Speed Reads


Gambling winning streaks are real, and shockingly quantifiable, researchers suggest

Gambling winning streaks are real, and shockingly quantifiable, researchers suggest

Earlier this month, two researchers at University College, London, published some surprising findings in the journal Cognition. The gambling phenomenon known as the "hot hand" — the idea that if you are on a winning streak you'll continue to win — is real. And not only is it real, but your chances of winning appear to rise significantly after each winning hand.

Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey reached their conclusion by studying 565,915 online sports bets made by 776 gamblers in 2010. Overall, the gamblers won 40 percent of the time (the house always wins, eventually). But if one of the gamblers won, his odds of winning the next hand rose to 49 percent, then 57 percent in hand three, 67 percent in hand four, 72 percent on the fifth wager, and an insane 75 percent on the sixth consecutive winning hand. This is what that looks like in graph form, via Xu and Harvey's paper:

For losers, flip those charts horizontally: Losers keep on losing and losing. Skill had nothing to do with it either way. What's going on? "I certainly don't want people to think that if you're winning that you're more likely to win and eventually you win, win, win," Xu told says The New Yorker's Jay Caspian Kang. The key is apparently the gambler's fallacy, described by Xu and Harvey as "If you have been losing, you are more likely to win in future."

What appears to happen, according to the paper, is that "after winning, gamblers selected safer odds. After losing, they selected riskier odds." Winners keep on winning, Xu and Harvey say, because they are "worried their good luck was not going to continue, so they selected safer odds." Sure, but if you're losing, looks best to walk away.