The NYTimes’ Daniel Slotnik wrote a great obituary about a bewildered-looking man in a rumpled suit who won millions of dollars playing roulette. The man claimed to have used a computer program to create a winning system. He lied. What he did was observe very, very carefully over a long period of time and detect patterns that were invisible to others. He knew that while all roulette wheels looked the same, each was minutely different. The slight variations occurred during manufacture, assembly, and installation went unnoticed by most – but not by Richard Jarecki.
Jarecki was a medical doctor with an unnaturally keen eye for detail.
Like every other player, he knew that the odds were with the casinos. As there were 37 possible numbers and the payout was 35:1, the edge would go to every casino with perfectly manufactured and perfectly balanced wheels. But the wheels were not perfecty manufactured or balanced, and the imperfections were there to be discovered by a very patient and very observing person. Once Jarecki learned the idiosyncracies of a particular wheel, the odds were in his favor and he would win big.
Casinos notice when people win more than they should, and take steps to counter them.
This we have all seen in any number of movies where a gambler beats the house, typically counting cards in blackjack. Casinos knew Jarecki knew something, so they would move the wheels around to try and throw him off. But unbeknownst to them, he had paid such attention to detail that he could tell which wheel was which by tiny nicks and scratches that most of us would never notice. This is the same difference that we find between really perceptive researchers and all the rest. Patience, full attention, and keen observation reveal things that most don’t notice. And when you know something the others don’t, you’ve got a real edge.