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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Gambling

Can you beat the odds? Are winning and losing all the same to you? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Gambling! Are casinos filled with tuxedo-clad superspies? How do losing streaks really work? Let’s find out the truth by examining these gambling myths and facts.

Lie #1: “I Know Football Inside Out, I’ve Got This”

When it comes to gambling, there’s no bigger single event in the U.S. than the Super Bowl, and knowing one end of the football field from another seems like it’ll come in handy if you’re trying to make a few bucks, right? 

Not necessarily. Even if you’re someone who thought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was a chain of cheap piercing shops (thanks everyone), you might not be at that huge a disadvantage, betting-wise, compared to someone who loves football so much they sleep in a limited-edition jockstrap signed by William “The Refrigerator” Perry.

You’d think knowing all about a sport would be an advantage when it came to betting, but even being a full-on expert is of basically no use. A paper in the journal Parapsychology compared professional sports gamblers with non-gambling sports experts and complete know-nothing novices, and found knowledge of sport to be of no advantage whatsoever. In the study, performed at Israel’s cheerily-named Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center, the people who knew nothing at all about soccer actually did a better job than the people who completely lived and breathed the sport.

Professor Pinhas Dannon commented, “Sports gamblers seem to believe themselves the cleverest of all gamblers. They think that with experience and knowledge — such as player’s statistics, manager’s habits, weather conditions and stadium capacity — they can predict the outcome of a game better than the average person.” 

Nope! Nobody knows a fucking thing! 

Lie #2: “Hey, Look at Me, I’m James Bond/Frank Sinatra/a Big Cool Suave Bastard”

Casinos are odd, aren’t they? Culturally, we associate them with dudes in sharp suits rollin’ bones and confidently winning a fortune without batting an eyelid, but the majority of the clientele are actually elderly women with big fuckin’ buckets of quarters absolutely going for it.

Take Las Vegas. The mean age of a tourist visiting the city is perpetually around 50. You need to be 21 to gamble in a casino there, so for every 21-year-old, 29 years younger than the mean, there’s an 89-year-old feeding their kids’ inheritance into a slot machine 25 cents at a time and trying not to pee on the stool.

While the idea of debonair tuxedoed sophisticates — one a sexy secret agent with a troubled past, one an enigmatic billionaire with an unknowable agenda — having battles of wits across the blackjack table is pretty compelling, casinos make way more money from slot machines than gaming tables, and have done for decades. People really like shitting money into slot machines, because they have bright lights and pretty colors and human beings are pretty basic. A study published in the journal Addiction last year found that sound effects of clinking coins and visible dollar signs made people more likely to sink money into the machines, proof positive people are unintelligent suckers. 

If you’re off to a casino for the night, statistically you have a lot more in common with the old lady from Beavis & Butt-Head Do America than you do James Bond. Nothing wrong with that — she’s cool! — but, you know, it’s a different sort of fantasy.

Lie #3: “I’ve Got a Bit of a Scam Involving Counting Cards, I’ll Beat the Odds”

You won’t. The odds are solidly against you. Not necessarily by a huge proportion, but by enough that, well, let’s just say the gambling industry didn’t get to be worth $650 billion a year by writing a lot of checks. 

Playing the lottery makes about as much financial sense as throwing money into a furnace; slot machines are literally programmed to take your money; and the rules of games like blackjack and roulette have been carefully worked out to give the house the advantage. It varies from game to game — a perfect blackjack player gives the house just 0.5 percent advantage over them, while keno has a “house edge” of 25 percent — but it’s never, ever in the player’s favor. So, even if you’re the best blackjack player in the world, the likelihood is that you’ll go home with less than you came with

Gambling to try to make money is a really bad idea. Gambling because you like gambling? Go for it, if you can spare the cash. A 2014 paper in the Journal of Gambling Studies divided gamblers into “positive” and “problem” gamblers — positive gamblers being the ones who did it as a leisure activity and stuck to their set limits moneywise, and problem gamblers being the ones who did it to escape stress and had difficulty remaining within the parameters they’d set for themselves.

One of the paper’s authors, Professor Mark Griffiths, concluded, “Positive players take personal responsibility for their pastime by using various strategies to ensure that they only gamble what they can afford to spend.” Where it can go wrong is when the idea of “what you can afford to spend” gets massaged into “gamble what you probably won’t die without if you lose” and eventually becomes “gamble because you’re going to have your dick cut off by people you owe money to, and a win is your only chance at saving your dick, oh dear, oh God, oh shit.”

Lie #4: “If You Like to Gamble, I’ll Tell You I’m Your Man / You Win Some, Lose Some, It’s All the Same to Me”

It sounds like this guy doesn’t understand gambling at all! Winning and losing are literally opposites! This guy tells you he’s your man? He’s a liar, a damned dirty liar!

Lie #5: “I’m on Such a Bad Losing Streak”

There’s losing money, and there’s losing money. Terrance Watanabe, former owner of the Oriental Trading Company, is a bit of a champion when it comes to pissing money up against a wall. He lost $127 million in Las Vegas casinos in 2007 alone. If you threw a thousand dollars into a flaming trash can every minute, eight hours a day, five days a week, it would take more than a year to get through that much money. 

After that particularly bad year, Watanabe claimed the casinos were negligent in letting him continue gambling when he was extremely drunk, while the casinos claimed he wasn’t just drunk, but also very high and needlessly handsy. Nobody came out of it looking good.

In total across his gambling career, Watanabe is thought to have lost over $200 million. What a terrible losing streak, huh?

Well, no. Each roll of the dice is a random event, as is every deal of the cards, so connecting them into a streak of any kind is a fallacy, the brain seeking to connect disconnected events. A football team that has won five games in a row walk onto the field confident, something likely to affect their performance positively, while a team that hasn’t won a game in months will be battling the opposite. Success, or the lack thereof, can become self-perpetuating, but not in inanimate objects. Confidence doesn’t affect how a dice or a small ball rolls, or what cards are dealt. A series of stupid decisions isn’t a losing streak, it’s just being a really shitty gambler. What you are is a dumbass.