Credit-card roulette: Win a free meal, or pay the bill

How to play: Go to a restaurant with friends, put your credit cards into a hat, eat the meal, dip into the hat and see who pays for the check...

The scene: a restaurant, fancy, casual or otherwise. The risk: a wallet-crippling charge on your Visa, MasterCard or American Express. The game: credit-card roulette.

Each person in a group of diners at a restaurant puts a credit card into a hat, bowl or whatever is handy. At the end of the meal, the server pulls out a card; whoever owns the card is absolved from having to pay for the entire group's check.

The process continues until one card remains, and that unlucky cardholder is stuck with the bill.

While the stakes might not be as high as, say, Russian roulette, the prospect of picking up the whole dinner tab for a large group — a tab that, with drinks, tax and tip, could run into the thousands of dollars — is more than enough risk for many people.

Mike Ashley, a resident of Everett, Mass., wrote a blog post last October about playing a variation of the game in which cards were drawn after each course. He likened the experience, his first, to a high-stakes poker game.

"I was sweating bullets," Ashley said in an email interview. "I felt sick at the thought of having to pay that bill and then trying to explain it (or hide it) when the bill came in.

It was both scary and amusing, after the fact, to watch those whose cards had been removed from contention to suddenly 'find' a larger-than-normal appetite and thirst."

Ashley said the final tally for his group that night came to $1,249.

The game of credit-card roulette is unrelated to the practice of transferring credit-card debt from one card to another to try to take advantage of a lower interest rate, which is also referred to by some people as credit-card roulette.

It's unclear exactly how long the restaurant version of credit-card roulette has been played, although specific reference to it can be found in newspaper articles as early as 1988. Bloggers have brought particular attention to the phenomenon, especially over the past year.

What those blog posts revealed in part is that although the basic premise remains the same, different groups have put their own twists on the game.

Paul Godinez, a New York lawyer, described one game with "some Stanford MBAs" in a restaurant in Palo Alto, Calif. He paid his share of the bill plus a penalty because "I knew I could not take the risk of getting picked."

Some players have argued that as long as a group of people plays credit-card roulette frequently enough, over time, the cost will even out.

That way, players can get some of the adrenaline rush of the game without suffering too much of the downside. But others have countered that individuals would behave differently if they knew they would be playing credit-card roulette in advance of the meal.

Jacob Grier, a blogger in Arlington, Va., related just such a debate he had with a friend in a post from last August:

“So my friend was incorrect,” Grier wrote. “Yes, in the long run, we will all pay the same amount on average. But we’ll be paying more than we would if we were paying individually. We won’t maximize our economic efficiency.

“The best time to play credit card roulette is when you can spring it on unsuspecting companions you’ve never met before and may never meet again.”

But whether or not credit-card roulette pays in the end, the game has remained appealing because of the risk involved.

"It is a game of chance," Godinez said via email. "You are not allowed to see the bill and must calculate the risk (of losing) versus paying out your portion plus a penalty for not playing. It is high-stakes sometimes, but I have won out more than I have lost so it remains a fun game to play."