Gambling Rant
2001-03-11

All gambling is, at its heart, an act of worship.

I first became aware of this in my first real gambling experience. I was going to a trade show in Las Vegas, and my dad gave me $100 with explicit instructions on specifically what sort of machines to play it in and how to play it – $1 slots, $3 at a time.

I played the money out, in similar fashion to his instructions - though not all of it, I thought some of it would be better spent elsewhere — and noticed about half way through, that the money ceased to be money. This symbolic token of work and energy, which consumes so much of our lives, had degenerated into its most fundamental state for me; merely a symbol.

I then noticed the hundreds of players around me, each repetitively pulling a lever or pressing a button, appearing at first glance akin to the rat whose pleasure center is wired to a lever, operating on instinct alone. In looking closer, it became apparent that their rapture was more intent than automatic, more like the fervor of a believer saying the rosary or, more fitting, spinning a prayer wheel.

Each wager is really a prayer. Each player thinks with each pull “if I win at this, I can do X” More often than not, the ultimate desired payoff is something not terribly selfish, or at least something deserved: “I can take that trip to Europe,” “I can help my son start his company,” “I can send my children to college.”

Our lives are driven by quantum events. Many armchair quantum mechanics claim that these quantum effects have no macroscopic analog, that the unpredictable movements of subatomic particles have averaged out by the time those events reach a scale observable in everyday life. How can this be?

It seems clear that the outcome of the roll of a die is influenced by a string of quantum-scale events, starting with proximal causes such as the state of the die, the table, and the pattern of sweat in the hand of the caster, and moving towards more distal occurrences — the nuclear power plant down the road from the farm where the chicken laid the egg eaten by the chambermaid cleaning the room of the player.

Gambling is interesting, in part, because the random events that bring us fortune and famines are forced into the spotlight. Rather than vanishing into obscurity, we can see our lives literally change before our eyes. The random event, which is plainly controlled or at least foreseen by a supreme being, is put in a state where He can have the most direct influence, where He can most directly answer our prayer.

It’s a bit like the old joke about the man who prays to win the lottery. After he dies, he asks God why he never won. God says “you could have met me half way and bought a ticket!”

The choice to gamble pits our free will against the will of God — or nature, or the universe, or whatever you choose to call it. There is no mistake that churches in the United States often sponsor gambling events to raise money for their causes. The act is clothed in simple entertainment, but the roots run far deeper, and do the roots of some religions banning gambling altogether.

Unlike most forms of religious observance, it is considered entertainment. Really, it is secular worship, a paean to the god of capitalism. Incidentally, the Deity of Fortune appears to be female in American culture — “Luck Be A Lady Tonight.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Meccas of the form, Las Vegas and Monte Carlo.

Las Vegas was the most singular force in architecture of the 20th century, single-handedly driving post-modernism. This continues, with casinos building ever-grander “destinations,” more similar to the narrative architecture of gothic cathedrals than to anything else in history. Monte Carlo can be seen as a sort of “Vatican City” for gambling, a country dedicated entirely to providing a place of chance-worship to the world.

The root of fun in gambling, therefore, lies in triggering the human need to predict the future and to find closure. To be fun, however, there are certain qualities a chance game must have. Let’s see if we can work them out.

It would seem that the simplest and most fair form of chance game is the familiar coin toss. However, a coin toss isn’t necessarily fair, there are many factors that can make it unfair, and the complex gaming equipment seen in a typical casino or lottery draw is a testament to the difficulty of ensuring that chance has its way.

No, let’s go further, and construct a game perversely to be totally fair, but not much fun. Let’s begin with a true random number generator, such as the lava server (nice Wired article about it) or one of the many radioactive-source driven generators found on the Internet. The house can generate a list of random numbers from 000-100 (101 possibilities) printed on scraps of paper, and seal each one blindly in an opaque envelope. Players are offered a single envelope for $1, and if the number contained in the envelope is 000, the house pays $100.

This is a perfectly fair game, in all senses equivalent to any other wager. But it just doesn’t sound like much fun. Why is that?

To start with, it doesn’t seem to be random. From the point of view of the player, even if he is aware that the process is fair, the envelopes are already decided, there is no chance. We’re not even picking an envelope at random from a group. But from a quantum mechanical point of view, the contents of the envelope are, in fact, uncertain.

In order to be fun, a game must visibly be decided after placing the bet.

Next, there is no choice in the winning number in this game. It would be more fun if you could pick your own number from 000-100. It really doesn’t make any difference in the outcome — 000 is just as likely as any other choice. The player can’t even choose an envelope in my example. There is no element of free will, save for the choice to play or not to play. Choosing a number gives a sense of closure, a sense of imprinting free will onto the process, the feeling that God (or Luck) might be

In order to be fun, the player must be able to make choices.

By only providing one envelope, there is an additional barrier to a fun wager. There are no other possibilities. If the house were to at least show a stack of envelopes, then it would be clear that there was a string of events influencing not just what number is in the envelope, but what order the envelopes are bought in — perhaps the person after you dropped his keys after leaving the house, making him pick them up, making him miss a stop light by a few seconds, making him get the envelope after yours instead of the one before.

In order to be fun, the player must be able to see the missed chances.

It is interesting to note that there exists a gambling game which, in principle, is very similar to my proposed game, and many players do, in fact, consider it fun. It makes quite a lot of money at any rate. I refer specifically to the “Instant Lottery.” However, the typical instant lottery game provides elements of each of these three principles to make the game more fun

  • The player scratches off the results a little at a time, giving the sense of creating the random elements in person. In any case, it allows for the bettor to construct a small narrative of the unfolding of the predetermined results.
  • Typically, there is more than one type of instant lottery ticket to choose from, and some retailers will sell a ticket other than the first one on the strip
  • Players can see that there are more tickets on the strip and other games they could have chosen

A predetermined game can, therefore, be fun if it provides the illusion of these three elements.

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