In the mid-1990s, a team of American science students took on the might of the Las Vegas casinos, and came home with millions of dollars. Hardworking engineering students during the week, they became high-rolling gamblers by the weekend and proved that, in one game at least, the house doesn’t always win.
The game was blackjack, and the students were from the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Their audacious winnings marked the climax of an arms race between casino and player that began 40 years earlier with maths professor Edward Thorp. He realised that the one feature of blackjack that made it different from other casino games also made it possible to beat.
In most gambling games – roulette, dice, slot machines, the lottery – events in the past do not determine the future. The odds are the same on every roll of the dice or spin of the wheel. Winning streaks or losing streaks may occur, but they are only one possible result from the set of all possible outcomes. A fair coin that has shown heads ten times, still only has a 50% chance of showing heads on the next flip.
Casinos and bookmakers make certain that the odds are always stacked slightly in their favour. In other words, over time, the house will always win.