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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Don't Let Winning and Losing Affect Your Self-Esteem

5 March 1996

asinos seem to bring out the best and the worst in people. Sure, winning is pleasure and losing is pain, the civility with which patrons are treated goes to the hearts of some and the heads of others, and money's involved. But the phenomenon is so strong, something deeper must drive the demeanor dichotomy.

One possibility was suggested by an article about currency traders in the December 1994 issue of Harper's Magazine. These traders buy and sell dollars, marks, yen, pounds, pesos, and the like -- making or losing money as exchange rates fluctuate. They essentially bet on whether one currency will rise or fall relative to another. The wagers differ more in degree than in kind from bets made by solid citizens at slot machines and green felt tables all across this great country of ours.

The article stated, "... his day had been difficult. Early on, he had made a poor trade that cost him $1,200 in a matter of minutes, and it took the whole day to get the money back. 'Most traders tie up their self-esteem and self-worth with the bottom line,' [he] said, 'and your success or lack of it intensifies everything you feel about yourself. You blame yourself for every bad trade.'"

The self-esteem/self-worth part rang a bell. It doesn't explain what happens to bettors in a casino. But it surely describes how lots of folks feel. And how they act.

The effect shows up in winners' conviviality and losers' churlishness. Also in the way players prize comps for meals and other freebies. Comps imply someone's been rated and found worthy.

It's more than simply decorum. Shifts in self-assessment with bankroll can harm a gambler's financial health. Problems, at both ends of the self-esteem spectrum, have to do with judgement.

While luck is certainly a factor at a casino, winning and losing entail more than just dropping your chip and taking your chances. Good players know which wagers offer the best combinations of odds and payoffs. They appreciate the volatility -- the normal up- and downswings -- of each game, how this governs maximum bet size relative to total stake, and when to take a profit or cut a loss and quit. They understand that outcomes can be changed, say by throwing the dice differently in craps or betting on additional spots at blackjack, but there's no way to know -- before or after -- if the change is for the better or the worse.

Enhanced self-esteem may cause winners to think they're invincible. To snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by not quitting with reasonable profits. To turn triumph to ruin by continuing to bet aggressively after a hot run is over, first sure the setback is temporary then determined to regain an earlier peak.

Diminished self-esteem may cause losers to abandon hope. To let downswings become disasters by getting disgusted and forsaking tried-and-true strategies. For instance, by raising bets trying to recover everything at once, passing up advantageous situations such as splitting and doubling at blackjack or taking odds at craps out of anxiety about risking the extra money, or frantically switching slot machines looking for the hot button.

Knowing all this can help you avoid the traps. Sure, you should feel great about yourself when you win. And a sober attitude about losing can keep you from digging deeper into your pocket for good money to throw after bad. Moreover, by any measure, taking home their cash beats leaving yours behind.

But you're the same person either way. And, either way, casinos can make you a better person. Winners can practice embracing success with aplomb, losers accepting failure with grace. But I'll stop here. Or we'll soon be discussing whether the casino experience is a model for facing the more serious uncertainties of life in the real world. Which, of course, it is. As Sumner A Ingmark, a poet whose sentiment is mostly self-esteemed, said:

Those who take credit or blame for the hands dealt by fate'r,
Open to all kinds of trouble much sooner than later.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.