The Eternal Allure of Gambling

I just spent three days in the land of milk and money - Las Vegas. There is something refreshingly honest about the place: it's all about money and it knows it. It doesn't pretend to be anything else.

No doubt some of the architects think that their work has some importance of its own: the re-creations of Venice, Camelot, Paris, Egypt, and New York. Battling pirate ships and erupting volcanoes aside, once you enter the themed palaces, they are all the same: crap tables, blackjack tables, roulette wheels, and thousands upon thousands of slot machines - all promising to give you a fun time while you lose your money in the pursuit of a possible fortune.

The lure of gambling has existed throughout recorded history but has never gripped the millions who now participate. We play state-sponsored lotteries, visit tribal and other legal casinos, create special accounts for Internet gaming, bet the horses, bet the dogs, bet on sports, fights, anything where we can catch the excitement of beating the odds.

Moralists worry that a large percentage of those who risk their money, are those who cannot afford to risk anything: the poor, the unemployed, the minimum wage fringe who, at the best of times, barely hang on to the basement rung of the economic ladder. They argue that gambling should be a pleasant pursuit for those who can afford to lose a reasonable amount, using the money they have earned for purchasing excitement, entertainment, and momentary escape.

Who's kidding who?

For the middle class gamblers who bet on the super bowl, the derby, the occasional lottery ticket, or visit the casinos once or twice a year, gambling is a diversion, a fun time, a little bit of excitement sandwiched between the realities of career advancement, building a nest egg, raising children, and doing their civic duties. The thrill of a potential win is the lure of proving their ability to compete, to come out on top, to better their opponents, the pros, the odds, the morning line. It is a personal challenge that can boost their self-confidence when they win but has few negative effects when they lose because their real self-image relates to the important aspects of their lives, separate from their gaming ventures.

It is those who cannot afford to lose who become addicted to the lure of chance. Stuck in minimum wage employment, without the education, the skills, or the entrepreneurial savvy to work their way up the social and economic pyramid, they see gambling as the promise of a permanent way out, a tsunami that can sweep them instantaneously to the top, an overnight millionaire. A lottery ticket, a slot machine, a pick 6 wager, plays no favorites. The poor, the homeless, the forgotten, the have-nots, all compete with the rich and famous on an equal footing. They become hooked on continued gaming because it is the only chance of reaching the lifestyle they want to achieve.

A successful businessman wins a quarter of a million dollars and it is nice: a bonus, a chance to splurge on new toys, the opportunity to retire outstanding debts, or expand their company with a welcome infusion of capital.

A working-class-stiff wins a quarter of a million dollars and it is truly life-changing. A janitor, a gardener, a fast food worker, a guard - with a windfall like that, they can turn their back on the roach-infested slum apartment and move to a better neighborhood or buy a small house and a new car. They can quit their hated job, help their families, participate in the good life they have only previously experienced as outsiders, looking in.

The problem is that it is non-sustainable. Winning what seems like an enormous amount of money seldom leads to rational investment: education, skill upgrades, saving for future college costs or business opportunities. Moving from nothing to something, in an instant, is not an event likely to produce rational planning. For those whose monetary and emotional needs have never been truly met, immediate gratification is the direction of choice. A lifetime of denial demands a certain degree of self-indulgence when the means for it become miraculously available.

Is it any wonder that a large percentage of lottery winners file bankruptcy within five years of their win? The moves, the changes, the life enhancements that substantial wins provide are ephemeral.

In the short run, they provide an exciting exit from a black tunnel. In the long run, such a win turns negative - because the dream has become a reality, even if only for a brief moment, returning to prior levels of existence becomes an even more painful form of imprisonment.

The need to recapture that dream, and perhaps maintain it this time if a mega-million prize can be snatched, keeps the gambling industry thriving and the promises of dream fulfillment entice us all, most especially the poor, into one more venture, one more ticket, one more chance.

Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the effects of cultural forces and employment on the individual. The author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The Worker's Edge, she can be reached at http://drvirginiabola.blogspot.com

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