Explaining the Science Behind a Roulette Wheel

Ruben Hill
October 5, 2017

For fans of gambling, roulette is an activity that oozes class. Betting on red or black and watching the wheel spin round as Lady Luck decides whether to land on your side, and you wait with bated breath to see whether Murphy’s Law is going to kick in for you at the table, is a thrill really worth experiencing, even if you aren’t a regular gambler.

Wheel of fortune
"Wheel of fortune" by Zdenko Zivkovic (CC BY 2.0)

The thrill of roulette, with that “will it, won’t it” excitement, can be replicated online with online roulette, and indeed with other online casino games. This thrill is one of the reasons why Canadian online casino players love jackpot games; the variations available mean that players can pick a game of their choice before placing their bet and experiencing the rush of adrenalin. When it comes to roulette in particular, though, there is actually one added advantage of playing online: the house edge (the odds the casino has over you as a player) is determined entirely by chance and probability, without the interference of the other elements that can theoretically affect the creation of a physical roulette wheel.

Not Just About the Power of the Spin

If you have ever looked at a physical roulette wheel, you’ll have noticed they are a fairly magnificent creation, even though they give the impression of having a fairly simple design. While you might think that the strength of a spin of the wheel by the dealer is the major factor, there is a lot more going on which helps to decide where the ball will finally stop.

The number of zeros, the way the wheel is constructed, and the manner in which the ball bounces around when it begins to stop are all important factors on the final result. In fact, it is impossible to predict the final outcome of the ball before it has started spinning. The science of the spin is important, but the wheel is far more complicated than a simple spinning top. However, this hasn't stopped lots of very intelligent people trying to create strategies and ways of predicting how to defeat the mighty roulette wheel!

Indeed, while in the past some people may have taken advantage of poorly constructed roulette wheels to try to defeat the odds, the reality is that even these attempts had to take into account the fact that the wheels they were using were flawed and therefore very hard to predict! This is without even taking into account external factors, like how the climate would affect the wheel and the spin of the ball.

Can Science Be Defeated by Maths?

With many mathematicians, including the likes of Newton and Galileo, turning their hand to the world of working out probabilities and odds, there are of course those who have thought they could work out a strategy to defeat the casino and win big. However, is it the case that blind luck trumps maths and physics in roulette?

Galileo en Pisa
"Galileo en Pisa" by Néstor Alonso (CC BY-SA 2.0)

While you can of course work out clever bets that aim to minimize your losses, the most intriguing idea that has been put forward so far to win at roulette is “the martingale”, which suggested that doubling your bet each time you lost would eventually not only see you break even but also win more money. While this theory is widely respected, the fact that an edge is created by the green zero (or two zeros on US tables) means that you can't really aim to just hope for a red or black strategy to work in a mathematical way.

Of course, the science of the roulette table and the challenges it brings will always mean that gamblers enjoy the challenge, but the most important thing that science can teach us about roulette is that when you play it, you need to leave the science behind! If you are a physics genius who can quickly see roughly where the ball will stop you aren't (normally) going to be allowed to place that bet after the wheel has started spinning, so you need to just enjoy the fun of getting lucky (or not!).

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