Why You Should Gamble Like a Stoic and How to Do It
Published on July 17, 2018
Stoicism was a popular line of philosophical thinking (and action) in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Much stoic thinking originated from thinkers like Zeno, Socrates, Heraclitus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism focuses on morality, and a stoic鈥檚 goal is to seek happiness through living a good (virtuous) life.
A stoic鈥檚 goal is to accept the present as it is, not as you wish it were. Your goal is to free yourself from pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. Instead, as a stoic, you鈥檒l find happiness by being a good person.
I should point out that you don鈥檛 have to be an ascetic to be a stoic, nor do you have to deny yourself pleasure. Wealth and pleasure are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. Yes, you can gamble as a stoic. The trick is to detach emotionally from the outcomes鈥攁t least somewhat.
Stoicism is enjoying a revival in popularity lately. I thought it would be fun to look at how a gambler might be happier if he employed some stoic philosophy and attitudes toward his hobby.
The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a short manual to stoic philosophy and living the good life. The first line is possibly one of the most important premises in stoicism.
How can this make you a better gambler?
Suppose you鈥檙e a poker player, and you put a bunch of money into the pot with pocket aces pre-flop in your Texas hold鈥檈m game. You get called by a guy with 7-8 suited, and he wins the pot with a flush.
You get mad, and you decide that since other players are winning pots with weaker hands than yours, you鈥檙e going to start betting and raising indiscriminately.
This is called 鈥済oing on tilt.鈥?/p>
Most poker writers will be happy to explain to you the foolishness of going on tilt. You鈥檙e having an emotional reaction to something that鈥檚 out of your control. You should derive your sense of satisfaction from what鈥檚 in your control.
In this case, you raised preflop with pocket aces. That鈥檚 the correct move to make, even if you lost a pot by making that move. Rational people understand that they鈥檒l occasionally lose in that situation.
In fact, you鈥檒l probably lose in that situation multiple times in a row at some point in your poker career.
It doesn鈥檛 matter.
The emotional player who focuses on what鈥檚 out of his control鈥攖he cards that fall subsequent to his raise鈥攍oses in the long run because he makes irrational decisions.
The stoic player who maintains his calm and derives his satisfaction from making the right decision regardless of the outcome wins in the long run. Rational, positive-expectation decisions result in long-term profits.
I used to play poker with a guy whose nickname was 鈥淟obster.鈥?I don鈥檛 even remember his real name anymore. He used to say, 鈥淒BSRO.鈥?/p>
That stands for 鈥渄on鈥檛 be so results-oriented.鈥?/p>
He鈥檚 talking about orienting yourself around making correct decisions instead of orienting yourself around the results of those decisions.
This same line of thought can be used to make better decisions in any gambling game that requires any degree of skill. It even applies to those games where the only skill is in choosing the bet with the lowest house edge.
In blackjack, the stoic would use basic strategy and possibly count cards. He would never be discouraged after a losing session. His only regret would be if he had made incorrect decisions.
In video poker, the stoic would choose the game with the best pay table and play with as close to optimal strategy as humanly possible. Win or lose, he鈥檇 feel good about making correct decisions repeatedly.
A stoic will find a European roulette game to play instead of an American roulette wheel. The house edge for European roulette is only 2.70% compared to 5.26%. He would take pleasure from choosing the right version of the game even if he lost money playing it.
A stoic will stick with the pass line or don鈥檛 pass bets at the craps table. He鈥檒l also take the maximum odds bet when it becomes available. Win or lose, he鈥檒l be happy that he didn鈥檛 bet on any of the sucker bets on the table鈥攐f which there are many.
A stoic gambler is the living embodiment of the serenity prayer in a casino setting.
The stoics believed that the only real route to happiness was to develop virtue and take pleasure in that. To that end, they created a taxonomy of virtue, categorized into 4 main virtues.
They subdivided these virtues into categories, too.
Per the stoics, wisdom consists of the following
It鈥檚 easy to see how these virtues of wisdom apply to your gambling hobby. A gambler with good sense doesn鈥檛 wager money he can鈥檛 afford to lose. A gambler who can make good calculation sticks with the games which offer the best odds. Discretion also involves choosing the right games for the right reasons.
A resourceful gambler can find a stake for a game if that鈥檚 what he needs to do to make a living.
Courage consists of the following traits and activities.
It鈥檚 hard NOT to see the immediate applications to successful gambling. If you鈥檝e ever played in a poker tournament that lasted 8 hours or more, you鈥檝e seen how endurance is necessary to be a winner. It鈥檚 also hard to imagine a poker player who wins if he isn鈥檛 confident in his abilities.
High-mindedness is less obvious, but isn鈥檛 it high-minded to refrain from giving advice at the blackjack or poker table? Giving your opponents credit for being intelligent and rational is an important aspect of gambling etiquette.
When you鈥檙e focused on what you can control in gambling as opposed to what you can鈥檛, it gets a lot easier to be cheerful. After all, why would it matter if you鈥檝e hit a streak of bad luck in the short run?
You know that if you continue making the correct decisions, the worm will eventually turn your way.
Industriousness means being willing to work hard. I know professional online poker players who work harder than any entrepreneur I鈥檝e ever met. Gambling might be play for some people, but it鈥檚 work for professionals. Laziness has no place in gambling success.
Justice might be a virtue that doesn鈥檛 seem to apply to gambling, but let鈥檚 see what makes up 鈥渏ustice鈥?to the stoic gambler.
This one鈥檚 tricky. I think it鈥檚 hard to be pious when you鈥檙e gambling, so let鈥檚 skip that one.
Honesty is a stoic virtue that applies to gambling. After all, who wants to gamble with a cheater? In fact, cheat at some of the table games in Las Vegas, and you could spend some time behind bars. It鈥檚 a felony there.
On the other hand, honesty isn鈥檛 the default setting for successful poker players. Deception is a major part of poker strategy. But since the other players presumably understand that you鈥檒l sometimes try to misrepresent your hand, it鈥檚 not really dishonest in the way some people might think.
Fair dealing might simply mean tipping your dealer and the cocktail waitresses.
Temperance might easily be translated to 鈥渕oderation.鈥?Here are the qualities that make up this virtue.
Everyone knows that self-discipline matters when it comes to gambling. If you don鈥檛 have the self-discipline to only gamble with money you can afford to lose, you should stay out of the casino.
If you don鈥檛 have the self-discipline to fold bad hands in a poker game, don鈥檛 sit down at the card table. Self-control is roughly synonymous with self-discipline.
Seemliness and modesty might seem less relevant, but consider what the opposites of those are. Braggarts and show-offs are no fun to gamble with. You鈥檝e probably seen them in the casino. They鈥檙e not pretty, are they?
Some people might think that temperance would encourage you to refrain from gambling altogether. This might be true for some people, especially people with demonstrated impulse control problems. Most addicts and alcoholics probably should avoid gambling, too.
But other people can enjoy gambling in moderation. That鈥檚 a personal decision. My job is to educate you in the hopes of making you a more effective gambler. It鈥檚 your job to decide if gambling is something you want to engage in
The stoics didn鈥檛 just lay out these virtues and say, 鈥淗ey, go be virtuous, and here鈥檚 what we mean by virtue.鈥?/p>
They had specific spiritual exercises to help them develop these virtues. Many of these stoic exercises have obvious applications for the gambler.
One of the easiest spiritual practices is to habitually question your impressions of events. Your initial impression of something is often mistaken, so it鈥檚 good to get into the habit of questioning it.
For example, if you see someone winning at a casino game you鈥檝e never played before, it might be tempting to think it鈥檚 easy money.
On closer examination, though, you鈥檒l usually find that new casino games have a higher house edge than the classics. This isn鈥檛 true about all of them, but it鈥檚 easy to get fooled.
An even easier way to get fooled is to read the advertising copy on some of these websites selling bogus systems for winning at casino games. If someone really knew the secret to winning at slot machines, he wouldn鈥檛 share it on the internet for $79. He鈥檇 keep the information quiet so that he could continue to use it to make real money.
But it鈥檚 easy to fall for such lines of bull when you just stick with your first impressions.
Another stoic exercise is to meditate on the ephemeral nature of everything. Nothing lasts forever. This includes your wife and kids. By contemplating that eventuality, you鈥檒l make better decisions about how you spend time with them. You鈥檒l have fewer regrets when you do lose them.
It鈥檚 also helpful to realize that the fortune you win today could be gone tomorrow. You might think it won鈥檛 happen to you, but a majority of lottery winners find themselves broke within a year or 2 of winning the lottery.
How much better off would you be if you鈥檇 prepared for that eventuality emotionally?
You might have even been able to take some steps to prevent or mitigate that eventuality.
I鈥檝e mentioned before that I have a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous who has over 40 years of sobriety. One of the things he does is pray constantly.
You might not believe in God, but if you take a stoic attitude, you鈥檒l realize that very little outside of yourself is something you can control. Accepting this and reminding yourself that things will work out 鈥渇ate permitting鈥?can help you maintain some serenity during the inevitable losing streaks that gamblers face.
Those are just some samples of stoic spiritual exercises that might apply to a gambler.
Stoicism is trendy right now, but it鈥檚 an ancient philosophy鈥攁lmost as old as Christianity. This source of ancient wisdom can do much to inform your gambling decisions and habits.
If you want to learn more about stoicism, some readable newer books are available that might be of interest. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday is especially readable since it breaks things down into daily chunks of bite-sized wisdom.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine is also readable, useful, and entertaining.
Even if you don鈥檛 pursue any additional study of stoicism itself, I hope you鈥檝e come away from this blog post with something practical you can use next time you place a bet.