Archive Gallery: The Science of Gambling

How winners win, cheaters cheat, and what a century of Popular Science taught us about both

Our world runs on money, and a whole lot of us want to know how to get more of it. Unfortunately, so do a lot of less-scrupulous people willing to use technology to cheat their way to the top.

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But not to fear: Popular Science has devoted plenty of pages over the years to spotting cheaters, while also giving you a few legitimate tips on how to step up your game (or your home setup). Click on the gallery and you'll also see more about the recent future of gambling (featuring memory drugs) that some people might still be betting on.

Crooked Gamblers' Tricks, November 1933
As long as betting has existed, so has cheating at it. In this article Popular Science advised against meeting strangers in a dark hotel room at night. Why? Because if you gamble with the scoundrels they might cheat. The story tells the tale of a sucker getting roped in to a situation where the strangers used technology to see his cards at all times. Some other highlights include using invisible ink to mark cards, then putting on a pair of glasses to see the difference. The cheats might also try using a machine to imperceptibly cut the corner of a card, then know it by feel. The highest tech conceit shown is probably a mechanical card disperser that delivers a new hand to the player. The upshot of it all is: if you absolutely must meet people you've never met before alone in a shady area, it's best to just leave your wallet behind. From the article "Strange Inventions Used By Crooked Gamblers."
Check For Fake Dice, July 1945
For the gambler who suspects he may be more than just unlucky, in 1945 we offered a couple helpful tips for seeing if those dice are up to snuff. If you make a stack of three and the suspected die can't slide in the middle slot, you might have a fake on your hands. If that's not an option, grab a bucket of water and see if one side immediately sinks to the bottom. From the article "Why Dice Behave As They Do."
Gambling Strategies in Business and War, December 1953
Here we tout the power of mathematics to teach us about war and business through games--and sometimes the power of games to teach us about games. The trick to roulette, we observe, is that there isn't a trick, so stop trying a system. If it lands on black 10 times in a row, the next one is still a 50-50 shot. The 1950s gem quote comes in a photo caption describing a board: "'Blast Off' is based on the current interest in space travel.'" Right next to it is a game based on another big American interest of the time: "'Assembly Line' gives each player an automobile factory to manage." From the article "Games Disclose Secrets of Success."
How Your Neighbor is Winning Your Cash, January 1962
This one is remarkably similar to the '30s post mentioned, but there's a good dose of '60s paranoia thrown into the mix. There are the usual crooks to worry about, but what about ... "one of the boys in your own Saturday-night game?" It even comes courtesy of the very McCarthy-sounding Senate Investigations Subcommittee. So what are your supposedly good friends doing to cheat you out of your dough? Cutting the deck strangely, marking cards, using loaded dice--the usual, mostly. The gem in this one is a glossary of terms that card cheats use--I guess to brag to each other about how good they are at cheating while other people are within earshot?
Build a 7-in-1 Gaming Table, January 1972
"When television palls, these long winter nights," we poetically told our readers in 1972, "few things are more fun than playing a game or two with your wife or (after the homework) with the kids." But it just takes so long to set up a board game. The solution? Spend several hours away from your wife and kids making a DIY table that fits seven games in one. It does look pretty neat--but are we wrong to assume this might be a way of tacitly condoning gambling with the guys? (Or, after the homework, gambling with the kids.) From the article "Seven-in-One Game Table."
How To Spot a Liar, August 2002
In 2002, we were looking for a better lie detector than the polygraph. In 2012, we're still looking. But back then, researchers examined the realm of bluffing to learn more. A team had a participant pick a card out of one of three envelopes. After that, they put them into an fMRI machine and asked a series of questions about what card it was, then monitored the results. But the joke was on the participants: all three envelopes had the five of clubs inside, letting the scientists know if they were lying while still giving the participants the illusion that they were lying successfully. From the article "Is Foolproof Lie Detection in the Cards?"
Smart Tags For Casino Chips, April 2004
Radio frequency identification technology was already 50-year-old tech when we wrote about it in 2004, but that's when we saw it cropping up more widely. One of those applications was in casino chips. With the tag, the house can know if someone is playing with counterfeit coinage. High rollers also get set apart from the rest of the crowd through the technology. From the article "The Many Faces of RFID Tech."
Gamble Better On Drugs, September 2005
Want to be smarter and happier? According to this article, drugs will help you out with that one day, no problem. A nice additional effect? They could also make you richer. Improving your memory could be especially helpful for the gambler trying to count cards in Las Vegas. "In the future," it says, "'recreational drug use' may take on a whole new meaning, extending to substances that improve your ability to gamble effectively." Drugs are an investment in your future, basically. From the article "Will Drugs Make Us Smarter and Happier?"