There is something thrilling about drawing cards or rolling dice. We always want to beat the odds, but chaos is a force of nature that ensures very little goes exactly as planned.
In high school I played poker constantly, hosting a weekly game and even playing at school with friends and teachers. Around the time I turned 19, a casino opened up in my hometown and I got a taste for table games such as Mini-Baccarat, Blackjack, Let It Ride Poker, etc., and for a couple years I gambled regularly and ended up with what I remember as a net win (though I didn’t keep records of my play back then so I can’t say for sure).
But I quickly realized one can’t make a living at those table games because, put simply, they are “house games”. This means the mathematical structure of the games ensure the casino will win more than it loses. Unless you can count cards at the Blackjack table, or you have enough of a bankroll to play as the bank in Baccarat, the only casino game you can win at regularly is poker. In proper poker you play against other humans, rather than playing against the rigged probabilities of the house. Of course the casino makes automatic profit on poker, but if you can make better decisions than your opponents you’re almost guaranteed a profit over the long term.
I basically eliminated house games from my repertoire and was always happy to point out to friends why they shouldn’t play them. Around this time I took the attitude that our provincial lottery is a kind of tax on the mathematically deficient. Of course everyone who plays realizes the odds of winning the lottery are basically nil. When people play they are not doing so because it’s a good mathematical proposition; either they are ignorant of the math, or they are ignoring the math.
For a long time I would automatically assume they were ignorant of the math. What I was missing is the fact that gambling is a legitimate form of entertainment. The odds-against can reasonably be justified as the cost of that entertainment. I know how exciting it is to draw out against a better hand. Even when we lose, those indeterminate moments where we’re waiting for a card to fall have our rapt attention, and for a good reason; trying to win out against the chaos of nature has been a pastime of humanity forever.
Cards, dice and boardgames are a great analogy for life. It’s a challenge to ride the waves of probability to success. Games of chance mimic the unpredictability of life. But never mind the philosophy; it’s just fun.
My rule of thumb is to play games where the decisions I make during the game alter the outcome. The lottery and bingo are out because if the game is truly random, no decision I make can increase my chances of winning. Same with Roulette; if I bet on the number 6 or “Even”, it has no affect on where the ball lands. All Roulette wagers are equal underdogs. The exception to this rule is sports-betting or proposition gambling. Here you can out-analyze your opponents, even if your wager won’t affect the game or proposition.
The more decisions I can make during a game that affect the outcome, the more opportunities I have to outplay my opponents. This is why I’ll take poker to Blackjack any day. It’s also why I’ll take Risk over Monopoly, and Axis and Allies over Risk. Naturally when there’s no money on the line, my rules don’t hold very much water. Sometimes it’s just fun to stick your hand into the chaos and take your chances.