All gamblers know a few fellow players who use superstitions or rituals to bring them greater fortune. Whether that’s blowing on the dice for luck, wearing the same sock every time they go to the casino, or carrying around some kind of ‘lucky mascot’, these players often insist that they wouldn’t be having the great run they’re on unless they were sticking to the same routine again and again. Indeed, even quite sensible people believe that a pair of ones (Snake Eyes) represents the devil and, therefore, will bring bad luck – the use of the number two is also the reason why many Americans believe two dollar bills to be unlucky. It may well be that you believe in some sort of ‘luck’ yourself, to a greater or lesser degree. Deep down, you know a two-tailed lizard in your pocket can’t possibly change the spin of the dice, but there’s part of you that can’t resist the idea that, just maybe, you’re turning chance in your favour.
The idea of superstition, of course, comes from the earliest days of civilisation, when humans would try and invoke supernatural powers to help them succeed in something that they didn’t really understand. Weather and agriculture, for instance, were largely a mystery for thousands of years. Science and experimentation has gradually enlightened us, to the point where we know that ‘the gods’ have little, if anything, to do with these things. We now have sufficient knowledge of farming that very little is left to chance – scientists can even genetically modify crops so that they are more resistant to disease, can produce higher yields etc. Essentially, humans have found out how to control farming. Weather poses more uncertainties, but we do have a fairly strong understanding of what causes the elements to act as they do, and certain weather events can be predicted with greater success than before. We can’t control weather, but we can bring some sense of order to it.
Gambling, on the other hand, remains unfathomable to the majority of us. It’s a dark power that we can’t really explain, and one that we certainly can’t control. The dice and cards are totally random, and any attempt to make order of the chaos is doomed to failure. Mathematically, of course, we can calculate the probabilities of a certain throw or deal going our way. In reality, though, few gamblers ever bother to look at such figures. Instead, the game remains one large wheel of fortune, and the players hurl the dice and hope that the mystical force that governs chance will stop the wheel at the right place, just as long as each player goes through his or her ritual – their offering to the gods. All superstitions, rituals and lucky mascots are really just a way of inviting these unknowable forces to work in our favour.
The impulses to appeal to some mightier power seem to exist deep within us. In the late 1940s, the famous psychologist, B F Skinner, showed that this was the case even in other animals. His experiment saw a pigeon fed food at random intervals. If the bird was performing a certain action (turning its head from side to side, for instance) as the food appeared, the pigeon would often attribute the arrival of the food to the performing of this particular action. Performing the action would then become a mysterious ritual which the bird thought it could use to make food appear – even though, the majority of the time, it was having no immediate effect. Humans are clearly more sophisticated than pigeons, but the same impulse seems to exist even in us – certain ‘rituals’ that appear to produce winning results (generally by happening to coincide with a lucky run) are performed again and again. At some point, a bad run tends to go against us and we’ll drop the ritual, only to pick up a new ‘better’ one shortly after.
In truth, many of us know that these superstitions can’t really work, and yet we often resort to them for at least part of the time. (I confess that I refuse to bet on any horse that bears my own name, for instance, or that of my dog!) But as long as we know, deep down, that nothing can come of them in the long-term, where is the problem? If you’re using superstition as an easy replacement for doing research and getting to ‘know the figures’, then that’s clearly a bad thing. But a little extra superstition on top of a solid betting strategy can actually be a benefit. Winning gamblers always want to have some logic to their plays, but self-doubt (brought on by tension) can cause them to second-guess themselves. Anything that can counteract those negative impulses, therefore, and make the gambler more confident in following their carefully honed instincts, is likely to be a bonus. It’ll be the odds that decide whether we win or lose over the long term. But in the meantime, what’s wrong with trying to will a little randomness to work for rather than against us.