What is gambling supposed it be?

There’s a good group of people here on the Straight Dope, so I’m hoping this Great Debate works out with some good conclusions. Just like the title says – What is gambling for? What is it supposed to do, and what is it supposed to be like?

The subway PSA say, “When gambling is no longer a game, it is a problem.” Okay. So, it has to be a game, just a game? Obviously, you’re making a big mistake if you expect to earn a living this way, but the money earned is to be forgotten as fast as the money lost?

It’s a little hard for me to understand, and I think I should be able to understand it. Example, I play video games and other computerized games. I pay, either a coin at a time or when I buy the game, and I get … well, I get to do, whatever the game wants me to do, for a little while, and that’s fun. For me anyway, in small bursts. Is that what gambling is supposed to be? And the winnings are what? To add excitement? It seems like, the goal of all gambling is to seduce people to become problem gamblers, at least a little bit.

I’ve also gamble led in casinos and sports betting arenas. I put down some money, and I often loose it, or sometimes I win. Then, I stop and go home. Was I doing it right, or wrong? And the people who spend all day feeding nickels into the slot machines, or go to the roulette wheel, with a bank roll of thousands of dollars, are they doing it right?

Casinos prefer you gabmle a lot and lose a lot of money.
Gamblers prefer to have fun and/or win money.

They’re at odds on the winning/losing money part of it. I’m pretty confused by your question. What is “doing it right” supposed to mean?

Basically, people do it for an adrenaline rush. That thrill of combined fear and hopefulness. For compulsive gamblers, it’s not even really about money. Money is just something they need to keep gambling. They’re addicted to that thrill the way alcoholics are addicted to alcohol.

Some people can enjoy the occasional gambling thrill without getting addicted to it. It sounds like you might be one of those people.

I would hazard a suggestion that if you’re enjoying it without having it control your life, or becoming addicted, you’re doing it right.

If you’re saying you basically don’t get any enjoyment out of it, and don’t really get what you’re missing, then you’re not doing it “wrong.” it just doesn’t work for you, the same way some people don’t really get anything out of smoking pot or windsurfing.

A little bit of gambling is the fun of playing (like the fun you get with a videogame), but most of it is the thrill of anticipation.

You pull the lever, the wheels go round and round, and you have a little window of time where you can imagine something wonderful happening. Then you lose, and if you want to feel the thrill again you have to put in another quarter. The games are designed to pay out just often enough to keep the fantasy of a big win alive. The jackpot is so tantalizingly close … just one more pull … .

If you have the self-control to enjoy the thrill without going bankrupt, it’s a mindless diversion. If you’re like me, it makes you feel anxious and depressed and you don’t play.

I can vouch for this. When I used to gamble heavily, I once was walking to my landlord to pay the rent. I walked past a bookies, and wandered in. I ended up putting my rent money on a dog (and I HATE dog racing… no interest at all). The dog won, but the thrill wasn’t in getting three weeks rent back. It was in risking it.

To me, if the amount of money doesn’t hurt, it is just betting. I bet with friends on football, or poker games, or I bet at the casino all the time. It is only when I know that it will hurt to lose that it becomes gambling (and MUCH more enjoyable) to me.

I don’t gamble, but the people I know who do (who happen to be responsible people) say that their approach to gambling is this: it’s money spent. That is, whenever you go to gamble, you do it 1) planning to lose, and 2) with a predetermined amount that you intend to “spend” on the activity. This is not to say that they want to lose, but they don’t put any money on the table unless they’re willing to lose it, and when they’ve spent the chosen amount of money, they stop. (If they win more, they can keep playing until that’s all gone and they’re back to zero, if they want.)

To them, it’s purchasable entertainment - they’re buying the rush. One of them also likes to play poker, and plays for the intellectual challenge of the game and the thrill of earning his victories. He still only puts money down that he’s prepared to lose, though.

I dunno if this is the “right” way to gamble, but it seems to work for them.
ETA: Hmm, I guess villa wouldn’t consider this to be gambling at all. Huh.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to come across as defining it for everyone. What I wrote is the way I look at it internally. I didn’t mean to come across as saying everyone else is wrong to talk about losing $200 blackjack money in AC being gambling. I just don’t look at is as gambling for me, because it doesn’t give me the rush that gambling gave me in the past.

I think there has to be an element of fear – of being out over a precipice – to get the really intense thrill that gambling addicts crave.

That’s not to say that gambling can’t be enjoyed without that fear. I think it’s like the difference between someone who can enjoy an occasional beer, and alcoholics who can’t get a buzz from anything but hard liquor.

Gambling is a testimony to the power of intermittent reinforcement.

If you are getting enjoyment out of it, and you don’t lose more than you can afford, I suppose you are doing it “right”.

I am thinking of surprising the Lovely and Talented Mrs. Shodan with a weekend in Vegas when my bonus comes thru. She’s never been, and neither have I. Although I suspect we will be spending more time in restaurants and shows than gambling, although no doubt we will throw away a bit.


Casinos are designed for exactly this. Slot machines make loud noises when you win, no noise at all when you lose. The noises are loud enough so that it seems like someone is always winning, and the noise is close to the same whether you win a nickel or $100.

Another area of reinforcement is that people talk to others about being ahead, but seldom about being behind. People also don’t really get the house edge, or convince themselves that they have a good system or edge.

There is one game in a casino without a guaranteed house edge - poker. The house takes a cut of every pot, but there is the possibility of mismatched players. My brother consistently makes a couple of thousand bucks a year playing, and he does it by going to casinos with poker tournaments and playing those who are either not good enough to get in or who lose early. He never plays against the house.

There’s a difference between putting money in a pinball machine and putting money in a slots machine. The first is merely “playing a game” where you pay for entertainment, the second is gambling, where the entertainment comes from your chance of a (temporary) win.

There’s a third version, and that is games where a positive Expected Value is possible. This is almost exclusively non-house games, like poker (Blackjack can be +EV but only if you count cards, which isn’t allowed).

I for example play poker, it is the main part of my income and has been for several years, but I never ‘gamble’. I won’t buy a lottery ticket or play roulette, because it is a negative Expected Value proposition. But of course, me being able to make money on poker relies on others being willing to make a -EV decision (or rather, not knowing or caring that they do).

Sports betting is another area that allows for +EV ‘gambling’, but the question is whether anything that is +EV should even be considerd gambling.

If you have a good job, play for entertainment and can afford to lose the money you risk, then it is not a problem (and I thank you!). Unfortunately that is not the case for a lot of people, who chase losses or who’s personality is prone to addiction (then I feel sorry for you). Then it is a problem. And the whole industry is built to create that problem.

The gambler’s prayer - “Lord, just let me break even - I need the money!”

Oh sure - there’s gambling, and gambling. But they don’t build those big casinos by losing money. That’s why they don’t let card counters play blackjack if they can help it.

Actually, I should never gamble. If I never bet again, I will be $3 ahead for my lifetime. I lost a dollar betting on the crab races in Jamaica, and I won ten lottery tickets in a United Way game. One of them was a $5 winner. When I went to cash it in, the clerk asked if I wanted the five bucks, or five more lottery tickets, and I got more insight than I wanted in why people lose money gambling.

I lost the other dollar because I woke up early one Saturday, and won twenty three straight games at Freecell on my PC, then three games in a row at Spider Solitaire, and then again at regular Solitaire. Then I went to the gas station and the guy in line ahead of me accidentally paid for my gas and left. I figured “hell, I can’t lose!” and bought a lottery ticket.

Then I told my wife about it, and we got into an argument on what kind of car we would buy with our millions.

I didn’t match one single number on the Powerball. Not one. My wife told me I should have played one fewer game on the PC so as not to use up the streak.


PS - the guy goes to the race track on his seventy birthday. At seven minutes past the hour, he goes to the seventh window, and puts down seventy dollars on a horse named Lucky Seven, in the seventh race, at seven to one odds.

It finished seventh.

And there’s nothing drives a gambler, like the lovin’ of the game.

A lot of the time, when I gambled, I used to pick sports I didn’t enjoy, because it was “purer” in some ways. I’d bet on soccer, but only relatively small amounts, because I couldn’t trust my emotions to not get involved. Pretty much every soccer game there is a team I wanted to win and a team I wanted to lose, so it made it hard to look at the game properly.

A lot of my gambling in the US was college football, and I always steered away from any games I had an interest in.

To demonstrate that knowledge has nothing to do with gambling, the first lottery ticked I ever bought was when I went to Illinois on a recruiting trip, and went out to lunch with a guy who worked for me and his professor, who was also the husband of my temporary adviser when I was there. He was the world’s leading authority on combinatorics. He insisted on pooling some money to buy a batch of tickets.

We won.
I drive my wife crazy by quitting when I am ahead, or when I get a fun bonus on a slot machine (which are more entertaining than they used to be.) But casinos profits are a demonstration of the smaller level of statistical uncertainty when you are dealing with large numbers of experiments.
As you just demonstrated, people overestimate very small probabilities and underestimate very large ones. Or as pTerry said, million to one shots happen nine times out of ten - a quote I actually used in talking about behavioral economics 2 weeks ago.

What do you mean “isn’t allowed?” It’s perfectly legal. It’s just that it’s also legal to refuse service for any reason. Winning too much is what isn’t allowed.

In addition to the entertainment aspect of it (being willing to pay for the thrill of winning or losing), there are two other economically rational reasons to gamble. As mentioned above, it can be rational to gamble at things like poker or blackjack when the outcome is somewhat skill dependent, and you have enough skill to profit.

The other reason is that the marginal utility of money is not constant. That is, you can’t just look at the expected value of gambling, you have to look at the expected utility, and $1 doesn’t always have the same utility. This is the reason that it makes sense for many people to play the lottery (a little bit). For most people, there’s a huge jump in the marginal value of money around the $1 million mark. It could be a bit more, or a bit less, but essentially, this represents what’s sometimes called “FU money”. It’s enough money to have the freedom to quit your job and essentially sustain yourself at a reasonable standard of living without ever having to work again.

I’m diligently investing and trying to live below my means and save up for a good retirement, but I know that I’ll likely be working for several more decades. If I buy a dozen or two lottery tickets a year, the total cost of that is pretty well absorbed. It makes little to no difference in how I live my life. Maybe at retirement I’ve got a few thousand less than I would have. But if I win, it’s completely life-changing. That chance is worth paying for, even though my expected value in pure dollar terms is negative.

Although by stricter definitions, poker isn’t gambling, I think it may illustrate what the OP is trying to nail down. The whole point of gambling is that there has to be a stake of some kind. It can be of little value; a game of poker can be played with pennies and nickels and still be entertaining, but without some kind of built in mechanism for comparing hands at each turn, and for tracking overall progress of the game, it’s pointless. For that matter one can even play for chips that have no value, or lima beans, or ball bearings; the point is that there is a tangible object that changes hands and represents actual or imaginary money. The fun and harmless part of gambling, if you will, is this quality, at least in my opinion. If you do play for actual money, than winning is a bonus. Losing isn’t so bad if you stay in reasonable limits.

I do it wrong. I play Blackjack to stare at the dealer’s breasts.