What casinos teach about the quick fix

May 29, 2001 9:58 AM

Sometime when nobody was paying any attention, reliance on hard work gave way regrettably to the quick fix. At worst, quick fixes fail completely, sacrificing the opportunity to effect real solutions. And, when they appear to succeed, quick fixes often only mask problems, postponing the inevitable hour of reckoning.

The mentality is ubiquitous. At the highest levels of government. In the research labs of great universities and large companies. On Wall Street. Along Main Street. In our own back yards and living rooms. Institutions and individuals rise on the promise of a fix and fall on its failure, in breathtakingly short spans.

Opponents of gambling point at casinos for abetting, if not causing, the quick fix fixation. Casinos aren’t to blame. But they do owe some - maybe much - of their popularity to it.

On one hand, the relationship between casinos and the quick fix is understandable. The link doesn’t have to be belabored. On the other hand, it’s incongruous. Decision cycles in gambling are clearer - tighter and less fettered by extraneous factors - than those in the real world. So lesson number 121 of things you can learn in the casino that are useful in ordinary life should be that quick fixes are much likelier to exacerbate than relieve predicaments. More, casino buffs can easily adhere to strategies that avoid the traps of the quick fix in gambling.

The most insidious of these snares is the view that jackpot gambling is the best, perhaps the only, way out of the ditch into which some folks believe destiny has dumped them. Check those photos of winners who made it big with a mother lode they had a hunch they were going to hit that day. "Hey, it could be me." It could also be one of the hundreds of thousands of others who gamble every day and don’t win. In fact, who bust out, despite also having had a hunch they were going to hit that day.

The harm isn’t in spending money someone can genuinely justify for entertainment he or she enjoys, one of whose allures is the fantasy of financial freedom. A sensible player can lose, yet get an evening’s worth of excitement - and an all-you-can-eat buffet meal to boot - for less than it costs to catch a first-run movie and dine at a halfway decent beanery.

The peril is partly in risking rupees that can’t be rationalized for recreation. It’s also in adopting a go-for-broke outlook. This attitude keeps people from quitting with tidy profits - which, in retrospect, would have seemed nice enough when they got home - and instead prompts them to put their proceeds on what they actually knew was a quixotic quest for a rich return.

Another way bettors are bushwacked by the quick fix is by chasing losses. Occasionally, this involves going to a bank or credit card terminal, or a friend, for a stash of cash they hadn’t originally planned to risk. It’s possible to recoup earlier damages or even go over the top with a new bankroll, of course. It can’t be done by just walking away. But, if the original loss hurt badly enough to consider exceeding what appeared reasonable before starting, consider the pain of being deeper in the hole.

Another way players chase losses is by raising their bets. For instance, at the tables, some players double-up after every loss. They figure they’ll win eventually and get it all back. Such negative progressions succeed often enough to instill a sense of knowing an insider’s secret. The trouble is that bet size can escalate to the point where it exceeds table limits or takes more money than a person has or is willing to wager on a single round.

This approach accordingly offers a high probability of earning a modest profit after being behind, offset by a small chance of a significant loss. If presented with the option in advance, say 98 percent chance of recovering $100 versus 2 percent chance of losing $1,000 in what started as a $10 game, few solid citizens would choose to chase in this manner. Would you? Or, would you follow the philosophy framed by the famed poet, Sumner A Ingmark:

If there really
were an easy way,
everyone would know it,
Proof can’t be found that none exists,
But chronicles don’t show it.