How to master credit card roulette
February 27, 2012
By: Geoff Williams
Many credit card articles are about the importance of using a credit card responsibly. This one isn't one of those.
Credit card roulette is a game, but it's definitely not for kids. Or people who are cash poor. Or people with a nervous constitution.
If you think "credit card roulette" means deciding which of your credit card bills you should pay this month and which you should let slide, this game is not for you. Credit card roulette is a chance game played by the rich or at least reasonably well off. (Warning: If you carry a lot of revolving debt and have shaky cash flow, this is not a game for you. Try Yahtzee instead.)
If you have a credit card for excellent credit, a healthy credit line and the mind-set to play, however, follow these unofficial credit card roulette rules and answers to frequently asked questions, as explained here by several experienced gamblers.
To get a free meal and avoid paying for everyone else's.
How to play
There are two ways to play credit card roulette. Dan Nainan, 30, is a New York- and Beverly Hills-based comedian who does everything from corporate events to comedy clubs. He has also been having fun with credit card roulette since 2006. Here's how he plays: Everyone puts a credit card into a hat and then someone pulls out a card, and whoever's name is on the card pays the total bill. It's a time saver for time-crunched diners and puts the loser into his misery quickly.
But Matthew Durbin, a 36-year-old salesman for a software company in Raleigh, N.C., always plays the slow and suspenseful way. Durbin, who has been playing since about 2000, says that the last card pulled out always pays.
"It's a reverse-order draw," Durbin says. "We make a big scene out of it. It adds to the ambiance of the meal. We'll bring in an unbiased third party like a waiter or waitress, and if you have a lot of people playing, and a lot of cards, the suspense gets bigger and bigger."
Just how much money are we talking about? If you're with a group of 10, the bill could easily be several hundred dollars, or even over a thousand, depending on the type of restaurant and how many cocktails have been consumed. Again, you only want to play if you know you can afford to pay for everyone's meal, and if your credit card debt ceiling has sufficient headroom.
You should also play only if you are generally a good sport and truly won't mind if you lose.
"I was doing a show in Dubai in November, and there were eight of us [at dinner]," says Nainan. "Everybody agreed to play the game, and one guy lost and he didn't want to pay, because he felt that somehow the game had been rigged, even though clearly it had not been. It became really uncomfortable and nearly turned into a shouting match, so we agreed instead to have everybody just split the bill. That was really the only uncomfortable occurrence I've seen playing this game."
"I've seen somebody cry before," says Durbin. But it was just once, a long time ago, he says when he and his friends were younger -- and this particular person obviously shouldn't have been playing.
What are the odds?
It depends. As Saeed Ghahramani, an expert on probability who serves as Dean of Arts & Sciences at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass., says, "Assuming that the number of people dining each time remains the same, and the amount of the bill does not change from month to month, this is a fair game. If the players keep playing it over and over, in the long run everyone ends up paying the same amount of money. So it is neither stupid nor smart to play this game. In probability, the technical word for such games is simply 'fair game.'"
But if you play the game as most people will -- at random, with different amounts of money and numbers of people playing -- it's completely a game of chance whether you'll be stuck with the bill or walk away having had a free meal. Ghahramani says that "some will end up paying nothing, some might lose big, some might lose a little."
In six years of playing, Nainan has done well. "I remember losing maybe three times, which I would think is way less than what one would expect statistically. If I play the game 30 times and only had to pay three times, that's a fantastic gain on my part. If we assume each meal to be $50 on average, I've only paid perhaps $900 for $1,500 worth of meals."
Durbin, too, has fared well. He estimates that in 15 or 20 games, he has only lost once, paying several hundred dollars for the meal. Still, he has come out far ahead. Which is why his wife hasn't complained too much, says Durbin. "She thinks it's ridiculous."
What if nobody has a hat?
Many people in the 21st century don't regularly wear hats, you know, especially inside a restaurant. Then the game is over before you even play. If there is no hat, our unofficial rules and bylaws state that -- oh, wait, no, this just in. Nainan says that he and his dining pals have often used a briefcase, a laptop bag, backpack or a purse. Phew.
Besides, as Nainan observes: "Being a bit of a germaphobe, I would be a little bit leery of reaching into somebody's hat."
And if you have absolutely nothing to put the credit cards in, Nainan has another solution. "Another thing we've done is to just stack the credit cards up and then let somebody shuffle them and then hand the deck to another person behind his or her back and then have him or her pick the fateful card," Nainan says. "If we do this, we put the cards face down so that they won't be able to tell their own credit card by using Braille because of the raised numbers. Which would be extremely unlikely," adds Nainan, "but one can't be too careful when money is involved."
How long has this game been around?
Although it's a game that seems to really have come into popularity in the last two decades, the variation has likely been around since people began using credit cards regularly (the first card was Diners Club in 1950). For instance, on June 8, 1960, The Morning Herald in Uniontown, Pa., ran an amusing item in a society column, referring to a resident named Jerry Ossip, who invented a fun game he apparently tried to play with his waiter, which he called "credit card roulette." The customer would offer the waiter six credit cards, one of which had been cancelled.
Not surprisingly, this version of the game never caught on.
What if you don't want to play?
You can always pay for your own meal while the others split up the rest of the bill and do their thing.
"The game is meant to be fun," Durbin says. "It sucks to lose, but it's a fun experience. But if you don't have the money or aren't willing to participate, don't, regardless of what people say. And they can sometimes really say a lot and try to urge you to play. My friends can be ruthless about doing that, and a lot of guys can be, especially if there's alcohol involved. But there's no shame in opting out."
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