The most commonly used (and most commonly misunderstood) betting system in the world is The Martingale System. It's almost always used in a game with even money bets that have an almost 50% chance of winning. I don't know many people who play roulette who haven't at least tried the system at least once.
But how exactly does the Martingale System work? Is this a reliable way to beat the house? And if so, how can you use it to get an edge over the casino?
Those are the questions I hope to answer with this post.
The Martingale System is an example of a progressive betting system. Don't confuse this with a progressive jackpot—it's called a "progressive" betting system because you're making your bets progressively larger. The jackpots and winnings don't get progressively larger.
It's not a new system, either—it first became popular in the France in the 18th century. It was originally used for a simple betting game that paid even money and involved tossing a coin. But the French love roulette, so it didn't take long for the Martingale System to become the most commonly used system in that game.
The goal of the system is to increase the size of your bets after your losses in order to win back the money you've lost along with a small profit. Rinse and repeat.
Here's how the Martingale System works at the roulette table:
You place any even money bet you want. You can bet red/black, even/odd, high/low, etc.—any bet that pays off at even money. If you win, you pocket your winnings.
But if you lose, you bet again, this time doubling the size of your bet.
If you win, then you're up one unit, and you pocket your profits.
If you lose, you double your bet again, hoping to win back enough to cover both of your previous losses and still show a one unit profit.
Here's an example:
I've found a roulette table with a $1 minimum bet. I bet $1 on black. I lose, so I bet on black again, this time betting $2. I lose again. Now I double my bet again, betting $4. This time I win $4, which covers the $3 I'd lost on the two previous bets and leaves me with a profit of $1. I pocket my $1 in winnings and start over again with $1.
Online casinos, especially those with large signup bonuses, hate the Martingale System. That's one of the main reasons they don't allow gambling on roulette to count toward your wagering requirements. I always thought it was odd that you'd forbid a game with such a relatively high house edge, but the Martingale System combined with a large signup bonus can be quite effective—at least the Internet casinos think so.
Most online gambling writers are either firmly in the pro-Martingale camp or they hate it. I'm a little more neutral with my opinion.
The first thing you need to understand about this betting system—and in fact, about all betting systems similar to it—is that it can't be used to change a negative expectation game into a positive expectation game. The house edge on roulette is 5.26%, or 2.70% if you're playing a European roulette game. That house edge isn't eliminated by this betting system.
In other words, if you play roulette long enough, you'll eventually lose all your money—regardless of whether you're using the Martingale System or not.
Of course, at first glance, the system seems foolproof. After all, if you play long enough, you're bound to get a winning result.
But there are two problems with this:
You don't have an infinite bankroll.
The size of your bets grows exponentially. As long as you don't lose more than two or three times in a row, this is no big deal, but you'll be surprised at how large your bets have to be to continue with the system beyond a certain point. Eventually you WILL run out of the money needed to cover your next bet, and at that point, the system breaks. Here's the betting progression in units over the course of 10 bets: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. And keep in mind that no matter where you are in the progression, when it's over, you'll still only be showing a profit of 1 unit. And we're not talking about placing a single $512 bet, either. You placed $511 in losing bets before this just to get to that point. To top that off, you're not going to find many roulette tables with a $1 minimum bet, either. You're probably looking at a $5 bet or a $10 bet, which means you have to multiply the numbers in that progression by 5 or 10.
Even if you had an infinite bankroll, you'll eventually run into table limits.
No roulette table in the world allows you to place bets of an infinite size. In fact, the most common roulette tables on the Internet require a minimum bet of $5 and have a maximum bet of $500. So even if you had the funds to cover these bet sizes, you couldn't do it because you'd eventually need to place a bet higher than the table limits allow. Here's the progression with a minimum bet of $5: $5, $10, $20, $40, $80, $160, $320, $640. So you only need 7 losses in a row to hit the table maximum.
Please note that I'm not saying you shouldn't use the Martingale System. I'm firmly of the opinion that if you think it's a fun way to bet, you should go for it. The gambling writers who tell you to never use the Martingale are missing at least some of the point.
Seven or eight losses in a row are relatively uncommon. Sure, a losing streak of that size happens more often than most people think. But that doesn't mean it happens often. You might have quite a number of winning sessions using the Martingale.
And even if you're not using the Martingale System, you're still playing a game with a house edge. As long as you understand that, you're fine. You'll eventually lose all your money in any game with a negative house edge, so if you enjoy using the Martingale, don't worry about it.
Here's the net effect of using this system over time:
You'll have lots of small wins. You'll even have lots of small winning sessions.
But you'll eventually have a large enough loss and/or a large enough losing session that you'll be a net loser.
You're never going to win more than unit at the end of any progression. That's the way the system is designed—to enable you to lock in lots of small wins. Even if you're betting 56 units, you're still only going to net a single unit win.
But eventually you're going to hit a losing streak that's big enough you won't be able to cover the next bet in the progression. Or you're going to hit the maximum bet for the table. When that happens, you're going to see a big loss.
How often do you see a losing streak of 8 bets or more in roulette?
More often than you think.
The odds of losing twice in a row are 23.6%. The odds of losing four times in a row are 5.6%. The odds of losing eight times in a row are only 0.31%.
Let's think about that number for a minute. That's about 1 in 300 betting sessions. If you're assuming that you're going to need 1200 or so bets to get to 300 betting sessions, you're looking at many hours of play with some possible success before seeing that big losing streak. Of course, the big losing streak COULD come at any time, but it's unlikely.
So yes, you could theoretically impress a lot of your friends and family with your success with the Martingale System in the short term. You could also look like a real idiot if you hit that losing streak early in your series of bets.
But you need to make sure you have a big enough bankroll to give yourself a chance. If you have $100 in your pocket, and you sit down to a $5 minimum table, you're going to have a hard time keeping up with the system.
You bet $5 and lose. You now have $95.
You bet $10 and lose again. You now have $85.
You bet $20 and lose again. You're down to $65.
You bet $40 and lose again. You're down to $25, and you can't make another bet.
That's just 4 losses in a row, and that's going to happen 5.6% of the time. That's 1 in every 20 sessions, which is a little more often than I'd prefer.
And even if you win several betting sessions in a row, your bankroll hasn't gotten large enough to last more than six or seven repetitions.
Some system players prefer to use a system called "the Anti-Martingale" or the "Reverse Martingale". In this system, instead of increasing your bets after your losses, you increase the size of your bets after winning. The theory is that you'll be able to maximize your chances of making a big profit when you get on a winning streak.
Here's how the reverse Martingale would work in actual progress:
You set a goal for how many wins in a row you want to shoot for. This is usually 3 or 4 wins in a row. Your goal is to get that winning streak done and then quit.
You start off with a $10 bet, and you win. So you double your bet to $20. This time you win again, so you bet $40 on your next bet. You win again. Finally, you bet $80 on your fourth and final bet in the progression, and you win again. You now have net winnings of $160.
But if you were to lose at any point in that sequence, you'd go back to your minimum bet. If you bet $10 on the first spin and lost, you'd only bet $10 on the next spin. If you lost again, you'd keep your bet at $10. You wouldn't increase the size of your bet until you won two in a row.
Instead of ensuring yourself a small win, you're going for a big win.
The problem with both of these systems, and with most other betting systems, is that they represent the Gamblers Fallacy. This is a mathematical term used to describe the belief that your previous results somehow affect the odds of achieving a certain result. The reality is that every bet on most games is an independent event.
The odds of getting a red result on a roulette bet are 48.6%. That probability doesn't change if you'e hit red 4 times in a row previous to that. It's still 48.6%.
That' because the number of red results on the wheel are still the same after all those repetitions. The roulette wheel has no memory. Occasionally you're going to run into a streak of some kind.
Blackjack is different, but that's a different story. Every time a card is dealt in blackjack, the composition of the deck changes. Once the aces are gone, the odds of getting dealt a blackjack go down to 0%. The deck really does have a memory, but only if you're not shuffling it after every hand. That's why card counting works.
Think of roulette as being like a blackjack game where the deck gets shuffled after every hand.
The Martingale System can be a fun way to gamble. If you have a large enough bankroll, you can probably have a lot of small winning sessions without too much trouble. You will eventually face a devastating loss, though, and if you play long enough, you will be a net loser. That's how gambling games with a negative expectation work.
As long as you go into the situation with your eyes open, it's no big deal. It's when you get the foolish notion that you can beat the odds with such a system that you start running into problems.