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“You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”
~ Will Rogers
Gambling. What comes to mind? An iconic movie scene? Maybe Daniel Craig’s James Bond staring unflinchingly across the poker table at the villain before Bond’s straight flush wins him $115 million. Perhaps the roulette table at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca? Or animated characters in Toy Story 3 placing bets around a Fisher-Price See ‘N Say toy? Or the Enterprise crew playing poker in Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Movies have portrayed gambling scenarios from elegant to seedy since the 1930s and have included many famous actors, even child-star Shirley Temple and future President Ronald Reagan. For opulence, nothing beats Monaco’s Casino de Monte- Carlo, its lavish décor the setting for many movie gambling scenes including most of the James Bond films. Crystal chandeliers, plush carpeting and expensive furniture provide suitable backdrop for the well-heeled in tuxedos and designer gowns placing bets with quiet, reserved intensity. A world away is the weekly poker game hosted by Oscar Madison in the film and TV series, The Odd Couple. No high stakes, no fancy clothes; just six men enjoying camaraderie, gossip and joking as they drink beer, smoke cigars and eat sandwiches. We’ve also witnessed gambling in the cowboy saloon, the secretive back room, glitzy Las Vegas, the race track, the boxing ring, even our beloved baseball. The film, Eight Men Out, details the scheme between gamblers and eight of the Chicago White Sox players to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. Humans have been gambling for thousands of years. Egyptian tombs contain dice. Greek and Roman pottery depict betting on animal fights. The “throw of Aphrodite” – rolling two sixes – decided the winner of ancient Greece dice games. In France, baccarat showed up about 1490 and roulette was popular by the mid-18th century. Early Native Americans played dice games with etched stones. Keno, dating back to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE), showed up in the 1860s with Chinese immigrants who worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad. That railroad, along with Mississippi riverboats and covered wagons, carried populations across our continent; and gambling spread with them. Wyatt Earp set up faro tables in the saloons of more than a dozen towns between Illinois and California.
Literature confirms gambling’s history. All four gospels of the new Testament speak of the soldiers, at the crucifixion of Christ, dividing his garments by “casting lots for them to see what each should take.” In the 1602 short story, Rinconete y Cortadillo, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes wrote of two characters whose talent was cheating at ventiuno (twenty-one), a card game we also know as blackjack. In Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio bets other husbands that his new wife will dutifully respond when he calls her.
Lotteries have been popular ways to fund public projects. The Roman Empire used lottery ticket sales for Rome’s upkeep and maintenance. A British lottery, chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1566, raised funds for the “reparation of the havens and strength of the Realme, and towards such other publique good works.” Princeton, Harvard and Columbia Universities were partially built with lottery proceeds. A rare “Mountain Road” lottery ticket dated 1768 signed by George Washington is currently available from a collectibles dealer in England for 18,000 pounds (about $28,400). Washington was trying to raise money for the American Revolution.
Gaming Stats, published by Rubin Brown Certified Public Accountants and Business Consultants, shows 2013 gaming revenue from over 1,000 non-Native casinos in the U.S. to be $66.30 billion. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, “revenue on all Native lands combined was $27 billion in 2013.” That’s over $93 billion for one year and it’s only a fraction of U.S. gaming revenue.
Clearly, gambling is in our DNA. Most of us have engaged in some game of chance: raffle ticket, bingo, lottery, pull tabs, office football pool. We’ve bet on horses at Canterbury park, played slots at a Minnesota casino, or enjoyed a friendly poker game. Growing up, my family’s card game was twenty-one. As we took off for Grandma and Grandpa’s farm when the out-of-state relatives were visiting, my mom’s purse contained a hanky, comb, rosary, and an envelope with about 100 pennies – her gambling money.
The Dark Side of Winning – When It’s No Longer a Game
“If you must play, decide upon three things at the start: the rules of the game, the stakes, and the quitting time.”
~ Chinese Proverb
For most people who gamble, it is leisure- time fun. But for some, it becomes a more thorny issue. As various forms of gambling became more accessible, the issue of “problem gambling” came right along with it. Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance, founded in 2001, states: “Problem Gambling, also known as gambling addiction or compulsive gambling, is defined as the urge to gamble despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop. It’s estimated that approximately 150,000 to 214,000 Minnesotans struggle with this addictive disorder.” If that seems like an improbably high number, it is, in reality, likely a low estimate. Cathie Perrault, Northstar Alliance’s Executive Director, says that “because there is no substance ingestion [as in alcohol or drug addiction], gambling addiction is harder to pinpoint.” Studies do, however, show a high probability that compulsive gambling is often present concurrently with other issues such as substance abuse and mood or personality disorders.
A 2001 research team led by Dr. Hans Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital used magnetic resonance imaging to map brain responses of individuals taking part in a game of chance that involved money. The results, Breiter said, are conclusive: “Monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine.” The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders reclassified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder and its Fifth Edition (DSM-5 published in 2013) now includes it under “Addictions.”
Compulsive gambling is as old as gambling itself. Sanskrit texts dating back to 1750 BCE indicate gambling’s popularity and include a poem titled The Gambler’s Lament that bewails the ruin caused by gambling addiction. Charles Dickens’ 1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, follows a young girl and her grandfather as his gambling condemns them to a life of poverty. A September 2004 article entitled Problem Gambling Pioneer: Fyodor Dostoevsky appears on the American Gaming Association website. It calls Dostoevsky’s 1867 novel, The Gambler, “the blueprint that psychoanalysts and other scientists have been studying for more than a century.” The article quotes Richard J. Rosenthal, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program, who says the novel “is the best case history [of compulsive gambling] in literature.” He concludes, “Dostoevsky is so filled with psychological insight into the characters’ personalities about gambling….He was so aware of the self-deceptions and the self-destructiveness of the disorder.”
And there’s the tricky bit: self-deception prevents acknowledging the self-destructiveness and has, in fact, created two phrases. The first, “gambler’s fallacy” (also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy), is the flawed belief that a losing streak has to end sometime or that a winning streak must be sustained, so either way, one must keep playing. The second, “gambler’s conceit”, is the gambler’s conviction that they will be able to stop a risky behavior even though still engaging in it. Fuelling these delusions is the belief, also erroneous, that a winning streak is due to personal skill rather than chance, dropping the likelihood of quitting to virtually zero.
Therefore, the objectivity needed to identify someone at risk often comes from friends and family. Northstar Alliance provides some “warning signs:
• Increased frequency of gambling activity
• Increased amount of money gambled
• Gambling for longer periods of time than originally planned
• Bragging about wins, but not talking about losses
• Pressuring others for money as financial problems arise
•Lying about how money is spent
•Escaping to other excesses (alcohol, drugs, sleep, etc.)
•Denying there is a problem
Additional signs…may include frequent absences from home and work, excessive phone use, withdrawal from family, personality changes (increased irritability/ hostility) and diversion of family funds.”
It takes strong-willed self-awareness to look reality in the face and we humans have devised clever ways to avoid doing so. Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in Physics who was instrumental in identifying the cause of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, said this: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Perhaps acknowledging this can bolster the courage for honest self-assessment. After all, who wants to be the fool?
If you think you need help or know someone who does, the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance (www.northstarproblemgambling. org) website has a 20-question risk assessment that can clarify concerns. They also list certified Gambling Treatment Providers in all Minnesota counties and provide encouragement with personal stories of struggles and successes. If concerned about a friend or relative, there offer ways to reach out and start a conversation: “Let the person know you’re willing to help but don’t counsel them yourself. Encourage them to call.”
Immediate help is always available at a confidential 24-hour helpline run by the Minnesota Department of Human Resources: Minnesota Problem Gambling helpline; 1-800-333-4673. Twelve-step meetings are held in communities around Minnesota and can be found at Minnesota Gamblers Anonymous (www.minnesotaga. com); or contact National Gamblers Anonymous: www.gamblersanonymous. org; 1-855-222-5542.
So go ahead, enjoy a bit of gaming. Just keep it in perspective. As writer and philosopher Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) said: “The only man who makes money following the races is one who does it with a broom and shovel.”
Eleanor Leonard is a freelance writer for The Phoenix Spirit.