I don’t care what they say, I won’t stay in a world without Luck

I believe in luck. How else can you explain the success of those you dislike?” Jean Cocteau

Last week’s Panorama special on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals made for important if uncomfortable viewing. Amidst the difficult stories of addiction and its costs, science also put in the occasional (if occasionally unscientific) appearance – one of which was to debunk the idea of luck. In this blog, I aim to make the case for the defence of that familiar Lady. 

Amongst the expert witnesses assembled by the impressive Panorama presenter Wendy Bendel (the partner of a gambling-related suicide victim) was Professor David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge. In seeking to explain how FOBTs worked, the incoming president of the Royal Statistical Society made two curious claims. The first was that he did not know why FOBTs (in common with roulette played in casinos and online) advertised the winning numbers from the previous 20 spins. His second – and perhaps more worrying claim – was that “luck doesn’t exist”.

On the first point, I suspect that the professor was being slightly disingenuous for the sake of television. His subsequent observation that the practice of displaying play history was “potentially misleading” and that it might encourage apophenia (perceiving patterns in random data) suggests that he was well aware of why gambling companies provided the information. Reading between the lines, it seems likely that the professor understands the practice all too well – it’s just that perhaps he doesn’t approve of it.

Of course there is no such thing as ‘form’ in games of chance – but the search for patterns helps to deepen our fascination and build engagement with those games. This is part of the attraction of gambling – the idea that we can somehow gain insight into future events, such as the turn of a card or the spin of the wheel. 

The practice plays to such well-known cognitive errors as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, where past outcomes are perceived to affect the probability of subsequent random events occurring. Clearly if gamblers think that the roulette wheel or lottery draw is not entirely random then problems could arise (either for the house or the player, depending on whether the non-randomness is real or perceived). It’s just that gamblers generally don’t think this way – at least not consciously.

All of this is nothing new. In his 2016 book, ‘The Perfect Bet’, Adam Kucharski recounts how in the 1890s, the newspaper Le Monaco published winning roulette numbers from the principality’s casino on a daily basis – until that is the English mathematician Karl Pearson exposed the lazy journalists who were simply making up the numbers while they lounged at the bar (they were undone because their reports appeared ‘too random’). For years, casinos have provided cards so that customers can mark down results if they choose (the same casinos are less enthusiastic about customers recording results in slightly less random games – such as blackjack).

Data and statistics have come to pervade 21st century life. Part of SKY TV’s revolution of sports viewing in this country has been its exploitation of statistics to deepen our engagement with the matches we are watching (a trick imported from the US). Some of this data can be pretty spurious (Chris Anderson’s and David Sally’s ‘The Numbers Game’ lays bare some of the hokum of football statistics) – but we don’t mind; the experience is somehow richer for the hokum.

Going further, the eradication of (to use Professor Spiegelhalter’s phrase) “unnecessary information” from our life would cause a famine within our news hungry media. We humans are wired to look for patterns in information – whether we like it or not – and a ban on this may limit discovery by serendipity.

The suggestion that it is somehow pernicious to play to a belief in luck seems reminiscent of the plain packaging debate in tobacco. Where a government has concerns about certain consumer activities (such as smoking) but stops short of prohibition, consumers will be free to exercise informed choice – but consumption ought not to be stimulated. Under this philosophy, the product is gradually rendered as dull and utilitarian as possible.

So here’s the rub – for some of us, gambling without a sub-conscious belief in one’s ability to beat the odds may be just a rather dull waste of money. Part of the appeal of games of chance lies in momentary suspension of disbelief and the idea that perhaps we may exert some control or influence over events. It’s primal stuff. In his history of gambling, ‘Roll the Bones’, UNLV’s Dave Schwartz describes how ancient civilisations used astralagi (cube-shaped bones) for gambling and prophesy. Other writers, including Roger Caillois have identified in the origins of gambling, the human desire to harness fate (I am told that in the Islamic state of Iran, some wagering on horse-racing and archery is permitted as a form of ‘divination’).

Despite the views of Professor Spiegelhalter, the practice of displaying outcome records for roulette or the National Lottery has hitherto been fairly uncontentious. Somewhat more controversial has been the development of ‘near misses’ and ‘losses disguised as wins’ on video slots. In the former, gamblers are encouraged to believe that they came close to winning (unlike traditional reels, video slots can display any permutation of result adjacent to the final one); in the latter, the machine celebrates wins even where the amount won is of a lesser value than the amount staked. A recent study carried out by researchers at the University of Bergen demonstrated that ‘losses disguised as wins’ can be effective at prolonging play.

In Australia, casino operator Crown and slot manufacturer Aristocrat are currently being sued by Shonica Guy (described in press reports as a “gambling addict”) who has alleged that certain machines use misleading and deceptive features, such as losses disguised as wins . We have been here before – a few years ago a major class action on a similar premise against VLTs in Canada was settled out of court. As we learn more about the interaction between the player and the game in gambling addiction, it is entirely possible that we will see further litigation.

The gambling industry ought to do more to understand the full range of behavioural responses to the products that it develops; and in particular to develop codes that ensure that the potential for harm is considered when designing and offering games.

The 2001 ‘Budd Report’ appeared to codify a shift in societal attitudes towards gambling – it was no longer a vice to be tolerated but discouraged; it was a legitimate form of entertainment for consenting adults. Fifteen years on, it feels as though we are in danger of regressing; and while the industry may be tempted to blame the moralising of anti-gambling pressure groups, it may do better to reflect upon its own actions.

Budd recognized the ‘Central Dilemma’ that gambling ought to be regulated in a manner that brought the greatest benefits to consumers while minimising the costs. If the consumer benefits of gambling (as distinct from shareholder returns) are not better reflected in the public policy discussion then gambling may well face a more utilitarian future – one where the act of gambling is permitted but rendered as dull as possible. Plain packaging for roulette, if you like.

We should be wary of the danger of unintended consequences here. It is conceivable that the more ‘transactional’ gambling becomes and the further it drifts from entertainment, the ‘harder’ it will become. After all, as the social anthropologist (and habitual baiter of US casinos), Natasha Schull observes in her book ‘Addiction by Design’, the “crack cocaine of gambling” in Nevada is the humble, low-tech and highly repetitive video poker machine rather than the slick Hollywood-themed video slots.   

Professor Spiegelhalter may not agree, but luck does exist. The history of mankind stands testimony to that fact – at some level I suspect that even the professor believes in luck. Through the history of our existence, the notion of luck has been a far more powerful force in human evolution than the relatively new field of statistics (more than that, without our fascination with luck it is doubtful that the study of statistics would have progressed as it has). 

Companies have a duty of care to ensure that they do not prey on cognitive errors, while recognising that in gambling, superstition is part of the fun. Rather than denying the existence of something that many customers hold dear, we should use luck to encourage healthier attitudes towards gambling and to enhance rather than diminish our innate ability to find entertainment in chance.