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"Counting Your Losses" mind matters
November 14, 2002
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The state lottery is a tax on people who can't do math.

There's something about casino gambling that I truly enjoy. From watching me play you'd think it's the part where I lose all my money. Actually, there aren't many more parts beyond the losing. Like all gamblers, I have a system, and it never fails. In my system, I decide how much money I'm willing to lose, and then I lose it.

I know math, and I like math. Recalculating odds is fun, whether I'm griping about unlikely results or making a smart bet. I enjoy imagining the numeric relationships between outcomes, which I see in my head as hilly charts or as a series of differently sized holes, because moments later the dice are rolled, the ball lands, and the cards are flipped. The math becomes reality. Mathematics is so often an abstract thing, it's delightful to see it come to life. This is why so many mathematicians flock to casinos.

And go broke.

To like gambling, you have to like losing. Losing is how these games work. If you and I bet a dollar each on a coin flip, one us walks home with two dollars. That's fair, except the casino makes nothing. So they find a way to take a percentage. They'll let us flip a coin, but we have to borrow it at 10% interest, or rent the coin flipping tables at $5/hour. Remember, every time you buy a scratch ticket, you're donating to government programs. That's money you can't win. For the programs to survive, you have to lose a whole lot.

Thousands of books have been written on gambling. They teach these magical algorithms to winning at cards and craps, but there is no algorithm. And horse racing is worse, because they wait until after you bet to decide the odds. What kind of game is that? Yet still we play, for the thrill, the excitement, the possibilities.

The possibilities are bad, folks.

It's not our math that's so terrible, though. Everyone knows winning the state lottery jackpot is a long shot. What we don't seem to realize is that we're playing with real money. It's as if we're so blinded by the prizes that the details of the game are entirely forgotten. We refuse to look closely, and why should we? It's the buttery smell of movie theater popcorn at seven dollars a box.

Here's my favorite gambling story. Three college friends joined me on a field trip to Atlantic City. We were walking on the boardwalk when one of them -- a math graduate, no joke -- found a quarter on the ground. He was excited. It was the first time all night that he made money. He believed his luck had changed. Quickly he entered a casino and dropped the coin into a slot machine. The machine went silent, and he lost. Dejected, he said, "It's like throwing it into the sewer."

Yes! That's what gambling is. We're not dumb or mathematically impaired, we're just nihilistic! It's watching cars crash and eating something on a dare. It's playing with matches, crushing cans on our heads, running naked in the snow. It's stupid and destructive and oh so cathartic! We like to burn our money. It's fun.

Get in the car, everyone. We're going to the sewers.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin


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