Tales from a Gambling Cruise – Reflecting on the Psychology of Gambling and Life in General
Published on June 11, 2018
It was a warm spring evening, not that you would expect anything else in South Carolina right before that time of year when summer evenings are made about unbearable by the heat and mosquitos.
I was on a boat bound for nowhere, because the gambling cruise ship travels to international waters and then floats for four hours to let the good times roll.
While it wasn’t my first experience gambling, it was my first time on a gambling boat. I was excited and maybe even a little anxious. Luckily, I did meet up with a gambler, a college buddy who makes his living playing cards.
But would the boredom overtake us during what could be a very long, five-hour tour?
According to psychologists, there wasn’t any chance I would experience boredom. Gambling is a type of consequential risk-taking that is exciting, stirring, titillating, and exhilarating.
There are thousands of studies where folks (usually college students in need of extra credit) simulate gambling while hooked to sensory machines that read pulse, brain waves, and endorphin levels.
They tell us gambling raises the heart rate and releases endorphins, thereby activating the pleasure and reward-seeking centers of the brain.
That is why for some gambling can become compulsive, addictive, and even pathological, and it’s also why gambling can instill a religious-like experience—and that isn’t even taking into consideration superstitions that many gamblers come to believe and practice.
But there’s always the issue of what psychologists call the validity of most gambling studies that take place in a lab—a fancy way of asking whether or not what scientists observe in laboratory settings holds true in “real world” settings.
This is the reason Mark D. Griffiths studied gamblers as they operate slot machines.
His findings imply that the real-world gambling with real-world risks might actually underestimate the psychological and physiological experience of gaming.
There are also differences between watching and doing, and those are a few of the many reasons why anthropologists would tell you that even observational approaches only go so far.
The best way to experience what something is like is by doing it yourself.
The experts also recommend that when you undertake such an experience, it ought to be with a key informant, or someone who knows the landscape and is willing to guide you through it.
That’s why I contacted my old college buddy when asked to do some work in this area; and even without the refer-a-friend program afforded to passengers that padded both our banks with twenty bucks, he was more than willing to show me his new world.
While we’re talking about the science behind gambling, we should probably also note that in sociological terms, a good bit of gambling occurs not in isolation (which again is missing from most labs) but with others in social settings.
Betting money also occurs in a social system where “we” decide (usually through gambling regulations and laws) where and when gambling can take place.
Even though my buddy usually walks off the boat with a small pile of crisp hundred-dollar bills in his wallet from the blackjack tables, he told me that his trips are less frequent than he would like because no one wants to go on the boat with him.
For whatever reason, my friend says that being alone is one of his superstitions on the boat; it literally throws him off his game.
Maybe so few folks accompany him on second trips because their experience was like mine.
My buddy and I sat down at a crowded table as we approached international waters, and I immediately felt a surge of excitement and anticipation as the dealer exchanged cash for chips.
The pit boss took my newly-laminated players club card so that I could earn points towards a free buffet.
I also felt the intimidation which, on previous trips to casinos, kept me from sitting down at the table games.
The seemingly arbitrary line in the sea that indicated an exodus from the US waters into international territory was crossed, and the game started.
But even after winning the very first hand, the nervousness did not melt away into the excitement I was anticipating – perhaps because I was on the losing end of the next series of hands, and I was never able to transition from “Wow, I’m losing a lot” to “What easy money.”
Even when I managed to secure eighteen or nineteen, the dealer always bested me with a twenty or twenty-one.
The game moved faster than I had imagined – so fast that I even forgot that,
But this oversight was probably best, because the best I pulled was another push on that very hand. I was a complete loser otherwise.
My friend was not faring much better; he was also down, which compelled him to trade his large pile of chips for a smaller pile of a different color before we both stepped away from the table.
We took a break, my friend saying something about how the dealer was kicking his ass and that we needed to regroup.
He then gave me a bit more insight about his strategies, such as holding with a low hand when it looks like the dealer has 16 and is forced to draw another card, thereby often busting.
He also explained how he developed his own gambling strategies or style through a great deal of online card and craps playing.
We wandered as we talked, and we eventually decided to head off in separate directions, which worked well for me because I was the only one interested in the buffet.
After I ate, I wanted to try my luck at the slots because, after all, the twenty dollars on my players card was not of the kind I could cash out for currency accepted elsewhere.
Having just filled my long-abandoned backyard bird feeder the night before, I was hoping to draw on some type of karmic payoff by sitting down at a moderately-priced machine with a bird theme.
I actually ended up a little ahead—though not enough to cover the losses at the table.
I set off on another exploration, during which I noticed my friend back at “our table” across the room. I navigated behind him and just watched for a while.
His pile of chips had grown immensely; I first thought he might have bought in more, but then I noticed that his winning streak was making the pile grow. I remembered his strategy lessons, and he was following them.
Yet he also seemed to operate more by instinct than according to a strategy. As his kitty was padded, the color-coded chips in the betting circle by his cards indicated a growing value of each hand, and they seemed to be laid on the table randomly yet strategically.
I gathered my courage again and sat down next to him and two other men playing two hands at once. The game was no longer moving as fast as it was initially, and that definitely seemed to change the psychological reactions that largely overtook me during my first attempt at the table.
With the slower play, my friend was better able to remind me of strategies and hits. But even with his help, I never won a single hand; my friend wasn’t faring much better, so he once again cashed in his small chips for large ones and got up from the table.
We hit the restroom, the bar, and then found our way to the open top deck of the ship. We chatted for a bit; then he packed away all but one of his hundred-dollar chips and said he needed to go turn “this [chip]” into three hundred.
With the newfound knowledge that I am most definitely bad luck, I held back, taking in the cool ocean air and starry night.
For a good bit of the trip, I was thinking that land-based casinos are preferable over boats given the noticeably large number of people getting ill—a few to the point of vomiting.
But I realized the horizon, the sea breeze, and the dolphins swimming beside the boat created an environment that was a near-perfect atmosphere to sit down and reflect upon not only the gambling experiences, but also what I could learn from these very experiences about life in general.
First thing I asked myself: is my buddy addicted? I guess I should be honest about social definitions here because it’s not called an addiction until it becomes a problem. To say it bluntly, he’s not a loser. He’s Rusty as opposed to Frank Griswold.
It’s similar to how I know a lot of drug addicts, but so long as doctors and pharmacies make it cheap and easy for them to manage their pill habits, do they or anyone else really give it a second thought?
According to even the loosest definitions of alcoholism, I would have to say that most of the people I know are alcoholics, but so long as they drink craft beer or wine while being certain to only take hangover days off work the Monday after the Super Bowl, their problem seems to be the foundation of their social and even professional life.
For example, I did some math and figured out that my buddy and I used to pay about the same price per hour to sit in collegiate classes that I lost on the boat; this paid off somewhat for me, but not at all for my buddy, who never secured a job that required a college degree.
Both outcomes might be more luck than meritocracy. In fact, with rising tuition and student loan interest rates, more and more folks are arguing that college is no longer worth the investment, or in other words, it’s a gamble for most, and every time I read things like Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say…
I note that the heightened wages of college graduates are more a function of the falling incomes of the college-educated, not a return on investments.
College was like the fee we paid to get on the boat; but once on the boat, the odds in the job market are stacked towards the house.
We could even look at the non-economic aspects of life as a gambler. I used to read a lot, perhaps a bit too much, about the merging of democracy and entertainment, so when Trump first announced his candidacy for the primary, I was all but certain of his success.
Yet I did not place any money on this through one of many betting websites, which would have paid off twenty-five to one.
Seems in a larger sense, most elections with life-and-death consequences come down to a coin toss (or in Virginia, the pulling of a name from hat); they are a gamble with even odds.
And I suppose that, like most parents, I cannot help but awe at the odds of creating a “perfect child.” And was it pure luck that enabled me to meet my wife in the first place?
Back on the boat, the smallness I felt from the ocean made me realize our separating of risk and life is somewhat peculiar given that evolutionary psychologists point out that the addictive nature of gambling develops because the risk, excitement, and reward activate the primitive, even instinctual parts of the brain that help ensure our physical survival. Makes sense.
I get it; sitting in class, going to work, pulling the voting lever, taking communion, and picking out a daycare will never instill the same sense of excitement as coming face-to-face with a tiger.
But what about the other things we do for entertainment and their cost?
The boat trip cost me much less than a ticket to a professional sporting event. Would I be better off betting the cost of a ticket on my favorite team? It’s pretty easy now with online gaming sites.
Or instead of dropping funds on a movie, which I find are increasingly expensive, should I go play some rounds of online blackjack?
Given what I learned from my buddy, not only could this offer me some psychological pleasure, but it might just help me hone my skill set for my next boat trip.