Ironic Onion

By Phil Plait | December 28, 2008 9:21 am

The Onion — still funny, even though it’s been around seemingly forever — just put up a great "radio" news bit: "Jesus Answers Half The Prayers At Area Roulette Table" (one NSFW word in that).

As usual, it’s dead-on satire by the Onion, with subtle skeptical layering in it. Brilliant!

But it’s also a bit ironic. You see, the newscaster says that Jesus answered exactly one half of the prayers at a roulette table, making black win to spurn those who bet on red. However, the odds of winning on black are less than half; there are two green (0 and 00) slots on the wheel too. So out of the 38 slots, only 18 are black and 18 red. The odds of winning on black are therefore 18/38 = 47.4%, giving the house a slight edge when you bet on red or black.

So let me interpret the Onion ‘cast as saying that during the course of the night, Jesus granted exactly half the prayers, so after, say, 500 spins of the wheel black won half the time, and red the other half. What about green? Statistically speaking, green should win twice out of every 38 times, or 26 times over the night. The odds of not seeing green, not once, in 500 spins are very low.

That would be evidence of one of two things: supernatural involvement, or the casino cheating. If the latter, well, too bad. If the former, and you can prove it, then you can win a lot more than a single roulette bet…

So, for those of you who are humor-impaired, yes I know that a) the Onion is satirical, and 2) the joke is that Jesus only answered the prayers of gamblers on a single bet. But I felt like writing about this topic, it encourages a little critical thinking, and educates people on the fine art of casino gambling. I’ll note that I am lifetime in the black myself for casino gambling by almost a hundred dollars, so that makes me an expert.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, Skepticism

Comments (42)


    Homer: “Your mother has this crazy idea that gambling is wrong. Even though they say it’s okay in the bible.”

    Lisa: “Really? Where?”

    Homer: “Uh … Somewhere in the back.”

  2. Well, I guess you could chalk up a lack of green hits to casino cheating, but given that, as you already explained, they want to hit green to wipe out all the suckers taking “safe” bets on red or black, they’d have to be a really stupid casino to do that. 😉

  3. kouhoutek

    …or option number 3: people who play roulette aren’t terrible bright, and don’t know they can bet on the o’s. We are talking about people who bet, then pray for their bets…:)


    Homer Simpson is right; not only in the back, but in several other parts:

    Numbers 26:52-56 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying […] the land shall be divided by lot.

    Joshua 14:2 By lot was their inheritance, as the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.

    Joshua 18:6 Ye shall therefore describe the land into seven parts, and bring the description hither to me, that I may cast lots for you here before the LORD our God.

    Joshua 19:51 These are the inheritances, which Eleazar the priest, and Joshua the son of Nun, and the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel, divided for an inheritance by lot in Shiloh before the LORD.

    Joshua 21:8 And the children of Israel gave by lot unto the Levites these cities with their suburbs, as the LORD commanded by the hand of Moses.

    1 Chronicles 26:13-14 And they cast lots, as well the small as the great, according to the house of their fathers, for every gate. And the lot eastward fell to Shelemiah. Then for Zechariah his son, a wise counsellor, they cast lots; and his lot came out northward.

    Nehemiah 10:34 And we cast the lots among the priests, the Levites, and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God.

    Acts 1:23-26 And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, […] And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

  5. Max Fagin

    The 50% vs. 47.4% discrepancy makes sense when you realize that Jesus can only answer prayers that are actually MADE.

    Roulette tables are run by people who understand numbers, and thus don’t need to pray for the ball to land on 0 or 00. The only people who actually pray are the ones who place bets on red or black. So in reality, Jesus could still answer exactly half the prayers, and still allow the ball to land on green the appropriate number of times, since the house isn’t stupid enough to pray for their desired outcome.

  6. Mitchell

    Yes, Phil, red or black have a less-than-50% of winning.

    BUT, I am willing to wager that nobody at the table was praying for Green (0 or 00) since nobody wins! (Well, the House would, but I don’t think the House needs to pray when operating these games!)

    So, Jesus could have favored the players who were praying for a black win, which would be about half of the total prayers over the course of the night.

  7. And, to continue the gambling education, you should note that some roulette wheels only have the single “0” (and no double-zero). This makes the odds of black rise (slightly) to 18/37 = 48.6%.

  8. I heard that earlier and my first instinct was also to do what you just did.

    Over the long run, the average expected winning is the percentage of wins times the per-win payout minus the loss. So if you win $2 on a $1 bet on either black or red (winning nets you $1 and losing nets you -$1), then the average per-bet winning is
    ($1 * 0.474) + (-$1 * 0.526) = -5.2¢
    and whence the house rakes it in. You can also bet on green. I don’t know what the payout is off hand, but it’s a safe bet that the average payout favors the house.

  9. Adrian Lopez

    “That would be evidence of one of two things: supernatural involvement, or the casino cheating.”

    To be pedantic, while it would certainly be more than enough to raise reasonable suspicion, it wouldn’t be evidence of cheating. Discovering a flaw or mechanism that would lead consistently to statistically skewed results would be evidence of cheating, but absent such irregularities the outcome would still be consistent with randomness: An n-long sequence of red outcomes is just as likely as whatever n-long sequence of outcomes *does* come up, although it’s far less likely than the totality of n-long sequences of outcomes that *might* come up.

  10. I’m still waking up and misread the subject – I read this whole post going “So what does this have to do with ORION?” 😀

  11. It’s sad you had to include the footnote there. People can be so humourless…

  12. Thomas Siefert

    I always tell people, that when they play lotto, they might as well play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7……. I almost always get a response along the lines of: “that is the most unlikely sequence of all”.

  13. Radwaste

    Lotto fans also do not understand that Lotto can sell billions of non-winning tickets – that “146 million to one” does NOT mean that if 146 million tickets are sold, somebody wins.

  14. csrster

    123456… is a very stupid sequence to play at Lotto. Lots of other people _do_ play it and so in the event of winning you will have to share your winnings with a bunch of other idiots. (For similar reasons you should not use birthdates because of the bias towards numbers in the range 1-12.)

  15. An American Roulette wheel has a 0 and a 00. A European wheel has just a single 0.

    It was funny here in Ottawa – the casino across the river in Quebec opened with only European wheels. (Primarily) American tourists actually bitched and moaned until a “real” roulette wheel was brought in.

    Yes, there are gamblers so stupid they asked the house to make the odds more in favour of the house.

    As you might imagine, the casino obliged the request. Now you can play “American Roulette” or “Roulette”. I sort of assumed that the population at the tables roughly sorted itself by IQ.

  16. I always tell people, that when they play lotto, they might as well play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7……. I almost always get a response along the lines of: “that is the most unlikely sequence of all”.

    I ran those numbers through the results checker for Canada’s “Super 7” lottery.

    If you had played those numbers since 1994 (the earliest date for which I could find a result), you would have won 43 (arguably 45 counting wins on the free plays) times, of which the prizes would have been:

    – 35 free plays (in fact, you would have 37 free plays if you played the same numbers due to the numbers winning 2 weeks in a row)
    – $80

    Of course, you would have spent about $1500 to win that $80

    An insignificant sample of other combinations of 7 numbers indicates, not surprisingly, that those results are typical.

  17. Nomen Publicus

    This also points out the ethical problems problem with praying over something like betting. If a god were to bias the result to reward one prayer, of necessity other players must lose. What did the others do to deserve such treatment?

  18. Thomas Siefert

    Nomen Publicus Said: “What did the others do to deserve such treatment?”

    Well, for starters, they didn’t pray :-)

  19. quasidog

    It says a few things, that half the people at the table are idiots. That just because a bunch of idiots think Jesus is helping them to win doesn’t mean he is going to comply anyway. That trying to ‘pay out’ Jesus (and in turn trying to debunk prayer itself) by paying out the fools a the table would somehow constitute that Jesus doesn’t exist or that prayer doesn’t work… even if that wasn’t implied … but I know lots of readers are probably taking that angle here. Not only is the story lame, but debunking any aspect of it is lame …. except for the obvious bit of probability being the main factor here. So basically this is a testimony to the fact people need to study more in math class.

    It also says that you could get the same humor value by paying out people who think Hobbits are real. Actually that is kinda funny.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    Thomas Siefert: “Well, for starters, they didn’t pray”.

    Maybe they did, but they ‘did not pray hard enough’! :-)

  21. Davidlpf

    @Evolving Squid
    I wonder how many would go for Russian Roulette.

  22. Lol too funny. I too am in the black after countless visits to Vegas…. but probably only by $50 total ($100 definitely makes you a high-roller Phil). However, it may be hard to put down a large bet on the roulette wheel, it is even harder to walk away when you’ve just lost said bet. It helps that you know the odds of winning the cash back though… probably best to stay away from the table all together… but… but… just one more, $20 on red please! 😉

  23. kkozoriz

    I always tell people, that when they play lotto, they might as well play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7……. I almost always get a response along the lines of: “that is the most unlikely sequence of all”.

    Dark Helmet: So the combination is… one, two, three, four, five? That’s the stupidest combination I’ve ever heard in my life! The kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage!

  24. csrster Says: “123456… is a very stupid sequence to play at Lotto.”

    That’s the combination on my luggage!

    – Jack

  25. Aaaach! kkozoriz beat me to it while I was typing!

    What are the odds of that?

    – Jack

  26. Thomas Siefert

    Jack Haggertyy Said: “Aaaach! kkozoriz beat me to it while I was typing!
    What are the odds of that?”

    Quite big, recent estimates (by me) have put the percentage of nerds on Earth to 11.214%

  27. Ah prayers to Jesus. He is the same one who apparently can get my mother car park on cue but can’t save the babies in Dafur.

  28. Quiet Desperation

    Wow. Just in time to win the Pedantry Of Year award for 2008.

    I tease.

    Oh, and stay away from the single deck blackjack that only pays 6:5 for a blackjack hand instead of the traditional 3:2.

  29. Lisa

    BA, you’re the the guy at the sci fi conventions that wants to know why Capt. Picard’s communicator was worn on the wrong side in Episode 143 at exactly 12 minutes and 47 seconds. Aren’t you? :)

  30. Jigsaw Man

    Is it sad that I proceeded to look up Birthright, part two? Memory Alpha makes no mention of the error. I’ll have to watch the episode now. I hope you’re happy.

  31. Lisa, Picard’s communicator was never on the wrong side.

  32. Davidlpf

    You actually could take your eyes off of Wil.

  33. Bad Albert

    The BA seems to know far too much about gambling. Good thing the JREF $1,000,000 is in a protected account.

  34. Chad in Vegas

    As a statistician for a large Vegas-strip casino, let me just say that roulette is for suckers. As mentioned above, the house advantage on every bet (except the zeros where it is 7.8%) is 5.26% and, unlike some games, there is absolutely nothing you can do to change that. But what I can’t believe is that we have a couple of video roulette machines where is declares in large print that payouts are “32-1”, making the house advantage something like 12%, and it is one of our most popular games. The innumeracy of Americans scares me sometimes.

  35. Bo Babbyo

    “There are no fools so troublesome as those with wit.” I’m just trying to figure out whether this aphorism is most applicable to a) The Onion writer who felt safe satirizing organized religion but who either — i)failed to do the research necessary to stave off the wrath of math geeks or ii) failed to think it would matter; or b) the Editorial staff of the Onion, ditto; or c) The BA for geeking an ONION item to death; or d) the BA’s readers for following him into the geeky breach; or e) ME, for pointing out such crap at 1:24 CST when I have plenty of other things to do. I’d offer an “all of the above” at this point but I think I’ll go to bed instead.

  36. quasidog

    @ kkozoriz Says : “I always tell people, that when they play lotto, they might as well play the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7……. I almost always get a response along the lines of: “that is the most unlikely sequence of all”.”

    Ha. I actually did that at the pub one day with some mates. I don’t gamble usually and after coercing me to play ‘Keeno’, which is sort of like bingo, I chose exactly that sequence on the card, in 7 games. There are 40+ numbers on the card. Everyone else was picking their ‘lucky’ numbers and other spaced out sequences, and one mate laughed at me in the same way as you mentioned. He thought I was an idiot.

    After a few hours, and a few beers, we all rolled up to check in our cards. I walked away with more wins than two others and tied in winnings with one. In other words, I basically won the most most out of them all, except for one that tied with me.

    Got a few snarky comments and felt very satisfied that the point had been proven. It is just random chance. It doesn’t matter what number you pick and there is absolutely no method involved. Just pick anything. It’s all got the same chance.

    But I still don’t gamble. By not gambling in fact, I know I usually have more money at the end of the day than most gamblers. Odds are a bitch, but most gamblers don’t see it.

  37. True event

    My wife: “I want to play roulette, how do I do it?”

    Me: “The easiest way is to pick red or black, and bet on one.”

    (Wife picks black, bets on it)

    Ball comes up on green 00

    Me: “Oh, yeah. There’s also these green spaces…”

    The dance continues.

  38. MH

    The obvious way out of the conundrum is that no one prays for the house to win. All prayers were for either red or black. Duh!

  39. MH

    And the obvious thing for me to do would be to read the comments to see if anyone beat me to my point, which they have. But why start now?

  40. Thanks Chad! So 7.8% must mean that the net payout (after subtracting the original bet) for landing on green is between $16 and $17 per $1 bet. And since the odds of landing on 0 or 00 are 18:1, that’s more money for the house. It’s truly a sucker’s game.

    Let me add (since I haven’t seen it mentioned in the comments yet) that it’s not the two green slots per se that shift the odds away from a fair game and tilt them towards the house, it’s the disparity between the odds of winning and the payout for winning. The casino could achieve pretty much the same same advantage by eliminating the 0 and 00 but only paying out $1.95 for winning bets. Of course this gets a little messier and more importantly, the gamblers would all intuitively feel that they were getting ripped off. By “concealing” the house advantage in the two green numbers, people tend to feel that it’s a fair game and so they continue to bet.

  41. Quiet Desperation

    As a statistician for a large Vegas-strip casino

    Really? Whose idea was the 6:5 blackjack payout on single deck? Or reducing the two pair/three of a kind payout on video poker from 2:1/3:1 to 1:1/2:1. Those are just pure, supervillian evil. 😛

    Kick out the soulless hotel corporations and put the mob back in charge in Vegas. Organized crime actually screwed the customers less.

  42. Chad in Vegas

    TSP: Right on the money (pun intended). Payouts are 17:1 on the greens.
    QD: It wasn’t me, I swear! I just do slots, not blackjack. But you’re absolutely right about the mafia running Vegas; they knew how to treat customers. But I’m probably less likely to be whacked by my employer though. 😛
    I could go on, but in the interests of brevity and discretion, I’ll leave you with these:
    – The only game where you can consistently take away the house advantage is video poker (with the right pay table and strategy).
    – “Smithers, gambling is the perfect industry! Your customers come in, give you all their money and then leave!” -C. Montgomery Burns


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