Beating the Wheel
Russell T. Barnhart

Yet another of around half-a-dozen wheel-of-doom related titles I've picked up on the off-chance I might find something between the pages akin to the whereabouts of the Holy Grail, and like the others this one also made it into my hands for around the price of a pint. I've no doubt that curiosity'll get the better of me again in the future and there'll be others added to the list of reviews if the price is right. Although I'm unlikely to become richer for this extravegance, it has saved on some wear and tear of my liver.

So, the big question . . . is this one any better than the others I've exposed the grey matter to? Well, yes, in some ways . . .

The vast majority of this book is devoted to the subject of biased wheels; how they become biased, how to identify them, how long it might take (Mr B advises recording the results for a minimum of 800 spins), playing with an advantage when you've done so, and the exploits of those who (allegedly) were successful at it - from Joseph Jaggers, the English engineer, who cleaned up at the casino in Monte Carlo in 1873 to more recent episodes in the eighties and early nineties. The Hon.S.R.Beresford (an old Etonion waster) gets the odd mention in the histories, and his 1926 book Beresford's Monte Carlo is listed amongst the extensive bibliography section at the back. This is the interesting aspect of the book, and what makes it worth some time. In addition to the tales, there are also some chapters dedicated to "unbiased" wheels, although frankly I found them hard work and unnecessarily complex. Roulette is, afterall, a pretty simple proposition; there are two outcomes, win or lose, and the probability of each occuring is "x" over thrity seven. Throw in some calculations around coincidence (for runs of results) and the Empirical Rule (for variance), and you've just about done the lot? Using a spreadsheet on a modern day personal computer or tablet leaves it a wheeze for anyone wanting to spend a little bit of time analysing the numbers.

As well as the words and numbers presented there are also lots of tables of data between the covers, many of which left me scratching my head wondering just why they were there. One example was the table running to four pages (138-143) detailing the longest losing run in each of 45 sessions of 1,024 spins when betting on a single number (zero) each time - on an unbiased wheel. The losing probability of betting on a single number for each spin is 36/37, and I think this may have something to do with the fact that one losing run (in game 22) was 202 spins long (around 2.5 standard deviations). This chapter (Arithmetic of an Unbiased Wheel - Three months at Monte Carlo") also includes the following gem of wisdom: "As we learned from the theory outlined simply in the last chapter, there are only two kinds of runs, winning and losing, and during any roulette game, however short, we inevitably encounter both". No shit Sherlock?

Arithmetic of an Unbiased Wheel - Three months at Monte Carlo continues with several example calculations using the table data to calculate the wins or losses for some of the 45 games detailed, and what these losing runs actually meant lost units wise. These end with the conclusion "Given all these lubrications, the best thing we can say for betting on one or more random numbers on an unbiased roulette wheel is the advisability of keeping our game down to only 1,024 spins, representing about a week at Monte Carlo or three days at Las Vegas or Atlantic City. That way we have a reasonable chance to win". Hmmm . . . So, 24 pages dedicated to examining the streaks of wins and losses in a snapshot set of past recorded results and which ends with a recommendation not to play beyond 1,024 spins as you'll probably lose your money. Bearing in mind roulette carries an edge in favour of the house it's hardly groundbreaking stuff.

There're a lot of musings similar to this between the covers; abstract considerations and calculations for the probability of this happening, or that happening, all written in a style that I'm afraid I started to find tedious - after which I fell back on flicking through the remainder of the content as opposed to reading it in full. I did read the final summary on page 201; it ends with the thought ". . . Remember, if you persist in betting on a random wheel you can't win, and on a biased wheel you can't lose. Good luck!". Can't lose? Again, hmmm . . .

So there we have it . . . a book containing some interesting stories for those with a pre-disposition for taking on the wheel of doom, but complemented with too many rambling wordy bits, mathematical formulas, unnecessary number crunching and statements of the bleeding obvious. Mr B obviously spent a fair amount of time researching the histories and tales of the wheel when writing this, and I'm sure he was adept at the maths, but the final result when it's all put together is something that, IMHO, is dry and contains too much theory. The fact of the matter is that nowadays I suspect there's more chance of finding rocking horse shit than there is a badly maintained wheel in use, and I do wonder just how common they were in the past? Still, let's not poor cold water on yet another book on the subject.

On the rear cover of the book, Mr B's publisher has written, ". . . But can the game be beaten, except by luck? Yes, says Russell Barnhart, an expert in gambling strategies and a roulette winner for more than thirty years. In 'Beating the Wheel', he shares his valuable strategy." - for "strategy" read, clock the wheel for 800 spins and then pile your chips on to those numbers that have shown more than 27 times (which is 1/30 as opposed to the expectation of 1/37). Foolproof, so over to you. I think I'll give it a miss though.

Mr B wrote eight other gambling related books between 1977 and 1994 and translated three others written by another author. He was working on his tenth title Dens of Iniquity - A Life Among Gamblers, Cheaters and Theives, at the time of his death in 2003, aged 77.

April 2017.