Funhouse Psychotherapy With Poker Chips

Walter Kirn in Good:

ScreenHunter_1284 Aug. 02 19.45The man beside me at the blackjack table, a tipsy, middle-aged salesman, was on a winning streak. Again and again, over half an hour of play, he’d drawn the cards he’d needed to beat the dealer, amassing stacks of $100 chips that came, by my count, to more than $6,000. Fortune was smiling on him, but not on me—I was down $200. It was hard not to feel like I was doing something wrong, even though I was playing by the book, employing what blackjack manuals call “perfect strategy.” As the salesman’s streak continued, my sense of self-pity deepened to the point that I began to place irrational bets, playing wild hunches that didn’t pan out and left me even further in the hole. Experience told me that it was time to stop, and so I did, fighting a voice that told me to play on, that my rotten luck was bound to change. An hour later, I passed by the table and saw the salesman sitting with his head down, his winnings gone. He’d listened to another voice, apparently: One that told him his marvelous luck would carry on.

Since taking up gambling in my early 30s, I’ve learned that the casino is a harsh classroom. In a thousand ways, it has taught me two main lessons: that the odds are the odds, and they will always ultimately prevail; and that the mind (and particularly the ego) is full of trickery. These tricks take myriad forms, but they share a common theme: The odds apply chiefly to others. You are special.

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