A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I have a gambling problem – a very serious one. I have never lost so much money that I couldn’t pay the bills or had to sell prized possessions, but it is still a serious problem. The reason I think it is serious is because I have such a clear and perfect understanding of the futility of ever truly earning a profit at the activity but I just can’t ever get the thought of profit out of my mind when I’m taking part. If I had any sense at all I would never ever gamble again – but I will. I do have sense though, I’m sure of it, but I guess my wits become compromised whenever someone pulls out the cards and that is the behavioral dysfunction that is my gambling addiction.


I manage the problem very well and have kept my losses to under $1000 over the past decade. I do so by setting very strict limits and fighting desperately to maintain them. The most important tool in managing gambling addiction is to learn to swallow losses, no matter how bitter that pill might be. Your money is gone and you have nothing to show for it and that’s all there is to it. If you don’t give up the activity altogether, then you better get used to the taste of that bitter pill, because you’ll need to swallow it over and over again. If you are crazy enough to continue with the activity, well then learning to swallow that pill can at least offer you some protection. This is especially true when playing communal pot games like Texas Hold’em.


You see, a lot of gamblers become overwhelmed by Texas Hold’em because they fail to accept that the money they have put into the pot is no longer theirs – they’ve already lost it. You have to swallow your loss the very moment you pull those chips off of your stack. If you don’t swallow your loss right then and there then you will be left with the delusion that some of those chips in the middle of the table are yours – and this leads to the fallacy of believing that you will incur a loss if you fold.


When you swallow your loss the moment you pull those chips off of your stack then you will realize that folding doesn’t cost you a thing. With each round of betting you need to evaluate the revealed odds, consider the total prize available in the pot, and determine how much you are now willing to risk for that total prize. You just cannot factor loss into your evaluation at that point.


There are other factors like implied odds and evaluation of opponent behavior, but understanding that risk and reward are based on the current bet for the current pot is the most important thing to keep straight in your mind. If, even for a moment, the thought crosses your mind that you will lose chips if you fold then you had best pack up and go home. It NEVER costs you a penny to fold because the chips that you put in the pot were lost the moment you pushed them towards the center of the table.


I’ve watched so many gamblers lose all of their faculties by refusing to swallow their losses that I can’t even count them. Every time it happens at a Texas Hold’em game it is because they view the pot as an investment and just can’t bring themselves to accept that their investment is being wiped out. They start pushing good money into the void until they have no more to push and then, often enough, they start pushing the table itself. That money in the pot is NOT an investment to be pursued, pushing money onto the table does NOT secure an investment, and no one has any claim to the pot until it has been won.


This concept of recognizing risks and accepting losses at the moment I assume those risks has actually helped me a lot in business. When I buy a piece of equipment at auction, it usually comes ‘as is’ and without any options for recourse if I am unhappy with the purchase. I need to accept my loss at the time of purchase, and I am often happy to do so because I’m getting a $7,000 dishwasher for $850. I no longer have my $850, I have a dishwasher that didn’t cost me $7,000 and that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t work, I can’t very well go freaking out about my $850 because it isn’t my $850 to freak out about. I can get the machine repaired, or perhaps that is not viable and I need to dispose of it, but I can’t go lamenting about somebody else’s $850. In my experience the odds have been in my favour in these transactions, and accepting the losses at time of trade helps to keep me focused on my winnings.


Consider then a person who regularly gives their money to an investment firm. So many of these people walk around feeling secure that their money is still there and that there will be even more money awaiting them when they return. This is a complete fallacy though, because their money disappeared the moment they handed it over. What they purchased was incredibly strong odds that they can get the same amount of money back with the bonus of weaker odds that there might even be more money handed to them some day. There remains the risk, however small, that there will be zero money waiting for them when they return. Because of this risk, they really need to accept that the money they gave to the firm is gone – but just like compulsive gamblers, investors will find every rationalization they can to keep from swallowing that bitter pill. Even after being contacted by authorities and hearing all over the news that their investment firm left town over night, there is no way to prevent them from gathering outside the empty building to protest in vain. They will believe for years that ‘their’ money is safe and sound somewhere and that there exists some means of investigation that will reveal its location to them.


How, then, can I be the least bit surprised at the emotional reactions I get when I tell investors that their ultimate retirement plan is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme; when I tell them that the firm that they, their cousins, parents, and grandparents have been investing in will never payout one red cent; when I tell them that the retirement home where Grandma and Grandpa went is a big void and Grandma and Grandpa aren’t even there.


How can I be surprised when investors in such a firm react to the news by becoming more adamant than ever to push more chips to the center of the table? How can they do anything other than push all of their chips to the center and then start pushing on the table itself? How can I be surprised when they blow up and become madmen like so many compulsive gamblers I have faced across a poker table?


The fact of the matter is that most churches press hard to get people to put money into the pot. Those who can possibly afford to do so often give in to the pressure to push 10% of their earnings onto the table, although most will calculate on net rather than gross income. Those who can’t possibly afford it are pressed to put in more than they can possibly afford. Many of them have seen the remainder of their grandparent’s wealth pushed into the pot as well. Many of them have volunteered hours upon hours of their time to the special projects of their churches.


Imagine the 58 year old woman who has been tithing for over 30 years. If she has worked a professional career and never had children she might have easily invested $150,000. If, looking at her investment account, she realizes that she has invested the same amount of money in mutual funds and now that investment is waiting to pay her $500,000 then she has to swallow one hell of a loss and its going to be damn bitter. She could have literally been a millionaire. Worse yet, she stayed the course on that bad investment for 30 years, and that represents a lifetime of pushing chips into the void.


I think we all need to remember these things as we deal with theists. It’s easy to call them stubborn or pigheaded, but just think about what we represent to them – no one likes an armchair critic pointing out the odds after they’ve already put their life savings in the pot. When debating with theists, one should try to remember their own most difficult loss and remember how bitter that pill was to swallow. We would all do well to remember the bitterness of loss.

Views: 39

Comment by Walter Maki on May 1, 2011 at 12:13am

Another fine essay you have given my eyes to feast on.

Yes I do remember that bitter pill all too well.

I drink in some science and chew on some philosophy to get rid of that bitter after taste of delusion.

Comment by Heather Spoonheim on May 1, 2011 at 12:23am
Thanks Walt. I'm also sort of interested in how some poker playing Atheists might feel about this one.
Comment by Ralph Day on May 1, 2011 at 8:05am

Sorry Heather, can't help you there (poker playing athiest).  I can't even get myself to buy a lottery ticket!  Don't drink, don't smoke, don't fool around, don't gamble...but life is good, dull by others' standards, but good.




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