Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About a Roulette Wheel
Did you know that all the numbers on a roulette wheel (1 to 36), when added together make 666, the Number of the Beast according to the Book of Revelation? No wonder it’s sometimes referred to as “the Devil’s Game.”
Rumor has it that the great French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), believed to be the creator of the first roulette wheel, made a deal with the devil in order to learn its secrets. Absolute nonsense, of course. True, Pascal was one of the developers of probability theory, but his wheel was a product of his fascination with perpetual motion rather than gambling. And it wasn’t particularly diabolical either, as it had no zeros on it and therefore no house edge.
The truth is that history remembers him more for his triangle than his wheel. And for clarifying the concepts of pressure and vacuum. And for the first mechanized calculator. Clever guy.
Reinventing the Wheel
No, it was others, after Pascal, who took the wheel and ran with it, reinventing it as the gambling game we know today. A century later, roulette was being widely played in the gambling parlors of 18th century Paris.
Roulette means, literally, “little wheel” and the game is believed to have borrowed some of its dynamics from an old English wheel game called “Roly-Poly,” which sounds fun in a jolly olde English way.
Here’s a startling little factoid: the original form of roulette that was played in these Parisian gambling halls was very likely American Roulette, with the double zero, and not European roulette.
Many have assumed that the single zero game was the original form, with the double zero added later by greedy US casino operators wanting to increase the house edge. But the exact opposite was true. The double zero was, in fact, removed in 1843, to create the variation known as European roulette, by casino owners Francois and Louis Blanc, who wanted to differentiate their offering in a crowded market.
It worked, and the gamblers came flocking, leading someone once again to add up all the numbers on the wheel and conclude the brothers had made a pact with the Devil. In fact, they were just savvy marketers.
Today, some 80 percent of the world’s roulette wheels are built in the UK by two master engineering companies, Cammegh and TCS Huxley. The design of the bearings, and how they distribute the weight of the wheel, remain a great industrial secret for both these manufacturers, as it allows them to build long-running and friction-free wheels that dominate the market. The engineering must be perfectly, scientifically precise. This is crucial because, according to a 2005 study, a tilt of just one degree can cause a bias in the wheel that can permit it to be exploited by savvy gamblers.
Moves Like Jaggers
In the late Victorian era, before roulette wheels were “perfect,” one such gambler was Englishman Joseph Jaggers. An engineer by trade, Jaggers began to ruminate on the question of roulette’s supposed randomness and decided to put it to the test. He hired six clerks and sent them to the Grand Casino Monte Carlo with the task of recording every number the casino’s wheels generated over a period of weeks.
He then began to pore over the results, searching the data for patterns and phenomena that could not be explained by variance. He found that five of the casino’s six wheels produced random results, but the sixth had a bias, toward nine numbers in particular.
This tiny bias netted him a boatload of cash. Jaggers made multiple millions in today’s money and his exploits were immortalized in the old vaudeville song The Man Who Broke the Bank in Monte Carlo.
Essentially a roulette wheel is a kind of random number generator, whose purpose it is to throw up numbers with now traceable sequence or bias. But is there really such thing as machine that can create true randomness? Well, possibly not, and that’s one for the physicists, but let’s just say that today’s machines are close enough to random that they can’t be exploited.
Or can they?
It is possible to gain an edge over a roulette wheel, although the calculations are so complex and must be performed so quickly that, sometimes, you just need a computer in your shoe. In the mid-seventies, two physics students at the University of California Santa Cruz, decided to figure out a way to beat roulette and to fund a scientific community with the money they won. Others soon joined the group and they called themselves The Eudaemons, after the eudaemonic philosophy which believes in the link between human virtue and happiness.
After purchasing their own wheel to study, they eventually concocted a formula involving trigonometric functions and four variables. These included the period of rotation of the roulette wheel and the period of rotation of the ball around the roulette wheel.
They found that while predicting the exact number on which the ball would fall was impossible, they could predict with a certain amount of certainty a group of eight numbers on which is was likely to land. This was so precise they found that if they calibrated their calculations in fair weather, the arrival of fog would cause the ball to leave the track half a rotation earlier than had been expected.
With tiny computers in their shoes they headed to Vegas where they made 44c for every dollar. The Eudaemons disbanded after one of the computers malfunctioned giving a member of the group electric shocks, which resulted in burns. Collectively they made around $10,000 before hanging up their dangerous computerized shoes and calling it a day. The exact formula remains unpublished to this day.