The casino business has to be one of the most attractive ones – getting to set the odds in its favour yet see many hopefuls come enrich them. Therefore, it is fascinating everytime you learn that someone has figured a way of beating those odds. This is a riveting true story about a Croatian gambler –  Niko Tosa, who won at the Roulette wheel at an astonishing rate, well above the statistical rate.

“Tosa’s crew didn’t hit the right number on every spin, but they did as often as not, in streaks that defied logic: eight in a row, or 10, or 13. Even with a dozen chips on the table at a total cost of £1,200 (about \$2,200 at the time), the 35:1 payout meant they could more than double their money. Security staff watched nervously as their chip stack grew ever higher.

It wasn’t the amount of money at stake that made the Ritz security team anxious. Customers routinely made several million pounds in an evening and left carrying designer bags bulging with cash. It was the way these three were winning: consistently, over hundreds of rounds. “It is practically impossible to predict the number that will come up,” Stephen Hawking once wrote about roulette. “Otherwise physicists would make a fortune at casinos.” The game was designed to be random; chaos, elegantly rendered in circular motion.

….Even so, gamblers have come up with plenty of elaborate mathematical systems to beat it—Oscar’s Grind, the D’Alembert. Simple ones, too, such as betting on black then doubling on every loss until you win. Casino owners love these strategies because they don’t work. The green 0 pocket (with an additional 00 pocket on American wheels) means even the highest-odds bets, on red or black for example, have a slightly less than half chance of success. Everyone loses eventually.

Except for Niko Tosa and his friends. When the Croatian left the casino in the early hours of March 16, he’d turned £30,000 worth of chips into a £310,000 check. His Serbian partner did even better, making £684,000 from his initial £60,000. He asked for a half-million in two checks and the rest in cash. That brought the group’s take, including from earlier sessions, to about £1.3 million.”

So how did Tosa learn to predict a supposedly random outcome? Only it isn’t random always. It is the roulette wheel’s imperfections that reduces the randomness and in turn makes it predictable with some training.

“Barnett invited audiences to try using a handheld clicker to time video footage of a moving wheel and ball precisely enough for the computer program to work its magic. Most could, and once they’d done it themselves, some of the mystery fell away. “To make money in roulette, all you need to do is rule out two numbers,” Barnett liked to say, flashing a gold Rolex and diamond encrusted ring as he held up his fingers. With two numbers eliminated, the odds became slightly better than even, flipping the house’s slender advantage.

The Gambling Commission ordered a government laboratory to test Barnett’s system. The lab confirmed his thesis: Roulette computers did work, as long as certain conditions were present.

Those conditions are, in effect, imperfections of one sort or another. On a perfect wheel, the ball would always fall in a random way. But over time, wheels develop flaws, which turn into patterns. A wheel that’s even marginally tilted could develop what Barnett called a “drop zone.” When the tilt forces the ball to climb a slope, the ball decelerates and falls from the outer rim at the same spot on almost every spin. A similar thing can happen on equipment worn from repeated use, or if a croupier’s hand lotion has left residue, or for a dizzying number of other reasons. A drop zone is the Achilles’ heel of roulette. That morsel of predictability is enough for software to overcome the random skidding and bouncing that happens after the drop. The Gambling Commission’s research on Barnett’s device confirmed it.

….some of the early pioneers of the field had observed a curious phenomenon. After using predictive technology thousands of times, they’d developed a sense of where the ball would land, even without the computer. “It’s like an athlete,” Mark Billings, a lifelong player and author of Follow the Bouncing Ball: Silicon vs Roulette, said in an interview. “At some point all this stuff comes together. You look at the wheel. You just know.” Casinos call it “cerebral” clocking. All that’s needed is a drop zone and a potent, well-trained mind.

Wootten and Barnett debate the point to this day. A roulette computer was a neat explanation for casino staff, who didn’t want to look too closely at their shoddy equipment, and for Wootten, who wanted to prove a point to all the executives who’d laughed at him. But when I spoke to Barnett, he argued that the wheel at the Ritz was so old and predictable that Tosa wouldn’t have needed a computer to defeat it. “Blind Freddie could beat the wheel they played,” he said.

…The condition of the wheel is vital, Tosa said. That was why he’d sought out a particular table at the Ritz—he’d played the wheel enough to confirm that he could beat it. He’d been able to identify it on sight even after the casino moved it into the Carmen Room.

I think I believed him when he said he didn’t use a computer. Later on, for a sanity check, I contacted Doyne Farmer, the physicist whose roulette prediction exploits are chronicled in The Eudaemonic Pie. “I do think it’s conceivable that someone could do what we do without a computer, providing the wheel is tilted and the rotor is not moving too fast,” said Farmer, who’s now a professor at the University of Oxford. He compared cerebral clocking to musical talent, suggesting it might activate similar parts of the brain, those dedicated to sound and rhythm.”

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