The main condition required for a losing gambler to continue playing a game over the long-term is luck has to be enough of a factor that the inferior player gets to win sometimes.
Poker is perfect in this regard. A lesser player can win 45% of hands against a superior player. The fact the lesser player will win only 20% of nights, 1% of months, and 0% of years doesn’t totally take away the thrill of those winning hands.
Consider the difficulty of gambing on a chess game. Lack of luck as a factor in chess means if one player is clearly superior, he will win nearly every game, thus killing the action.
Those winning days are so important to feeding the dream – giving the losing player enough of a taste to keep him wanting more.
The hold percentage in horse racing is approximately 20%. For every $100 bet, $80 is returned to the bettors. The hold percentage betting sports is under 5%. That’s over four times the expense to bet sports. One good reason: Horse operators must assume the expense of putting on the event that’s being bet on.
If sports books had to run the football, basketball, and baseball games at a loss, then their commissions would be higher, too. How much of horse racing’s 20% hold is necessary expense and myopic greed doesn’t really matter to the bettor.
What matters is that it’s extremely hard to win at horse racing even on occasional days. There simply are not enough days driving home with more money in your pocket than you came with – not enough chances to rationalize that today’s profitable outcome is the way things will be from here on.
I learned this lesson growing up in Ohio where there was a dog track 15 minutes from my house. At 16, I loved the intricacies of the handicap, attacking the puzzle of the race, risking my money on my wits. Sometimes winning, always learning a lesson I could apply moving forward.
This was so much more redeeming than the thoughtless and instant rush of a poker machine. The fact is, I hardly ever won. No one did. I remember one unshaven fellow, who seemed old to me at the time, but was likely in his early 30’s. He knew everything about every dog.
That person could literally multiply two 4-digit numbers in his head and always get the right answer. At the end of every month, he was hustling to make rent for his 600 square foot place.
I go back to Ohio twice a year, and every time I spend at least one night at that old dog track –but it’s been over 15 years since I saw that guy.
RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Sunday through Friday night at 11 p.m. on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. Discussion of this article continues at Pregame.com. Contact RJ at [email protected]