Gambling Excuses

I’ve already talked about why we gamble (or not) on a macro level. I believe that tens of thousands of years of human existence honed us to avoid taking risks in general, but that our brains adapted to pursue risk when it really mattered. The two opposing instincts were crucial for our survival as a species and can now be observed in our gambling habits.

But that’s not very useful when you start drilling down into specific cases. Your Uncle Barry doesn’t do a weekly football accumulator because he’s facing the existential threat of starvation or pestilence. So why does he do it?

Today’s blog looks at what academic research says are the day-to-day justifications of gambling. Then of course I’ll have my say over whether they’re good or bad reasons. Spoiler – there are actually good reasons to gamble!

Now that Earth-shattering revelation is out of the way, here’s a blindingly obvious academic finding for you: Most people are gambling to win money.

In a game that is statistically stacked against you, that is a problem. In terms of Expected Value (see my last blog for more on that), you’re essentially betting a pound to win less than a pound. It’s a bit like eating more food to lose weight or poking yourself in the eyes to improve your vision.

On average, in the best-case scenarios (some optimally played casino games), you get back on 99p for every pound you place. If you’re playing bingo or the lottery then you’re looking at ~70p and ~50p respectively. Make that 40p if you’re playing the People’s Postcode Lottery. I had to dig around on their website for a while before I found that scandalous information.

Don’t be smug if you’re like Uncle Barry and his accas; by the time you’ve stacked up seven or more bets there’s a good chance you’re getting back even less than 50p. They are incredibly muggy mug bets.

Gambling to win money is therefore not a good justification. Not only will you probably lose, but as I’ve previously discussed, you will also end up less happy. So, if operators really want to be responsible, they shouldn’t try to acquire customers with the lure of cash. I’d say sportsbooks mostly understand this, casinos mostly don’t.

A much less common reason to gamble, but one that is likely more harmful, is escapism. When media outlets run stories about problem gambling, there is invariably a real-life case of someone that started as a way to avoid some other issue in their life.

As tragic as that situation is, it’s not fair to put much blame on gambling. If someone is seeking an escape from their problems, there are many iffy industries happy to take their money. Gambling marketing departments aren’t explicitly looking to exploit lost or troubled souls – religion has that sewn up already.

I came across a funded PhD recently with the objective of defining a single question to ascertain whether a person has a gambling problem. I considered applying, but three years is a long time to obsess over such a narrow objective.

Besides, I know there is already a scientifically validated survey that achieves it in three questions and I’m not sure greater efficiency is worth it. But, if I had to come up with a single survey item, I’d propose something like: Do you gamble because you need to win money or want a distraction?

In my view, if one of those things is true, then you either have a problem, or are in serious danger of developing one. Both are deeply unhealthy and unproductive reasons to be gambling.

Just a notch below them on the worrisometer, is boredom betting. If you’re reading this while waiting for a second division Kazakhstani volleyball match to start, then this is probably you.

I don’t believe this is always problematic behaviour, but it certainly can be. There are a thousand better things to be doing than blindly betting on weird stuff, or casino games for that matter, so don’t do it and don’t encourage it.

But I promised you good reasons to gamble and have them you shall. The first and most common found in research is entertainment. I happen to think this is the best one myself, and I’ve discussed it before under the guise of utility.

If you can place a £5 bet and get £5 worth of fun out of it then, win or lose, you got your money’s worth. Losing doesn’t matter and winning is a bonus. Hence my use of the Jennifer Aniston quote above. She’s a smart one.

I do this a lot for sports in which I don’t have an emotional stake. The best example for me is international rugby, in which I have barely the slightest glimmer of interest. I can bet on a total points line though and suddenly every attack is a reason to shout at a TV screen.

That particular example leads nicely into the second good reason to gamble – sociability. I won’t watch the rugby on my own even if I have money on it, but the Six Nations is a great excuse for a long February Saturday afternoon in the pub with friends. If you have grown-up middle-class mates then it’s one of the few annual sporting events they’re able to attend.

The same applies for a work trip to a racetrack or a night at the bingo. Watching a horse run over a line or listening to an old woman read out numbers aren’t, to most people, inherently interesting. But add friends and you have a perfectly good way to spend your time. Nobody comes home from either of those occasions expecting to be a winner or feeling like a loser.  

Finally, research finds, there is a meaningful number of people that gamble for the intellectual challenge. I previously admitted that I often bet whilst on stupid autopilot, but I do smart betting too.

If you’re going to take poker or fantasy sports seriously, then it has to be an intellectual endeavour. Unless you’re prepared to put time and cognitive energy into the games, you’re likely to be at a severe disadvantage.

There’s plenty of research that proves utility that can be obtained from mental challenges. Your brain is programmed to enjoy it because it confers advantages and benefits. Neurogenesis in humans is a recent discovery and has huge potential implications for health in later life.

So by all means, learn new things and make your brain work in any way that is enjoyable to you. If gambling responsibly can provide a way for people to improve their mental wellbeing, then it should be encouraged. Not everyone can get their kicks from doing a Sudoku.

Bobby’s Bets

I had a good run of it in the first three days of the USPGA Championship, but sadly Brooks Koepka faded away and left me a loser. I had a lot of entertainment watching and following along though, so I don’t regret my meagre losses (£16 total).

This week we have the Champions Legue Final and the start of the test cricket season. It’s likely I’ll have an unintellectual but enjoyable dabble.

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