What is the role of luck in gambling?
Posted Oct 07, 2013
In our everyday experience it can seem that some people “have all the luck” and others appear to be jinxed. We can all think of lucky people who seem to be in the right place at the right time, meet the right people, win all the money at the gaming tables, and go from one success to another. I read a news story on the Internet highlighting that luck is indeed about being in the right place at the right time. The story concerned a waitress at a Las Vegas casino who won $35 million during her lunch break. After playing for 15 minutes, she won the largest slot jackpot payout ever. However, only three months later, her car was hit by a drunk driver who had 17 previous arrests for drunk driving. She was seriously injured and her older sister was killed. This time she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Given people’s widespread beliefs about luck, there has been relatively little psychological research. Over 20 years ago, the Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar noted that the notion of causelessness is so alien to us that in the absence of a known cause we tend to attribute events to imaginary causes like luck and chance. Being lucky and winning while gambling are often perceived as very similar things. Furthermore, in the minds of many people, luck and chance often seem to act as real causes. Such notions are defined in terms of absence of knowledge on which the prediction of future events could be based. The throw of a dice, the spin of a slot machine or roulette wheel, are considered to be chance events because there is insufficient knowledge to predict the outcome—not because they have no physical causes.
So what do lucky people do that is different from unlucky people? Firstly, lucky people maximise chance opportunities. They are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences. Secondly, lucky people listen to lucky hunches. They make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. For example, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts. Thirdly, lucky people expect good fortune. They are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way. Finally, lucky people turn bad luck into good. They employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on the ill fortune, and take control of the situation.
So can “lucky” people win at gambling without trying? Professor Wiseman tested this proposition by getting 700 people to gamble on the National Lottery. The “lucky” participants were twice as confident of winning as the “unlucky” ones. However, results showed that only 36 participants actually won any money, and these were split evenly between the two groups. The study showed that being lucky doesn’t change the laws of probability!
Gamblers are great believers in luck. Dr Wagenaar found that gamblers are so wedded to their belief in luck that in some circumstances they refuse to improve their odds. For instance, in the game of blackjack, there is a well-known optimal strategy for not losing. But in order to win over the long run, a gambler must count the cards that have been played and calculate whether there are more high or low cards left in the deck. More high cards favour the player, so gamblers should increase their bets. More low cards favour the house, so gamblers should decrease their bets. However, Wagenaar’s research demonstrated that the vast majority of players do not do this.