3 heads

3 heads
The Last Great Prizefight: Jack Johnson, Tex Rickard, Jim Jeffries

Friday, July 1, 2011


I gamble on sports in 3 distinct ways: grind bets, which are routine bets, essentially fixed amounts based on a percentage of bankroll, placed on team sports I follow; fun bets, small wagers for, you know, fun; and occasional big bets, almost always on boxing, which I only make a) when I'm feeling flush b) I really want to have some excitement watching a big fight like this weekend's David Haye versus Wladimir Klitschko fight and c) I have a strong opinion.

Making grind bets week in and week out barely qualifies as gambling; it's more like investing. It can be tiresome and time consuming; and when summer arrives, it's nice to take a break.  But, I really love to make big bets on boxing. However, conditions a,b and c don't converge often enough for my taste. Heck, the big fight schedule can be pretty sparse.

None of these betting styles would classify as pathological, but maybe the emotion that those big boxing bets generate gives me insight into the rush that true pathological gamblers feel when they're gambling: I've watched fights where my heart was pounding so hard and so fast that I thought I might keel over. And I've also been so excited that I've jumped up and down on my living room couch. (I'm less concerned about the well-being of the couch.) Winning these bets puts a song in your heat and a spring in your step; losing these bets incite reproachful gremlins to stomp around inside your head, cursing your stupidity. And those f*&kers won't shut up.

It turns out this gives me no insight into gambling pathology. That's the gist of this blog by Dirk Hansen via thebrowser.com which analyses the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
Just as there are divisions between alcoholic drinking, heavy drinking, and social drinking, there are similar states we can call pathological gambling, excessive gambling, and social gambling. On the problematic end of the scale, pathological or problem gambling has proven to be “a more complex and unstable disorder than originally and traditionally thought.” 
But what really struck me was this:
In the traditional view, pathological gambling was a matter of exposure to the proper stimuli—it could happen to anyone. But as more and more gambling outlets and opportunities bloomed in Nevada, on reservations and riverboats, and in convenience stores, that view began to fall out of favor, because a funny thing happened. According to Shaffer and Martin, the prevalence of pathological gambling has remained stable over the past 35 years, even as opportunities to gamble have exploded. The lifetime prevalence rate of pathological gambling in the U.S. in the mid-1970s was 0.7%, say the authors, and by 2005, U.S. lifetime rates had actually fallen slightly, to 0.6% or less. Where was the concomitant explosion in the number of pathological gamblers? 
I've run across some pathetic situations in the casino business: people in tears with no money to get home; a regular who mortgaged his parents' house twice and gambled it all all away and still came back to the casino every week. Perhaps he had elevated levels of dopamine.
But recently, fascinating evidence of neurobiological influences on gambling arose when Parkinson’s’ patients on strong dopamine agonist treatments, with no history of gambling whatsoever, began behaving for all the world like pathological gamblers
Some theories assert that dopamine distorts people's ability to understand odds. People with high levels of dopamine think they are going to win. That's a real problem when you're gambling. It's not just the thrill that's sending these gamblers to financial ruin. These people keep playing and playing and playing because they think they will eventually win. It's the negative power of positive thinking. Perhaps I'm reading between the lines, but it seems that what this study is saying is that my weekly grind bets are more akin to gambling pathology than those hugely exciting bets that I only make once in a rare while. Hmmm?

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