What is betting? Meditations on the nature of the game
Betting and gambling are often criticized. Depicted either as the benevolent arm of power, appeasing the masses with bread and games, or as light entertainment keeping them in obscurity: it is a taboo subject in contemporary society.
Yet playing in general and betting in particular is at the core of human existence. Beyond the sulfurous status it holds, it also provides an outlet for a deep emotional need and a striking illustration for the plight of man, endowed with reason but limited in his ability to use it.
What does it mean to play?
Shakespeare's quote “All the world's a stage” has often been interpreted as decrying the futility of existence. It is as though somehow equating life with a game is a negative or derogatory claim on the value of existence.
In fact, most of our existence revolves around play. Be it a child playing with dolls or a waiter playing his role as a waiter (to use Sartre's classic example), most of our identity building revolves around our ability to experience one world in different ways: first as determined and necessary, second as contingent and ephemeral.
This disparate understanding of phenomena that are one and the same is epitomized as well as resolved in play. For example, luck can be understood by the player as mere coincidence or as fate in action. However, in the act of play itself, that tension is absorbed. When I play, I accept that the game isn't real but I also accept that I can trick myself into believing it is.
For the player conscious that he is playing, navigating between the 2 opposite poles of perception is effortless. As such it is a moment that reconciles two contradictory imperatives of human existence: when I play I am simultaneously over-determined and a free agent.
The Player and the Non-Player
From this initial observation, many consequences can be drawn. Concerning the outlook of the player and of the non-player, they can be characterized as follows:
For the player, the tension between imagination and agency on the one hand and determinism and the real on the other is a matter of subjectivity – a trick of the mind that one can freely indulge in and which is constitutive of our distinctive trait as humans.
For the non-player, creativity and agency are harmful illusions. Often associated with vice and sin, gambling is just another mind altering substance that can corrupt the virtues of the player. The fact that the mind displays the faculty to view the world in different ways is a sign of our not-fully elevated status: reason being the higher qualities of man and imagination the animalistic side of our existence.
Of course the dichotomy can be further detailed and certain typologies of accepting the game and refusing to play identified.
The Pascalian Player
Blaise Pascal owes much of his notoriety to the demonstration commonly labelled “Pascal's wager.” For Pascal, life is a game in which every participant bets – whether he is conscious of it or not – on the existence of God. The available options and the gains associated to betting on each outcome are summarized in the following table:
|God exists||God doesn't exist|
|Wager on the existence of God||Gain salvation||Lose nothing|
|Bet that God doesn't exist||Eternal damnation||Lose nothing|
For Pascal, the odds of God existing are unknowable. Furthermore, given the overwhelming rewards associated with betting on God's existence and the fact that you are no worse off if you have accomplished that wager and turn out to be wrong, the former option “superdominates” the latter. The only sensible decision, as a result, is to bet that God exists. Because it is the most sensible decision, it follows mechanically for Pascal that it is what should be done.
The Pascalian player is a dangerous, live-fast-die-broke type of player. Not only does he feel a pathological penchant towards betting, he also dismisses any odds calculation in light of probability and focuses exclusively on prospective gains. He is the type of player who thinks about odds as “the higher the better” and isn't afraid to bet everything he has.
The Voltarian Player
Voltaire's philosophical starting point is radical: reason, trained and used properly, can solve all problems. The way Voltaire was able to start his career as a philosopher illustrates this point perfectly: having calculated that the prize for the lottery was greater than the cost of buying tickets for all possible combinations, he purchased tickets for every outcome securing a jackpot that would allow him to live, think, and write independently of financial concern.
The Voltarian player is a type of player for whom the game is just a riddle to solve: he analyses data from all bookies to determine which is a sure bet. If this is found lacking, he will elaborate a framework to ground his hunch in objective, statistical analysis. Only after this is complete will he place a penny on anything.
For more details on Voltaire's lottery Martingale, keep reading here.
The Tarantino Player
Quentin Tarantino explores the themes of gambling and betting in his early work – particularly the short film he directed and appears as part of Four Rooms. In the final scene of the film, Norman has bet that he can light his Zippo 10 times in a row. If he is victorious, he stands to win Chester's car. If he fails, he loses his pinky. On his first try, the lighter doesn't ignite…
For the Tarantino player, the game is not just in the mind. Tarantino's universe is a zero-sum game, where one win for one man is a direct loss for another, and in which violence is the final arbiter. Winning is doubly advantageous for the Tarantino player: he collects his gain and deprives his opponent of what is his. In this closed economy, all life is competition and the stakes are so high that every defeat could spell the end of the game…
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