BBC Future
The Real Risk

# Gambling: Understanding the odds in numbers

There were also huge bets on cricket matches, and a predictable consequence was the match-fixing scandals that erupted in the early 1800s, with spectators at Lord’s Cricket Ground (the so-called home of the game) bewildered at the sight of two nobbled teams both desperately trying to lose. A reaction followed, with bookmakers being banned from Lord’s in 1817, lotteries banned in 1826, and the Gaming Act of 1845 making gambling debts unenforceable by law. Cricket was turned into the archetypal gentlemen’s game. Until recently, that is. Heavy gambling has again brought match-fixing to the fore; and more worrying is the ability to bet on every minor detail of the match, known as spot-fixing, which has led to high-profile cases of players being bribed to mess up specific bowls.

Playing the odds

So back to the Maserati, and which of the three gambling options would give you the best odds. If you were to buy a single lottery ticket, and if your choice of six numbers matches the five winning balls plus the bonus number (a seventh ball drawn), then this generally wins around £100,000 in the UK (which for arguments sake let’s say is close enough to our dollar target – it will certainly cover the cost of the sports car). The probability of this happening is 1 in 2,330,636, which is about my chance of having a heart attack or stroke in the half-hour it takes for me to go to the shop for the ticket.

What if you were to go for an accumulator on the horses, that is, pick a race meeting with six races, and in each race choose a horse at medium odds of around 6 to 1 against? Then the accumulator, in which the winnings of each race are passed to the next horse, will give you 7×7×7×7×7×7 = \$117,000 if they all win. Given a bookmakers margin of, say, 12% for each bet, the true odds may be around 1 in 230,000.

Which leaves the roulette wheel. If you can find a casino to let you bet \$1, place it on your lucky number between 1 and 36. When it wins, either leave the \$36 there or move it to another number. When that comes up too, move the \$1,296 you now have to another number, or leave it where it is – it doesn’t make any difference to the odds, but somehow it seems that the chance increases when the money is moved.  When that comes up you will have \$46.656, so move it all to Red, and when that comes up you will have \$93,312, almost enough for your Maserati. The chances of this happening, on a roulette wheel with a single zero, are 1/37×1/37×1/37×18/37 = 1 in 104,120.

So roulette easily gives the best chance of getting that shiny Maserati for a dollar.  But given the odds involved, perhaps it’s best to stick there and start saving instead.

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