• U.S.

Education: Applied Mathematics

2 minute read

A sucker with a “system” is always welcome in Reno, where gambling is legal. One day last month two young amateur gamblers strode confidently into Reno’s gaudy Palace Club. They were armed with a bankroll of $120 and a “scientific” theory cooked up between classes at the University of Chicago.

Tall, talkative Albert Hibbs, a graduate student in mathematics at Chicago, had devised the system on a bet with Medical Student Roy Walford. They took a term off from the university to try it out. It was a “progressive parlay” based on mathematical probability, some intricate slide-rule calculations, and two assumptions: that any roulette wheel follows a pattern of its own, and that good or bad luck runs in streams. The key to the Hibbs-Walford approach: increase bets in streams of good luck, never increase or reduce them in streams of bad luck.

No. 21. For four days the partners studied a Palace Club roulette wheel, jotting down the winning numbers and recording the machine’s pattern.* On the fifth day Hibbs & Walford selected No. 21 and made their first bet—a cautious 25¢. As their winnings mounted, the crowd of tourists, gamblers, divorce-seekers and hangers-on increased. So did the Hibbs-Walford bets, until $11 was riding on each spin. Their longest losing streak: 266 spins. Their luckiest run: four wins out of five spins. Hibbs & Walford spelled each other in eight-hour shifts. After 40 hours, when Hibbs & Walford had parlayed their $120 into $6,000, the management changed the wheel heads.

No. 9. For their second fling at fortune, the 23-year-olds picked the “Big Limit” wheel at Harold’s Club, the country’s biggest gambling joint. One day last week, after studying the wheel’s habits for two weeks, they put $2 on No. 9. By the time they had parlayed it to $7,000, they were betting $19 a spin. Then luck turned.

At 5 a.m., after 65 hours of play and 6,202 spins of the wheels, Hibbs & Walford cashed in their chips—still $1,500 ahead of Harold’s Club and $7,500 ahead of Reno’s roulette wheels. One veteran professional gambler was still unconvinced. Said he: “The last big winner here was twelve years ago. He had a system, too. He’s washing dishes now across the street.”

* Monte Carlo veterans still reminisce about a legendary mechanic known as “Jaggers the Yorkshireman,” who charted the weaknesses of the Casino’s wheels, reportedly cleaned up $500,000 before the operators reset the wheels.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com