Superstition: The Gambler’s Best Friend?

Gamblers are, by and large, a superstitious bunch.

According to the Oxford English dictionary, superstition is defined as “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”

We all have our little rituals, talismans and mantras that we believe bring us closer to a big pay-out; drawing on a bit of otherworldly energy to notch the ball into the next pocket, to will an ace to the top of the deck.

Crossed Fingers

Touch your Nose, Touch your Toes

However, superstition is more than faith in supernatural aid. It involves a false connection between incident and outcome. Winning at a casino game once generally leads us to assume that further wins will be forthcoming. We understand this at Live Casino; we too have our favourite slots, ‘loose wheels’ and lucky tables.

However, we’re also cynical sceptics at heart. We know about the house edge and we accept that the casino, ultimately, always wins. We also recognise that the universe cannot be shaken by a ‘special’ poker chip, crossed fingers or earnest promises to Lady Luck.

None of this diminishes our enjoyment of gambling, nor does it stop us from holding onto our superstitions. We know we’re kidding ourselves, but we still like to believe that we have a special advantage.

Humans aren’t alone in our superstitious tendencies. In 1930, B.F. Skinner developed the ‘operant conditioning chamber,’ commonly referred to as the Skinner Box, to prove that animals can also be superstitious.

Skinner Box

Skinner tested a variety of animals (pigeons, rats and primates) in the sound-proof chamber to see how their behaviour would alter in response to certain stimuli. Subjects would be rewarded with food for performing a ‘correct’ action, such as pressing a flashing button.

However, the Skinner Box would deliberately ‘cheat,’ and occasionally deny the subject their reward for performing the correct action. Naturally, the poor critters kept on performing the action regardless.

Amazingly, they would also perform behaviours completely unrelated to the conditions of the test. For instance, if a pigeon looked over its shoulder before pecking his button and receiving his reward, he would always look over his shoulder before hitting the button.

If you think about it, it’s hardly a far cry from rubbing your coin on the outside of the slot machine, or developing roulette ‘strategies’ out of the mistaken belief that a streak of wins (or losses) will in any way affect your odds of further wins (gambler’s fallacy).

“Very Superstitious! Writing’s on the Wall”

Superstitious behaviour in most organisms stems from the fact that we are all programmed to see patterns in random data: this is what allows us to make sense of the world, to survive and prosper.

Stevie Wonder

For humans, it goes a little deeper; the fact is we like to be fooled. This is what gives magicians a living: we desperately want to believe that forces larger than us are at play, manning the scales of fortune and affecting our destinies.

Sadly, as James Randi went out of his way to prove, magicians are all essentially illusionists with daft beards. Magic is just a combination of showmanship and sleight of hand.

James Randi

You could say that casinos are actually great big magicians, suspending our rational minds under the illusion of an even playing field, exploiting our naturally superstitious nature to rake in our hard-earned cash.

Feelin’ Lucky, Punk?

So, is superstition daft? Hell yes. Does knowing this make gambling less fun or gamblers less superstitious? Hell no. So are we all stupid? Hell…kind of.

The truth is that gambling riffs off the primal drive to get ahead in the world by exploiting apparent ‘advantages,’ even if they’re completely fabricated. Yes, it’s self-delusion, but the puppet show is no less enjoyable for seeing the strings.

Nobody wants to feel the house edge hanging over them when they play; good gamblers dare to hope. This is what keeps us coming back, and superstition makes gambling just that bit more engaging by keeping us hoping in spite of the odds.

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