Thursday, January 05, 2006

On Gambling

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame had a hilarious post that perfectly sums up my opinion on gambling...

One of the downsides of interacting with other people is that they keep uncovering defects I never knew I had. For example, I recently discovered that I can’t learn to gamble...

In order to learn something, first you must have enough interest to activate whatever brain chemistry it takes to first concentrate on the subject and second to burn the rules into your long term memory. Apparently this is easy for people who believe that their gambling decisions have a strong influence on whether they win or lose. To me, every casino game except the slots looks like an annoying set of rules layered on top of what should be a simple process of taking your money and giving you nothing in return.

Apparently when other people hear the rules of card games they think This is how I will become rich. I must pay attention. Whereas my brain just activates the fight or flight response. I don’t know whether to run away or start punching the dealer.

I once had a very strong interest in gambling. I even took a doctoral level class in game theory (for unrelated reasons), learned how to count cards, and studied virtually every game of chance.

Then I realized that there is no form of gambling where the odds are in your favor. None. Why would there be? Gambling is a business. They are there to take your money, and they do it more efficiently and at a lower cost then a mugger with a gun.

The game which you have the best chance of winning at, if you make every decision perfectly, is blackjack. Even then a player only has a 49% chance of winning (because you have to go before the dealer). If you can count cards, you gain a 1-2% advantage, giving you a 50-51% chance of winning, if you play perfectly.

The odds of winning at most other forms of gambling are much, much lower. The odds of winning most lotteries are less then 1 in 1,000,000 - they are essentially a tax on people who can't do math (or refuse to for some reason).

Once I realized this I lost all interest in gambling. But I also lost the ability to even care about gambling, to understand why people gamble, or to remember the most basic mechanics about the different games.

Over the winter break, a friend asked if I wanted to play in his weekly poker game, and I couldn't even remember the ranking of hands. I can recite in detail thousands of years of human history, the minutia of hundreds of laws, dozens of variations on my favorite recipes, the circumstances of the first kiss with every woman I've ever had a crush on, and the words to virtually every They Might Be Giants song ever recorded. But I couldn't remember rules to a game that most eight year olds with access to cable t.v. have mastered.

Odd how the brain works.
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