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