Gambling is wonderful… and weird

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Casino Player.

What do Michael Jordan, Michelle Kwan, and Elvis Presley have in common? They all got famous living unproductive lives – Jordon playing basketball, Kwan skating, Presley singing.

Don’t shout; I hear you: “What kind of a criticism is that? These three people were each number one in their professions!” Oh, fine. I see your point. “Unproductive lives” wasn’t a nice thing to say and doesn’t make much sense about people who rose to the top of their professions.

So, why have so many people criticized professional gambling as “unproductive”? Why is gambling itself often stigmatized with that same term? Sometimes you have to wonder what people mean by the word when they hurl it at my fellow professional poker players and ask why they didn’t do something productive with their lives.

Listen closely. Gambling is exactly as productive as slapping a ball with a stick or sliding around on frozen water or making your voice sound melodic. These things don’t feed us or help us build houses. Yet they’re important to our lives, because we’re not ants, are we? We’re not programmed, like ants, purely for efficiency. We’re here to enjoy our lives, and everything that helps us do that is productive. Farming is productive. Carpentry is productive. But, so is playing ball, skating, singing – and, moreover, so is watching an athletic event or listening to music. It’s all productive if it makes our lives happier or more suspenseful.

The great lie

Yes, we gamble for the entertainment and for the suspense. Gambling for fun is productive. Gambling professionally is productive. Gambling helps produce the suspense we’re seeking. Movies help produce the escape we’re seeking. Music helps produce the joy we’re seeking. Basketball breaks our boredom and produces happiness. We’re surrounded by things that are productive, my friends — things that we urgently need to live – food, clothes, shelter – and everything else we need to make our lives more interesting.

So, next time you’re at a party and a guy tells you that tired untruth about gambling being unproductive, spill your drink all over that liar’s head. It will be an appropriate and a productive response.

I think gambling is wonderful. But, in some ways, it’s weird. In fact, some of gambling’s great truths are not intuitive. Here are three examples.

Example one. Suppose you’re playing blackjack, just for the sheer suspense, and you’re not counting cards. In that case, you should hope the dealer shuffles earlier when you’re winning, but not when you’re losing. That’s because when you’re winning, this implies that the cards needed to make good things happen have already been used up during your successful run and that the cards that remain are less likely to be good ones. Weird.

Example two. Did you know that if two people make an even-money bet for money that will affect their lives, both are taking the worst of it? That’s because when you venture beyond “entertainment” stakes by risking, say, half of your net worth, the value of winning and having one-and-a-half times as much as you started with is overwhelmed by the risk of losing and having just half as much. The reward is wonderful, but the pain is powerful. And when you weight these two abstract things, it turns out that the pain is almost always heavier than the gain. Gambling for huge stakes can be disruptive, and theoretically you need more than a small edge to justify it. An even-money bet is clearly not justification enough, in most cases. And, so, if you make such an unlikely bet, both you and your opponent are taking the worst of it. Weird.

Example three. You can be getting a good deal, even if the odds are against you, though – even in the lottery. It’s actually a corollary to what we just discussed. Some people’s lives are so desperate that a dollar lost won’t change it much. But a long-shot chance of winning the lottery may be worth the price of a ticket. When you think about it, anyone who gave up hope and committed suicide with a buck in his pocket acted prematurely. He could have bought a lottery ticket and waited. The odds just seemed too long to pick up his cards and look at them. I saw that happen at poker once. It was at the Sahara poker room in the 1970s. A guy had been losing more than he could comfortably afford at seven-card stud. He wagered his last money on a pair of aces after five cards – with two cards to come. When his opponent showed him four sevens, he wheeled from the table and sadly walked away. The final two cards provided him with four aces. He wasn’t there to collect, and the pot was ruled to have been conceded and was pushed to the losing hand. Weird.

Yes, gambling is wonderful and sometimes weird. Sometimes joyful. Sometimes cruel. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s unproductive. When they tell you that, they lie. — 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.


5 thoughts on “Gambling is wonderful… and weird”

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  1. I considered gambling as a career was making a small livable profit for first few months, never felt right for me. Talked to an good friend, who was making alot of money as foreign currency trader for a major bank, we were in our twenties, this was back in the early 80s. Neither of us felt particular “productive”. Then he nailed it for me by informing that we were both engaged in a zero sum game.

    He has gone on to build a hotel and employs many people, I am on health care and at least try to help people. I still enjoy playing poker, he plays the stock market. I am glad the game was smaller back then, if I could win as twenty year old today, I might not be able to stop. Productive might be the wrong word, but so many successful gamblers could me doing more worthwhile things that help others. Mike, you help others with these post and your advice, and I suspect at the end of the day that might be more rewarding then just winning money. Money gamblers don’t have this outlet. Winning is hard work. Why work so hard in a zero some game when you apply your talents helping others and make money at the same time

  2. I happened to read this article and I must fully agree with you Mike. Poker has taught me a lot more than just playing cards. It has taught me to be more obervant, to always play well even when nothing seems to be going quite as you expect. To read truth in the actions of others not their words. In other words for me poker is anything but unproductive.

  3. I agree completely When I started to learn how to play poker a year and a half ago people kept telling me they thought I had a gambling problem because thats all I was interested I would wake up to poker and go to bed with it accumilated 12 books 2 of which you wrote.  (My favorite being Caros Most profitable holdem advice) you learnt me something in that book that no other book could teach me.  But I havent even got to play live in a casino yet(mostly because of geographical location) I just play online and even my girlfriend got on my case thinking I had a gambling addiction.  All I have to say is poker is my hobby would I like to make a living at it yes I would.  Could I convince my family of supporting me probably not.  Its not there fault they feel that way but im gonna try something over the next few years going to casinos and saving up a bankroll and im gonna become a weekend warrior and see what my luck and skill brings me.  If im successful I will owe alot of the credit to you if im not successful I can only blame myself for not being dedicated to the cause.  Oh and by the way here in the next few months im making my live poker debut on a cruise ship and your book caros book of tells may indeed become my favorite book and thanks mike. 

  4. Mike,
    Thank you very much for this article. I’m not a poker player but I’m a trader and I tire of this criticism.
    I’ve made counter arguments regarding the mutually entered nature of my work and the value of speculation but this article on productivity was just what I needed.
    Thanks very much.

  5. I’ve heard many people, even as highly respected as Dan Harrington, utter the same lie in the form of something along the lines of, “Anyone smart enough to earn a living at poker is smart enough to have a real career…”

    The problem with this line of thought is that in a “real career” it is a commonly known truth that it isn’t what you know it’s who you know. In a “real career” it isn’t just about being smart; it’s about schmoozing and sucking up and other things that fall under the general heading of office politics.

    Poker intellect is also not as simple as memorizing facts and figures. Poker intellect is a unique melding of simultaneous left brain/right brain activities. One must be at once analytical and strategic AND creative and intuitive. That level of functioning is light years beyond what is typically necessary to sit in a cubicle putting cover sheets on TPS reports.
    Someone smart enough to earn a living at poker would likely be bored out of their gorde in a “real career.”

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