I thought it would be fun to write a series of blog posts defining the basic terms involved in gambling. After all, gambling is what this site is all about, so why not get down to the most fundamental basics.
This post defines what gambling is and explains how gambling works. It includes a close look at several of the most popular activities people gamble on—card games, dice games, lotteries, and sports.
I’ve also included some observations about how religion and philosophers look at gambling, how the governments regulate it (via gambling laws), and why and how addictive the act of betting can become.
The post begins with some definitions—not only of the word “gambling,” but also of several related words and expressions which can add nuance to your understanding of this activity that’s fundamental to our nature as human beings.
Definitions of Gambling Terms and Expressions
I’ll start by offering a definition of the word “gamble.” This word just means to risk money in the hopes of winning money on an event where the outcome isn’t certain.
And when I say “money,” it doesn’t necessarily have to be cash or coins specifically. It could mean anything of value. In fact, if you’re gambling in a casino, you’re rarely gambling cash. You almost always convert your cash to chips before placing any bets—those chips are “something of value.”
And I’ve never met a gambler who’s always right yet.)
“Action” refers to the amount of money that you’re gambling. It also refers to the state of having something at risk. In other words, if you bet $50 per hand on 100 hands of blackjack, you’ve put $5000 into action, regardless of how much you’ve won or lost. If you’re watching a football game and have a bet riding on who’s going to win, you’re “in action.”
A “bet” refers to an amount that you’re risking on some uncertain outcome. A synonym for bet is “wager.” You can use either term as a verb or as a noun, by the way.
As a noun, you’re talking about a “bet” or “wager” as an amount of money riding on something.
As a verb, either term means to put money into action on something.
Gambling and Morality – Is Gambling a Sin?
Opinions on whether gambling is “moral” vary from religion to religion and from philosophy to philosophy. I think what you do with your money is up to you, so you get to decide for yourself whether gambling is moral or whether gambling is a sin.
Others have different opinions.
The Bible, for example, doesn’t address gambling specifically, but it does address peripheral subjects. You could suppose from the stance on those issues that gambling is a sin.
For example, greed is singled out in The Bible as sinful. When you’re gambling, you’re engaged in greed in an active way. You’re hoping to win something that belongs to someone else, after all, which is the very definition of coveting something.
Most philosophers don’t consider The Bible the final word on morality.
Most philosophers would contend that as long as you’re not hurting someone, you’re not doing anything immoral. Cheating at gambling would be immoral, for sure, but just gambling by itself isn’t immoral.
I’ve seen the argument that gambling is immoral because the money you lose gambling could be put to better use. You could feed and house the homeless with it, for example.
I don’t think that argument holds water. If you use that same logic, going to a movie or paying for Netflix is also immoral, because that money would better be spent on charity. I don’t think most people have that limited a view on what a moral use of their money is.
Is gambling a sin?
Maybe, but I think you’re jumping through some hoops to get to that conclusion.
Is gambling immoral?
I don’t think so, unless you’re cheating. Gambling is just another form of entertainment, and entertainment—in and of itself—isn’t immoral.
One of the oldest and most popular ways to gamble is to play card games. Blackjack and poker are probably the first games to come to mind, but the number of gambling games you can play with a deck of cards is practically infinite.
Most gambling card games are played with a standard deck of cards. That’s a deck with 52 cards, which are divided into 13 ranks and 4 different suits. These are the cards you play blackjack and poker with, and almost every American is familiar with such a deck.
In fact, decks of cards like these are popular throughout Western culture.
Most people don’t think of those kinds of games when they think of gambling with cards, but you could certainly place bets on them. Magic the Gathering is often played in tournament format, and there are often cash prizes for such events.
This makes the game more similar to poker than you might think.
In fact, many poker players started playing cards with Magic and later made the switch to poker.
Dice games might be as old as card games, or they might be even older. Primitive forms of dice included rolling the knuckles of sheep and betting on which side came up. That’s why people still talk about playing craps as “rolling the bones.”
Craps is the most popular form of gambling on dice out there, but dice games are like card games. They’re not just limited to one form. Sic bo is another example of a dice game you can gamble on, but it has more of an Asian theme.
The betting in sic bo resembles the betting in roulette more than it does craps, too.
You could gamble on games like Yahtzee if you wanted to. I used to hang out at a bar in Dallas where we played a dice game called Blitz. We always had money riding on that game.
I did some research on that game recently, and it seems as if it’s more commonly called “Shut the Box.” The game uses a box with the numbers 1 through 9 on a hinge where you can flip them up and down as they’ve been achieved.
Board games like backgammon use dice, too, and many people like to gamble on backgammon, too.
Have you ever heard the expression “casting lots?”
It’s an old form of fortune-telling that relies on randomly selecting numbers. It’s also the expression that gave us the word “lottery.”
Most people in the United States think of lotteries as a government-run form of gambling, which is what it consists of today.
But it wasn’t always so.
If you’ve heard the expression “running numbers” in an old gangster or crime movie, then you’ve heard about the way lotteries used to be conducted in the United States—privately.
When local gangsters used to run numbers, they would sell you a pick for $1 or $2. You’d choose a 3-digit number, and the next morning, you might use the last 3 digits of the S&P 500 to see if you’d won. The payoffs would be made by numbers-runners.
Now, the lottery is legal and conducted by the states in most of the USA. This has eliminated the need for people to run a private lottery.
Keno is a form of the lottery, too, but it’s run by a casino instead of by an individual or the state.
Lotteries often offer some of the worst odds in gambling, but they also offers some of the largest prize amounts. People seem to love the lottery.
Theoretically, you could consider a roulette wheel a gambling machine, as it IS a simple machine.
But that’s not what people are talking about when they talk about gambling machines.
Now, people are talking about slot machines and video poker games when they talk about gambling machines.
Slot machines have been around for about 100 years. These are the games with the spinning reels and a payline on the front of the machine. If you get matching symbols along the payline, you win a prize amount. These used to be entirely mechanical, and they housed huge metal reels that were operated by springs and gears.
In recent decades, these mechanical parts have been replaced with computer programs and electronics. Most modern slot machines are more like video games than anything else.
The computer program that drives the results for these newer slot machine games is called a “random number generator,” or “RNG.”
That’s just a computer program that thinks of numbers—thousands of them per second.
When you hit the “spin” button on a modern slot machine game, the computer stops on whatever number it was just thinking of. That number corresponds to a combination of symbols on the game.
Video poker machines can almost be considered a specialized kind of slot machine where the probabilities are determined by the math behind a deck of 52 cards. The combinations are based on poker hands.
The odds on video poker machines are light years better than the odds on slot machines.
Gambling on Sports
Betting on sporting events is one of the most popular kinds of gambling throughout the world. In the United States, betting on sports has been illegal almost everywhere for decades, although that’s in the process of changing.
Many people just place a straight-up wager with one of their buddies on the outcome of a football or baseball game.
But most serious sports bettors use a bookmaker—an individual or company which specializes in taking people’s action on sporting events. In the United States, these companies work just outside the law and are called “bookies.”
In Las Vegas, you can gamble on sports with the sportsbooks in the casino. In other countries, especially in Europe, bookmaking is a legitimate regulated business. Anyone can have an account with such a company provided they have the money to risk and are legally old enough to risk it.
Some bookmakers charge more or less vig, though—you might have a $120 to $100 ratio at one book, and a $105 to $100 ratio at another book.
That amount can change based on the sporting event, too, or the book might be running a special promotion where they offer a discounted vig. You’re not required to wager that amount, either—it’s the ratio that matters. You could bet $55 to win $50, or $22 to win $20, etc.
Investing versus Gambling
Some people equate gambling with investing and/or trading in the stock market or in real estate. The activities have similarities, especially when you consider your approach.
Someone like Warren Buffett, who invests in the stock market in a businesslike fashion and who wants to make sure that his investments have a good probability of showing a profit, are more like card counters in blackjack than any other kind of gambler.
Your buddy Joe who claims to average $1400 a week in earnings from trading stocks day in and out, are really just gamblers and speculators. They’re not really investors.
Both activities have an element of chance, although investing in the stock market has less chance involved than some people think.
Both activities involve risking something of value in the hopes of gaining something of value.
For one thing, investment markets, like the stock market and the real estate market, are regulated by a completely different set of entities than gambling businesses are.
And most states have laws regulating gambling closely, even making it completely illegal in many areas.
But no state I know of has a law against day trading or investing in the stock market.
The main difference seems to be that investing has to do with legitimate business activities, while gambling is more concerned with games of chance.
Is Gambling Legal?
Gambling laws vary based on jurisdiction. In the United States, for example, few federal laws address gambling in any way. The Wire Act does make it illegal to bet on sports over the phone or the internet, but it doesn’t really address casino games or poker games.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) doesn’t actually outlaw gambling; it just makes it a federal crime to facilitate funds transfers for the purposes of illegal gambling.
These laws often also distinguish between types of gambling. Some states might be really strict about slot machine ownership, for example, but hosting a home poker game might not be a big deal in that same state.
Some states have specific laws outlawing internet gambling and making it a felony (like Washington).
And that’s just a perspective on “is gambling legal” from an American perspective. Other countries have entirely different perspectives and legal patchworks related to gambling.
For example, in the United States, sports betting is illegal almost everywhere. That’s changing, but that’s the landscape here now.
In Europe, on the other hand, sports betting is legal and regulated almost everywhere. There’s a legal sportsbook on practically every street corner.
Is gambling legal?
It depends on where you live.
It also depends on what kind of gambling you’re talking about.
Problem Gambling and Gambling Addiction
You could consider problem gambling or gambling addiction to be characterized by one thing:
What does “excessive” mean?
It just means that you’re doing too much of something. An alcoholic might be someone who drinks excessively. A drug addict does an excessive amount of drugs. A compulsive overeater eats too much.
No matter what the activity is, if you do too much of it, you’ll wind up suffering as a result.
How do you know if you’re a problem gambler?
You have lots of options to get help and support if you have a gambling problem. A lot of people think their only option is a 12-step program, but you can get help from individual counselors and other mental health professionals.
Some people think that because it doesn’t involve ingesting chemicals, gambling can’t be an addiction.
If you feel that way, spend some time reading about how the brain works, especially how the brain works when it comes to gambling. You’ll probably be surprised at the scientific research into how the chemicals in your brain respond to gambling.
Life is too short to ruin it with a gambling problem. If you think gambling is a problem, try to get some help as soon as you can.
What is gambling?
It’s a form of entertainment where you risk money on something with an uncertain outcome in the hopes of winning money. You don’t necessarily have to risk money, either—it can be anything of value.
One of my mentors is a poker player who insists that gambling is intrinsic to our nature as human. Everything we do involves risk and reward, and everything we do involves uncertain outcomes, too.
What are your experiences with gambling so far in your life?