Friday, June 09, 2006

something odd about playing the odds

We are all taught that gambling is evil or at least foolish and habit forming to boot. And then we are bombarded by product placements for Las Vegas vacations and advertisements promising escape and ecstacy at casinos. I grew up in Reno. I don't think I saw as much as one smile on the gaming floor for every thousand I'd seen on the billboards Harrah's and the MGM Grand used to plaster along interstate 80. I'd strongly agree that submitting yourself to the chance of losses gratuitously is indeed stupid but I would not legislate against it since it is a folly that defrays some of my tax burden.

Common sense either is not common or not sense. My common sense pipes up like a guy who is a few beers past his limit:
"But c'mon now! What planet is this? We are all schooled in gambling before we are 13 yeas old. The forcasters tell me there is a 50% chance of the Sox game being rained out tomorrow. Sell the ticket or hope for a rain check? The forecasters say the morning will be dry but there will be intermittent heavy thundershowers in the afternoon and evening. Do I ride the bike or leave it in the garage? "

Yeah, I suppose we can't help but be a wagering species once we have just enough spare brain power to recognize a choice of action with consequences that depend on unavailable information.

Some times the stakes are portrayed as enormous precisely because that brain power can imagine eternity but not bear to imagine its own absence from eternity. The social workers who try to pick up the pieces when gambling breaks someone's life have a well worn analysis of the syndrome. Magical thinking. Wishful thinking. Turning "its wanted" into "it is" or "it will be" with a sleight of mind that blinds and numbs. When the tokens handled by this broken accounting are also the tokens of power in the waking world, i.e. drugs or money, the wishful thinker sooner or later comes to grief at the hands of those who have benefited from his or her addiction. But when the goods traded are figments and fictions, what harm? I personally assess it as lost time, or lost opportunity to be here and now but that is just me. It gets called a disease in some cases but I wonder if it is not more of a universal affliction, differing more in degree than in kind between the "problem gambler" and the rest of us who are "normal". My recollections of games of chance among kids when I was a teenager is of insignificant contests taking on stakes only teenagers take so seriously: were we "man enough" to dare/withstand losing, were we smart enough to shave the odds in our favor if the game were poker or blackjack? All the significance of the insignificant comes from within, from our own needs.

I can't quite put my finger on the nature of the error that lets us think we can manipulate the unknown. I suspect it is founded upon a less detectable error that makes us want to have control when the critical information is unavailabe. It does not seem so different from the neurotic's constant war with adversity, their constant going out of the way to avoid inconveneince, pain, frustration. If the mechanism inside the phenomenon, be it dice, cards, weather or our particular susceptibility to cancer, is not known then is it only a mistake or is it something more willful that we supply not only a meta-mechanism, a black box, but suppose it to be a mechanism on which our wishes have some effect?

There is a hint in the psychiatric profile of the gambler that a formative experience involving bad luck would spare you from a life time of manipulating the fates by thinking lucky thoughts or making prayers of supplication.

Wanna bet?

2 comments:

Cassandra said...

See this post over at the Carnival of the Godless! Thanks for the submission!!

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