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Jun 12 2012

Bad Gamblers

Not only are the Masters of the Universe simply gamblers, they’re bad gamblers who pursue sucker strategies that are doomed to fail.

You can see it when they, uhh… gamble.

On May 8th, 9th, and 10th, Michael Geismar (co-founder and President of the $4.6 Billion Quantative Investment Management hedge fund) went to the SkyBridge Altermantives Conference at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

In one of those improbable success stories they use to delude the high rollers he won about 700K and the notoriety of the incident drew it to the attention of Felix Salmon who used it as a cautionary tale of risk-taking attitude.

This is why SALT will always be in Vegas, and why Vegas will always welcome SALT with open arms. I’m sure the casinos made very good money on SALT even after accounting for Geismar’s winnings, and they’ll probably make money from Geismar too, on net, over time. If nobody ever won big money, no one would gamble at all. But in the end, the house always wins – and all of these hedge-fund managers are smart enough to know that. And still, left to their own devices, what they do is gamble, and they even layer on silly “risk management” techniques which don’t reduce risk at all – in this case, after a losing hand, Geismar would bet a little less, reckoning that somehow “laws of averages” would help him as a result.

I’ll point out Michael Geismar is a hedge fund manager and is not connected with JPMorgan in any way I’m aware of.  More interesting is this description of the precise money management decisions which led to this 7,100% return.

Michael Geismar’s $710,000 blackjack breakfast

Lawrence Delevingne, Absolute Return + Alpha

May 24, 2012

After a stretch of good cards, Geismar had doubled his money to about $20,000. He then started to bet larger amounts with every winning hand, first $1,000, then $2,000 or $3000. He also scaled down his bets after one losing hand, using laws of averages but not card counting. That basic scaling strategy worked well, and Geismar got to about $200,000 early Wednesday morning. By that point he was up so much he bet $10,000 for every hand win or lose. And he kept winning.



As the other players started beating the dealer, Geismar began backing them up. Backing up is the blackjack term for betting on anoter person’s hand. Bellagio casino rules impose a $10,000 limit on an individual player’s own hand, but players are allowed to bet on each other’s hands, meaning one player could place $9,000 of his money on top of anther player’s $1,000 bet. In this way Geismar was able to bet the hands of several players, though his total bets could not exceed $30,000 per round. Geismar’s bets were usually much larger than those he was backing. He often used $5,000 chips on each of the other 4 player’s hands, and he often went right to the limit during a run of good cards, using his up-and-down scaling bet strategy. He was also betting $10,000 on each of his hands during the good streaks.

You see, this is in fact worse than no strategy at all.  Indeed, it’s a strategy to suffer catastrophic losses.

Guest post: Michael Geismar’s blackjack strategy

By Felix Salmon, Reuters

June 5, 2012

(M)athematician and blackjack expert Jonathan Adler

The idea that after seeing a bunch of one side of the coin on past flips you are more likely to see the other on future flips is called the gambler’s fallacy. The fallacy comes from the confusion between the long run outcome (with a large enough sample size, I expect half of my coin flips to be heads and half to be tails) and the outcome on any one flip (since I have seen a bunch of heads before, I need to start getting tails to balance things out in the long run).



(O)nce the player sees their hand and the dealer’s card there is generally a single best action for them to maximize their potential payout. This set of best actions is called “Basic Strategy” and is well known. The player really doesn’t have much choice in terms of what they do on a single round; any decent player will just take the optimal move based on what’s showing. Assuming the player always takes the best possible action, for every dollar they bet in a round they should lose around half a cent.



There are two main ways to legally attempt to overcome the fact that each hand on average loses you a bit of money. You can either change the odds to be in your favor, or you can try and change your bet amounts to make it less likely you will lose. Only one of these methods actually works.

By changing the structure of the game, you can make it that your average hand has a positive return. This was famously done by a group of MIT students using a method called card counting. The students exploited the fact that unlike our coin tosses from earlier, hands of blackjack aren’t truly independent events. That’s because each round of blackjack comes from the same shoe of cards, so if you keep track of what cards have been played in earlier rounds, you will have a small amount of knowledge on what cards you are likely to see in future hands. When there are mostly face cards and aces remaining in shoe then the player is actually at a slight advantage to the dealer. If you only place bets when the deck is to your advantage then you can make yourself money. The MIT students counted the number of face cards that had been seen already to estimate what proportion of remaining cards were face cards. When there were a high proportion of face cards left in the shoe they would make large bets.



Another way to try and overcome the expected loss on each hand by having the casino change the rules for you. If you’re a high enough roller, sometimes casinos will entice you to play by giving you discounts on your losses. When they offer these discounts on losses, they attempt to run the math to ensure that you should still be expected to lose money on your trip, however as described in the article it’s not clear they always get it right.

Most people don’t have the skill and manpower to count cards, they don’t have enough money to warrant a discount, nor do they have any other way to get the odds on each hand in their favor. So to try and overcome the house edge, they will try to cleverly alter the amount they are betting on each hand. A betting strategy, or a martingale, is a set of rules to determine how much a player should bet on each hand to try and compensate for previous wins or loses. This is different from counting cards because it doesn’t take into account what cards are left in the shoe; it only uses how many times the player has won or lost.

For example, let’s say you and your spouse go to a blackjack table with $1,024 $1,023 and hope to win an additional dollar. Your spouse suggests you just play one hand and if you lose then walk away, but you have a better idea in mind. On your first hand you bet a single dollar. If you win you do walk away, but if you lose you bet two dollars. If you lose twice in a row you bet four dollars, if you lose three times in a row you bet eight dollars, and you continue to double your bet until you get a win. Any time you win a hand you will wipe out all of your previous losses and you’ll get a dollar in winnings. The only way not make of money is to lose 10 straight hands in a row, and since losing 10 straight hands in a row is extremely unlikely, you expect to almost always make the dollar you were hoping for. Or in terms of the coins from before, instead of betting a dollar that a coin will flip heads, you bet $1,024 that out of ten flipped coins at least one will be heads. If you win you get an extra dollar, otherwise you lose all of your $1,024 $1,023.

If you followed your spouse’s advice, you would have slightly less than a 50% chance of winning a dollar, and slightly greater than 50% chance of losing a dollar. By not following their advice, you have around a 99.9% chance of winning the dollar, and a 0.01% chance of losing all the money you walked in with. In fact because the amount you would lose when you get ten bad hands in a row is so catastrophically high, the expected amount you win overall is still negative. Your clever betting strategy didn’t actually change the house’s advantage over you; all it did was push the risk out so that you lose very rarely and when you lose you lose big. You can mathematically prove that any betting strategy you use, no matter how hard you try and optimize it, will fail to change the fact that the house has an advantage – you’ll still lose money by playing.



Once the bank has increased their leverage, this becomes similar to the betting strategy in blackjack. Most of the time, the bank’s pair of investments will yield a decent return. Every once in a while, Microsoft will decrease in value while Google increases, and the bank will lose much more money than if they hadn’t hedged at all. Just like the person using a betting strategy, they have pushed their risk to the tail events: only when the market moves in a particular way will they lose money, but when it does, they’ll lose big.

As Wall Street has created more and more complicated financial products, it has become nearly impossible for a buyer to determine how much of the product’s return is due to shifting risk to the tails. In terms of blackjack, consider a person who tells you they can get an average return of five cents for every dollar you give them to play, but doesn’t tell you how they do it. Unless you watch them play, there is really no way for you to know if they are actually changing the game like the MIT students, or if they are just employing a betting strategy and at some point will lose all of your money.



The lesson here is that whether on Wall Street or the strip in Las Vegas, it’s easy to confuse increasing the chances of winning with shifting risk. Increasing the chances of winning improves the amount you should expect as payout. Shifting the risk makes it so that most of the time you get a good payout, but every once and a while you lose catastrophically. As a culture, we should be trying to ensure that the people making financial decisions are looking to do more of the former and less of the latter, especially given the systemic consequences of recent catastrophic market collapses.

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