The Psychology of Casinos

I went on Deadspin yesterday and read an article labeled: How Casinos Use Design Psychology to Get You to Gamble More. If you have ten minutes to spare, I encourage you to read it, even if you aren’t a compulsive (like me) or degenerate gambler. It’s interesting.

I’m far from an expert when it comes to casinos, but as a gambler and member of the industry I know more than the average joe, and have plenty of experience to draw on from both sides of the table. My first time gambling was as a 21 year-old; my best friend and I needed to kill time before taking a flight to San Francisco — where we were headed for his 21st birthday — and wound up playing video roulette, back before California casinos were allowed to carry the table game. This was 2011.

As an aside — Speaking of roulette, there is a dispute between California Indian casinos and Las Vegas. In Southern California roulette is actually an off-shoot called “Mystery Card Roulette”; it’s the same game… the outside bets pay the same and the inside bets pay the same. However, real roulette players still prefer the ball and wheel version (like you see in movies), which you will not find down here. Casinos in SoCal can’t carry the ball and wheel because owners of the massive Vegas hotels pour in hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, of dollars into California politicians to block the Indians in the court of appeals. The reason? If casinos in Southern California start carrying the ball and wheel instead of cards, roulette players in CA will be less likely to make the 4-5 hour drive to Vegas to play, thus losing significant returns for Las Vegas casinos. The same goes for craps; in California craps is played with cards instead of dice. Again, it’s the same exact game, just with a different method to reach the typical conclusions. 

Over the last three-plus years Trey and I have lost upwards of $10,000 apiece gambling, but it’s impossible to know exactly how much and I could be completely selling short our failures. Divided by three it only comes out to a little over $3,000 per year, but considering our youthfulness that much money equates to a higher percentage of our average annual income than most people who are gambling. Up until about six months ago we primarily played blackjack, the most popular of all table games; it holds a house edge of 0.29%.

Going to the casino has always been an enjoyable experience. Gambling is obviously more fun when you’re winning, but winning isn’t the only thing that keeps us going. Part of it is just the rush, the zone you can only know when you are risking hard-earned cash against a house you’re not supposed to beat, and the adrenaline it creates. Last night we were at the casino for probably five hours; I only played $200, and had plenty of opportunities to walk away with a net-gain more than double what I entered with; but I didn’t. I kept playing, kept waiting to hit it big, and it never happened. It was such a slow roll to earn the money I’d made, and it felt like an instant before it was all gone.

So what keeps me there? Why do I do this to myself?

In spite of anything you may know about casinos, one thing I can say… both as a gambler and as a dealer… is casinos are far less nefarious than most people are led to believe. We think of these behemoth enterprises as looking to take your money and leave you empty-handed by all means necessary, but it isn’t like that at all. It’s still a service industry; casinos exist to provide a service. Much like bars make money because people like to drink, casinos make money because people love to gamble.

Dealers don’t want the player to lose because when the players lose the dealers can’t make money, and the pit bosses — those overlooking the dealers — are simpatico because most of them were dealers themselves at one point. Overall, employees want to see the customers win, because that’s how they (we) make their (our) money.

It’s also good for the casino — even though its losing money — when consumers win, since someone is more likely to return if they have a positive experience. And if they return, odds are they will lose and the casino will make that money back anyway (and then some). At the end of the day, no one is forced to gamble; it’s not the casino’s fault that people willingly play games where the odds are against the player’s favor, which is why I can’t be mad as a player if I lose and why I can’t feel sorry for a patron at my table if they lose. We do this to ourselves.

In the linked article, I thought the most interesting psychology casinos employ revolves around scent:

One possible mechanism of action of the effective odorant, we believe, is the phenomena called olfactory-evoked recall, in which, as mentioned, memories are stimulated as are their accompanying nostalgic exaltation of mood. Of almost 1000 subjects queried recently, 86% said that an odor could induce in them a vivid memory of the past. It seems possible that Odorant No. 1 induced nostalgic recall and the associated emotions were affectively congruent with, and enhanced, the gambling mood.

That was back in 2006, so.

What’s interesting is that I know this is part of the game plan for casinos. Dave Chappelle has a hilarious joke about how, whenever he smokes weed with white people, all white people do is talk about other times they’ve gotten high. This is a fact. This is something white people definitely do.

The casino is no different. It seems like every single time Trey and I have gambled together, whether we’re there for 15 minutes or eight hours (which has really happened on more than one occasion), we can’t help but talk about similar times we’ve gambled. Whether it’s positive or negative, we constantly harken back to the past where we’ve seen a similar sequence of blackjack hands, or have had a similar trajectory to our night… it could be we were down the whole time and made a miracle comeback or how we were up so much and gave it all back. It doesn’t matter either way.

No bullshit, we’ve made casino trips somewhere between 150-200 times over the last few years, and we still recall specific hands that happened 100 trips ago, years ago, and it doesn’t take very much reminding the other before we’re on the same wavelength. It’s almost scary when you think about it.

I don’t doubt that casinos employ these scents and, even if on the surface it contradicts my whole “casinos are far less nefarious than most people are led to believe” theory, I don’t blame them for trying to retain their customers. It’s commensurate with nearly every industry that thrives, whether it’s a bar or a club or the place you get your hair cut or anything else: It behooves big business to have universal appeal. Every successful business makes money (duh), but to do so they have to offer their audience a reason for returning. Without that we’re all as good as dead.

The moral to the story is pretty simple: gamblers are going to gamble, and casinos are always going to make their money. For all the beauty and despair that comes from it, I find it to be a pretty even trade off, even if it really isn’t.

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