In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Mind Games

What should you really know when gambling at casinos?

Any of you reading this that is a gambler have probably come across a number of ‘Top Tips’ columns to make you a better gambler. Most of the ones I have read claim to improve your chances of winning at a casino. On the surface, these common sense tips seem reasonable enough but it is rare to find tips that are based on any empirical evidence—just speculation, hearsay, and the writer’s own personal opinion. I thought I would use today’s blog to try and debunk a few of these tips that are in my view myths—at least based on the emprical evidence.

Myth 1: Read all the books and advice you can– There is absolutely no harm in reading all you can on your chosen game as any of them will give you some basic information on the game, some betting techniques, and most likely some sound money management ideas. However, there is no evidence that reading on it’s own will help you win more. When learning a new game there is no substitute for making mistakes in the "school of hard knocks." You will learn far more quickly while gambling than simply reading about it.

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Myth 2: Practice makes perfect– Many ‘experts’ claim that when it comes to learning and practicing your game, you should do it at home or at one of the free ‘learn to play’ casino sessions. While it is clearly a lot cheaper to learn a new game from the comfort of your own home or a free session, nothing can prepare a player for the psychological pressure than to practice under the circumstances and conditions in which the game is played for money. There has been a lot of research into what psychologists call “state dependent learning” which demonstrates that it is best to recall skills and information in the same environment and mood state that you practiced and learned under. The theory of state dependent learning also has implications for smokers and drinkers. If you practice while smoking and/or drinking at home, you are most likely to remember the skills and tricks you learned when in the same psychological state. This is particularly important in gambling environments that either bar smoking and/or drinking from the gaming tables. Another mistake commonly made by online poker players is where they believe their success on the 'practice tables' is a guide to their level of skill. In reality, players on the practice tables often play in a reckless way, so even very poor players can appear successful.

Myth 3: Have a winning attitude– When it comes to gambling, players are advised not to gamble if they don't have a positive attitude about winning. Firstly, just being positive is unlikely to significantly increase winnings although appearing confident in games like poker is clearly an advantage. However, having a positive outlook about losing may actually be disadvantageous and maladaptive in the long run. Our own research published on positive thinking in slot machine gamblers in a 2007 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction has shown that positive thinking when losing acts as a guilt-reducing mechanism and is likely to result in such behaviours as ‘chasing’ which are financially detrimental in the long run.

Myth 4: Gamble in the small hours– One piece of advice I see cropping up again and again is that the best time to play is when no one else is there. Gamblers are advised to play very early in the morning from 2am until 5am. According to these ‘experts’, dealers and floor supervisors will be tired and looking to end their shift and may be prone to making more mistakes. Well, the same is true of the player. Our inbuilt circadian rhythms mean that no human was meant to be awake or work through the night. The player is just as likely to make mistakes as the casino staff. Card counting through the night without a break is likely to lead to as many mistakes as the dealer. What’s more, the dealers may change more often than you.

Myth 5: “Hide” your winnings– Casinos don't like winners (except when they can be exploited for marketing purposes of course). Players are therefore advised to disguise their wins and to prevent casino management from knowing how good players they really are by “hiding” their winnings. For instance, players are advised to get friends to cash out some of their chips for them when leaving the casino. There is also a view that cashiers take less notice of female players and are less likely to inform the pit bosses what they cashed out. However, any good casino knows its clientele, and knows who the winners are. There is no evidence to suggest that these tips on disguising your winnings have any benefit at all. Sure, if you are a card counter, be alert to casino counter-measures. If the casino is suspicious of you, they will use a number of measures such as premature shuffling, moving the cut card up towards the top of the deck to reduce penetration, and/or changing the cards, dealers or table limits only at your table. In short, casinos spot winners a mile off and little tricks to “hide” winnings are unlikely to help the player. 

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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