Thursday, December 6, 2007

Risks & Rewards

I played blackjack this week with a table-full of hard-core gamblers who considered me a lightweight because I have rules about when I leave based on how much I've won or lost. Apparently, discipline is not the hallmark of self-described "real gamblers." The two men and two women I joined at the table are people I've played with before. I like them because they play well and aggressively, they mind their own business, and they don't complain constantly (as if the cards or the dealer or the casino were on a personal crusade to separate them from their money or as if they were chained against their will to the table). I can't say they ever seem to be having a wonderful time, but they aren't the pictures of misery you sometimes find at blackjack tables, especially on late weekday afternoons at local casinos.

I had a nice run of luck and was within $100 of doubling my money within 40 minutes. The guy to my right noticed me counting my chips during the shuffle and asked if I was ahead. I nodded, then told him I always leave when I've doubled my money. He was astonished and his exclamations prompted a table-wide discussion of how bizarre it is to have a financial goal and to leave when you reach it. They demanded to know if I had similar rules on the downside and were amazed to learn that I do. Each had a story of giving back significant winnings. The stories were confusing, but the motives for continuing to play as big stacks of chips went away included the conviction that the good luck would return (notwithstanding temporary setbacks), the need to catch up with large overall losses (kind of a "we'll make up our losses with volume" theory), and the belief that there was nothing more compelling to do.

I thought it would be tactless to say I don't have overall losses, but I did say that, like them, I could play again the next day if I didn't feel finished and that I wasn't usually up for marathon playing anyway (it's not that challenging a game and, after a while, the house advantage gets tiresome). These statements struck them as crazy. They told me I wasn't a real gambler and we all laughed. When I made that last $100, colored up my chips and prepared to leave, they shook their heads in bewilderment that was, as far as I could tell, not at all tinged with envy. If anything, they pitied me.

I think it's interesting that they consider discipline and limits to be signs of lack of authenticity where gambling is concerned. Could this also be the reason so many people are so risk-averse? Taking the right risks is the foundation of progress and success in every arena, but it's certainly a gamble - and not a particularly good one if you approach it pell-mell, without planning ahead and thinking about consequences. But there's no requirement that you approach it pell-mell. Discipline and limits aren't anathema to the real deal; they're what make intelligent risk-taking possible.

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