Saturday, February 25, 2006


I am about to leave for Las Vegas on a 7-day vacation.

At this point, I intend to continue to post to my blog during my vacation. My wife has promised me several uninterrupted hours each morning. (I tend to rise early; she likes to sleep in late). However, if I end up disappearing for a week, you now know why.

In the mean time, I thought that this would provide an excuse to talk about what many people consider to be the sin of gambling.


I will not be gambling in Las Vegas, and I recommend against it when given a chance. Gambling is stupid. On average, every bet is an exchange where the customer goes to a casino and says, "I have an idea. I will give you $100, and you will give me $95 dollars back." Each individual exchange has an unknown range. Yet, by the end of the day, this will be the average. If the casino can get people to make $10 billion worth of exchanges such as this, then it can end the day with $500 million more than it started with.

It is important to recognize that this is in fact an exchange of giving $100 and getting $95 back. This allows the gambler to say, "I did well. I almost broke even." This is also per exchange. If he makes 20 of these exchanges, he will have gambled $2,000. He would have made back $1,900. I guess you can call this "almost breaking even."

Ultimately, the more bets one places, the more the Casino likes it. By the end of the day, the Casino would have been involved in hundreds of millions to billions of bets. The more bets there are, the more likely that the Casino will realize income equal to the average payback per bet.

Moral Argument against Gambling

There is a moral argument to be made against gambling -- that society should view gambling as "wrong" and discourage any desire to participate in this type of activity.

Such an argument springs from the fact that humans are poor at rational thought, and tend to base their judgments more on emotion than on reason. Gambling itself has a physiological effect -- creating a felling of pleasure or euphoria as it touches off hopes of a better life in the gambler. This combination of a tendency to base decisions on emotion and the euphoria that gambling creates yields a tendency for some rather foolish decisions.

A society that allows gambling is a society that allows one group of people to prey on this weakness in others.

One might respond to this by saying that people have a right to make foolish decisions, and that this does not justify taking away their freedom to do so. This argument would have merit if an entity known as 'intrinsic badness' exists and it can be shown to adhere in the act of interfering with the gambling acts of another.

However, intrinsic value does not exist. What exist are relationships between states of affairs and desires. We may have reason to believe that the relationship between the outcome of a gambling act and the desires the gambler seeks to fulfill are not what he thinks they are -- that the euphoria associated with gambling clouds his judgment. Bringing these relationships into actual alignment may best be accomplished with a prohibition on gambling.

Supernatural Forces

For example, I consider casino gambling to be proof against any type claim of ESP, prayer, or any type of supernatural force that may benefit the gambler over the casino. If there were such a force, casinos would notice that their take from all of the bets that get placed in their casino would deviate inexplicably from the statistical average. We may expect that such a force will create an unexplained number of winners and, for the house, an inexplicably high payout to customers.

To the best of my knowledge, no such statistical anomaly has ever been found. Casinos can reliably predict their income and it will be a known percentage of bets taken.

I suppose that someone could say that these supernatural forces take from those who deserve punishment and give to those who deserve a reward in such a way that it maintains the balance while promoting cosmic justice. There is no end to the patches one can put on in an effort to save a cherished belief.

Yet, the evidence suggests, and the rational person will believe, that no supernatural force will trip the game in their favor.

The casinos, of course, prey on those who are not rational. People who think that some supernatural entity will guide the game in their favor are those who paid for the casino.

This fact suggests that there is reason to question the moral character of those who promote the idea that these supernatural forces exist. People who do so are promoting a belief system that leaves its victims vulnerable to the predations of businesses such as gambling houses. It leaves them worse off, on average, than they would have otherwise been.

Gambling provides a mechanism through which the rational people can prey on the irrational.

The Bigger Picture

However, there is also an argument that the fault lies not with gambling, but with the decision to embrace irrational beliefs. If the fault lies with the irrational, and it leaves them vulnerable to these predators, then the prey get what they deserve. The decision to become prey was theirs.

Personally, I am not inclined to punish those who gamble. They get punishment enough when they lose.

Rather, gambling itself is a symptom of a society that has not given enough attention to promote rational thought. When I meet people who gamble, I use this as an opportunity to teach lessons in math and statistics. These are lessons that they should have gotten when they were in school.

Yet, they did not learn these lessons in school. This is because we live in a society where there is more interest in outlawing some of the worst symptoms of irrational thought than teaching people to make rational choices. What would happen if we taught students the facts about gambling, and the fact that there is no evidence that there are special forces that will improve their odds above those that the laws of probability predict?

I explain to them how dividing up the day’s gambling into larger numbers of smaller bets benefits the house. It increases the odds that one’s final outcome will be near the average payout for whatever game they play. Every bet brings the average closer to, “I give you $100; you give me back $95” that casinos depend on. The greater the number of bets that its customers place, the more reliably the Casino can predict its income.

I also like to point out to my friends that gamble; “When I tally all of the wins and losses that I have made on my investments, I have made over $50,000. If you tally all of your wins and losses when you gamble, where are you?”

My choice is not to give money to those who traditionally and historically collect far more than they pay out. I prefer to put my money with those who have a history of paying out more than the collect.

No, I am not going to Las Vegas to gamble. I’m going there to enjoy the money that I have because I learned to make rational choices.


Bill P. Godfrey said...

I guess the difference is if you enjoy the game or not.

Last time I went to a casino, I went with the expectation that all the cash I had in my hand would be gone by the time I left. If the games were fun, I'd play. If not, I'd spend my money somewhere else.

To be, it wasn't gambling, but paying money to be entertained.

Having said that, to a certain extent, I do agree with you. I'd probably prefer it if you paid an entrance fee and were given matchsticks to gamble with. No pretence that anyone is going to leave rich.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree.

Casinos should be taken as any other entertainment business. You go in with the knowledge that you will pay 100$, get 95$ in cash and 5$ worth of euphoria. A fair deal.

But betting for profit is "a tax on stupidity".

Anonymous said...

Indeed. No prohibitions. There will always be people who are willing to pay 5$ or more for a few hours of what they perceive as fun, and they should have that right.

I do not gamble and I do not drink alcohol, as the cost of both pleasures is too high for me when compared to the pleasure these activities provide me with.

People should be informed and educated about the cost/benefit ratio of all "victimless crimes", and then left to decide for themselves.

Dogcrap Green said...

It's not so hard to win. Unless you are stupid

Alonzo Fyfe said...

When a person "enjoys the game", what is it that they enjoy? Are they dreaming about what they will do with the money that they win?

In Las Vegas, I heard a lot of people celebrating their victories in the hundreds of dollars. I made about $2,800 while I was in Las Vegas. When I got back, I checked my investments, and this was how much they went up.

One of the core components that I argue for in desire utilitarianism is to enjoy things that also produce good results.

I enjoy investing money. I get entertainment value looking over the numbers, evaluating options, and making my choices -- probably the same type of enjoyment that a gambler gets trying to decide whether to split a pair. Yet, it is still the case that my bets have an average annual payoff of 110% of the money that I put on the table, while gambling has an average annual payoff of 95% of the money he puts on the table.

To the degree that one can choose what one finds entertaining (and we do have the capacity to make such choices), which type of "fun" does it make more sense to encourage, and which type of "fun" does it make sense to discourage?

Desire utilitarianism says that if people can be entertained either by investing or by gambling, that it is better to promote the joy of investing.

Lupis Noctum said...

Almost every time I'm offered a lottery ticket at a gas station I remind the clerk that the lottery is a tax on people who can't do math. This normally leaves them with an expression much like a dog who's just been shown a card trick, but what the hell. I've always been of the "single candle" mode of thought, if my comment makes one person think a bit more clearly, I've helped.

Yes, people who gamble irresponsibly are squandering their cash. It's their right to spend their money as they see fit however, so prohibition of gambling is inherently wrong.

If we're to legislate financial responsibility, why don't we also close pawn shops, payday loan joints, rent-to-own stores, and other predators that help the poor get poorer? At least with gambling, there's a slight entertainment value...

Like any other bad idea, it can be overcome by education and information. What are the odds of those concepts becoming popular though? lol

Anonymous said...

If you look at gambling as anything more than entertainment, then it is foolish. Don't gamble to anticipate making money, only gamble if you like to play the games.

Karl said...

I can't see what's entertaining about gambling if it isn't about the possiblity of winning money. Would you sit in front of a roulette table like a monkey just for the joy of watching the ball land on a number with no money involved? No? But you would if you knew you would lose? I can see why this would be entertaining... for the house!

As for the legality of gambling, how can the government can grant a group a license to steal? Does it have the right? And by the way, it's an egregious form of theft. The only people who get $95 back on $100 gambled are those who play perfectly. The less informed and self controlled do much worse. If society has no responsibilty to protect its citizens from predation like this, neither does it have a right to raise an army.

Anonymous said...

No one mentions: the drowning of ones sorrows, it is not the money, but the loss of reality. It a pathetic fix to deep set emotional issues that can be covered up by an up moment when more is won than lost. Gamblers are not looking to get rich. Anyone who is addicted will tell you if they actually won a million dollars they would turn around and put it all back, thus why it is an addiction, they cannot stop

generic viagra said...

Gambliing is just another way of distract our selves from daily stress, wa have to take it as another way of entertainment that costs money, I think that excesses are not good at all regardless if you are gambling or just doing something a matter of controlling our selves

StFual said...

My observation is that the 95% may be statistically correct and is much used by the gambling industry as proof of their lack of evil but actual behaviour is most people will just keep betting until 100% of their stake is gone . The idea that the average punter is coming out with 95% of what they go in with is nonsense.