A Theology of Gambling Part 3 – Complexity and Competition

Part 2

Money, in itself, represents a valueless quantity, used for either good or evil. However, the idolization of said money happens quickly and without much thought – to dire effect. In the United States of America, you could consider money the lifeblood of our free enterprise system, capable of both great deeds and terrible evil in turn. We can see this daily, from the wonderful charities, religious and non-religious, in nearly every part of our wealthy society, as well as the incessant spending on military technologies without much of a superior enemy to fight. Money turns quickly into materialism unless we keep ourselves in check, and the desire for MORE MORE MORE never really goes away; we just keep it at bay.

Jesus asks us to focus on the seemingly intangible; He asks much of the natural creature who can really only perceive with five senses! And yet, that’s exactly why faith requires that money not intercede for us. In other words, like many other things, gambling can often come in the way of the Christian life. Moreso, it directly affects the finances of those involved in rather self-destructive ways unless played with a preconceived budget. The temptation, of course, always remains present to keep on playing, and that’s why most Christian leaders would dismiss the whole enterprise from the outset.

Money corrupts lots of venture, and this one remains no exception. The primary focus of most casinos isn’t to present a winning environment for every single patron – rather, they play to people’s base impulses and take their money. In many ways, we could call it underhanded and duplicitous. That, in fact, is what people mean when they say “gambling” is a sin – many associations hover around a single core, and finding the real problem takes a ton of work. All in all, though, we can say that the possibility for problematic play emerges immediately at the outset.

Complexity and Competition

And yet, I cannot completely dismiss the games that actually function under the casino model itself. As Theology Gaming, we must, at least, give a fair shake to the games themselves, whatever they may be. Do they solely exist for the purpose of taking money out of your pocket and into somebody else’s pocket? The answer, as you might guess, proves complicated.

There are several general rules to casino-related games. Firstly, the more complicated the game, the better the odds and the more likely you could win (or, at least, stay even). No casino game, of course, transcends 50% odds or greater of winning on a minimum bet, but it’s possible to play certain games for an entire game and end up completely even. Given an infinite amount of time, or at a least a long period, you could theoretically play forever and lose little money. In other words, most casino games that contain some possibility of winning odds for the player, not the house, tend to require skills and deft understanding of statistics and betting lines to succeed.

Craps is the best example, giving us the extreme outlier end of the casino spectrum. Craps looks deceptively simple – people bet, dice are rolled, people win or lose. However, taking a cursory glance at a craps board reveals that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, nor what I am looking at.

1000px-Craps_table_layout.svg

Cause, you know, this is perfectly intuitive.

Many craps bets (that sounds strange) resolve after multiple rolls. You can actually take down the bet multiple times between rolls and the actual payoff at the end. This makes calculating the house edge in this game incredibly difficult; if you bet and don’t anticipate a huge win, you can pull out of the bet with little money lost. That’s why most of the percentages I have seen place the actual percentage a little under 50% for the actual players to win. That goes as a general rule for most games in the same wheelhouse as well, with higher payouts (or payouts involving other players) that far exceed the more automatic games.

By automatic games, I mean games which involve little player input but a bet and a prayer. Compare a game like craps to slots – you put money into the machine, you press the button or pull a lever, and hope for a win. The payout varies based on the money you put into the machine; each pull is completely random and unrelated to previous pulls. Most games that operates on an automatic process that involves zero player input tend to contain small odds but larger payouts. Heck, I think we can even place roulette here, given that involves a very similar process of input. These are the games that, I think, clearly waste your money with the promise of bigger cash. Wishful thinking does not win much!

Games like craps, on the other hand, prove complex enough that most people will not bother to learn the rules or pay attention to the flow of the game. Casino owners know this; therefore, such games really require the player to know what, exactly, they are doing to actually win anything. The barrier to entry, on the other hand, turns knowledge into power. Knowing the various bets and how to utilize them well may just win you lots of money – but that also requires lots of practice and keen insight towards optimal betting.

Just take a look at the rules for the game, and try to tell me that it’s all chance. Hence, there’s a far higher chance to succeed in craps than in many other casino games. Most games with a high degree of complexity tend to pay out less, but offer a higher chance to win in the long run. Like any game involving dice, there remains an element of randomness, but that happens in nearly every board game on earth. The same goes for other games with real opponents, such as poker and blackjack; the human element adds a great deal of complexity to those games in a very simple way.

As I’m sure you know, poker, specifically the Texas Hold’Em variant, became a sport in itself during the last decade or so. People play for real money, of course, but most players make far more money off sponsorships and licensing deals (i.e., their popularity as sports figure) than they do the actual game itself. The cash just provides additional incentives to the pile, a tension that would not otherwise exist. I dare you to propose a game of poker without some element of money, chips, or representations of currency thrown out.

From a purely objective standpoint, money adds an element of risk that would otherwise not place any stakes. Poker remains a game about reading opponents, bluffing about what hand you got, and then tricking them into making poor bets. Because of the simple rules, the real complexities come down to psychological games, tells, and manipulation within the magic circle. Betting a ton of money might give the impression that your hand will beat all other hands, but you could just as well have absolutely nothing. The hidden information (like in most video games) is the crux of the whole experience; there’s never a guarantee of a win, only a very well-educated guess. Who doesn’t find that exciting?

Part 4

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.