Commonplace Newsletter #009
The gut knows things that the brain doesn’t.
If anything, at least in my experience, the brain seems to exist as a post-facto rationalisation machine. It is there to form narratives around what gut feelings mean. Or alternatively it creates (fear based) reasons for why the gut should be disregarded and why the failure that came from doing so is in fact a blessing.
I’ll explain by way of example. If you look at the responses to the past issues of this newsletter, you will see that my discussions on stillness, on slowing down, on enjoying simple pleasures have been the most resonant. And therefore I should carry on in this vein. This is what my head says.
But before I continue on with that I have an urge to discusses gambling and instinct and the concept of having skin in the game.
I know that there is every chance that this will prove to be less resonant with the majority of the audience that is starting to form here. It could backfire. And yet my gut is telling me that this is the thing to do.
And so that’s what I am going to do.
So let’s proceed on together and see what we can discover.
The Sport of Kings, The Dreams of Peasants
My grandad was a gambling man. On my father’s side. Many of the memories I have of the long-gone man involve me going with him into the bookies after he had picked me up from primary school.
He was a horse racing man- a working class punter on the sport of kings. £2 each way in each race, the coins being thumbed out from a Gaviscon tube at the window, the slip a scrawl of fractions and poetic and fanciful horse names- Gimme Five, Make a Stand, Feels Like Gold.
I don’t recall us ever watching the races on the wall-bracketed screens, don’t recall us screaming encouragement and threats at our chosen horse like all of the other hatchet faced, roll up smoking punters.
In my memory, he placed the bets, calm and expressionless, before taking my hand and nodding goodbye to the men he was only on nodding terms with as we headed out of the smoke-filled shop to his curbside car.
Why do I mention this- other than for the obvious reason of sentiment? Well, it’s simply that the older I get the more I understand where the man coming from. See, coming from a town that had more bookies than books (to steal a phrase from the late Nick Tosches) and where the opportunities for advancement were as grey and unchanging as the horizon, gambling represented a way for a working man to gain a little something from his wits and instincts and finesse rather than from merely the strength of his arms and the durability of his back.
(Those Gaviscon tablets were to calm down the effects of the hiatal hernia that came from a lifetime of laying bricks)
Gambling was, and always will be, the average joes way of showing off his cleverness. And of getting together some quick folding money if he didn’t have the stomach for either hard graft or crime. I understand this now. But there’s more to it than that.
It all comes down to the time-worn lesson of putting your money where your mouth is, a point of honour that old grandad was pretty keen on, as I recall.
Gambling as a Means of Putting Skin In a The Game
‘Those who talk should do and only those who do should talk’
~Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin In The Game
We could spend paragraph after paragraph enumerating the downsides of gambling: the poverty, the debt, the fact it is largely an exercise of the poor enriching the already rich, the hundreds of hours that a committed gambler will waste watching tape and reading the form and trading statistics and trivia with his gambling mates.
And on and on.
But we’re all grown ups here and I’m sure we’re mature enough to concede that something that is in the aggregate bad can contain good points within it.
Like how vintage Playboy magazine, for all its pornography and vapid lifestyle-chasing materialism would have the consolation of an article by Norman Mailer. Or is it the other way around?
Anyway, gambling for all its faults does at least make you back up your talk with action, with commitment. And this is a good trait to carry over to all facets of life. To paraphrase Taleb’s dictum about skin in the game: ‘Don’t tell me what you think, tell me who you have winning in the 3:10 at Newmarket.’
And maybe this in itself is one of the things that makes gambling addictive- besides the obvious and primary lure of quick cash without effort. The sheer simplicity of it.
You have an opinion regarding a given event, you back it up with your own money and you either gain more money or lose what you had. In a (needlessly) complicated world, which oftentimes resembles nothing more than a banana boat floating on a river of BS, this simplicity is a reassurance.
Fate is a more tolerable master than chaos.
So perhaps we can say that gambling- and sports in general- is a simplified, codified simulation of existence (or more specifically, I suppose, of war) that has grown in popularity as the world has become increasingly complex and confusing.
The real world doesn’t abide by the Marquess of Queensbury rules and I suspect it is almost invariably someone who has taken a beating in the unsanctioned bout of existence that comes to crave the rule-bound lure of gambling.
Of course the beating persists, and the rule-set invariable makes it worse. But at least it is understandable why you are broke. It’s not you, it’s not socio-economic forces or geopolitics or inter-class rivalries. It’s that the cards are cold. That the team are weak defensively. That you’re just on a losing streak at the moment. But it’ll turn around soon...
If The Fun Stops, Stop
‘Everybody knows the dice are loaded,
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed...’
~Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows.
Here are the two fundamental truths that I have deduced from my time gambling.
1) The size of your initial bankroll is the single biggest determinant of gambling success. Or to put it another way the rich get richer, the poor get poorer. One percent of a hundred grand is a lot of money, one percent of a tenner is practically nothing.
2) You lose when you chase, you win when you are ambivalent. On three separate occasions I have decided to stop gambling and so put all of my remaking bankroll on a virtually random wager. Each time this bet came in, regardless of how much of a long shot it was. Conversely, whenever I have *needed* a bet to come in, it hardly ever has and often for frustrating turns of sheer bad luck (injury, bad referee calls, poor judging on the scorecards).
So what can we deduce from all of this?
Well, above all I would say that no one- whether it be God, fate, a potential partner or friend- no one respects neediness. What kills the gambler in the end is desperation. The vast majority double down when they are losing and become more conservative when they are having a run of good luck. This is exactly wrong. You should do the opposite- momentum begets momentum in all things.
And this is where sports betting becomes a problem. This is where you discover the dice are loaded.
Have a winning streak on an online sports book and then try and up the stakes as you gain momentum. See what happens. You’re betting will be capped. Even if you can bet ‘em, you can’t beat ‘em.
The house always wins because the house dictates the stakes.
This is the real reason why gambling is bad. At the risk of ending on a saccharine note- ultimately what you have to gamble on is yourself. On something where you are in the arena and not a mere spectator with a sheet full of statistics.
The odds of winning may be slim but at least the game of betting on yourself is square. And if you can chase the wins, hedge the losses and operate with that same non-needy, outcome independent attitude of the successful gambler, then who knows what success you will earn.
Best of luck.
Until next time,
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