Martingale: The System That Just Doesn’t Work

“They have to cover a game… eventually!”

Famous last words of a sports bettor, eh? And yes, it is true that eventually, every single team covers a game, every single team doesn’t cover a game, and all streaks, both winning and losing do come to a close. There are some bettors out there that only play against these big time streaks in hopes that the eventual and inevitable win or cover happens somewhere along the way.

This system is known as the Martingale system. In the Martingale system, a bettor places a bet on an expected outcome. If that bet loses, he bets on the same outcome again the next go around, but he bets not only his original stake, but double his original stake to turn a profit. If that bet loses, it’s double the bet again, and so on and so forth until the expected result finally comes out.

The easiest way to conceptualize this is on a roulette wheel. The common thought is that there is a 50/50 chance of a red number or a black number coming up. Of course, we know that the actual percent of the time that red or black comes up is 47.4% thanks to 0 and 00. But regardless, if a whole string of red results come up, Martingale bettors will merely say, “Black is due,” and bet on black the next spin. Though it is insanely unlikely that, say 10 straight spins come up red, there is still only a 47.4% chance of any given spin being red or black, as every spin is totally independent of the previous spins.

Theoretically, the bettor with an unlimited bankroll will indeed win 100% of the time using the Martingale system. However, in the casino, there are limits put on tables to stop those who use the Martingale system from beating them. Sportsbooks too, have limits on the size of the bets that they will take, and eventually, with a string of bad luck, a Martingale bettor could run into problems with limits or have their bankroll busted.

Theoretical Math of the Martingale System

Say you have a bankroll of $10,000 and bet 1% of your bankroll, or $100 per game. Of course, we know that means that you have to bet $110 to win $100 on your average -110 bet (unless you’re playing at a reduced juice sportsbook). We’ll say that theoretically, you start betting on the New England Patriots to cover the spread in Week 1 and plan on betting on them until they cover a spread. Odds have it, they’ll cover in one of the first three or four games for sure, thus giving you a quick profit of a unit. Let’s take a look at the math and the end results if your goal is to earn exactly one unit, or in this example, $100.

Week 1: $110 to win $100 (If Lost: -$110)

Week 2: $231 to win $210 (If Lost: -$331)

Week 3: $474.10 to win $431 (If Lost: -$805.10)

Week 4: $995.61 to win $905.10 (If Lost: -$1,800.71)

Essentially, you’re betting $1,800.71 to win $100 that suggests the Patriots are going to cover one of their first four games of the season. That’s not so unreasonable, especially considering the fact that New England hasn’t had a four-game ATS losing streak since the 2007 season. However, that losing ATS losing streak, if you consider the playoffs as well, went six games in 2007, and the ATS losing streak dating to the next season was seven games, or 11 games if you include the preseason. Let’s take the chart out a little bit more…

Week 5: $2,090.78 to win $1,900.71 (If Lost: -$3,891.49)

Week 6: $4,390.64 to win $3,991.49 (If Lost: -$8,282.13)

Week 7: $9,220.34 to win $8,382.13 (If Lost: -$17,502.47)

Now through seven games, you would be betting $17,502.47 to win $100. That means you’re assuming that 99.43% of the time, the Patriots aren’t going to go on a seven-game ATS losing streak.

By the way, if you had an assumed bankroll of $10,000 to get started, you’d have lost nearly 83% of your bankroll by betting just six games, and you wouldn’t have had enough money to bet the seventh game.

Martingale System in Baseball

The NFL probably isn’t the best example in the world, knowing that the worst ATS record that a team has had in recent memory is the 3-12-1 ATS mark of the Philadelphia Eagles last year, and even they never went more than six straight games without a cover.

In baseball though, this is a much different story. Teams get hot and cold all the time in baseball, and those streaks often can go on for quite some time. Since 1961, there have been seven losing streaks of at least 17 games in the majors. The most recent of those streaks came courtesy of the 2005 Kansas City Royals, who lost 19 straight games.

The concept of the Martingale in baseball is a little more difficult, knowing that the odds change every single day. Theoretically, bad teams like that 2005 Kansas City team was, are underdogs virtually every day, and they are underdogs of varying degrees. So rather than just saying we’re betting $100, let’s say that we’re trying to win $100 on the Royals at some point during this losing streak. After all, the streak had to come to an end at some point, right?

The streak started on July 28th, 2005 against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on the road. That day, the Royals were +158 underdogs, meaning we would have had to bet $63.29 on them in order to win $100. Here’s what the horrendous losing streak looked like for poor Kansas City bettors who were just trying to win a measly $100 off of their team at some point during this skid.

7/28 @ TB +158: $63.29 to win $100 (Lost a total of $63.29)

7/29 @ TB +142: $114.99 to win $163.29 (Lost a total of $178.28)

7/30 @ TB +118: $235.83 to win $278.28 (Lost a total of $414.11)

7/31 @ TB +109: $471.66 to win $514.11 (Lost a total of $885.77)

8/2 @ BOS +200: $492.89 to win $985.77 (Lost a total of $1,378.66)

8/3 @ BOS +240: $616.11 to win $1,478.66 (Lost a total of $1,994.77)

8/4 @ BOS +240: $872.82 to win $2,094.77 (Lost a total of $2,867.59)

8/5 vs. OAK +133: $2,231.27 to win $2,967.59 (Lost a total of $5,098.86)

8/6 vs. OAK +167: $3,113.09 to win $5,198.86 (Lost a total of $8,211.95)

8/7 vs. OAK +151: $5,504.60 to win $8,311.95 (Lost a total of $13,716.55)

8/9 vs. CLE +155: $8,913.90 to win $13,816.55 (Lost a total of $22,630.45)

8/10 vs. CLE +155: $14,664.81 to win $22,730.45 (Lost a total of $37,295.26)

8/11 vs. CLE +176: $21,247.31 to win $37,395.26 (Lost a total of $58,542.57)

8/14 vs. DET +123: $47,676.89 to win $58,642.57 (Lost a total of $106,219.46)

8/14 vs. DET +127: $83,716.11 to win $106,319.46 (Lost a total of $189,935.57)

8/15 @ SEA +185: $102,721.93 to win $190,035.57 (Lost a total of $292,657.50)

8/16 @ SEA +162: $180,714.51 to win $292,757.50 (Lost a total of $473,372.01)

8/17 @ SEA +185: $255,930.82 to win $473,472.01 (Lost a total of $729,302.83)

8/19 @ OAK +325: $224,431.64 to win $729,402.83 (Lost a total of $953,734.47)

So, on this 19-game losing streak, had you used the Martingale system, you would have lost nearly a million bucks trying to win $100. And just for the record, the bet that finally would have won you your $100 would have been betting $293,487.53 on Mike Wood against Barry Zito and the Oakland Athletics at +325. In total, you would have needed $1,247,222 just to make $100 over the course of 20 games. Can you imagine if this streak were as long as the longest losing streak in baseball history of 26 games, though? We’d be talking about well into the $100M range just to make $100.

Sure, if you’re the king of a wealthy nation or you’re Bill Gates, you can afford to use the Martingale system. However, if you’re the rest of us with a limited budget, it’s just not all that smart.

Certainly, the cynic would state that the Martingale system would have produced hundreds of thousands, if not millions of victories in baseball history. However, to be on the wrong side of one of these catastrophic streaks would be damning beyond repair.

You might think that you’re the next genius that can come up with a winning formula using the Martingale system, but you’ll fail eventually, just like the rest. After all, there’s still only a 47.4% chance that the next spin will land on black.