Is The Martingale System Wise to Use In Blackjack?

January 19th, 2009 3:00 am EST

cards on fire 21 - blackjackAmong all of the most popular betting strategies, one of the oldest and simplest is the Martingale Betting System. Made popular in Europe during the 1700's, it's a strategy based on the statistical probability that given enough opportunities, a bettor will win and lose an equal number of times. Martingale dictates that the bettor begin by deciding on an amount for a standard, or base bet. For our purposes we'll say that bet is $10. He places that bet on the first game; if he wins, he bets the same amount on the next game. If he loses, he doubles that bet to $20. Every time he loses the bet is doubled, every time he wins he starts back at the $10 amount. With this system every win produces a $10 profit.

In theory, it's a proven money maker if you have a large enough bank roll and enough time to win. Practically speaking though, it's not a good system for blackjack. Unlike the roulette wheel which is as close to a real game of chance as possible, the statistical chances of winning blackjack change with each hand, depending on a variety of factors. The total number of players at the table, how slowly or quickly the high cards come up, and how far through the deck the dealer has worked all contribute to the strategy of the bettor. The Martingale system dictates a static bet for each hand, meaning a potentially large loss with a long string of losing hands. Add to that the fact that most casinos have a relatively low betting limit on blackjack, it's easy to reach that limit, eventually making it impossible for you to double your bet.

Another consideration is the size of your bankroll and the amount of time the player has. A skilled player who employs doubling-down and splitting properly, increases his chances of making the Martingale system profitable. The down side is that it requires a significantly larger bankroll. Assuming the table limits are high enough to allow it, splitting after losing 5 straight hands would dictate a bet equal to 16 times the original bet. For an original bet of $10, the bet to split would equal $160. If you lose that hand, you must bet the next hand $640. We arrive at this amount based on the $160 bet at the start of the hand plus the $160 to split, equaling a loss of $320. Since Martingale dictates doubling after every loss, the next bet must be $640. Using this formula, it's easy to see why a large bankroll is needed to employ this system with blackjack.

Putting the nail in the Martingale coffin is the statistical nature of playing time. Casinos are in business to make money, so they've designed the game rules in such a way that the longer you play, the less likely you are to win. They know that early returns will encourage the bettor to keep playing past the time when he has the best chance of winning. As losing hands start mounting, the bettor tends to keep looking back to the fact that he won earlier hands, thinking that he'll son hit one and recoup his losses. Blackjack rules are perfect for this scenario, so the clock becomes the enemy. If the player continues a string of losing hands the balance shifts in favor of the house, making it less likely for the bettor to win.

In theory, the Martingale system should work flawlessly at the casino. In reality, it's only a reasonable system at the roulette wheel and a statistical loser with blackjack. You might be better off just playing your gut instinct.