Thursday, September 10, 2015

One Winning Move

What happens when you gather four thousand distinguished physicists in the nation’s gambling capital for a conference? A bad week for the casino, but for a somewhat surprising reason.

It was the American Physical Society’s 1986 April meeting; the organizers originally meant for it to be held in San Diego, but a last-minute conflict with the hotel necessitated a relocation, and Vegas’ MGM Grand was chosen as the new destination.

It was a disaster for the Grand: the worst week they’d ever had, financially. After they left, APS was politely asked never to return, not just by the MGM Grand, but by the entire city of Las Vegas.

Maybe you’ve seen 21, and you’re picturing teams of sleek geeks using elaborate signaling systems and network analysis to gain the statistical edge over the house in Blackjack. That’s been done in real life, but it wasn’t what happened at this meeting.

When I first heard this story, I immediately recalled a documentary I’d seen a while back, where some science-minded gamblers proved that a roulette wheel could reliably be beaten with a timer and a pocket computer. But it turns out the physicists didn’t play roulette either.

Maybe you know of physicists’ apparent predilection for poker, or that a Dutch theoretical physicist took home a gold bracelet in the 2010 World Series of Poker. Did they somehow devise an optimized betting strategy, analyzing risks and payoffs in possible futures, assigning weights and hedging their bets to come out in the black? Still no, or at least not en masse.

Instead, the APS members found the one move guaranteed not to lose when the odds are stacked against you: don’t play.

See, when a conference happens in a town like Vegas, hotels will offer discounted rates for the group, trying to undersell their competitors, and these bids are often made under the assumption that the average guest will spend a certain amount of money at the tables, at the bar, etc. Hotels associated with casinos, anticipating that things like the bartenders’ wages will be covered primarily by customers’ tips, can offer lower-than-ordinary rates.

But whether the attendees collectively recognized that it’s impossible to “beat the odds" or they were just too busy seeing presentations and posters, the week of the APS meeting found the gaming floor almost completely empty, leaving the casino with its record-low take. By staying at a gambling hotel but refusing to gamble, the group effectively had its stay subsidized by guests who were drawn in by the lure of the green felt. The lesson, it seems, is that physicists do not play dice.


  1. Hee hee! Well done! Take that, Vegas!

  2. Next time, come to El Paso, TX. We've got good rates and good food and no one expects you to gamble. :)

  3. 'optimized betting strategy' - no, they don't use it