Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Difference Between a Church and a Casino

I spent last weekend in Reno, gambling with my buddy Bill. On the way back, we stopped in Sacramento for lunch with Clyde (co-creator of the Do No Harm website/movement). Clyde remarked that in reading my personal site, he'd wondered what the connection was between my interest in various "spiritual" traditions, and my video poker habit. It got me thinking once again about the dynamics of Religion and Gambling. I've long thought that the friction between these two realms comes not from their differences, but their similarities.

Back in 2001, I posted to the rec.gambling.poker newsgroup:

An ex-Mormon friend of mine ... noted that the two states that build the most garish "temples" (Nevada & Utah) happen to be right next to each other.
Religion & gambling are dependent on the fact that life is filled with unknowns ("When you die, where do you go?", "Will the board pair on the river?", etc, etc); since most of us aren't satisfied with not knowing, there's an attraction to such things. Just as movies etc put a frame around life in order to bring it down to a size we can grasp, churches & casinos put a "frame" around the unknown so we can approach it in our individual ways.
Generally, people approach the unknown with awe & reverence in church, or with playfulness in a casino, & often with desire in either location. At higher limits in the casino (or in low-limit religion), this distinction may blur...
It's my chosen belief that the Golden Rule operates in life as clearly as probability operates at the tables. But since there's no frame around our existence, the variance is monstrous, & the long term is longer than we can imagine.
Most people have a similar mind in a casino as in a church. They're ready to make sacrifices, in the hope that some unseen magic force (God or Luck) will ultimately grant them rewards that outweigh the costs. And they have an amazing ability to hold onto this hope, even when all logic and evidence contradict it. The old joke goes: the difference between a church and a casino is that when people pray in a casino, they really mean it.

As with religion, I approach gambling in a way that outwardly appears the same as the majority, but with a different intention. Sure, I'm affected by the roller-coaster of short-term luck, but my focus is on making the best decision in each situation, understanding that in the long-term, fluctuations even out, and you end up with precisely what you deserve.

I have faith that it works the same way for life-in-general: do good action and get happiness, do bad action and get suffering. This clear cause-and-effect can be glimpsed only occasionally, only from the widest perspective. Casino gambling, when done with discipline and mathematical understanding, makes it a little easier to see the ultimate justice of cause-and-effect play itself out. That's because, when compared with life, gambling has a simple and precise way of keeping score. Also, the "long-term," where ups-and-downs even out, requires months or years in gambling, as compared with infinite lifetimes in the real world.

Learning to play video poker with mathematical precision (which allows me to play at roughly even odds) isn't that difficult. Anyone of average intelligence could do it. I've found, though, that large numbers of casino-goers can't even grasp that one can apply critical thinking skills to gambling in a meaningful way. They can't or won't accept that we have some control over our gambling destiny, that there are alternatives to just praying for luck.

All of what I've said about gambling is perfectly analogous to my perspective on spiritual practice or life. As the alcoholics say, we need to have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can't control. If I can accept and make peace with the big questions of existence (that I don't know where I come from, where I'm going, why I'm here, or who I am), I can leave the mystery to take care of itself. I can direct all my attention and energy to the one thing that I can control, my true job: responding to this very moment with whatever clarity and compassion I can manage.

Different people do spiritual practices in ways that outwardly look the same. But there can be profound differences in intention. Are we, for instance, doing sitting meditation with the belief that some outside being or force will magically come to our aid? Or do we direct our effort and attention purely to how we keep our own thinking and behavior, moment to moment?

As I once put it in a dharma talk:
... the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."
In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.
In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.
Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.
There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"
"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."


gniz said...

I always assumed video poker was rigged pretty highly in favor of the casino, that it didnt really weigh out the poker odds in a fair way.
Am I wrong?
And even so, why not play live poker where you're odds are probably greater that the person you are competing against wont be playing "perfect" poker?


Stuart said...

gniz said...
I always assumed video poker was rigged pretty highly in favor of the casino

In Nevada, the law states that video poker machines must "deal" the cards randomly, just as if you were playing with a real deck of cards. Therefore, by knowing the pay-outs for all the different hands, you can calculate the expected long-term return of the machine.

(There are many many different kinds of video poker machines, defined by the pay-outs for the various hands, wild cards, or special rules like progressive jackpots. Most are impossible to play at an advantage, but some are relatively easy to "beat.")

In the past decade or so, 2 advances have made video poker beatable by the likes of me. First, there's now software that does all the number-crunching necessary to come up with the correct strategy for any video poker machine. Second, because of the internet, I can connect with few hundred other video poker geeks in the country, and we can share information about where the best machines are located.

The majority of video poker machines have payouts that make it impossible to play at an advantage. But for some machines, perfect play yields an advantage (especially when combined with various casino comps and promotions). The casino still makes their money on these machines, because the great majority of gamblers play them unskillfully.

why not play live poker

I've played lots of live poker in my day, but it's a completely different game. It's much easier to learn to play video poker well. When I go to a casino with friends or family, I couldn't sit with them in a live poker game, because as novices, they'd get creamed. But with video poker, we can next to each other, they can learn correct strategy much more easily, and whenever they have questions, we can discuss it. It's a whole different experience, since we're not playing "against" each other.

Live poker is like life: you have to constantly be thinking and trying to understand other people. Video poker is more like a vacation from real life. Once you get the strategy down cold, you just focus on the cards and let the world disappear.

Stuart said...

One more point about live poker vs video poker. Video poker, at the moment anyway, is the best way to earn casino "comps" like free rooms, meals, tournaments, and drawings.

In live poker, players play against each other, with the casino taking a few bucks out of each pot. The casino profit is small, so they give small comps to live poker players.

In video poker, the casino makes a big profit, since we play against the house, and most players are so unskillful that the house makes a big profit. Therefore, they're much more generous with comps to video poker players.

If the casino had the technology and brains to distinguish skillful VP players from the masses, they'd only comp the losers. Maybe this will happen soon, and my little hobby will be over. For now, skillful video poker players, who play at break-even or above, are like "fleas." We're a small irritant to the casino, but the we're such a tiny minority with such a small overall impact, that it hasn't been worth their while to root us out.

The comps, by the way, have significant non-material value. I enjoy sharing the casino comps with friends and family. They might feel awkward if I was personally picking up the tab for meals and rooms... but when the casino pays for them, everyone is happy.

So when I gamble, I don't shoot for the best money-making opportunities. I'll choose the opportunities that let me amass the most free meals, etc, while playing at a long-term expectation of break-even or close to it.

Doug said...

Your nerd-aura is glowing, Stu. =D Number crunching is a passion of mine as well.

I don't gamble though, never developed a taste for it,and I've watched a couple friends screw up pretty big because of their habits: either losing lots of money before giving up, or losing lots of money and then doing stupid things because of the loss (like trying to rob the casino... oi...)

But realistically, every decision we make is a gamble on some level, as the don Juan story illustrates. Technically I do gamble because I have savings invested in the stock market. I could get stung if today's doomsayer-analysts turn out to be right and world comes to a (fiscal) end. But being educated about investing and playing the odds with an informed strategy means that in the long run, chances are I'll come out on top. No free hotel rooms though. ;-)

- Doug

Stuart said...

Doug said...
Your nerd-aura is glowing, Stu. =D

My brother, a prof at MIT who's involved with cutting-edge technology, tries to get his students to wear the "nerd" label proudly, to consider it a good and useful thing to be passionate about and get enjoyment from math and logic. I don't know how successful he is in this crusade... but meanwhile, I yam what I yam.

Technically I do gamble because I have savings invested in the stock market.

I've been known to tell people that they're technically gamblers if they get out of bed in the morning... and also if they stay in bed.

But here's a serious point. There are some people who never invest in stocks, thinking that if they keep their retirement funds in say a money market, they're not gambling. To my way of thinking, there are always risks to whatever choice you make. It's helpful to understand that nothing is risk-free; we can therefore make more intelligent decisions if we think in terms of managing risk, rather than avoiding it.

This is somehow connected to life in general, no? If we try to get anything that's substantial and permanent in life, we'll always be frustrated. When we realize there's no possibility of any solid foundation in this world... then we can refrain from that merry-go-round, and attend 100% to each moment in this changing, changing world.

Doug said...

I proudly were the nerd title. Nerds in denial are some of the unhappiest folks around. Better to embrace what you are (in the relative sense, of course.) The 'nerd-aura' comment was meant as the highest of compliments.


- Doug

gniz said...

Hey Stuart,

I'm somewhat a gambler myself and would love to know of any places/web sites you can point me for good basic video poker strategy as well as some advantageous machines.

I would play at Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun (in Connecticut) and maybe a little at Turningstone Casino in NY.

Any info would be much appreciated!


Anonymous said...

"There are some people who never invest in stocks, thinking that if they keep their retirement funds in say a money market, they're not gambling. To my way of thinking, there are always risks to whatever choice you make."

There's always an element of risk, but some investments are much riskier than others. E.g., an forex account (FX is a negative sum game) is much riskier than a stock account (large possible positive sum game) which is riskier than a bank CD (positive sum game, not counting the sucker who the bank loaned your money to), which is in my mind riskier than precious metals (which have been "precious" for thousands of years, beats the dollar's 50-year-stint as the reserve currency).

Speaking of money market accounts, GMAC recently had to break the buck on theirs, which does show that they do have risks.

Stuart said...

Anony wrote...
Speaking of money market accounts, GMAC recently had to break the buck on theirs, which does show that they do have risks.

In addition... even if the amount of dollars in your Money Market account never goes down, the value of those dollars is subject to extreme risk. It's possible that over a period of years, keeping money in such an account will result in a substantial loss of purchasing power.

One could reasonably argue that for a period of say a few decades, investing in a money market account carries a much higher risk of losing purchasing power, compared to investing in stocks. It's difficult or impossible to calculate such risk (past performance is no guarantee yada yada)... but it illustrates that risk can't be avoided.

When it comes keeping yourself safe from risk, you can't go forward, and you can't stand still; you can't hold on, and you can't let go.

Stuart said...

gniz said...
would love to know of any places/web sites you can point me for good basic video poker strategy

Please see my page


under the heading Gambling/Video Poker for some links that might help. If you check out those links, you should be able to find strategies that are either free, or stuff like laminated strategy cards that you can purchase for 5 or 10 bucks. or software that you can purchase for ~$30 to generate strategies from your own computer.

To discuss strategies, or to get info on where favorable machines are, I use two sources. One is the Yahoo Group


and its associated database of VP info across the country at


The other source is


which requires an yearly paid subscription.

There's good VP in Reno, off-strip in Vegas, in Mississippi "riverboats," and Atlantic City. There are likely opportunities in other places that I haven't looked into.

A brief check of the vpFree database reveals no good video poker at Mohegan Sun, but possibly a few playable ones at Foxwoods. Atlantic City has many many opportunities to play at a 99.5% return, plus comps and cash promos.

The info on the net is great, and folks on the Yahoo group are great about sharing up-to-date discoveries if you ask. The casinos change their inventory all the time, so as in life, any method to keep up with the changes is far from perfect.

gniz said...

Stuart, many thanks for the info. Good to know.


Stephen C. Rose said...

Interesting to one deep into church and deep into gambling. I have been there and done that in many ways.

I do not look at video poker played well as what I think of when I think of casino gambling. Nor do I really look at poker is gambling. I gave up on poker ages ago when I went to a day game on the strip and was chagrined to see that everyone at the table knew what I had and that I was just a mark to them. Video poker bores me but Ihave seen some of the fokl who have hit the royals -- more than once -- and learned all the comp ropes and so forth.

For me gambling is as much a mystery as the church is. I do not place much ultimate "faith" in churches or casinos. Not do I see either as particularly framing or making more tolerable uncertainty. To me uncertainty is a value. It is an aspect of what I call nonidolatry. To this uncertainty I respond with faith -- based on experience. This faith sees little in church or casino and a lot in the deeper events of personal and social existence -- the death of a friend, the phenomena of the current elections, the course of life itself on multiple levels.

I have had great fascination with both church and casino. Much is simply the chance to observe things, to experience things. The church in the broadest sense far outstrips casinos as a matrix within which relationships can be formed, intentions born, and so forth. Casinos tend to get romanticized and tationalized. On a good day they have their good points. At other times they are just the pits.

I would not trade my casino existence which has been for almost half my life, sometimes considerable, mostly ambient. As Says, the things I could tell you!

As usual I am delighted to find a place where I can share a bit and find resonance in the subjects that get explored.