Tips for Playing Credit Card Roulette

By Daniel Packer. Last updated 21 February 2011. 20 comments

Have any of you ever played credit card roulette? It’s the ultimate all-or-nothing-type game that involves a roller coaster of emotions, but for the bold out there who are willing to give it a try, it’s quite a rush.

The rules vary, but here's the variation I've heard most often:

After a meal out, when the bill comes, everyone who wants to play hands a credit card to the waiter, who picks one card randomly. That person is responsible for the entire bill, and the rest of the table eats for free.

Gambling is addictive, there's no doubt about it. The possibility of winning and losing are so far on the opposite ends of the spectrum that it builds a ridiculous amount of excitement. As they say, "Go hard or go home," and gambling, while heart-wrenching, gives us — just for a moment — the hope that something great will happen, and we'll be able to walk away a winner.

I played credit card roulette for the first time recently, and boy was it intense.

There were only three of us, and the total bill was just $45 plus tax. Still, it was a very nerve-wracking experience. I hate losing, especially when I'm usually the voice of reason and good financial decisions, and thought I could get away with a free meal!

Here's how it went down: We gave our credit cards to the waitress. She mixed them up behind her back, then, without looking, took the middle card out. And guess whose card she chose? Bingo. Mine. Awful feeling, of course, but I'll bounce back.

Like any gambling situation, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you ever decide to give this game a shot. They'll help you make a smart decision so you know exactly what you're getting yourself into.

  1. Offer to play this game at the end of the meal. If everyone else orders a $20 meal and you order $30 worth of food, the meal will cost each of you an average of $22, while you consumed $30 worth. Being the only one who knows, while sneaky, gives you an advantage.
     
  2. Don't take on more risk than you're willing to lose. Even if 50 people were playing (reducing my odds of losing down to 2%), I wouldn't have included myself because I'm not willing to risk losing over $750 no matter what.
     
  3. Be prepared for disappointment. I figured I was in good shape by handing in my very plain grey Bank of America card, but even the blandest of card choices can be beat by blindly picking.

Would you ever play? What's the most you would risk losing?

Daniel Packer is a personal finance blogger at Sweating The Big Stuff, where he writes about spending money wisely while maintaining a high quality of life. Read more from Daniel:

 

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Guest's picture

I have never heard of this. I think I would probably avoid playing as I am pretty risk averse.

Guest's picture

I don't think I'd play that game unless the bill was going to be very, very low. But i'm not much of a gambler so I guess it would appeal more to other people.

Guest's picture
Suba

I will skip the risk as well :) Knowing my luck I know I will be the one getting the bill every time (I have never won anything in my life, so I have a bad luck I suppose). And I know I won't be able to afford it at this time. May be later, it would a fun thing to do, esp. if they are my friends who I don't mind paying for.

Guest's picture
Daniel

If you never win, then you won't be 'lucky' enough to get chosen! I say try it on a small meal with a few close friends and when you win, run away as fast as you can!

Guest's picture

Actually, my husband and I always play it (with ourselves :) ). So in reality, since our finances are pooled, we always lose.
I would not play unless I was certain I would be eating regularly with the same group of folks. I'm happier just footing the bill for a group of friends, with no expectation of reimbursement. Less stressful.

Guest's picture

I have never heard of this game. Normally, one person will pay with a card (usually me) and the rest will give that person cash.

I think I would only play this game if I knew the bill would be low, or as you stated, after knowing the cost of everyone's meal.

Guest's picture
Daniel

How low? For $50 would you do it?

Guest's picture

Too random for me. I think this only works if you and your friends are near the same SES.

Guest's picture

Was this inspired by the recent McDonald's commercial? I'd probably only play it if everyone ordered off of the Dollar Menu. It sounds exciting, but the payout's really not worth the risk to me. I'm on a tight budget and wouldn't want to spend my lunch money on someone else ;)

Guest's picture
Daniel

I'm not familiar with that commercial. It's definitely a good risk reward, and maybe more than trying to get people to play, we can all see what our risk tolerance is.

Guest's picture
Malomonster

I've never thought about it, but this is an easy way to resolve the "No, I'll pay for the check" arguments which come up every once in a while!

Guest's picture
Daniel

Haha who wouldn't agree with that? It throws some excitement into the argument! Everyone wins!

Guest's picture
Kay Lynn

I don't think I'd want to play this "game" although it's interesting. Instead, I'd rather take turns paying.

Guest's picture
Forest

Ha ha ha, brilliant!!! As much as I like being Frugal I like buying stuff for friends so this game is win win for me and sounds fun.... Gotta try it soon.

Guest's picture

This is very common amongst poker players - we use it for almost every game because we understand that each player has an equal chance of being picked, and therefore it is a fair way of distributing the bill.

Some additional advice:

1) Rather than let the waitress choose the card, do it randomly amongst yourselves. There can be various things (such as choosing different cards) that can cause the waitress to favour particular players which isn't fair.

2) To select the card to randomly pay, shuffle the cards, and eliminate (blindly) one card at a time. The last remaining card pays.

3) Since it is random, the equity of playing should be no more and no less than if you just split the bill equally.

Guest's picture
Christina

Played it with 2 friends while we were traveling together in China/Macau! It was the 2nd most fun part of the meal (eating was the 1st!). One girl lost 3 times in a row. After that, we set a rule that you couldn't lose more than 3 times consecutively. So, she was guaranteed a free meal on our 4th time playing. It worked out well because it was always just us 3 and we were traveling for several days so, statistically, everything evens out. As long as no one sweats the small stuff, it's a good time. Besides, what's $10 here and there between friends you see all the time anyway?

Guest's picture
Guest

I didn't think this was real until I saw it on a tv show. If this happened to me I would just excuse myself to the "washroom" and go home. Problem solved!

Guest's picture
Guest

This is a huge thing inside of the competitive Magic: the Gathering and poker scenes, since both activities center around EV and this is pretty good EV as is.

Guest's picture
Guest

Pretty good EV? EV on this game is 0.

Guest's picture
Guest

whooo whee! that sounds like a bit too intense for me! Might get stuck with picking up the bill! Or, a free dinner! Man OH MAN you guys know how to party. What's next pin the tail on the stock option?