by Felicia Campbell, The Futurist, 1976.

[Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved]

Dr. Campbell is an associate professor in the English Department at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. She is now completing a book on the psychology of gambling and is also chairing the Governor's Commission on the Status of People.

In our highly technical society where machine-tooled perfection is an ideal, the gambler has acquired a bad press. He is frequently viewed as an erratic, unstable, and irresponsible sort, driven by unknown forces to take foolish and unnecessary chances. The results of this risk-taking may be financially and psychologically dangerous to the gambler, as well as to those whose lives interact with his.

But gambling is a fundamental human activity, which can sere a valuable function for both the individual and society. In the future, the positive aspects of gambling may be increasingly recognized; society may revise its view of the gambler and learn to use the gambling experience as effective therapy. Through gambling, many individuals can become more actively involved in life. Others can obtain needed psychological release from tension and drudgery.

Why has gambling earned the disapproval of society? A partial answer lies in our values. For years we have been taught that happiness lies in riding the consumer merry-go-round, hoping to catch the brass ring of contentment. Accepted goals were to be realistic and attainable-- a spouse, a home in the suburbs, and 2.2 children. So ran the middle class ideal, the "American Dream."

Persons who did not fit this pattern were viewed as either not trying hard enough or somehow "mentally ill." Those who found adjustment too difficult came to rely on pills to speed them up or slow them down to fit the pace required for success.

We seemed to be redesigning the human being to fit the societal model without knowing what compromises the fully-functioning individual. In many ways, we were designing under a false set of assumptions.

An underpinning of our value system was resistance to change. If the system perpetuated itself, we thought, survival would be assured. Even in planning for the future, we too often looked for ways to augment the status quo or to simply extend desirable features of our present situation into the future.

The behavior of the gambler is not at all congruent with these established patterns. His goals seem unrealistic; he "bucks the odds" and finds excitement in doing so. He (or she) is frequently willing to forsake secure monetary practices for a chance at the big take.

The gambler steps beyond established bounds and creates a new frame of reference. He welcomes and often thrives on change. In the toss of the dice, he may move from rags to riches, in a way antithetical to traditional methods of saving money, making sound investments, or benefiting from occupational advancement.

Gambling Is Ubiquitous

The gambler is considered to be a breed apart, yet in a sense, w are all gamblers. The man who plays the stock market or speculates on real estate values is not ostracized by society, yet he shares a communal bond with the casino gambler and the daily lottery player.

We all enjoy the thrill of risk-taking. We decide not to carry an umbrella, "betting" that it will not rain, and feel vindicated when it doesn't. We exceed the speed limit, "taking the chance" that a patrolman will not be lurking in wait on the highway. We overextend ourselves financially in the expectation that a raise will be forthcoming.

Women who have been warned against having children still become pregnant, hoping they will deliver safely. People with a family history of cancer continue to smoke-- taking the chance that it will not affect their health. Divorce is rampant, yet young couples still marry, "betting" that marriage will work out for them.

We all take chances; we all gamble to some extent. Yet it is the person who bets in the formal sense who is criticized. His actions are termed masochistic, sexually sublimative, and aberrant-- harsh descriptions for behavior that has been ubiquitous in human history and that has often served people well.

The gambling impulse is part of what has been called "the adventurer within us"-- that part of ourselves which lusts for change, the wooing of all the unknown, chance, danger, all that is new. The gambling impulse sends us both to the gaming tables and to the moon, to the laboratory and to the numbers man. It is part of what makes us human.

Positive Aspects of Gambling

Contrary to popular belief, I have found gambling to be largely beneficial to the gambler, increasing rather than decreasing his efficiency. Gambling stimulates, offers hope, and allows decision-making. In many cases, it provides the gambler with a "peak experience," that godlike feeling that occurs when all of one's physical and emotional senses are "go."

Gambling offers an altered state of consciousness-- perhaps at the opposite end of the scale from the state produced by meditation, because of the intense excitement generated. Certainly it provides benefits in enabling people to face daily life.

Geralmo Cardano, sixteenth-century universal genius, physician, and odds-maker, prescribed gambling for melancholy and cares that one would otherwise be unable to endure, noting that "play may be beneficial in times of grief and that the law permits it to the sick and those in prison and condemned to death."

This practice is most humane and was common not only in Renaissance Italy, but also, until a few years ago, in Nevada prisons. One ex-inmate told me that the altered state of consciousness produced by gambling was the only thing that kept him sane in the midst of brutality, vermin, and bad food. In essence, he said, the only times he felt human during those years occurred during those moments when he lost himself in the play, making his own decisions and, for the moment, transcending his circumstances. It seems reasonable then to suggest that allowing gambling as a recreation in prison might prove valuable in the future. It would show our acceptance of prisoners as human beings, and perhaps raise the likelihood of their rehabilitation into society.

Benefits for the Elderly

In studying the positive effects of gambling, I have spent some of my most profitable hours with the old persons who throng the Nevada casinos. These people are a gallant breed who, far from wasting their meager resources gambling, are making a choice for life itself. I call them "elderly lifeseekers."

My method of research is participant observation; that is, I mingle with the crowd, becoming part of it while getting to know the people and the scene.

The people whom I meet gamble as a part of their lifestyle and a good deal of their socialization comes from the casinos.

Elise, a delightful woman approximately 70 years old, came to Las Vegas from Kansas three years ago over the protests of her daughters. A widow, Elise has a small pension and loves slot machines and the casino atmosphere.

She budgets her money carefully and told me that she moved to Las Vegas to avoid being a built-in baby sitter and housekeeper. She enjoys the freedom of Las Vegas where she can wear what she pleases and play the slot machines.

"I never lose much and I like to play," she said. "Whenever the money drops, I feel real good. I won something and I ain't won a lot of things in my life."

These victories are not small ones to Elise. She has her independence, her self-respect, and a passionate interest in gambling.

Elise is more fortunate than Vonnie, who until a few months ago, had never gambled. Vonnie's income has been devastated by inflation; she wanders the supermarkets almost in a state of terror. I have seen pet food in her cart, although I am reasonably certain that she has no pet.

On impulse, she put a nickel in a slot machine and got five back. Putting three of those back, she won a $5 jackpot. A gambler was born.

She gambles no more than a dollar or two a week. So far, she says, she is ahead. The point, however, is not that she is ahead, for she could as easily be behind, but that her feeling of helplessness is somewhat alleviated. When she bets, she takes a risk which involves her in her own destiny.

While her economic circumstances may not be altered, her self-esteem has increased and her interest in day-to-day living is much greater.

Another reason for gambling is offered by a retired colleague of mine who says that when she is really lonely, she likes to play the slot machines because they seem friendly and acknowledge her existence.

She says that she is aware the feeling is foolish, but that the blinking lights and ringing bells on the payoffs seem to say, "I like you." Silly or not, there are times when it helps to have the approval of even a machine.

I should note here that a number of oldsters have told me they gain a great deal of hope from lottery-type contest such as those run by various magazines to increase circulation. Whether this is gambling is debatable, but the effect is the same: momentary hope.

The old men, who frequent the downtown casinos are not, as tourists too often assume, persons who have destroyed themselves gambling. They are retired servicemen, railroad men, factory workers, and others.

They seem to favor craps and twenty-one which can be played for nominal sums in many of the downtown Las Vegas and Henderson casinos.

Playing cautiously, they often manage to add to their holdings. They have favorite casinos which they frequent, usually those which have friendly service and inexpensive breakfasts and buffets.

Here they gamble, eat with their friends, and discuss the play. Dealers and waitresses get to know them and converse pleasantly. The whole scene provides them with a reason for being.

This attention is not be taken lightly in a culture which no longer honors its aged, where thousands of bright, elderly human beings are pushed from their jobs before they are ready to leave, too often placed in dehumanizing institutions of one sort or another.

What the elderly look for is what most gamblers seek: involvement in "the action." Involvement is crucial to their sense of well-being in a society which seems to exclude them from the action of living and tries to hide them away.

All persons have the same chance of marking their cards correctly. Thus, the banker and the retired janitor have approximately the same opportunity for winning, the odds favoring the banker only in that he can last longer due in his greater financial resources.

When the elderly gamblers play, the success of the day is not centered so much on the amount of money taken home, but on the amount of action that one is available. They count their victories in the number of jackpots at the table, not in what they have won as individuals.

If a gambler regards his activity in this sense, he hasn't really lost anything even if he doesn't win. He has paid for a certain amount of high-intensity recreation, much as one pays for a movie or an antique show for the money spent; one has simply bought a few enjoyable hours.

Louis Labat, a University of Nevada gerontologist, is presently experimenting, with some success, in introducing gambling into local homes for the elderly. The reasoning is that gambling can stimulate the elderly to a renewed interest in life. Homes for the aged would do well to allow their residents to gamble, thus keeping them alert and involved rather than dull and tranquilized.

A colleague of mine recognized the importance of gambling when she moved to Las Vegas primarily so that her aged mother could enjoy the game. She felt it a small price to pay for the measure of satisfaction her mother received from gambling, although my colleague herself was bored by the whole casino scene.

Working-Class Gamblers

The importance of gambling to the working class is also found in "the action." The working-class individual sees gambling as a means of surmounting impotence through feeling that he has a hand in his own destiny. Having little opportunity for decision-making in his job, he feels that if he wins, he has in some way controlled his world; if he loses, it is simply a tough break.

Others, whom I've classified as "small rebels", feel that gambling provides them with some measure of escape from unrewarding occupations or family problems. One man said: "All day long you do what them dumb bastard supervisors tell you. Don't make no difference whether it makes sense or not. Sometimes you just gotta get out of line...She (my wife) don't care. I'm easier to live for awhile, I guess."

A working-class man can assert his freedom from his wife and supervisor through gambling. He can blow off steam without having an accident, absenting himself from work, or resorting to industrial sabotage.

We all practice similar forms of escapism, just as we all engage in some form of risk-taking. For many, removing oneself for a brief period of time from the anxiety and tension of daily life is a necessity. Some of us watch television; some have a martini or sleep for an extra few hours. Others find gambling an enjoyable and refreshing respite.

Corporations concerned with the efficiency and the mental well-being of employees who are involved in monotonous tasks might consider incorporating some form of gambling break into the work week. They may find that their workers are more interested and alert. The prizes need not be monetary, but could include time off--a really precious commodity to many people.

The Gambling Executive

On higher socioeconomic levels, gambling seems to provide a sort of concentrated vacation, enabling the individual to return to his or her tasks renewed and invigorated.

A friend of mine made a fortune in the restaurant business by driving himself unmercifully for about 18 hours a day, seven days a week. When he felt really overloaded, he would fly to Tahoe for the weekend. There, he would spend 48 solid hours without sleep at the tables. While on the surface this type of behavior would seem like madness for an individual obviously exhausted, quite the reverse was true. What he needed more than sleep was to be pulled completely away from business for a period of time. Relaxing at a resort would not work for him, since he couldn't lie back without thinking about business. He could, however, get so involved in craps or twenty-one that he completely divorced himself from his cares and managed to return to his work refreshed.

In addition to commanding one's total involvement, gambling also conveys a sense of purity to those who participate. The true gambler is motivated not by greed for money but by the action involved in risk-taking. Thus, he is like the hunter who is more concerned with the codes of sportsmanship and the thrill of the hunt rather than with his ultimate trophies.

In a sense then, there is an honor among gamblers. They enjoy the game for its own sake, and they respect the integrity of a contest where the odds are set--a condition that exists in few other places in contemporary life.

Compulsive Gamblers

What about the man who works all week, then gambles his earnings away on Saturday night while the bills remain unpaid and his children are neglected? This is neither an admirable nor comfortable way to live and I am not defending it. We need to look for the reasons behind excessive gambling instead of condemning gambling itself.

Any compulsion--compulsive handwashing, compulsive overeating, or compulsive gambling--may be a serious problem to the individual afflicted and to that individual's family and community. But it is the compulsion that is bad rather than the activity itself.

Only a small portion of people who perform any activity are compulsives. The proportion of compulsive gamblers to the total number of persons who gamble is small indeed. Those with problems frequently receive help from the various agencies set up for those in need.

In Nevada, gambling has become an environmental fact. People who move to Nevada must learn to adjust to the constant presence of gambling just as they do to the climate in the desert or mountain regions. Those who "over gamble" when they arrive soon learn either not to exceed a certain sum while playing or to stop gambling completely. Relatively few become compulsive gamblers.

Casinos do not cause compulsive gambling any more than soap causes compulsive than handwashing or food causes compulsive overeating. The behavior of the compulsive gambler has a cause, however, and when that cause has been dealt with, the compulsion disappears.

In one case, a woman in her fifties began to exhibit symptoms of compulsive gambling after her husband left her. Although she was well-educated and had a career, she had relied heavily on her husband for decision-making and leadership.

Looking in the mirror, she saw a broken, discouraged woman who was no longer young. She seemed to have almost no identity and she searched desperately for persons on whom to lean. Her friends did what they could and then began to drift away, unwilling to bear the burden of her dependency.

Without a support system of any kind, she considered suicide, then in a "what the hell" kind of mood, she began to gamble-soon finding herself in debt.

A thoroughly confused human being, she had beaten suicide but was relying far too heavily on her gambling as a way out of her problems, which it was not.

Eventually, she came to grips with the fact that she had to help herself. She learned to forgive herself and to accept the fact that she was a worthy human being. A woman's consciousness-raising group helped her to work through her dependencies, to explore her past life, to mature as an individual, and to accept responsibility consisted, in part, in learning to control her gambling and to repay her debts.

Gambling in the Future

How may gambling change in the future? Gambling will, of course, advance technologically. Home mini-casinos operated by credit cards are a long way off, though the technology exists. At the moment, the costs of developing home mini-casinos would far outweigh the likely returns. One reason is that the demand would probably be light, because part of the enjoyment of gambling comes from the surroundings and social contacts, even though gamblers may seem at times to ignore them completely.

Another future possibility is the emergence of a number of gambling cities similar to Las Vegas.

Casino gambling, like any other business, will be subject to future changes in economic conditions. We do know that gambling increases in times of stress such as war or depression. It is unlikely, however, that a resort industry built around casino gambling would grow in conditions of severe economic stress.

Non-Polluting Recreation

Gambling is essentially a non-polluting form of recreation, and as such, may be looked upon more favorably in the future. Gambling resorts, which account for a small part of the total gambling picture, do, of course, pose the same threat to the environment as do other resorts.

Life-style alterations could well change future modes of gambling. The American Indian was using peach and plum-stone dice before the colonists introduced more sophisticated equipment. Today, computer operators use the technology at their disposal to play an occasional game of black jack or keno. The forms are different, but the basic elements are essentially the same.

Ultimately, the future of gambling may depend heavily on changes in people's attitudes. Many people gamble whether it is legal or illegal because it gives them a "spark" which helps them face the world more successfully. Yes, we tend to regard gambling much as the Victorians viewed sex--as something shameful that should be hidden, or confined to red light districts. Fear of taking a chance keeps us repeating our mistakes instead of allowing us the growth that comes from making new ones.

I am not proposing that we solve the world's problems by turning it into a giant casino. I am suggesting that in a time when we need imagination and creativity desperately, we do wrong to suppress an aspect of the human personality which may be a key to these elements.

We must learn to accept and deal with our total humanity if we are to have any chance of creating a society geared to the growth of the individual rather than to merely making him conform. By recognizing the benefits of gambling, we may begin to appreciate our humanity rather than suffer constant guilt over our normal impulses.

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