The crime of gambling + truth about breaking even


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. This is a rework of a draft of a 13th column in a gambling series. It was scheduled for publication (2003) in Casino Player. It was never completed, because Mike Caro discontinued his “Last Word” column due to conditions negotiated between principals in the the sale of Poker Digest (previously owned by the same company as Casino Player) to Card Player. Caro has never been privy to the exact stipulations, but he resumed writing for Casino Player in 2006 with his “Caro on Poker” series when the restrictions expired.


Sometimes the status quo — the way things are now, the world we’re accustomed to — is such a powerful thing that we fail to question why it is or how it got that way. Sometimes I think that’s a good thing, because if we struggled to understand why society is the way it is in every regard, we’d have no time to do anything else. We’d become obsessed.

Why do we shake hands? Would bumping thumbs be a superior form of greeting? Why do we all have indoor toilets? Wasn’t there originally an argument about bringing the outhouse indoors? Didn’t people at first find this notion offensive? Why did the debate die?

And how about marriage? What’s that all about? Why is there just one single way to form a lifelong bonding relationship? Why do I and Phyllis – the chick I married – have to formally applaud a system with strong legal implications that we never conceived ourselves?

Why? How come? How did it happen? You can drive yourself crazy thinking about stuff like that. But, you know what? There’s no reason to. You see, there must be some standard rules of conduct we all agree to abide by. Without basic standards for behavior, we’d each have our own methods of interacting, leading to confusion and chaos. So, even if a tradition or polite ritual isn’t the way we would have fashioned it, we still adhere to it, within reason. Small everyday customs aren’t always worth revising, because the fight over modifications and the task of teaching everyone the new rules would require effort that could be used more efficiently on important things. We play chess or basketball or poker, and we accept the rules, even if we would like them to be different. Life needs to be that way. The problem comes when we are needlessly restricted in serious ways without any apparent benefits.

I don’t know how it strikes you, but it just seems incredible to me that in these days of popular porn in plenty of respectable households, needles on demand for drug addicts, condoms passed out in school, and a general you-better-not-dare-step-on-my-toes societal attitude that the United States and most state governments try to dictate to me that I can’t spend my own money gambling. They want to put us in jail for gambling. That seems strangely inconsistent with the push for other personal freedoms.

If we agree that government must not invade or control our sex lives, what about our gambling lives? When did we concede the right to win or lose — or wait for our luck to break even? My mind wanders, and I seem to have suddenly switched messages. Oh, well. I’ve already finished my rant about government control of our gambling lives, so let’s move on to breaking even.

The truth about breaking even

You see, we don’t live long enough for things to break even. The god of probability is working hard to be fair, but he doesn’t have enough time to do his job. He needs millions of years and we only give him an average of about 80. So, here’s the truth. Some people are luckier than others in life. Some get the big breaks when they really need them. Take me, for instance. I’m at the top of my game. Few people doubt my expertise at, say, poker, so, they’ll listen to what I have to say. Now, I’d like to think that this is all because of the hard work I put into the field and that I “played my cards right.” And, yes, I do think I deserve to be here, but wait! What if I’d been distracted the first time I became inspired to step into the gambling-research arena? What if I’d been interrupted by a phone call at just the right moment and got turned on to stock market research, instead? And what if that research has caused me to crash and burn?

You know what? I think most people instinctively realize that luck is a key element in their lives. Sure, they can go around obstacles and often triumph, despite adversity. That’s because luck isn’t quite powerful enough to leave them without a fighting chance. But, don’t try to tell me that life is a break-even experience and that we all get what we deserve. That’s a damn lie!

The difference between other people and gamblers

Here’s my message for you today. I believe that in general, most people go about their lives expecting to be a little luckier than is reasonable. They feel lucky and if you ask them if they are lucky, the majority will say yes. But ask this same question specifically of hard-core gamblers and they’ll tell you they’re unlucky – that they have survived despite monstrous bad beats. Take your average sports bettor, as an example.

If he wins 1,000 games and loses 1,000 games, he’ll be a substantial loser to the sports book, because he had to lay 11-to-10 on each bet. Is he going to say, gee, life has treated me fairly, even though I’m losing my shirt betting? Nope. He’s going to tell you about the fumble on the three-yard line, explaining that in 999 out of 1,000 cases his team would have just run out the clock. He isn’t going to bother to tell you about any possible lucky breaks that won games for him, because he won’t remember those. They were just routine.

The secret

So, here’s a secret. Complaining about bad luck in football, blackjack, craps, or roulette won’t increase the odds against you or hurt your chances, except that you may start making more bad bets as your mind short-circuits in misery. But complaining about bad luck can be devastating when you’re against real opponents, like in poker. Then, it will definitely increase the odds against you. At poker, for instance – where everyone thinks they’re on the world-record bad run at times — you can actually inspire opponents by complaining. They think, “Hey, there’s someone unluckier than I am! I can beat him!” And they play better against you, because you’ve declared yourself a loser and given them confidence.

The same thing can happen in real life. Look at successful people. How many of them frequently complain about their bad beats? More likely they’re overly optimistic and expect to be lucky. My advice: If you’re getting ready to seek sympathy by explaining your bad luck, real or imagined, dummy up. Keep it to yourself. In all likelihood, nobody cares. And if someone does care, it could be in ways that will harm you. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

2 thoughts on “The crime of gambling + truth about breaking even”

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  1. I read about a study a while back that had to do with senior citizens’ health complaints. (Re-reading that, I’m kind of tickled I’m not a research assistant.)

    The conclusion was that people who saw fit to complain about every little ache and pain drained themselves psychically, to the point where their bodies ran down. People who were not focused on their misfortunes still had aches and pains, but having discounted them as products of being alive, they still had energy to focus on positive action.

    More hobbies, more fun; longer, healthier life.

    That may be a little peripheral to your points here, but the more I look into it the more I find poker to be life itself writ small. (Hopefully without all the cooperation!)

  2. WOW!!! i never thought of it that way..i definitely needed this article, I wonder how much i can retain on this day one of probing the mind of a mad genius

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