Why No One Can “Beat the Odds”

It is important to understand how we think and process situations, how we were taught to solve problems as children, and how that impacts our decision making when it comes to gambling. You may have heard the term “fallacy”, which is defined as “a failure in reasoning, which renders an argument invalid.” People suffering from problem gambling often believe one or more gambling fallacies, for example “The Illusion of Control”, “The Hot Hand Fallacy”, and “The Gamblers Fallacy” (also known as the Monte-Carlo Fallacy). These have a huge impact when it comes to gambling and the driving force that can become compulsive gambling.

The Illusion of Control and the Hot Hand Fallacy

Take a moment to reflect on the definition of gambling: any time you bet money or RISK something of value on an event of UNCERTAIN OUTCOME, you are gambling. Nonetheless, many gamblers believe they can influence games that have completely random outcomes. Some forms of gambling are designed around this fallacy by providing the gambler with choices, for instance the opportunity to pick your numbers for the next lottery drawing or use random numbers generated by the computer (“quick pick”). It doesn’t matter if the gambler spends an hour deciding which numbers to play or one second telling the clerk that they want the “quick pick”: this has no impact on his or her chances of winning! Likewise, a gambler chooses one slot machine over the others on the casino floor, and this could be for a variety of reasons – they saw someone win a jackpot at that machine, the machine features a theme that resonates with them, they played that machine last time they came to the casino, the machine is their favorite color, and so on – none of which has any impact on their chances of winning. As such, one cannot become an “expert” or “professional” with these types of games in the way one might at a game of skill like chess or golf.

For the casual/social gambler who is not experiencing problems, this can be part of the mystique and what makes gambling entertaining, but for those who are experiencing problems or are at risk, the Illusion of Control and thinking that a jackpot is just around the corner can keep them gambling despite experiencing negative consequences. Another related gambling fallacy is the “Hot Hand Fallacy”, which characterizes the mistaken belief that a prior win will lead to future wins. For instance, a gambler might wrongly believe a slot machine which produced a jackpot recently is more likely than the machines next to it to produce a jackpot when he or she plays it. While on the casino floor, you might hear patrons say things like the following, which are all based on fallacies:

“If I get my favorite machine, I can win.”

“I know how this game works – I can beat it.”

“This machine is hot!”

Many of the thoughts that lead to problem gambling are related to incorrect underlying beliefs, a lack of understanding about how the games work, and not knowing the odds. It is not hard to imagine how someone who believes they are “due to win” might start to have the thought that gambling is a way to solve financial problems. This belief is often (but not always) related to having experienced a “big win” early in their gambling history. Because it has happened before, they overestimate the likelihood that a big win will occur again. It is positively reinforced when the person sees the flashing lights and hears the characteristic sounds of someone else winning at the slot machine down the row from them or sees news about someone winning the multi-million-dollar lottery jackpot on TV or social media.

Winning is noisy, but losing tends to be silent. We rarely hear about it.

A second misconception about gambling concerns the failure to understand the independence of random events. A common myth is that if you play long enough, you will win, or that a jackpot is just one wager away. But in truth, separate plays or wagers have absolutely no relationship to one another.

For example, if you flip a coin once, your chance of getting tails is 50%, and your chance of getting heads is 50% – there are two possible outcomes, and they are equally likely. The second time you flip a coin, the chances of heads and tails are the same: 50:50. The result of each individual toss has no relationship to any other toss. The coin does not have a memory. A run of heads does not mean tails is more likely on the next toss. The same is true with slot machines and other forms of gambling. However, someone suffering from problem gambling will continue to make bets despite negative life consequences, because they are convinced it is “my turn to win” or that a specific machine is “due to pay out.”

The Gambler’s Fallacy:

This brings us to The Gambler’s Fallacy. It begins with the mistaken idea that odds for something with a fixed probability (games of chance) increase or decrease based upon recent occurrences.

Problem gamblers get stuck in these mistaken thoughts and can’t walk away from gambling, even while experiencing negative life consequences like difficulty paying bills, relationship problems, problems at work or school, and mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression. They continue to believe that the life-changing bet that can fix all of their life problems is just around the corner, without recognizing how the gambling problem is contributing to those struggles.

This fallacy has deep roots. Here are two ways we were taught as children to figure something out:

1. Cause and Effect:

  •  A child learns in grade school that if he or she hits a nail on the head and it goes in, then “I” caused it to happen. Needless to say, “cause and effect” is an understanding that transcends through many aspects of life, but the temptation to apply it to gambling is dangerous. The gambler does not have control over the outcome! You may see this on the casino floor in the form of “rituals”, where the gambler might spin around three times before pressing the “spin” button on a slot machine. They believe their actions are a “cause” for the desired “effect” (a win).

2. Patterning:

  • Children learn patterning in 3rd or 4th grade, because it has many practical uses throughout life.
  • Recognize the pattern – 2, 4, 6, ____. What would be the next number?
  • Given the pattern of red, black, red, black…what comes next?
  • Here again, trying to apply a pattern to predict a gambling outcome, which is rooted in random chance, won’t be any more reliable than taking a guess. You might see this in your facility when patrons make increased bets following a “near miss” (where their loss appears very close to a big win) – they believe that this means the pattern of the slot machine, cards, or racing is in their favor. In reality, their “near miss” loss was just as likely as any other loss.

What about beating the odds? “Beating the odds” is a misnomer, because the odds are simply a ratio expressing the probability one outcome (like winning) compared to another (like losing). No one bet can “beat the odds”, because every bet and every outcome (every win and every loss) exists WITHIN the odds. In other words, this is just another fallacy!

Regardless of what may be happening in the mind of someone suffering from gambling addiction, the most important thing is to know that help and hope are available 24/7 by calling or texting the 888-ADMIT-IT HelpLine. Live chat and information are also available around the clock through the FCCG’s gamblinghelp.org website.

The post Why No One Can “Beat the Odds” first appeared on The Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc.

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