New Worlds: Gambling

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Humans will bet on the stupidest things.

When my husband and I went to the Penn and Teller show in Las Vegas years ago, at one point Penn asked the audience, “Are you any good at math?” Then he promptly dismissed that question, saying, “No, of course not. If you were good at math, you wouldn’t be in Las Vegas.” We know perfectly well that the games there are rigged, that the deck is stacked and the odds are against us — and yet many of us still place a bet anyway.

This impulse is moderately sensible when what we’re betting on is our skill against someone else’s. We know our own capabilities, and while we may overestimate ourselves or underestimate our opponents, in the end, we have a certain amount of control over the result of the competition. Whether it’s a footrace or a contest to see who can eat the most hot dogs in the space of ten minutes, we can do our best, and that may be enough to attain victory.

That’s also true, in somewhat more tenuous form, when it comes to betting on another person’s skill. In those cases we can’t affect the outcome of the contest — not that it stops us from trying; observe the body language of somebody watching a football game or a boxing match, and you’ll often see them straining as if they can vicariously lend their strength to their chosen side — but we can be intelligent about who we choose to bet on. Here the relevant quality is knowledge: by familiarizing yourself with the history, habits, strengths and weaknesses of the various competitors, you increase your odds of backing the right horse (or greyhound or fighting cock or whatever).

That presumes, though, that we’re always rational and well-informed actors. Quite a bit of economic theory is founded on this assumption . . . but sadly, we’re often nothing of the sort. We pick horses in a race because we like their names or because “it’s their turn,” as if victories were distributed fairly among aspirants. Or we just expect things to play out with mechanistic certainty, failing to account for the vagaries of random chance.

Which is ironic because we also gleefully bet on sheer random chance! The roulette wheels and slot machines of Las Vegas may be fancier than some betting games of the past, but the principle is the same: people choose to stake money on a particular outcome, despite having zero knowledge or control over whether that outcome will occur. When discussing games before, I mentioned that dice games are almost always a matter of luck with no component of skill — and yet those are historically some of the most popular forms of gambling.

The fact that those games were often played in taverns probably has something to do with it. Pour some alcohol down people’s throats, and their ability to make good decisions goes downhill fast. Furthermore, people often play these kinds of games to relax — and something as mentally intensive as poker or Go doesn’t necessarily make for good relaxation. But handing over money on the basis of which of us rolls higher with a pair of dice? Even drunk, people can usually manage that arithmetic.

Then again, sometimes random chance isn’t nearly as random as it looks. Where Gambling goes, its underhanded cousin Cheating is not far behind.

In contests of skill, cheating can be as simple as paying someone to throw the match — a practice usually called “fixing.” Competitors sometimes throw matches of their own accord, after secretly betting on their opponent, but more often it’s part of an organized scheme where they’re being paid to take a fall. There’s also the possibility of illegal tactics, e.g. weighted gloves in a boxing match, or straight-up sabotage, e.g. poisoning an opponent beforehand. In general the idea is to shift the odds as far as possible in your favor, while maintaining the appearance of a fair contest.

Cheating in a game with an element of randomization usually means finding some way to rig the materials themselves. Anybody who’s seen a film set on the western frontier has probably seen a card-player accused of holding an ace up his sleeve. What card is actually there will depend on the game, but it’s true that people developed all manner of tricks for concealing and then deploying a useful card at the right moment. There are also methods of dishonest shuffling, or else “cold-decking” an unsuspecting mark by swapping the original deck for one that’s stacked in a favorable fashion. Dice can be rigged by weighting them — “loaded dice” — or by a subtle trick of embedding a tiny, stiff bristle in certain faces, so that the die becomes slightly more likely to tip over when coming to a halt. As with cold-decking, sometimes the trick is to swap dice mid-game, so your opponent is rolling with honest dice while you use your own special set.

If a game involves an element of hidden information — which is common with cards — then discovering that information gives you an advantage. In the real world, this usually means getting an accomplice to scope out the opponent’s cards (by simply looking over their shoulder, or more elaborate methods involving peepholes or surveillance cameras) and then signal you somehow. How would that play out in a world with magic, though? What precautions would people take against clairvoyant or telepathic players — or would such people be barred from playing at all? What if nanites could manufacture the card you need on demand? I’ve yet to read a story about a gambler who really leverages magic or speculative technology to cheat their marks, but maybe someone out there has written it.

The possibility of someone cheating is only one of the reasons that gambling has almost always met with official disapproval. Unless you do something to tilt the odds in your favor, it’s generally an irresponsible pastime; countless families have suffered because their patriarch bet on the wrong dog or thought that one more hand of cards would make good his losses, and thereby pissed away the money they needed to pay rent or buy food. Religious authorities frequently see it as tempting fate — especially since gamblers so often pray for the gods to bless them with good luck. And more than one person has fallen into sin or financial and social ruin for life because of gambling debts.

None of which stops us from doing it. We even have officially-sanctioned forms of gambling; casinos may be outlawed in most parts of the U.S., but at the same time you have states relying on their lotteries for significant revenue. We’re bad at math, and so we like to take a chance. And if someone can find a way to profit off that, they probably will.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Gambling — 14 Comments

  1. Two examples of using the surface of gambling and gaming (and cheating) metaphorically related to magic come to mind rather quickly.

    Fritz Leiber’s “Gonna Roll the Bones”. Of course, it isn’t; but there’s a surface of playing craps against Old Nick pitting skill at cheating (although it’s never called “cheating”) against… well… something else.

    Similarly, Harlan Ellison’s “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” puts slot machines umm, in play. It appears in a collection, Deathbird Stories, built around “wagering against the gods in formal games” (“formal” being closer to Todorov’s literary-theory concept than most casual readers would recognize) as a framing device. Including betting on car races, sort of (“Along the Scenic Route”).

  2. Pingback: New Worlds: Gambling - Swan Tower

  3. Humans will bet on the stupidest things.

    I can’t think of many examples in speculative fiction in which gambling exists at all, unless one of the main characters specifically has to either legitimately win or cheat at something in order to further the plot, and even then, the only examples I know involve the usual cards, dice, or human sports. It would be fun to see more stories include some of the more ridiculous things people have gambled on (or magical versions thereof) like: how many birds a cat can kill before the flock flies away, how many minutes the terrier will take to kill 100 rats in a pen, or, my all-time favorite from ancient Greece, if a quail will stay put or run away when gently tapped on the head. 🙂

    • The card game Tonk in the Black Company series. S’yang stones and shereba and other games in the Vlad Taltos books; Vlad starts out in the elven Mob, so gambling and debts are a big deal. Pat Rin of the Liaden books is a gamer and opens a casino on Surebleak, and bets or gambling appear in many books or stories — Aelliana wins her ship in gambling, a delm sells off a family member to cover his gambling debts. In Girl Genius, Othar somehow traps the ‘wild’ Jaegers in a game of hangman or such. I don’t recall Spice and Wolf showing conventional gambling, though merchants make bets on currency movements and other financial things. The rabbits of Watership Down have a simple game they play though I forget if they have anything to bet. Does Harry Potter mention bets on Quidditch?

    • I know, right? Except this is one of the places where fiction is often required to make more sense than real life. You’d get readers grumping that it’s not plausible that people would wager on something so pointless and dumb.

  4. I’ve never been interested in gambling myself, so my observation may be very biased. But reading Heyer, I kept thinking about how important gambling was to the upper class. I see them as lottery winners to begin with.

    That said, poor people gamble too. I just don’t “get” it.

    • I think there’s a heavy element of acculturation: I don’t get it, either, but then, I also grew up around people who never gambled or bought lottery tickets or anything of the sort. So it all seems very strange to me.

  5. My favorite has always been the game of Fizzbin played in a Star Trek episode, a totally off-the-cuff ploy to distract Kirk and Spock’s captors from realizing they were about to have the (gaming) tables reversed.

  6. Oh boy. There’s this anime called No Game No Life. It’s better if you folks go in blind.

  7. Dean Wesley Smith — whom I understand has at least played poker with professionals (I may be understating here; at the least, he’s a serious casino-level player as opposed to a casual amateur) — has written a series of superhero-centric novels set in the world of professional poker (collectively, the “Poker Boy” series).