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Roulette Riddle

That spinning white ball has a unique appeal

Roulette Riddle

Televised arm wrestling… Stonehenge… the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey…  Kardashian fascination… the enduring popularity of roulette… All things

I don’t understand.


Trust me. I’ve tried to learn to love roulette, spending hours I can’t count (and money I’m afraid to) in the pursuit of passion. Or at least proclivity. Even created my own betting system: it was half Grand Martingale and half Wink Martindale. Didn’t work out so well. Sure, the ball went “tic” and “tac” around the wheel, but in the end, I lost all my dough.

Far be it from me to question why people like something so much, but that being said, I always questioned why people like this thing so much. And it’s a lot of people, because it’s a lot of tables. More than 6,000 around the world, including 2,000 in North America alone. Roulette is also huge in Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Europe, Singapore, South Africa and the Philippines. The only bigger wheels in table games are blackjack and baccarat, but hey, whatever. Dostoyevsky never wrote a book about them, did he?

For the longest time, I just didn’t get it. Well, of course, I got it. It’s one ball and 38 pockets (37 outside the U.S., presumably because of the metric system). It’s not exactly quantum mechanics. It’s not even Quantum Leap. It was roulette’s appeal, rather than its rules and its procedures and its payouts, that had always eluded me.

So, in order to solve this riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—and to avoid the convection oven heat of Las Vegas in August—I visited six casinos in seven days in Australia, where the game reigns supreme.

“The thing about roulette,” said the first expert I came across, a dealer from Crown Casino in Perth, “is that it’s part of our culture. You don’t even think about why you like it. You would have to think about why you don’t like it.”

Say what, mate? Now my head was really swimming, and because of the Coriolis Effect, it was going in the opposite direction as usual. This quest was just under way, and it was getting awfully existential awfully soon. Maybe I should just yank the plug on all this this silliness and boomerang myself back home.

But guess what? A funny thing happened on the road to futility. A bulb lit up. Several, in fact. And as the journey progressed, day-to-day, state-to-state, casino-to-casino, so did the insight. Into the game. Into its intricacies. Now fully—OK, partially—enlightened to the ways of the wheel, here are a few observations and opinions for your consideration:

• Players don’t “sweat the result.” They typically don’t hover over the wheel, like a helicopter getting ready to land, agonizing over every bound and bounce. Me? I’d be all up in there, using more gyrations than Shakira and more body English than Carlton Fisk when he hit that homer off the foul pole in the 1975 World Series.

• Roulette, more so than any other table game, lets you have the win frequency you want. Inside, outside, columns and streets: from long shots to sure shots, roulette has it all. You could even—and someone, somewhere must have done this—bet 35 of the numbers, giving yourself a 94.6 percent chance (on a single-zero wheel) of winning one unit and a 5.4 percent chance of looking like the biggest doofus in captivity. 

• This is the perfect table game for electronic wagering. Because all players share the same result, as opposed to blackjack or pai gow poker, it’s scalable without sacrificing speed. Go to The Star casino in Sydney and you will see 100-plus gamblers playing on a single wheel. And those electronic terminals get absolutely pounded. Pounded, as in taking a lot of action; not pounded, as in taking a lot of abuse. Come on, this is Australia after all, not some outpost full of deranged and violent prisoners. Well, not any more.

• For a game so steeped in tradition—350 years’ worth and counting—roulette is surprisingly amenable to newfangled gizmos: chip sorting machines that keep the dealers out of the muck of, well, mucking those colored chips back into order; reader boards that display the latest results; and software that sniffs out mathematical bias before the bad guys can.

Final thought: There’s something else in the works, a nascent trend to add side bets and progressives to the game. Nothing has caught fire yet, but a handful of companies are out there rubbing sticks together, trying to generate a spark. Interblock has “Touchdown Roulette,” a side bet for its electronic games. The wheel manufacturer Cammegh has several new wagers, including “Lucky Symbols,” which is played in South Africa and Australia. Scientific Games has “Back 2 Back Roulette” and “Coverall Roulette,” while Galaxy Gaming offers “Trio-lette.”

Just a few things to keep your eye on in the future. That is, when you’re not keeping your eye on the ball.

Roger Snow is a senior vice president with Light & Wonder. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Light & Wonder or its affiliates.

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