An Introduction to Gambling for Beginners

Casino Slot Machines, Casino Floor, Casino Neon Sign
This post is meant to provide a broad introduction to the topic of gambling. It’s aimed not only at potential gamblers, but also academics who are interested in what gambling is and how it affects society.

I’ll start with a proper definition of gambling.

To gamble is to risk something of value on an event with the hope of winning something of value.

For an activity to be considered “real money gambling,” you need three qualities:

  1. Stakes
  2. Risk
  3. Winnings

The stakes are the amount that you’re risking. Risk is the possibility you’ll lose. And winnings are the payoff when things go your way.

Take away one of those factors, and the activity doesn’t constitute gambling.

Also, notice that the time frame isn’t defined. You can bet on a single hand of blackjack and know whether you’ve won or lost in a few moments.

But you can also bet on who’s going to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of football season and wait months to find out if you’ve won. That’s a legal definition, but it’s also a practical definition.

The rest of this page looks at how these factors work in the actual practice of gambling.

Gaming vs. Gambling

You’ll often hear people in the industry refer to gambling as “gaming.”

I don’t like this usage, as I think the word “gaming” has been co-opted from other activities that are already well-defined. People who play video games refer to their hobby as “gaming.” Role-players (like Dungeons and Dragons fans) also refer to their hobby as gaming.

“Gaming,” in this context, though, implies a couple of things. The first is that the gambling in question is legal and happening in a licensed, regulated way.

The second is that the gambling in question is happening in the United States; other countries don’t feel the need to legitimize gambling by calling it something else.

How Big a Deal Is Gambling?

I’ve seen writers claim that gambling is integral to our identity as humans. Everything we do can be looked at from a risk-reward perspective.

Casablanca Movie PosterYou can also find cultural evidence that suggests gambling is integral to our identity as a society. The gambling scene in Casablanca is critical to the plot, and that’s considered one of the finest films of all time.

That’s not the only movie where gambling plays a role either. Some movies, like The Hustler and The Cincinnati Kid, feature gambling as a prominent part of the plot.

But another way to examine the significance of gambling in our culture is to look at the size of the industry financially.

If you only account for legal gambling, then the market was $335 billion—in 2009. That was a decade ago. Imagine how big the industry has grown since.

And that doesn’t account for the massive amounts of money that are gambled daily and weekly under the table, at neighborhood poker games and in bars where people are betting on sporting events.

The answer to the question, how big a deal is gambling, is simple indeed. Gambling is HUGE.

Gambling Throughout History

There’s plenty of evidence that gambling has been a big deal for a long time. They were using dice (the same kind of dice we use in craps games) in Mesopotamia, all the way back to 3100 BC.

We also know that casinos were in operation in China around 1000 BC, too. One can imagine that people were betting on various sporting events of some kind even before that.

Playing cards are at least 1000 years old, and so are dominoes. The lottery is also at least that old.

Poker is based on a Persian game called As-Nas, which is over 300 years old. Persia is now modern-day Iran, so there’s some irony in the fact that a game that seems so quintessentially American originated in a country where the US currently has ongoing conflict with.

The Ridotto, in Venice, would be recognizable as a modern casino, and it opened in the 17th century.

I’ll write more about the different kinds of gambling below, but I’d also like to point out that efforts to ban gambling come and go, and various kinds of gambling are legal or illegal depending on the time period and the place.

Types of Gambling

You can categorize the forms of gambling in multiple ways, but here are some broad categories worth considering.

Casino games are games where you gamble against the establishment where you’re playing. You might also call these gambling games “house-banked,” because the house pays off the winners and collects money from the losers.

Slot Machines Lined Up

You can further subdivide casino games into gambling machines and table games. Gambling machines include slot machines and video poker, but they’re not limited to that. You can also find video versions of blackjack, craps, and roulette in many casinos.

Table games, on the other hand, use chips, are played at a table, and require the use of a dealer—who represents the casino. Prominent examples of table games in casinos are:

  • Baccarat
  • Blackjack
  • Craps
  • Roulette

Numbers games are often seen in casinos, too. Some include games like the lottery, bingo, and keno (although keno is also considered a casino game). These games all involve choosing numbers at random and hoping to match other numbers that are chosen at random.

These games are ubiquitous and legal now, but they’ve been illegal in the past. “Running numbers” was a popular business for organized crime when the lottery was still illegal in most states in the USA.

Poker games and other card games, where you risk your money against the other players at the table, are hugely popular. Some people don’t distinguish between poker and casino games, but they’re making a mistake.

What makes a poker game a poker game is the involvement of the other players. Other card games work similarly, although some card games are also just casino games.

Sports betting is one of the most popular ways to bet. Bets on horse and dog races are a peculiar subcategory of betting on sports, too.

From a business perspective, sports betting is interesting because of how the house makes money. Sure, you can bet on a football game with a buddy.

Football Players on Field, Football Game

But most serious sports bettors wager with someone who takes care of such things professionally. Such a business is called a sportsbook, and they normally charge $110 for a $100 bet, so they can make a profit.

Horse tracks and dog tracks have a different model. They have prize pools based on a percentage of the money they’ve brought in, and they withhold a percentage to make a profit.

Individual gamblers are normally playing at a mathematical disadvantage and lose money over time. Some strategies can overcome this mathematical disadvantage, but such strategies aren’t simple or easy. They also don’t apply to all activities. No amount of strategy can beat the lottery in the long run, for example.

Problem Gambling

Gambling can be fun. It can be profitable for a minority of gamblers, too. But since it affects brain chemistry, gambling can become a psychological problem.

Some people think that you must ingest a substance to form an addiction, but psychologists recognize behavioral addictions, too—addictions to food or sex, would be examples.

More pertinent to this discussion, though, gambling addiction is a real danger to anyone with a tendency to “overdo” things.

In fact, slot machine games are notorious for having intermittent reinforcement schedules that cause gambling addiction.

Never gamble with money you can’t afford to lose. Always quit if you feel like you’re losing control of your behavior.

Also, one of the biggest signs of compulsive behavior is a lack of ability to enjoy an activity. Once gambling stops being fun, you’re in serious danger.


That’s a broad overview and introduction to the subject of gambling, but it’s a complicated subject with many facets. In fact, you’ll never run out of blog posts, articles, or even books to read on the subject.

Gambling is fun and exciting, but it carries elements of risk with it that you might or might not have considered. Sure, you know you might lose money, but you might also become addicted.