and Shannon’s Roulette system into several kinds.
- E1 Rotor speed measurement error
- E2 Ball speed measurement error
- E3 Ball rotor path randomness
- E4 Ball stator path randomness
- E5 Fret scatter
- E6 Rotor tilt (discovered by Shannon and Thorp)
Uncorrelated errors add up as the sum of squares, so the total error budget is
The Thorp/Shannon roulette system had a 44% edge on the most favored number; single number payouts in Vegas are 35:1, making the correct bet on one number 0.44/ 35 = 0.01256. Since nobody in 1960s Vegas suspected the mathematical machinators of having a physics edge on the wheel, they were able to place larger bets on parts of the quadrant. While Thorp describes it as “diversification” in his exposition. Another way of thinking about it: he’s just playing more games at once. A friend and former customer explained his trend following method as working in much the same way. The more bets you place, the more likely you’ll hit a winning trend.
Kelly betting isn’t a perfect solution in all cases; fixed fraction betting has certain disadvantages when you can’t exactly characterize your edge, or the payout odds, or you have a limited number of bets before you have to cash in your chips. However, in the case of a machine to beat Roulette, it’s difficult to think of a better technique.
Of course, Kelly betting and things like it figure in other sorts of betting; people do use it in Markets where it is appropriate. Supposedly it was part of Axcom/Rentech’s early secret sauce, and certainly folks who have thought about trading need a bet sizing and risk management strategy that makes sense. Kelly is often a good place to start, depending on your situation. But that’s a topic for another blog post. One more coming on modern techniques to beat Roulette, including the one I came up with in 2010 (which, in case you were holding your breath, didn’t really work, which is why I have to work, and am willing to talk about such things in blogs).
Kelly criterion resources
Kelly’s original paper: