In the spring of 1984, I decided to become a gambler. I opened my newspaper one day — at this stage, The Times, but soon The Sporting Life, then ultimately today’s Racing Post — and, turning by chance to the horseracing page listing the afternoon’s runners and riders, saw a photograph of a filly called Out of Shot. The jockey’s silks were red, white and black, the colours of my football team, Manchester United. A sign? Only a gambler might think so. Reason enough to bet on her? In my case, so it proved.
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Why the sudden interest? Honestly? I thought it might make me seem cool. I could as easily have tried smoking (which, I did). The odds that day, now 25 years ago, on Out of Shot were around, I seem to recall, 7/2, offering the chance of a return significant in student terms, if I could find my way to the Ladbrokes on King’s Street onto which Christ’s College, Cambridge still backs today. Yet, more important, and, I laughably felt, assured was the added cache that would follow when it became widely known among my fellow freshmen — more importantly, freshwomen — that I had both the appetite and the nerve for a gamble.
In the end, the filly won, easily enough. So, not only was I a gambler, I was a winner. In other words, doubly cool. What’s more, over and above her jockey’s silks as a reason to back Out of Shot, I had taken the trouble to try and interpret ‘the form’, and whether my selection had reasonable odds. Surely this made me more than simply cool? I also clearly possessed a shrewd, previously untapped sense for the game. Cool and shrewd; my reinvention had begun.
Since then, I have savoured many places and people — an above average proportion of them, to my mind, cool — dedicated to games of chance. Taking pleasure from this has never depended on the bottom line of activity at the tables, the racetrack, the roulette wheel, and these days, the computer screen. Winning has never been everything. Indeed, dinner at The Ritz Club’s award-winning restaurant is a privilege whether accompanied by Lady Luck or not. The ambience of gambling is to savour. The camaraderie of gamblers, likewise.
That said, aside of the cool company, why does anyone bet? By this, I mean also over and above a desire to make money. For the urge to bet is most certainly much more complex than that. Gambling reputedly goes all the way back to when Thoth, the Egyptian god of gambling among other perhaps more worthwhile pursuits, won a bet with the moon to add five days to the lunar calendar, making possible — so legend has it — the creation of the human race.
So much for the gods. Back on earth, to a gambler, the question of why we bet is more an invitation. Ask and in no time, odds against well-worn theories, such as the basis for gambling is a desire to lose everything in order to test the unconditional love of a father, would be chalked up somewhere. It would be odds-on that a good few of them would also feature something about maternal relations, too.
Sigmund Freud was one of the first to consider the psychology of betting. His theories would not be anywhere near favourite as an explanation these days. To summarise and simplify to the lowest denominator his conclusion, gambling is little more than an alternative to solitary sexual pleasures. Even in full, academics dwell little on these notions today. Could Freud’s logic really explain why, according to national surveys of betting habits, in the Western world there are more gamblers than non-gamblers? Estimates of the proportion of Britain that bets in some form or other vary from 80 per cent to 94 per cent of the population, with up to 68 per cent of Americans and as many as 92 per cent of Australians sharing in the habit. In the UK, recent estimates suggest that, on average, citizens each bet £800 a year with a quarter of all turnover staked on the Internet. All this before considering Asia.
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In a book published in 1995 and titled Adolescent Gambling, by Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling at Trent University, he outlined a host of more contemporary explanations behind the subconscious desire to bet. These largely focus on the part of the population — between 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent, according to experts — that are reckoned to be pathological gamblers. That a majority of the population in most countries bet, fits in with a conclusion to some of the research undertaken by Emmanuel Moran, published in 1970, one of a number of scholars referred to by Griffiths in his compelling book. He found that gambling flourishes because of the pressures on those to bet who find themselves among other risk takers. In other words, peer pressure is a big factor in gambling. Other factors unearthed in what compels us, overall, to have a bet include the desire to release stress and tension. Equally, other gamblers thrive on the challenge to betting of staying cool.
I think there is clearly merit in the idea that your company can be reason to bet. But I consider the basis of this to be more than simply peer pressure. Gambling, to my mind, engenders a strange sense of togetherness. For a solo pursuit, there is a deeply rooted fraternal element to gambling. After all — and even though when we bet we are all essentially competing for each other’s money which the house or bookmaker, kindly holds for the duration of combat — few gamblers resent the success of others. Handshakes and congratulations abound whenever someone emerges from time at the tables significantly in the black. Keep yourself in the best company and your horses in the worst so they win, so the saying goes. To me, gamblers are indeed the best company, almost kin.
Back to Freud, we should note that his theorising on gambling was based primarily on one patient’s experiences, whom the good doctor is reputed never actually to have met. Edmund Bergler, whose idea that gambling is simply guilt relief in losing, is rated more credible today, did at least have 200 cases to consider in his research in the 1950s.
In Bergler’s day, behavioural theories began to take a hold of the debate as to why people bet. The argument here was that if you won at the first time of asking or early on in your gambling experiences, you would bet again. After that — as most gamblers who start off winning do eventually lose — the simple thrill of having a bet in the hope that you might win is what shapes the behavioural pattern. Indeed, some argue that the more you lose, the more an eventual win, and a return back to that elated state of mind that came with early successes when all things seemed possible, is cherished and desired.
According to Griffiths, Owen Wolkowitz, Alec Roy and Allen Doran published work in 1985 that supported the theory that most gambling habits have their roots in adolescence. These desires are then kick-started by an adult shock such as a death or birth. A year earlier, Henry Lesieur and Robert Custer identified phases in escalation of gambling habits; the winning phase, the losing phase, and the desperation phase. Various views exist on what each of these phases involve. Suffice to say that one school of thought claims to have unearthed a fourth relevant period; the hopeless phase. Reputedly, this is gambling for gambling’s sake.
Cognitive therapists, something of a fad in the present day for those who when on the couch prefer not to handle questions on maternal relations, perhaps represent a perspective based more on the desire to prove masterful by making money than simply winning the odd bet. Some of these emphasise that gamblers have complete conviction of their superior skills. Research in the 1980s unearthed within gamblers the state of mind in which they were happy to claim that coming out on top was as a result of skill while maintaining that losing was a consequence of bad luck.
Perhaps instead of looking for one theory that fits all, it is best to consider some further words from Griffiths, on why we bet. In Adolescent Gambling, he writes: “Gambling is a complex, multidimensional activity that is unlikely to be explained by any single theory.” Griffiths was writing long before the Internet emerged. What to say now, and with a multitude of ways to gamble around the clock in the sanctuary of your own home. The most recent innovation of Internet wagering, significant only since the Millennium, remains virtually untouched substantially by research. The first truly significant study of Internet betting behaviour drawing on a representative sample was a paper published in 2007. Titled Assessing the Playing Field: A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Internet Sports Gambling Behavior, Richard A. LaBrie, Debi A. LaPlante, Sara E. Nelson, Anja Schumann and Howard J. Shapper put together research that ultimately appeared in the Harvard Medical Journal.
Over 40,000 account holders with the Austrian-based web sports betting operation, bwin were quizzed in the assumption that unlike with other surveys, those questioned with the absolute guarantee of anonymity, actually answered truthfully. Overall, splitting behaviour into that related to fixed odds and bet-in-running, they concluded, among other revelations, that the latter lost less (18 per cent of stake) than those who took fixed odds, who were 29 per cent down, and that women bet for shorter periods than men. Also concluded was that ‘big gamblers’ don’t all fit into one category; some bet big and infrequently, some bet almost compulsively yet for relatively small stakes, and some — of course — bet big and often.
In the financial markets, they prefer to talk of investing rather than gambling. It is a fine line. Jack D. Schwager’s American best seller, Market Wizards, features 17 speculators with a chapter each to explain their approach to making money from markets. Headings such as ‘Respecting Risk’ to ‘The Art of Selection’, ‘One Lot Triumphs’ and ‘Everybody Gets What they Want’, and finally, ‘Understanding The Basics’ convey the variety of mindsets.
Those who study the motivations of pure gambling might indeed be happy to narrow the range of theories in existence down to just 17. Research can prove only so much. For example, some, in the past, seeking insight into behavioural patterns of humans through the study of lesser species, used “laboratory animals with electrodes planted in their pleasure centres” to reach the conclusion that “rodents can be compelled to gamble to the point of exhaustion”. Leaving aside how incongruous it is to compare the activities of such an experiment with what passes in such a grand space as The Ritz Club — the stud was of partial merit. Proven was that simply we gamble because we enjoy it. I’ll bet to that. Without the electrodes, though.
Adapted from ‘You Bet — The Betfair Story: How two men changed the world of gambling’ (Harper Collins) by Colin Cameron