Why Do We Gamble?

 

Why do we gamble? I know this question has been asked a million times and there have been a million answers. Make that one million and one, as I am going to give it a shot.

Certainly in life we all have to gamble, as life is one long contest with luck, circumstance, and our eventual big loss. Life has a house edge to it, certainly, that grinds away at us, and even those who have had the best of times cannot escape the worst of times when they must say sayonara to the world. Of course, those who have had rotten lives because chance or circumstance or both caused some things or everything to not go their way might look upon the fateful last moment as a blessing. I am so happy to be out of here!

I think real life is a combination of the fated and the decided. You are fated to die. The generation that will never die has not yet been born. You are fated to get old despite wrinkle creams and face lifts that often look like someone is trying to rip the skin right off the skull.  I look in the mirror and I see a guy with gray hair who is closer to 80 than to 60. Is that really me now?

The other day in the bagel shop the girl behind the counter asked me if I got the senior citizen discount. My wife was asked that very night in our small village theatre if she got the senior discount for the movies. We both said “no” as if that would mean that fate was not hastening us towards seniorville – the place from which no one returns!

Oh yes, we can fight fate; scream at fate; regale fate and maybe even delay the ultimate fate, but we can’t change the fates. In the ancient societies fate was often called “nemesis,” which does not bode well for us.

Most of the rest of life, at least in America, and for just about all Americans, has to do with the decisions we make and the aftermath of those decisions. Not every decision is going to be a good one. Some of them explode in our faces and we have to make more decisions to handle the poor decisions that went ka-boom.

The “decided” begins when we do, too. Even little kids make decisions that have very real and very long-term consequences. That first grader goofing off when the teacher is instructing in math doesn’t realized that his fun today will limit what he can do with his tomorrows. If he goofs off throughout his school career, his prospects will be severely limited, and rail as he might against the “system,” or “society,” this person created his dismal situation and only he can uncreate it.

Most personal stories about individuals who goofed off in school and screwed up their early lives do not end up with everything just fine, thank you very much. Those great-ending stories are the exception to the rule because some other factors, some other decisions, worked to these rare individuals’ advantage. The rule of life is biblical – as you sow so shall you reap – and that rule starts as soon as we start crawling around the house looking for stuff to chew on. You can bank on that.

We gamble in life because we must gamble – there is no other choice. Not gambling in life is actually gambling that doing nothing will have a better outcome than doing something. We have to decide what schools to go to or whether to go to school at all; what should we study or should we forget about studies; whom should we marry or whether to marry at all. Each and every decision opens some doors, and closes other doors. No decision is without some consequence.

And that is exactly what we do in the casinos, admittedly in a more rarefied, more symbolic but still very real way. We engage in the life struggle. We face the fate of the ever-grinding house edge and what that means for our future prospects. We devise plans for how to handle early defeats at our favorite game in order to come back into the black. Some players will increase their bets figuring something good has to happen and they can make it all the way back with just a few wins. Other players bet smaller amounts after a dismal start figuring bad times are the norm in the casino so they want to ride it out.

When we face real life there are just too many factors to fathom from each and every moment. The complicatedness of life makes it somewhat messy and hard to grasp fully. Our decisions are usually made with not enough information. You love Jane. Jane loves you. Pretty simple, right? Will the marriage work out? Who the heck knows! That’s just too complicated a question, requiring an insight into the future none of us has.

But the casino games are not like that at all. Even experts at casino gambling must admit – it isn’t all that complicated. The games are relatively simple and have to be in order to attract the largest crowds to play them.

Let us say we know, for example, that the one-dollar slot machines pay back 92 percent of all the money put in them. We know if we were to play those one-dollar machines forever that we’d be behind about 8 percent of all the money we put through the machine. Our gamble, a very simple gamble, is that the machine does not pay back smoothly. It is volatile. It is cold more often than hot but when it gets hot you can hit some big money. Our gamble is that it will hit for us in the short time we are playing it.

Most of the times it won’t. We accept that fate. But we have decided that the gamble is worth the intermittent thrill of a big win – or any win – because that win goes against long-term fate. We know we are bucking the house edge. We know the casino will win in the end – against almost every single casino gambler out there. But we gamble we can change that fate, at least for ourselves, at least for tonight. And sometimes it happens.

And that is the big thrill. Casino gambling is the war against fate – a war almost everyone must lose but occasionally some of us will win.

It doesn’t have the interminable unknowables of whether you and Jane will be married happily ever after. It isn’t like the war against fate in real life where we have no possibility of winning and we all know this. The war against fate in the casino gives us a lot more power than we have in real life because occasionally we do indeed cheat death.

And that’s why 26 percent of the adult population in America loves to gamble!

2 thoughts on “Why Do We Gamble?”

  1. The answer is that gambling is fun. It is entertainment. It passes the time with an occasional rush of adrenaline. It is random and thus addicting. You do it by choice, not by necessity. Life.s choices are not gambling even though there is risk/reward involved.

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