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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Why Gamblers Get Testy when they Lose

14 June 2006

Gamblers usually enter the casinos with positive outlooks. The trite "I never take more than I can afford to lose" aside, solid citizens often start with premonitions they're going to win. But, what happens to their attitudes and behavior if they don't?

Researchers in Britain are investigating this question. The ultimate purpose is to shed light on causes and remedies for problem gambling. However, their findings--while preliminary--may help recreational patrons understand and avoid possible adverse psychological impacts of losses. (The work is reported in "Aggressive Behaviour in Adult Slot Machine Gamblers: A Qualitative Observational Study" by Adrian Parke and Mark Griffiths of Nottingham Trent University, reported in Vol 2, No 2, of the International Journal of Mental Health & Addiction.)

One tendency noted in the study was verbal aggression toward the casino staff. This was most prevalent when players believed the workers, perhaps as surrogates for the bosses, would benefit from their losses or were amused by their gambling behavior. It seemed to be a means for players to preserve their self-esteem and not appear foolish. Staff members were also targets of verbal abuse when gamblers thought they were acting unfairly, for instance by adjusting the machines or helping other patrons by recommending hot games or advising them how to win. This form of hostility was attributed to frustration more than desire to achieve a goal.

Another category of verbal aggression was aimed at the machines. This was noted when players felt they weren't getting reasonable returns. The researchers found that gamblers didn't necessarily expect to win, but became angry if they perceived a machine was paying far below the nominal return percentage. Belligerence like this was assumed to be rooted in imputing poor performance to externalities, something tangible other than themselves.

Some physical aggression toward the machines was noted, particularly when players were behind by what they deemed large amounts. One precipitating condition was the occurrence of "near misses," which appeared to heighten negative feelings by teasing gamblers. Another cause of physical attack was a suspicion that a device was acting "intelligently" and somehow cheating a player by returning less than it should have.

Verbal aggression directed at other gamblers was observed as well, principally when players thought someone else was or would be profiting from their losses. This partly follows from the way machines are set up in Britain. Still, it applies in the US because of the widespread misperception that the slots go through cycles, so an individual who's lost and doesn't have the bankroll to continue has loaded the game with the money to pay the next person. Another reason for verbal harassment of other patrons was general irritability associated with losing.

Data also showed that players became sanguine if they recovered at least part of their losses. This demonstrated that individuals were experiencing great relief, even if they didn't actually break even or finish with a profit. The implication is that negative aspects of losing are strong, perhaps owing to the competitive nature of the process as much as to the amounts involved. In addition, the researchers found that some players adopted positive attitudes after losing "to sustain self-esteem." This, they speculated, may not be as beneficial as might be surmised. Rather, it may be "a maladaptive coping strategy that only encourages gambling persistence ... [and] may be responsible for the participants being unable to learn from punishment cues."

Lessons bettors may glean from this project to date include learning to accept responsibility for losses, acknowledging liability, avoiding punishment reduction signals, circumventing the penchant to find someone or something to blame for losses, and recognizing the probabilistic nature of the activity. All as pertinent in the workaday world as in the heady ambience of the casino. For, as the punters' poet, Sumner A Ingmark, proclaimed:

Casinos are like life, except things happen faster,
There is joy, there is strife, conditions you can master.

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.