The urge to gamble is perhaps the most fundamental of all human activities. It is ubiquitous throughout history and across cultures, uniting peoples as diverse as the North American Indians with the ancient Greeks; the Aztecs with the Internet gamblers of today.

In ancient cultures where the future was thought to be determined by omnipotent deities and mystical forces, gambling games were inseparable from divination and fortune-telling. The very earliest games of chance -- the tossing of bones and the casting of lots -- were rooted in oracular rituals, where people attempted to foresee the uncertain future and their own individual place within it. By placing a wager, the player was asking a question of the gods: Would he be prosperous? Would he go hungry? Was he lucky or blessed? And the fall of the lots revealed his fate: the answer of the gods.

Fast-forward to the modern world, and we see a dramatic increase in the variety and extent of gambling opportunities around the globe. Lotteries, casinos, sports betting and slot machines are hi-tech, multi-billion dollar industries, while the global expansion of the Internet brings chance ever deeper into cyberspace. And it does not stop there: the gambling instinct reaches into the realm of economics too, where risk taking on the stock market, derivatives and futures trading are intrinsic to the operation of commercial enterprise. In fact, the urge to take risks on an uncertain future is the basic instinct that lies behind the creation and maintenance of the capitalist system of production itself. At the start of the twenty-first century, gambling has come to be both the dynamo and the expression of advanced capitalist societies.

But despite the glittering sophistication of modern gambling technology, and behind the mirage of casino-cities like Las Vegas, the reasons people play are still darkly atavistic. Why do people gamble? What do individuals get from this risky engagement with Fate?

Contrary to popular belief, the point of gambling is not actually to win money. Although gamblers may look as though they are playing to win, this is mainly illusory -- winning is, in many ways, the worst of all possible outcomes, because it does the one thing gamblers try to avoid -- it ends the game.

No: the enjoyment of gambling works on another level, and comes from its embodiment of pure fantasy itself. It comes from the thrill of the chase and the excitement and anticipation of the challenge to Chance.


Behind the glamour of wealth and the tension of winning and losing, gambling encapsulates a more fundamental human instinct: the drama of our relation to chance.

The concept of chance -- and the way it is played out in gambling games -- has fascinated mankind for millennia. The idea that things happen for no reason is a deeply unsettling one, and for thousands of years human thought has tried to get round it by working out causes, looking for reasons, finding explanations. Gambling, it turns out, is the perfect medium through which we can experience chaos and uncertainty. Games can be seen as miniature worlds where chance can be brought temporarily under human control, struggled with in the briefest of encounters and forced to give up its secrets over the turn of a card, the spin of a roulette ball, the fall of a die.

Gambling is a kind of theatre where the major features of the human condition -- power, money, greed, our relation to chance and luck -- are played out. The drama unfolds through the cabalistic inscriptions on cards, dice and roulette wheels: stark patterns in red and black that symbolize man's struggle with Fate. Games of chance encapsulate the basic human urge to take risks, and they also tap into our desire for transformation: to be in charge of our destiny and to be, for a moment, whoever we want to be.

Chance is crucial here, because it possesses a kind of transformative power in itself. The existence of chance allows us to dream of the Big Win; the life changing event, and to imagine a situation where the future is wide open and the possibilities are endless. And in this world, everyone gets an equal share of the dream because, unlike the inequities of everyday life, chance is absolutely democratic. It is no respecter of title, wealth or merit: as Gogol put it, all men are equal at cards.

This limitless possibility makes gambling into a highly charged arena: a magical realm where dreams are given free reign and alternative lives are imagined. And so, when they enter a casino, gamblers leave the everyday world behind and step into a different dimension, with a different set of rules, values and choices. This separation makes gambling into a kind of fantasy world, where players are released from the routines and expectations of their normal lives, and free to experiment with new roles and identities. In the gyrations of the roulette wheel, the frustrations of the daily grind melt away, with every rotation bringing the player closer to the person they want to be. In this game, gamblers are no longer shopkeepers or accountants. They are glamorous high rollers: exceptional individuals who live by their own rules and face up to the challenge of Fate. This is a sphere of risk taking, of action and fateful decisions that elevates gamblers above the banality of normal life. When they play, they know that anything can happen, and that a chance throw can change everything . . . .

All gamblers possess a feeling of infallibility; an unshakeable belief (close to religious faith) in the power of their own luck. In order to play at all, they have to believe they'll win: without such conviction, the whole enterprise is pointless. Even the most realistic lottery player has to be able to ignore the astronomical odds stacked against him and believe that, out of all the millions of other hopeful players, he'll be the lucky one. Although he knows the laws of probability are stacked against him, on another level he also feels certain that his good fortune will overcome them and secure a winning hand. In this fantasy of omnipotence, the results of games are never down to mere chance, but are directly attributable to gamblers' charisma and their special relation with Fate.

The outcomes of games have far reaching implications, with the answer to the question "will I win?" taken as symbolic of the player's place in the wider scheme of things. In some ways, gambling is not unlike the rituals of ancient diviners and augurs: a game where wins and losses are interpreted as signs of the approval and disapproval of Fate. And in this world, winning gamblers are far more than just lucky players: they are individuals who are somehow chosen or blessed, and who are special and successful in the world beyond the game. Win or lose? The need to know whether they are fortune's favourite is the impetus for repeated play, and it is this continual uncertainty that drives the game on.

This is the root of gambling superstition. Every gambler has his own private relation with Destiny, his own arsenal of mystical beliefs and secret rituals to try to turn the cards to his advantage. This is why players who will nonchalantly toss $500 onto the table will also nervously change seats, mutter their lucky numbers and clutch their mascots during the course of a game. It is this that lies behind the religious fervor of lottery players when they select their tickets, craps shooters when they blow on their dice and racetrack handicappers when they act on a 'hunch'. These are all strategies to influence their luck, to persuade Fortune to smile on them and make Chance bend to their wishes.


Despite all this, ironically, money doesn't really mean anything to gamblers when the game is going on -- it's just a way of staying in the action, of keeping on the roll. It is quickly devalued and becomes a mere counter in a game. In the casino, dull cash is transformed into shiny coloured chips: playthings that are the currency of chance. Turning money into plastic turns reality into illusion, and this has a dramatic effect on the way gamblers handle their bankroll. Far away from their responsibilities in the outside world, they abandon themselves to the fantasy of winning, letting go of their financial inhibitions and simultaneously losing track of the value of the coloured discs streaming effortlessly through their hands.

Although money is crucial in gambling, it is only the conduit for fantasy: a necessary but not sufficient condition for a game to go ahead. In itself it is worthless -- any value it has comes from its ability to prolong a game. This is why winning is better than losing -- not because winning money is an end in itself, but because having money allows you to play for longer. Money is only the dynamo of the game, and it's only important when it runs out.

So, on one level gamblers do play to win. But of course, most never do, simply because they don't stop when they are actually winning, instead repeating a cycle of seemingly goal-directed behaviour over and over again. Individuals who are supposedly 'addicted' live out this contradiction. Psychologists use the term 'chasing losses' to describe the seemingly doomed behavior of those who stubbornly carry on playing even when they're faced with spectacular defeat. But there's more to this so-called compulsion than meets the eye, since gamblers who are winning also act in the same way: even multi-million dollar lottery winners tend to start buying more tickets after they've won the jackpot! The fact is that both winning and losing are irrelevant: it's the play itself that matters. As the legendary high roller Nick the Greek put it, 'the next best thing to playing and winning is playing and losing. The main thing is to play'.

The Fantasy Shift

In gambling, the dream of winning is better than actually winning, because it means that the experience lasts for longer. Gamblers are forever chasing this fleeting sensation, which always exists slightly ahead of them, just out of reach. But the moment it is realised, it vanishes, and they have to start all over again, pouring their winnings straight into the next round. This is the frustrating and yet seductive predicament of all gamblers, caught up in a game that has to be constantly repeated, regardless of result.

The fantasy of gambling is embodied in what Schopenhauer calls the state of being and never becoming. It is, he says, not goals themselves but the idea of striving for them that satisfies us. The things we desire are most pleasurable when we don't have them: when they exist only as the elusive objects of dreams and fantasies. The bittersweet pleasure of anticipation is greater than the dull satisfaction of realisation; once the longed for object is attained, the focus shifts to something else and the process starts all over again. The magnetic power of fantasy comes from its projection into a future that, like the goal of Tantalus, is always just out of reach.

The worst thing that can happen to a gambler is that the game stops, because then the fantasy ends. And so it's sometimes almost possible to feel a glimmer of sympathy for newly rich lottery winners as they sit, slightly hesitant and awkward in their enormous houses, surrounded by unfamiliar possessions, uncertain of just what to do next, now that their dreams have become real. In the end, the reality of the Big Win is anomie. When dreams are actualised, reality rushes up and shatters the delicate projection of fantasy. Game over.

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Gerda Reith is a lecturer and writer, based at the University of Glasgow, U.K. She has written on the topics of gambling, drug addiction and consumerism, and her book, The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture won the 2000 Philip Abrams Prize for Sociology.

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