WHY DO PEOPLE GAMBLE?

By Albert H. Morehead

(version June 1945)

 

Throughout the United States the millions are again standing in line, fifty deep, at race-track pari-mutuel window. They are thronging the "horse rooms" of the bookies. They are standing three-deep around green-felt-covered tables in myriad gambling houses where sharp-eyed croupiers pay and collect ten thousand dollars in bets every hour. They are dropping their coins in slot machines, buying their tickets in baseball pools, in numbers games and in bingo parlors, betting on card games and dice games and any other matter on which there is a difference of opinion.

Again this year, as in 1944, the American people will risk more billions of dollars in gambling games than their expenditures on motion pictures and radio and their investments in E-bonds put together.

New Yorkers will not see as much open evidence of this gambling as will residents of other big American cities. The anti-gambling obsession of Mayor LaGuardia has driven the punchboards and pool tickets under the counter; it has forced the slot machines and dice machines to operate under cover, or to take refuge beyond the city limits and across the river in Jersey.

You'll hear, too — and authentically — of the dice games on returning troop transports, where a ring of soldiers armed with thirty to fifty thousand dollars in back pay, unspent through lack of opportunity during months at the front, risk it all on the crazily-galloping dice.

One of these boys, who lost all he had, was asked why he had gambled. His answer wasn't altogether illuminating: "Way the hell and gone out there," he said, "no girls, no peace, a guy has to have some fun." He called it fun, though he didn't know then why it was fun, doesn't know now, probably never will know.

The psychologists can answer that one, however. The soldier lives in the consciousness of danger. At stake is something he cannot afford to lose — his life.  To escape temporarily from this real, pressing danger he substitutes (psychologists would call it "sublimation") a mock danger in which he puts at stake something he can afford to lose — money.

To a certain extent the same explanation holds for present-day civilian gambling. If people can make themselves worry about losing a few dollars, maybe they can forget their genuine wartime worries — and with money flowing freely they can afford the few dollars. If they can substitute a trivial feeling of uncertainty over the outcome of a game, maybe they can escape their real uncertainty as to the future.

But this accounts for no more than the increased dollars-and-cents volume of gambling in wartime. People gamble in peacetime too, and they must have their reasons then.

Some gambling is inspired by a perfectly natural desire to be in the swim. One may go to a track to see the crowds and the races and to partake of the general feeling of suspense and excitement, which is always pleasurable. Being present, he wants to be a participant. So he picks a horse, haphazardly, makes the lowest possible bet, and this feels that he belongs.

There are many other cases in which betting is not really gambling, because the players do not actually risk anything of value to them. The casual card game in a home or club falls into this category. The players do not need whatever money they may win, and will feel no financial embarrassment if they lose. The business man home from a hectic day, the wife to whom housekeeping is a constant struggle, find a sort of relief in competition of a less strenuous nature. Furthermore, they enjoy winning. So they introduce nominal stakes, merely as a tangible evidence of victory or defeat.

The late Charles M. Schwab was an enthusiastic bridge player. It might have seemed, too, that he played the game very seriously. But he had no need of victory — he had his fill of that in his mundane affairs — so he sat in the game and relaxed. When something went wrong he beamed at his partner, murmured something properly sympathetic, and smiled benignly; it was good to lose for a change.

Mr. Schwab, despite his wealth, was not a big-money gambler. This is doubtless because his game was bridge, which is almost never played for high stakes. But very rich men, to whom a few thousand dollars are unimportant, do not usually care whether the stakes are high or low. In one millionaires' group, which included Diamond Jim Brady and the senior Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt (who was lost in the Lusitania sinking in 1915), bridge was played for a dollar a point and poker for similarly high stakes. Nevertheless the spirit was one of playing a game, rather than of gambling, exactly as it is when the average business man sits at the card table and risks two or three dollars.

In contrast there are many big plungers among rich men. Very often these are playboys whose wealth is largely inherited. One of the most notorious of this group was the scion of a Chicago multi-millionaire family.

This young man, some years ago, took delivery one afternoon of a new, special-built, highly deluxe Rolls-Royce which must have set him back upwards of fifteen thousand dollars [in 2001 dollars, $145,000]. On his way home he parked it in a parking lot and dropped in at a hotel where a big crap game was in session — the kind of game in which he might lose a sizable fortune on a single bet.

In this game the playboy became hooked for a hundred thousand or so, at which point the game threatened to adjourn — some of the members were flying to Florida in their private plane. So the playboy went along to Florida, for no other reason than to continue the game. By the time he had had his fill of gambling, and returned to Chicago, it was three months later — his new Rolls-Royce having sat outdoors in the parking lot all that time.

For the playboy's desperate gambling, the psychologists have still another explanation. Whereas some play as a welcome change from the struggle of life, the rich young man need not make a living, wherefore life does not afford him the degree of struggle that instinctively he craves. So he turns to sports or to gambling, and the higher the stakes, the more desperate the contest, the better his craving is appeased.

Paradoxically, you may find a similar reason behind the tragedy which occasionally appears in newspapers — the bank clerk who defalcates to find money for his gambling losses. It is not the bank clerk's low salary and modest scale of living that oppress him. It is the fact that he, like the playboy, is afflicted by too much security; he can look forward only to sameness in the future. When he gambles, it is not usually the money that he wants so much as the danger and the excitement.

Newspapers will also tell you of idle housewives nabbed in raids on games of rummy, mah jongg, and similar diversions which most people find sufficiently enjoyable without stakes of any sort. Pampered women, supported by indulgent husbands and spared the responsibilities of homemaking and moneymaking, must graft onto such games an element of risk or they could not enjoy them.

In these games, the stakes are always higher than the women can afford. Their purpose is not to win more money, for they do not need this money. They are creating the excitement of danger for themselves. The only penalty, when inevitably their losses exceed their ability to pay, will be confession to their husbands, but they dread this eventuality enough to give the game the thrill they are looking for.

The craving for money is nevertheless one of the primary causes of gambling, and especially of high-stake gambling. Whatever their motives when they first join the game, all players share the desperation that comes with heavy losses. Thus, the loser in the game is always out for money primarily.

The bald desire to win money, as much as possible, is solely responsible for the "percentage" gambler, the gambler-for-gain. Members of this sect look upon gambling merely as a means to an end — the end being cash.

Here is the case history of one gambler of this type. His name is Dave, and he is a professional poker player.

Dave was born in Philadelphia in 1910. His father was a bookkeeper; his family lived a middle-class existence. Dave was a normal and normally happy child whose outstanding characteristic, as he grew up, was his unusual excellence in all types of sports. At the public park near his home, he was the best player of football, baseball, tennis, basketball and hockey. In his sophomore year in high school he was a football hero, and at the end of the year he was offered a scholarship — an "athletic" scholarship, of course — in a famous and exclusive prep school. At some sacrifice, his parents made it possible for him to accept.

At his new school Dave, as a football hero, was cultivated by the rich and socially prominent boys. All of them had more money than he. Among these boys there was some gambling, and to Dave this suggested a way to make some spending money and keep up with his friends.

From that time on, Dave was enamored of all sorts of gambling games. He acquired a spinning "put-and-take" top with which the banker has an advantage over the other players, and he did a thriving business with this top, always acting as banker. He practiced manipulation of dice and cards. He became unusually proficient at poker. Throughout his second year at the academy Dave had more money of his own than any other boy there.

Then came college — a famous eastern one — and Dave, still outstanding in freshman football and still courted by the more snobbish elements, continued to find his spending money in card and dice games. A gambler of extreme courage, Dave would make bets of $50 or more [$500] — a fortune in a schoolboy's eyes — with no show of excitement or perturbation. His skill was so great that he played and won not only in college games but also in hardboiled professional games, which he frequented in a nearby city.

But inevitably a losing streak arrived and Dave found himself stripped of his bankroll. To replenish his capital he began to play professional basketball under an assumed name at $75 a game, and when his participation in these games was discovered the authorities barred him (though without publicity) from further college sports. Since he gambled all night and slept all day, he did not attend classes and was soon dismissed from college.

For a few weeks Dave stayed near the campus. He rented a small apartment and conducted a poker game there, but the students lost so regularly that they suspected him of using marked cards and eventually there was no one who came to play with him. Dave dropped out of college life, and except for brief excursions into professional football and basketball he has done nothing but gamble since then.

Because of his opportunities — he could have had a satisfactory college career and advantageous commercial openings after graduation — Dave's case may not seem typical. Nevertheless, it is unusual only in degree. Most gamblers-for-gain were impelled to their way of life by circumstances of similar nature — envy, cupidity, emulation of their better-off acquaintances.

And, finally, there is the many whom the public most often associates with the term "gambler." Speak of a gambler and whose name springs to mind? Canfield. Rothstein. The big bookmakers, the proprietors of casinos. The gentry to whom Mr. LaGuardia refers when he speaks of "tinhorns." And yet, basically, this type of gambler is not a gambler at all. He is the very antithesis of the gambler. He would flee from any degree of risk as from the plague. He is the carnival concessionaire to whom a spinning or a bingo room is just one more device to increase the take. He is the  night-club impresario who adds slot machines and crap tables and roulette because they bring in customers and pile up profits.

A professor at the University of Chicago who investigated gambling houses a dozen years or so ago found that the personnel and patronage of gambling houses were recruited largely from the underworld. Mickey MacDougall, whose profession is as a detective investigating dishonest gambling practices, took a "census" of such places last year and discovered that there has been a substantial change in their nature — perhaps because the number of gambling houses has grown with geometric rapidity and the underworld could not people all of them today. It would not be large enough. So, in one Indiana city the proprietor of the largest gambling house is a retired chief of police; in an Ohio town, a respectable merchant; in countless places, restaurateurs who drifted into the night-club line and added gambling adjuncts.

A large proportion of these "professional gamblers" do not even fully understand the games they bank, or the mathematical basis of their winnings. They trust the traditions observed at other gambling places, the manufacturers who sell them their paraphernalia, and the expert croupiers (the American term is "dealers") whom they hire. Except for legal definition it would be difficult to draw the line between these men and Prince Louis of Monaco, whose state is tax-free because of Monte Carlo's celebrated casinos; between these men and the millionaires, movie stars and irreproachable investors who own the race tracks, and into whose pockets pour the losses of the gambling millions, including that defalcating bank clerk. It may be difficult to determine why men gamble and lose, but our own human nature does not pose us any problem as to why men bank a gambling game when they cannot help but win.