Why Do People Gamble?

Closeup of Hand Dropping Casino Chips

Why do people gamble?

I have a poker player friend who says that everything in life is a gamble. He points out the importance of random chance involved with everything from making a living to choosing a wife.

He always adds, “No risk, no reward.”

But when most readers ask, why do people gamble? they’re usually people who DON’T gamble and want to know why someone they know DOES gamble.

In this post, I look at 7 reasons people like to place bets.

1- Why Do People Gamble When They Lose Most of the Time?

That’s a legitimate question:

Why would you gamble if you’re consistently losing all the time.

Surveys suggest that people have a wide range of motivations for wanting to gamble. In some cultures and jurisdictions, gambling is widely available and culturally accepted.

But not everyone gambles.

Some people gamble more often than other people, too.

And not everyone in any of those 3 camps is necessarily more likely to become a problem gambler or gambling addict.

The point I’m trying to make is that you have a wide variety of reasons for gambling:

  • To escape your troubles
  • To be entertained
  • To socialize

And those are just some of the factors involved. Different kinds of gambling attract different personality types, and different approaches to some games are taken by different people.

Here’s an example:

Most people know that women prefer games of chance, and most men prefer games of skill.

That’s why you see more women at the slot machines and more men at the poker table.

But men will often play poker and ignore the role of chance, even though chance is the deciding factor in the short run.

And men will play slot machines, but they’ll switch machines if they’re not winning, or they’ll try to find machines that are due for a payout. They create an illusion of control when they’re playing a game that’s purely chance.

2- Some People Gamble Because They Can’t Help Themselves Anymore

This is possibly the most baffling situation, especially for people who are close to a gambling addict. They see all the misery gambling causes their loved one, and they don’t understand why he doesn’t just quit gambling and be happy.

It’s a question similar to asking why an alcoholic can’t just drink a little bit, have a good time, and call it a night.

For people with gambling problems, the ability to stop gambling seems to have disappeared. They have a mental obsession that prevents them from quitting while they’re ahead or before they’ve lost all their money.

Even gamblers who don’t have a compulsion are often trying to hit a big win. They can “feel” that they’re getting close.

But even when they hit their big win, they usually keep gambling.

Closeup of an Active Roulette Table

For problem gamblers, it’s more important to have money on the line – to be in action – than it is to win or walk away a winner.

When it comes to almost every kind of gambling, the gambler is placing negative expectation bets. Casino gamblers deal with the house edge. Poker players deal with the rake. Sports bettors face the vig.

And, of course, there’s always the temptation to try to chase your losses – to try to just win back the money you’ve lost so far.

3- The Thrill of Taking Risks

One reason many gamblers stay in action is because they’re addicted to the risk factor. Their behavior isn’t that different from people who love other thrill-based activities, like sky diving or rollercoasters.

The problem is that sky diving and rollercoasters don’t cost the kind of money in the long run that gambling does.

A common trait you’ll see among thrill-seeking gamblers is to bet above their means – to play with money they can’t afford to lose.

If you’re bored when playing a game at a certain limit, it’s natural to raise the stakes so that you’re interested.

If I offered a blackjack game where we played for dimes instead of dollars, no one would play for long. There’s no real money at stake here, so that blackjack game would be boring.

But if you only have $100, and you NEED to play at a table with a $25 limit instead of a $5 limit, you might have a problem.

4- Money Won Is Twice as Sweet as Money Earned

I first heard that expression when I was watching The Color of Money, which is an excellent sequel to The Hustler.

And the expression is true.

It’s a subtle, weird psychological difference. If you remove the emotion from it, $100 is $100  — regardless of whether you won it playing poker or whether you earned it working on an oil rig for a couple hours.

Maybe the perceived lack of effort is what makes money won via gambling so much more attractive than money you’ve earned through honest effort.

There’s nothing wrong with this phenomenon until someone starts making bone-headed decisions about what he’s doing with his money in the casino.

Even if your reason for gambling is to win money, that’s okay if you don’t go past whatever self-imposed limits you’ve decided are reasonable for yourself.

But if you’re the type who goes to the casino with $500, loses it all, then withdraws your last $500 via the ATM to try to catch up… well, you might have a problem.

5- Casino Chips Don’t Seem to Have Value

You’d think it would be just as easy for casinos to deal with cash as having to exchange cash for chips and back to cash again.

What do you think that reason might be?

If you guess that it’s a psychological ploy to influence their gamblers to think that the money they’re risking is less valuable, pat yourself on the back.

It’s a lot easier to risk a clay chip than it is to risk an action $100 bill, or a few $20 bills.

6- Some People Gamble Because They’re Good at It

Not everyone who gambles has a gambling problem. Some gamblers are professionals. They’ve found ways to place positive expectation bets instead of negative expectation bets.

For example, card counters in blackjack expect to make money in the long run instead of lose it.

Professional sports bettors only place bets when the math is in their favor. They never place negative expectation bets unless they’re making a mistake.

And they don’t get to be professional sports bettors if they make a lot of mistakes.

Professional poker players are masters of getting their money into the pot when they have the best of it and their opponents have the worst of it.

Can professional gamblers and advantage gamblers develop a gambling problem?

Sure.

Just look at some of the stories about Stu Ungar, a legendary poker player who had all kinds of impulse control problems. He was as good a poker player as ever lived, but he lost fortunes repeatedly at the craps table.

7- And Some People Just Gamble Because It’s Fun

Finally, some gamblers are just having a good time. They treat their gambling expenses just like they would any other entertainment expense. They budget for it, and they refuse to go over their budget.

I don’t think it’s wise to condemn recreational gamblers, even if they show the potential to become problem gamblers.

That’s because you’ll do more harm than good.

Multi-Color Casino Chips

Look at what happened during Prohibition. Find an abstinence zealot and ask him to talk some sense into an alcoholic and watch what happens.

The results aren’t pretty.

The same holds true for problem gamblers. If you come at them with the idea that they’re sinning or should be condemned for their behavior, you’ve lost all chance of helping them at some point in the future.

Conclusion

People have a wide variety of motivations for their gambling activities. Some of them can’t help themselves. Some are just having fun. Others have made gambling their profession.

I’m not here to judge, but I do suggest that anyone with a gambling problem should get help sooner rather than later. It’s a tragedy to ruin one’s life by playing too many slot machine games or betting too much money on the ponies.