Bobby Yip  /  Reuters file
A ball rolls around a roulette wheel at Gaming Expo Asia in Macau.
updated 9/28/2012 10:22:52 PM ET 2012-09-29T02:22:52

If you want to beat the house at roulette, it helps to think like a physicist.

A simple model of the motion of a roulette wheel and ball, based on physics principles and confirmed by experiments on an actual wheel, has revealed two ways of overcoming the usual odds against roulette players.

The key, the modelers found, is knowing the precise location of the ball and the relative speeds of the ball and wheel when the croupier — the casino worker in charge of the game — sets the wheel in motion and releases the ball.

"Knowing the initial conditions allows you to beat the odds," said Michael Small, a statistician at the University of Western Australia in Perth, who carried out the study with Chi Kong Tse of Hong Kong Polytechnic University. "In some cases you can beat them quite significantly."

The simpler method the pair tested involves careful observation and recording of the initial conditions by an individual or team of players. In experiments on a roulette wheel in a laboratory, the method produced predicted earnings of almost 20 percent instead of the expected loss of about 2.7 percent for a European-style wheel. In U.S. casinos, the odds tilt further in the house's favor because the wheel contains one extra space.

The other approach, using a digital camera mounted above the wheel to obtain the same data, provided better predictions. But for gamblers it presents the obvious problem of how to conceal the equipment in a security-conscious casino.

Look for a slant
And yet another factor increased the chances of beating the house even further.

"A very slight slant in the roulette table, could ... substantially enhance returns," the two researchers reported in the journal Chaos.

Small and Tse used high-school calculus and physics — specifically, the branch known as classical mechanics — to develop their model. They wrote down equations to predict the path the ball would take once the croupier releases it.

"We extrapolate that prediction to the point where the ball hits one of the deflectors — the raised bumps in the wheel's rim that are added to increase the random bouncing of the ball," Small explained. "Then we make a guess as to what portion of the wheel the ball is likely to land in."

The pair tested their model on a standard casino roulette wheel installed in Tse's laboratory. Small recorded on a computer the times at which the ball and a specific part of the roulette wheel passed a fixed point on the frame supporting the wheel.

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"You basically press a button when the ball passes a certain point and then use that timing to make a prediction," Small said.

Predicting the half of the wheel in which the ball would settle would allow a gambler to bet on a combination of numbers with some confidence.

In 22 trials, Small and Tse predicted the correct half 13 times. Overall that would have earned them 18 percent profit on a theoretical stake, they report.

"It is clear that in principle one should be able to make some predictions, given sufficient information," said Holger Dullin of the University of Sydney in Australia. "The paper by Small and Tse did a good analysis."

History of scientific roulette
The concept of using scientific understanding to beat the house isn’t new. In the late 1970s the "Eudaemons," a group of physics postgraduates, used theoretical insights and a rudimentary computer concealed in a shoe to win at roulette in Nevada in the 1970s. But since they didn’t publish their research, nobody outside their team knows the details of how they did it.

On the heels of this new research, however, J. Doyne Farmer, a group member who is now a professor of mathematics at Oxford, has written a report on the exploit that he plans to submit for publication.

"Small and Tse get some aspects of roulette prediction right," Farmer said.  "I can’t say whether their system would work, but I'm sure it is not as good as ours."

Small and Tse extended their research by taking advantage of modern technology. They mounted a digital camera directly above their roulette wheel to obtain better measurements of the physical parameters. In 700 trials, they confirmed the validity of their model and identified certain numbers on the wheel in which the ball settled preferentially.

Strategies for both sides
The study suggests strategies for both sides of the roulette wheel.

"If you wish to beat the house, look for a wheel for which the ball drops only from one side of the rim — that is, a crooked table," Small said. "Prediction becomes substantially simpler and more reliable."

However, Small warned that roulette "is a game of chance. Even if the odds are in your favor, there is still a probability of losing, and losing big. In the long run you would come out ahead but you may first need very deep pockets."

And Small also has some advice for casino owners.

"Train the croupiers to spin the ball when they release it, and make sure that the tables are level and the air conditioning is working," Small said, to allow for any influence of air resistance.

Small insists that his interest in gambling is purely theoretical. He has broken even in casinos by refusing to gamble there.

"On one occasion I lost \$20 on cocktails," Small recalled. "And on another I gained \$20, which I found on the floor."

A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne is a freelance science writer based on Cape Cod, Mass.

### Explainer: The 2012 Weird Science Awards

• Our annual Weird Science Awards pay tribute to the strangest scientific tales of the past year, and you just know the 2012 edition had to be a doozy. While we're waiting for the Maya apocalypse — and we may be waiting a long, long time — let's count down the top 10 Weird Science stories, as determined by an ironically unscientific Live Poll.

No. 10 is the discovery that having a painful need to urinate can impair your judgment. "When people reach a point when they are in so much pain they just can't stand it anymore, it was like being drunk," says Brown University neurologist Peter Snyder. "The ability to hold information was really impaired." To say nothing of the ability to hold water.

The research won Snyder and his colleagues a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Watch Snyder explain the study in this YouTube video, then click the "Next" button for more laugh-provoking science — or scroll quickly all the way down to the bottom if you have a painful need to go.

— Alan Boyle, msnbc.com science editor

• 9. Flies hooked on meth ... and sugar

Botaurus via Univ. of Illinois
Researchers have found that the fruit fly is a useful model organism for studying the whole-body effects of methamphetamine exposure.

When researchers noticed that meth addicts often take in large amounts of sugary drinks, they decided to do a little experiment: First, they got fruit flies hooked on methamphetamine. Then the scientists fed some of the flies a diet heavy on trehalose, an insect blood sugar. They found that the sugar-gobbling flies outlived the flies who didn't get the sweet stuff. Maybe sugar metabolism plays a role in meth's toxic effects. "Hopefully, some of these insights might lead to opportunities to deal with the problems associated with the drug," says University of Illinois toxicologist Barry Pittendrigh. But more research is required to trace the effects on mammals. In the meantime, watch out for those meth-head fruit flies.

• 8. Monster pictures make a splash

Courtesy of Discovery News
A photo from a video that claims to show Alaska's own version of a sea monster.

2011 saw a double-header (so to speak) in the marine-monster category. The most popular Loch Ness monster-like picture came from Alaska, where Andy Hillstrand of the "Deadliest Catch" TV show captured the footage for the Discovery Channel. Some might suggest that the creature is an eel, or a fish, or even a trick of light on the water. Not Hillstrand. "I've never seen anything like it," he told Discovery News. He suspects that the picture shows a Cadborosaurus, a legendary beast that has long been said to frequent Alaska's waters. Meanwhile, another picture purporting to show a creature that's been nicknamed "Bownessie" made waves in England.

• 7. Glowing dog has an on-off switch

Lee et al. / Genesis
Photos demonstrate the inducible glow-in-the-dark effect in a genetically modified dog: The left images shows the dog's paw in normal light (upper left) and under ultraviolet light (lower left) after doxycycline is added to the dog's food. The right-hand images show the dog's paw in normal and ultraviolet light after scientists stopped administering the drug.

In past years, our Weird Science Award winners have included glow-in-the-dark kitties and glow-in-the-dark puppies. How could scientists possibly top that? Would you believe a dog with a gene that turns the fluorescence under UV light on or off, depending on whether a particular drug is added to its food? That's exactly the kind of dog that South Korean scientists produced in 2011. Why, you ask? Well, the ultimate aim of these glow-in-the-dark exercises is to splice in genes that can help treat diseases — and having an on-off switch would give physicians more control over the treatment. That feat would make other researchers turn green ... with envy.

• 6. Just this once, Samoa skips a Friday

Hannah Johnston  /  Getty Images
Samoa and New Zealand-administered Tokelau skip a day as they jump over the international date line in an attempt to improve trade and tourism.

For more than a century, Samoa was on one side of the International Date Line, and Australia and New Zealand were on the other. When the Samoans were at Sunday church, the Aussies were starting their business week on Monday. And when Samoa was trying to finish up its own business week, the Kiwis were settling into the weekend. To remedy that, the Samoans switched over to the Australia-New Zealand side in 2011, going directly from Thursday, Dec. 29, to Saturday, Dec. 31. To top it all off, workers were paid for the non-existent Friday. If only we could all get to the weekend that quickly ... and spend it on a tropical island.

• 5. Pole shift forces airport makeover

Might as well face reality: Shift happens. Earth's shifting magnetic poles are not a sign of the apocalypse. They're just a fact of life on our dynamic planet. We do have to cope to the shift that life throws at us, though. For example, in early 2011, Tampa's airport had to repaint the numbers on its runways to reflect their shifting orientation with respect to magnetic north. The good news is that even dramatic changes in the poles' position would have no effect on life on Earth, despite what the doomsday prophets say.

• 4. Corpse-dissolving machine invented

"Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Does that old saying apply to building a better corpse-dissolving machine as well? Resomation Ltd. hopes so. The Scottish company installed its machine in a St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral home and hopes the system will be legalized in other jurisdictions. The alkaline hydrolysis unit liquefies a body's soft tissues and flushes the sterile liquid into the municipal water system. The bones and other hard parts are left behind to be crushed. Company founder Sandy Sullivan says the machine lets people express their environmental concerns "in a very positive and I think personal way." Sounds good, as long as they don't put a Soylent Green factory next door.

• 3. Preacher gets doomsday wrong ... twice!

First, figure out exactly when Noah's Ark was floated by the Flood, and exactly when Jesus was crucified. Then come up with an arcane biblical numerology to add 7,000 years to the former, and 722,500 days to the latter. That was California preacher Harold Camping's formula for determining that May 21 was the date for the beginning of an apocalyptic Rapture. When May 21 didn't work out, he said Oct. 21 was the fallback date for the end of the world. And when that didn't work out ... well, now Camping says he's rethinking this whole doomsday business. But what about the 2012 apocalypse? That's too kooky, even for Camping. "Mr. Camping does not believe the Mayan calendar holds any significance at all," a spokeswoman says. Camping's mathematical acumen earned him a share in one of 2011's Ig Nobel Prizes.

• 2. 'Aflockalypse' is for the birds

Warren Watkins/The Daily Citizen  /  EPA
A dead blackbird on the ground in Beebe, Arkansas.

The year 2011 was rung in with a series of reports about mass die-offs, involving blackbirds (the so-called "Aflockalypse" in Arkansas), fish, crabs and other creatures. Some wondered whether a global environmental crisis was in the offing, but experts said the Aflockalypse was simply a case of people connecting the dots between unrelated events, facilitated by global communication systems. Die-offs can happen for a variety of reasons. The Arkansas blackbird deaths, for example, took place after the birds were spooked by New Year's Eve fireworks. And wouldn't you know it? The Aflockalypse happened again to kick off 2012.

• 1. Fungus turns ants into zombies

David P. Hughes
A dead ant, after being zombified by a species of parasitic fungus. The brain-controlling fungus turns ants into zombies that do the parasite's bidding before it kills them.

If books like "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and video games like "Resident Evil" can generate billions of dollars in sales, it shouldn't be surprising that the top Weird Science honors go to a story about zombie ants being taken over by a brain-controlling fungus. The fungus apparently uses temperature cues to decide when to have the ant clamp down on a cool leaf with a death grip. Pennsylvania State University's David Hughes speculates that the fungus does its thing to ensure it "has a long cool night ahead of it, during which time it can literally burst out of the ant's head to begin the growth of the spore-releasing stalk." It's the perfect plot for a horror movie directed by one mean mother: Mother Nature.

• Honorable (?) mention

Other weird tales that almost made the top 10:

Previous Weird Science winners: