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10 Tips to Beat the Odds at the Casino

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Bill Zender is the ultimate gambling insider. The former professional card counter, dealer, and casino floor manager shares his secrets—and explains why the best paying machine is always the ATM.

1. Identify the clumsiest dealers.

Zender estimates there are fewer than 100 professional blackjack card counters in the world. If you happen to be one of them, you might nab a 1.5 percent advantage. So save your energy, Zender advises; instead keep an eye out for the sloppy blackjack dealer who will accidentally flash the face-down card. Zender once made a living exploiting this, keeping a notebook of 35 weak dealers from 16 different casinos. The strategy is called “card holing,” and it can give you a 6 to 9 percent edge over the house. (That’s like standing in front of an ATM that spits out twenties!) The best part? “It’s totally legal,” Zender says. “They may throw me out of the casino, but they’re not going to arrest me.”

2. Keep your eyes on the prize.

Lately, casinos have sexed up their table games with bikini-clad dealers and resident pole dancers. These places are called Party Pits, and on the surface, they look like Vegas being Vegas—booze, sin, skin. But look closer. While all those twirling legs keep you distracted, you’ll probably fail to notice that the casino trimmed the payouts at these tables from 3/2 to 6/5. Meaning that a $100 bet wins only $120, compared to the traditional $150. This essentially doubles the house’s edge.

3. Know when to say when.

The house always enjoys a 5 percent edge at roulette. You have a decent chance of winning that first spin. And the second. And the third. But if you were to play roulette forever, the house would take away all your chips. Every casino has calculated the point at which they are guaranteed victory, and that magic number is 30,000 hands. (This is why they lure us back with lobster and luxury suites.) So if you’re winning, stop.

4. Exploit the laws of nature.

The roulette wheel is a mechanical instrument. Over time, the wheel may become unbalanced or the frets separating the numbers may suffer wear and tear. The more a wheel is used, the more worn down it gets—and the more it may privilege certain numbers. In 1873, Joseph Jagger found a wonky wheel at Monte Carlo and bet on the biased numbers. He came away with $400,000—that’s $7.8 million in today’s dough!

5. Go big or go broke.

“The average slot machine is probably two, three times more costly to players than the table games,” says Zender. Avoid them. If you insist on cranking a handle, focus on slots that cost $5 or more and play the max bet. On penny slots, the odds are jacked up in the house’s favor by 15 to 20 percent. You might as well toss those coins in a fountain. Don’t forget to make a wish.

6. Don’t play Keno.

Really, just don’t. Your chances are terrible. At some casinos, the house has a 35 percent edge. No gambler has ever matched all 20 numbers on a 20-spot ticket. The odds of it ever happening are 1 in 3,535,316,142,212,174,336. (That’s 3.5 quintillion!)

7. Practice makes perfect.

If there’s an exception to the adage that the house always wins, it’s in video poker. Typically, the house has only a 0.46 percent advantage (while some versions lean in the gambler’s favor). The pay table is posted right on the machine, and the payoff is high. The catch? To cash out, you need to play at an expert level. Casinos make profits on video poker because most players simply aren’t skilled enough. So study up.

8. Stay away from the light.

“Ninety percent of the people who walk into a casino have no idea of the odds stacked against them,” Zender says. But if you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to see where the odds are the worst. Casinos make the games with the lousiest odds the most attractive by amping them up with flashing lights and bright colors. At craps, for instance, the craziest bets—“the Field,” “Any 7”—are the most colorful. So as a general rule, to better your odds, stick to the drab side of the room.

9. Invest in a nice watch.

There’s a reason you probably won’t see any clocks or windows on the house floor. Casinos want you to lose track of time so you play for as long as possible. Some casinos prohibit dealers from wearing watches for that reason. Once you’re up a bit, it might be a good time to leave the floor and go treat yourself to a new timepiece.

10. Buy your own drinks.

The truth is, nothing is free—and that includes the free booze. Each casino has something they call a “player reinvestment” fund. It predicts the amount of money you’ll lose and then returns a cut of that in the form of comps, which, to the casual floor visitor, means watery well cocktails. The worse your odds, the better your chances of landing a free drink. Cheers!

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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