For a while in my 30s, I spent a lot of time in casinos, occasionally gambling, often playing poker, under the guise of “doing research” for a book that never fully materialized. In the course of that episode of my life, without really meaning to, I collected a fair amount of wisdom on the subject of money and gambling and how to handle situations that look somewhat hopeless, a phenomenon that happens frequently in a casino, but also in ordinary life.
Most of these nuggets of wisdom came from people much older than I, and a few of those men and women have now gone on to their heavenly reward, which I can only hope is the ultimate jackpot, the spiritual equivalent of a cascade of golden coins from God himself, or Lady Luck, as he is sometimes called.
In fact, one of the best things I ever heard in a casino was a joke, told by a professor friend of mine, who died a few years ago. He described himself as “an incurable optimist.”
He was not a gambler himself, but a psychologist. After a faculty dinner at a local restaurant in Great Falls, he happened to be standing next to me as I slipped a 20 in a poker machine.
We were people-watching the folks around us, mainly senior citizens absorbed in their machines.
“What’s the difference,” he asked me, “between a church and a casino?”
I told him I had no idea.
“Well,” he explained, “both are buildings where people gather to pray to God, but the folks in the casino really mean it!”
Of course, I laughed, because, like a lot of jokes, it seemed to reveal something universal about human character: we all like to be smiled on by God, or Lady Luck, or whatever name you want to give to that force in the universe that dispenses fate.
And there’s really no better way to know for sure you are smiled on by fate than to win a lot of money without working for it. That’s called gambling.
That joke more or less inspired me to hang around casinos for a few years, watching and talking to people about why they put their hard-earned money into machines that only occasionally paid them off. In Montana, by law, the machines have to pay off 80 percent of the time, which are terrible odds. Most of the machines in Vegas, by contrast, pay off 95 percent or more of the time. But it doesn’t matter, really, what the percentage is, because anyone in any casino can tell you the first rule is “the House always wins.” The rate just tells you how fast that happens.
What that means for you and me is that for every $20-bill we slide into a poker machine, we can expect, on average, to get $16 back.
The reason most of us put that money in the machine anyway is there’s always a chance—however slim—that the machine will “hit,” and our $20-bill will magically transform into $800 (The maximum payout on a machine allowed in Montana).
Conversely, the reason gambling is a problem for many people is they don’t seem to be able to stop with that first $20. If they get $16 back, they put that back in the machine, and suddenly the 16 turns into 13, and 13 turns into 12, and so on until you end up at zero.
Nevertheless, even losing a lot of money can lead to philosophical insights, and some of the old guys I talked to tended to be upbeat about getting beat by a machine.
One fellow I talked to quite often, a guy named Bob, would just slap me on the back whenever I lost a hundred at the poker table and console me.
“Oh, hell,” he’d say. “It’s just money. You can always get more.”
A lot of poker players will tell you that poker, at least played well, is not the same as gambling, which is true. But there is still a fair amount of luck involved (whereas playing a machine involves almost no skill at all), and so losing on a bad bet just becomes part of the game.
Another gambler I know down in Butte, named Joel, once made me laugh by pointing out after I lost $40 in a machine that “there’s always more where that went.”
The older folks at the poker table were actually a wealth of wisdom, and often, with a little bit of reflection, you can see how their insights could be applied to all kinds of life situations.
For example, you’ve probably heard the advice that you “shouldn’t throw good money after bad.”
In poker that means that if you already made a mistake in calling a bet with a marginal hand, and you get raised or re-raised, you ought to just fold. Getting out while you’re ahead, or at least not too far behind, comes up in real life all the time.
If you get a bad hamburger from a drive-through, you’d be a grade-A fool to circle back around to try the chicken.
Quite often a winner will rake in the chips and say something like, “I just had a hunch,” a comment that tries to account for dumb luck with the presumption of some kind of ESP.
The truth is, as the great gambler Amarillo Slim pointed out, that “hunches are for dogs making love.”
What he meant by that line of poetry is simply that when it comes to making money, your best friends are hard data and actual, demonstrable facts, rather than hunches or wishful thinking.
Occasionally you get lucky, and it feels good, but knowing the true odds is, in the long run, better for your billfold than trusting your gut.
Still, nothings stings worse than having a great hand—a pair of Aces in the hole, say—and losing to some idiot willing to gamble a potful of money on Deuce-Six off-suit, who is lucky enough to make two pair or an inside straight.
Something along those lines once happened to me, and, like most losers, I started to complain. But a wise old man sitting next to me just shrugged.
“If the best hand always won, poker wouldn’t be much of a game,” he said.
It didn’t make me feel any better at the time, but he was right. What makes gambling exciting is the risk, the idea that you might win big.
But the flipside of that is that even when the odds look good, and things are going your way, luck can change pretty quickly with the flip of a card.
That wisdom is true at the poker table, but it’s also a pretty good rule of thumb for life.
An old folk song I know has a chorus that reminds listeners that “A man should never gamble more than he can stand to lose,” a proverb that sort of summarizes most of the wisdom I’ve picked up hanging around casinos.
Sometimes it’s fun to toss caution to the gods and sink a few bills in a machine, but not the rent money. ISI