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To err is to be human: A brief look at mistakes in poker playing

One of the most psychologically interesting questions concerning poker is ‘Why do so many people play so badly?’ It’s clear that most players know better, but they appear to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Given the hundreds of thousands of poker strategy books that are sold every year, we can only reach the conclusion that just a small percentage of poker players apply the skills they have read about. My hunch is that most people understand what they have read but when it comes to playing a competitive hand it’s simply more ‘fun’ to play badly than to play well. I’m not saying losing is more fun than winning (because quite clearly it isn’t), but the pursuit of profit maximization forces players to do things they don’t like doing. On a psychological level, maximizing profit makes extreme demands. Therefore, only a few, extraordinarily disciplined people play their best game most of the time – and nobody always plays it.

Most economists claim that gamblers are primarily driven by the profit motive. However, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling situations.

One of the basic mistakes is playing too many hands. All the self-help books warn players against it but it is a common behaviour. In general, poker players find it boring to fold hand after hand. Players become more reckless and instead of folding, risk all in an attempt to get themselves out of a boredom rut. Even after losing, the poker player may ‘congratulate’ their play by defining it as ‘courageous’ when in the cold light of day, it was stupid. This type of adaptive thinking is common amongst gamblers who lose and should be avoided. Poker players often chase with weak hands for the same reason. Players will throw good money after bad in an effort to get even. Occasionally the strategy will pay off, but most of the time it won’t. In these situations, gamblers will invariably focus on the few times that chasing has got them out of a hole – but conveniently forget the many times that it didn’t.

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Another common mistake is to playing too aggressively. Not only is this a male characteristic but is often the strategy of the game’s very top players. Again, such tactics occasionally pay off for the player in very tight games. However, in most gambling situations, playing aggressively is simply not called for yet players continue to do it. On the other hand, gamblers can sometimes play too passively. Gamblers constantly find good excuses to justify their playing styles. In these situations, gamblers simply remember the times they saved money by not betting or raising, ignoring the pots they lost by giving away free or cheap cards.

It’s also tempting to show your cards and most players will do it occasionally. If players make a successful bluff, it’s human nature to want to let people to know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.

Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while playing poker, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players, winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent (and wrote about this experience back in 1990 in an article on the dangers of doing observational research in amusement arcades). It is only after I walk away penniless that the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.

Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives – including the unconscious ones – we cannot possibly play to our best ability.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Additional input from the writings of Alan Schoonmaker

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 13, 19-32.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The dangers of social psychology research. BPS Social Psychology Newsletter, 23, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2018). Identifying risk and mitigating gambling related harm in online poker. Journal of Risk Research, 21, 269-289.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Teaming with gain: Are daily fantasy sports a form of gambling?

Fantasy sports games have been popular for many years and involves individuals assuming the role of a professional sports team manager (typically football) and assembling a virtual team of sportsmen to compete against other players within a private or public league. For decades, the game was played out across the whole season with the winners being those that had accumulated the most points (with the points gained being based on the real-life statistics of individual sportsmen using a predetermined scoring system).

However, fantasy sports have changed dramatically over the last few years. Although the game can still be played over a whole season, the playing of daily fantasy sports (DFS) has become increasing popular (particularly in countries such as the USA, Canada, and Australia) and can operate over much shorter time periods. In DFS, players can pay to play and this has led to the blurring of lines of whether the activity is a game or whether it is gambling. As Dr. Dylan Pickering and his colleagues noted in a 2016 issue of Current Addiction Reports:

“Daily fantasy sports (DFS) is the most recent and controversial of FS games…It is an accelerated version of FS conducted over much shorter time periods: generally a single game (per day) or weekly round of competition. Users pay entry fees ranging from US 25 cents to US $5000 per league, which is deposited into a prize pool typically paid out to the highest ranked users in the contest. A portion of the entry fees also goes to the operator as commission. Accordingly, DFS, as such, is most associated with wagering. Currently, the US DFS market is dominated by ‘FanDuel’ and ‘DraftKings’ (combined with about 95 % of the market)”.

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According to figures in the same paper, in the USA, the fantasy sports (FS) market is currently estimated to be between $3 billion and $4 billion. In 2015, approximately 57 million Americans played FS. Research suggests that the prevalence rates are higher in North America than elsewhere with 19% of Canadian adults and 16% of American adults engaging in FS compared to 10% of British adults and 6% of Australian adults (Pickering et al., 2016). However, these figures relate to FS rather than DFS and many FS players do not pay money to participate in the game and simply play for fun. Some research by Dr. Joris Drayer and colleagues in a 2013 issue of the European Sport Management Quarterly also suggests that those who engage in playing DFS do not typically engage in other forms of gambling. Furthermore, in a 2011 issue of Journal of Sport Management, Dr. Brendan Dwyer and Dr. Yongjae Kim reported that compared to more traditional forms of gambling, the elements of fun, excitement, competition play a bigger role than winning money in the playing of DFS games.

A study carried out by Dr. Ryan Martin and Dr. Sarah Nelson published in a 2014 issue of Addictive Behaviors found that college students who were FS users (free and fee-based) were five times more likely to incur gambling problems than non-FS users, and students who played FS for money had significantly higher rates of gambling problems than those who played in free leagues. A more recent 2016 study by Loredana Marchica and Dr. Jeff Derevensky in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction examined data from national surveys of collegiate athletes and reported a steady rise in FS participation among college students between 2004 and 2012. They reported that approximately half of the male and a quarter of the female college athletes who qualified as at-risk or problem gamblers also reported wagering on FS.

There has been much debate (particularly by US legislators) as to whether playing DFS for money is classed as a legitimate form of gambling. If gambling is defined as “an agreement between two or more parties to deliberately stake something of value (typically money) with intent to profit on the outcome of an event that is determined wholly, or partially by chance” (by Pickering and colleagues), then DFS could well be a form of gambling as they argue:

“DFS can be construed as representing a form of gambling: (a) DFS includes an agreement between an individual and others, (b) money is staked on the relative performances of athletes across a certain number of sporting events with the outcome determined by both chance and skill, and (c) chance is involved given that multiple unknown factors can influence outcomes. In this regard, similarities are found in horse and sports wagering where some skill in selecting horse/sports outcomes is present, but unpredictable variables influence results (i.e., chance)…Literature from the legal field asserts that gambling must contain three elements: (a) consideration (staking something of value in order to participate), (b) chance (luck is a substantial factor in determining results), and (c) prizes (cash, merchandise, services, or points) are redeemable…While the first and third elements are clearly present in DFS, the second element, chance, is the source of current disagreement”.

The US legislation on gambling rests on whether an activity is more skill than chance determined. If DFS is predominantly a game of skill it is not deemed to be a form of gambling. The DFS operators claim that DFS games are not gambling because of the “substantial” amount of skill involved in the selection and management of FS teams. But is this any different for the professional gambler who bets on horse racing given the many factors that the person gambling has to take into account (the form of the horse, the skill of the jockey, the weather conditions, the state of the track, the number of other horses involved in the race, etc.). Similarly, poker and blackjack are both games that players can win big if they are skilful. Personally, I believe that playing DFS games for money is definitely a form of gambling, and even if it isn’t legally classed as a form of gambling, the games contain structural elements (including high event frequencies, low entry fee per game, lots of games, etc.) that can facilitate excessive use and expose vulnerable players to harm. DFS operators also allow team line-ups from a previous sporting event to populate other events which increases the speed of play, another factor that can facilitate habitual use. Furthermore, as Dr. Samantha Thomas and her colleagues argued in a recent 2015 report, the enhanced participatory role that fantasy games introduce could facilitate the illusion of control as they perform actions, making bettors overestimate the importance of skills and knowledge for the outcome of the competitions.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Drayer, J., Dwyer, B., & Shapiro, S. L. (2013). Examining the impact of league entry fees on online fantasy sport participation and league consumption. European Sport Management Quarterly, 13(3), 339-335.

Dwyer, B., & Kim, Y. (2011). For love or money: Developing and validating a motivational scale for fantasy football participation. Journal of Sport Management, 25(1), 70-83.

Marchica, L., & Derevensky, J. (2016). Fantasy sports: A growing concern among college student-athletes. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1-15. Epub ahead of print.

Martin, R. J., & Nelson, S. (2014). Fantasy sports, real money: Exploration of the relationship between fantasy sports participation and gambling-related problems. Addictive Behaviors, 39(10), 1377-138.

Pickering, D., Blaszczynski, A., Hartmann, M., & Keen, B. (2016). Fantasy sports: Skill, gambling, or are these irrelevant issues? Current Addiction Reports, 3(3), 307-313.

Thomas, S., Bestman, A., Pitt, H., Deans, E., Randle, M., Stoneham, M., & Daube, M. (2015). The marketing of wagering on social media: An analysis of promotional content on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Victoria, Australia: Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

Working while lurking: A brief look at participant observation in online forums

In offline situations, many social science researchers have employed ethnographic methods as a means of understanding and describing different culture and behaviours. However, ethnographic methods can also be used online for studying various types of excessive behaviour. For instance, I argued in a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction that by being online, gaming researchers have the capacity to become a part of the phenomenon that is being studied. Recently, I along with a number of my research colleagues at Nottingham Trent University, published a paper in Studia Psychologia that online forums are providing a new and innovative methodology for data collection in the social sciences.

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For those who don’t know, ethnography focuses on accounting for the actions and intentions of the studied social agents, and outlining how such behaviour is rationalized and understood by the wider group. Traditionally derived from anthropology, ethnography aims at studying people and their behaviours and cultures within their socio-cultural contexts. Behaviours and communications are engulfed with meaning by being situated within the field site. What is needed on behalf of the researcher is what Dr. Clifford Geertz described as the production of a “thick description” of what takes place in these field sites to discern the latter’s contextualized meaning.

When it comes to virtual (i.e., online) ethnography, it is important to notice that while in-person ethnography is constrained by the laws of the physical world where the researcher needs to interact with the participants, online ethnography or as Dr. Robert Kozinets calls it in his 2010 book about online ethnography – “netnography” – can be done in a more unobtrusive way without the need to interact with the participants. Lurking is a possibility that Dr. Kozinets describes as opening a “window into naturally occurring behaviour” without the interference of the researcher.

Virtual ethnography takes the idea of participant observation a step further by challenging the notion of a geographically bound and relatively stagnant field site by replacing it with the virtual sphere that has no set boundaries. In this respect, virtual ethnography is what Dr. Christine Hine says “ethnography in, of and through the virtual”. The Internet is used as place, topic and means of research. It is an important qualitative online methodology and has been used in a variety of different research endeavours, including the studies of people’s explorations of multi-layered identities on the Internet, different levels of online experience, and playing Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games such as Everquest.

There are a number of principles that underlie virtual ethnography. Ethnographers must immerse themselves in the (virtual) field site in order to gain an in depth insight into why and how interactions take place and what they mean within the context of the respective virtual sphere. However, the relationship of the latter’s agents to their real (embodied) lives cannot be disregarded. The online space is a space ‘in between’ that is connected to the world outside of the Internet. Therefore, virtual ethnography is but a partial study and cannot deliver a full account of what it sets out to study. It can never be a holistic approach. Nevertheless, this is aided by the researchers who must be reflexive about what they experience, and about the method they use. The involvement of the researcher and the researcher’s interpretation of the actions and communications that occur within the virtual field site are integral to this type of research. In addition to this, the technology of the Internet itself is essential because it provides the tools for, the objects and the context of analysis.

Given the wide variety of advantages of and important insights virtual ethnography can offer for the researcher, potential disadvantages also need to be taken into consideration. The researchers’ active participation in the field site offers them the possibility of in-depth insights that would not be possible without their involvement. However, at the same time, they might lose their critical distance towards the object of their study. Sacrificing some critical distance therefore is a trade-off for in the collection of invaluable and profound data. As Dr. Christine Hine notes, these data are necessarily biased by the researchers’ experience and perception of online interactions in the respective realm that, due to their immersion, is knowledgeable and familiar.

Dr. Adrian Parke and I applied online ethnography to the study of poker skill development within online poker forums, and published our findings in a 2011 issue of the International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning. Our study was a virtual ethnographical research design looking at how poker gamblers utilized computer-mediated communication (CMC) to develop their poker skill and profitability, and to examine the factors associated with problem gambling. The study was a six-month participant observational analysis of two independent online poker forums. Dr. Parke participated in poker gambling during the entire study period and used strategies proposed from forum members to develop poker ability. This approach provided an insider’s perspective into how skill development through CMC affects poker gambling behaviour.

We generated forum discussions regarding specific behavioural concepts and cognitive processes based on accumulative analysis of emergent data from the online poker players. Forum interaction was observed, monitored and analyzed through traditional content analytic methods. Membership and participation in such online community forums provided poker players the opportunity to benefit from the consequences of reporting gambling experience and acquiring both poker gambling structural knowledge and skill.

One of the key advantages of data collection via online forums is that it can provide a detailed record of events that can be revisited after the event itself has finished. Furthermore, screen captures can be taken and used as examples or related back to the data collected – something that has been used in the gaming studies field (and outlined in a 2007 paper I published with Dr. Richard Wood in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). Study findings can be posted on bulletin boards and participants have the opportunity to comment on their accuracy or comment on any other observations that they may have. This also helps to empower the participant and can prevent misrepresentation.

Given the increase in the number of hours we now spend online every day, carrying out research online is going to become an ever more popular (and useful).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. London: Fontana Press. 

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The use of online methodologies in data collection for gambling and gaming addictions. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 8-20.

Griffiths, M.D., Lewis, A., Ortiz de Gortari, A.B. & Kuss, D.J. (2016). Online forums and blogs: A new and innovative methodology for data collection. Studia Psychologica, in press.

Hine, C. (Ed.). (2005). Virtual methods. Issues in social research on the Internet. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: Sage.

Kozinets, R.V. (2010). Netnography. Doing ethnographic Research Online. Sage: London.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online data collection from gamblers: Methodological issues. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 151-163.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Eatough, V. (2004). Online data collection from videogame players: Methodological issues. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 511-518.

Group to conquer: The social psychology of poker

In today’s blog I am going to try and apply some relatively simple social psychology to playing poker. Unlike some of my previous articles that may have bordered into ‘pop’ psychology territory, this article uses some very well researched psychological phenomena and examines to what extent they can improve your game and aid skilful poker playing.

Over in the US, Professor Matthew Martens at the University of Albany is a psychologist who has consistently applied his psychological knowledge to his love of poker. He has written very persuasively on how social psychology is used and abused in gambling situations. Like me, his own students are fascinated by the idea that academics use their passion for an academic subject and use it to aid them in non-academic situations. It is also somewhat ironic that we spend far more time analysing others’ behaviour rather than our own (probably because we don’t get paid for self-analysis!).

Like Professor Martens I have little time for Freudian psycho-babble and much prefer to believe that by understanding some fundamental psychological principles, poker players can make more rational, better decisions when playing at the tables. Professor Martens has highlighted three particular principles from traditional social psychology that he believes have high psychological relevance at the poker table. These are (i) the fundamental attribution error, (ii) group conformity, and (iii) social loafing. I shall examine each of these briefly in turn.

The fundamental attribution error (FAE) is a fairly simple concept to understand. What’s more, there is a mass of worldwide evidence showing its existence in a wide variety of behaviours, situations and contexts. In its most simple terms, the FAE boils down to the tendency for us as individuals to attribute other people’s behaviours to internal rather than external causes. The flip side of the coin is that as individuals we also have a tendency to attribute our failures to external rather than internal causes. So what does this mean in relation to poker?

Firstly, players may assume that opponents are weak or poor players when they make unfavourable decisions. At the same time, players may also believe their own poker play is simply ‘unlucky’ when things don’t go their way. In essence, the FAE makes players less objective in their thinking when evaluating both their own play and that of their opponents. The underlying message is that you shouldn’t view opponents as ‘weak’ players just because they made what looked like a few poor decisions. Similarly, as a player you must be honest about the quality of your play and try not to attribute poor playing outcomes to external events like ‘unlucky’ or ‘bad’ cards.

Another well-known phenomenon in social psychology is group conformity. In group situations (such as playing a game of poker), there is a psychological tendency to conform to the behaviour of other group members. Professor Martens gives the example of a player getting seated at a wild table where everybody is betting and raising with any two cards, and realizing four hours and 50 big bets later that the player had no idea why they chose to call three bets cold with Queen-7 suited and Ace-6 offsuit. In this situation, and to their detriment, the player has perhaps subconsciously conformed to the behaviour at the table. There is a fine line between adjusting your play to maximize the specific game situation that you face, versus adjusting your play to simply ‘fit in’ with everyone else at the table. The former will generate profit over the long run, the latter will probably ensure that you will at best break even.

This final social psychology principle that Professor Martens highlights is social loafing. However, there is one caveat – it only applies to poker tournaments. More specifically, this occurs when players are in a position that knocking out someone will result in a major benefit to all other players, such as getting in the money or making the final table. The underlying principle of social loafing is that people in group settings often sit around and wait for other people to do the work, so that they can get all the reward with little or no work. In tournament poker, this would translate to individuals choosing not to risk their chips in an effort to knock someone out, instead waiting for someone else to do the dirty work.

Professor Martens argues that by understanding these three principles of social psychology, and recognizing when they are occurring in the poker game that you are playing, players are better able to make winning decisions and evaluations about their play. It’s probably also true to say that the three particular social psychological phenomena discussed in this article are an inherent part of our day-to-day human nature. Put more simply, it is our natural human inclination to engage in these behaviours often and in a wide variety of situations (including poker playing). Therefore, it takes a little work to recognize when these phenomena are negatively affecting your game, but overcoming them should provide profitable benefits in the long run.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Net advantage: Another brief look at the psychology of online poker

From everything that I’ve observed over the last decade in the gambling world, the one thing that has caught my eye more than anything else is the number of online gambling stories – particularly about the rise of online poker. Clearly, online poker and traditional poker are not synonymous. As I outlined in one of my previous blogs, a very useful psychological tool in poker is to ‘read’ a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage. Poker players must therefore seek to manipulate their poker-playing opponents by using the psychological tools at their disposal. One of my colleagues who has researched this area (Dr. Adrian Parke), believes that in a ‘SunTzu’-type way, an online poker player must take their weakness (in this case, not being able to physically see other players) and turn it into a positive strength. Put simply, a player must use the non-transparency inherent in the situation to their advantage.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. As a player you could portray the façade of being a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised pro. On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially it is about representing a façade, whether it is for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adapt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage in. For instance, if you are playing with novices it may be profitable to portray an experienced professional in order to intimidate players into submission.

Using the messaging systems provided, it is easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player “says” is not revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may have shaking hands and be sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to ‘tailor’ interactions to induce the desired response.

Social interaction at the online poker table is not confined to adversarial chastising. It is also possible to develop amiable relationships between players. Online poker – particularly at low stakes tables – is often more about entertainment than making profits. In poker it is not necessary to reveal your hand if nobody calls (i.e., pays to see it). Without seeing cards it is more difficult to understand player behaviour. However, at more sociable tables, players will reveal what they had to opposing players, if nothing else but to indulge the observers. Creating false ‘alliances’ is a way of ascertaining more information about your opponents and improving your ability to ‘read’ them.

From a psychological perspective, there are also some things to be aware of in the online gambling world. At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control. The rule of thumb is to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the game. Inducing emotional rather than logical reactions from gamblers is what makes the gambling industry so profitable. By remaining unemotional gamblers can protect themselves from recklessly chasing losses and avoid going on ‘tilt’. People gambling online are particularly at risk from engaging in chasing losses for the simple reason that they have 24-hour convenient access from their home or workplace and have the potential to be constantly subjected to temptation. What’s more, in this asocial world, they often lack friends acting as a “social safety net” to give objective appraisals of the player’s behaviour.

The best ways of avoiding becoming emotionally engaged online is to have (i) reflective time outs and (ii) an objective attribution of outcomes. Having reflective time-outs simply refers to playing slowly, making gambling decisions with accrued knowledge (for example, knowledge of probability and of opponents). It is advisable after a ‘bad beat’ to be disciplined enough sit out one or two hands to regain composure before playing again. Determining objective attributions of outcomes occurs at a psychological level and concerns the gambler’s locus of control. For the gambler, this means having an external locus of control when assessing the cards they have and an internal locus of control regarding what they do with the cards available.

The mantra of poker players is that ‘You can only play the hand you were dealt’. All players will experience streaks of both desirable and poor hands, and it is how a player responds to these streaks that will determine their success. It is very easy to become frustrated while in a negative streak. Likewise, it is easy in a positive streak to become narcissistic and complacent. It is the knowledgeable player that understands probability and who realises that over a continuous playing period, positive and negative streaks are inevitable and transient.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Trends reunited: How has gambling changed? (Part 2)

Most of the changes outlined in my previous blog were things that I predicted would happen in various papers that I wrote in the 1990s. However, there are many things that I did not predict would be areas of growing interest and change. The most interesting (to me at least) include (i) the rise of online poker and betting exchanges, (ii) gender swapping online and the rise of female Internet gambling, (iii) emergence of new type(s) of problem gambling, (iv) increase in use of behavioural tracking data, and (v) technological help for problem gamblers.

Online poker and betting exchanges: Two of the fastest growing forms of online gambling are in the areas of online poker and online betting exchanges. I have speculated there are three main reasons for the growth in these two particular sectors. Firstly, they provide excellent financial value for the gambler. There is no casino house edge or bookmakers’ mark-up on odds. Secondly, gamblers have the potential to win because there is an element of skill in making their bets. Thirdly, gamblers are able to compete directly with and against other gamblers instead of gambling on a pre-programmed slot machine or making a bet on a roulette wheel with fixed odds. However, one of the potential downsides to increased competition is recent research highlighting that problem gamblers are significantly more likely to be competitive when compared to non-problem gamblers. My research unit has also speculated other factors that have aided the popularity of online poker. These include (i) social acceptability of this type of gambling, (ii) promotion through televised tournaments often with celebrity players, (iii) 24/7 availability, (iv) the relative inexpensiveness of playing, and (v) the belief that this is predominantly a game of skill that can be mastered.

Gender swapping and the rise in female Internet gambling: One study by my research unitreported the phenomenon of gender swapping in online poker players. More female players (20%) in our study reported swapping gender when playing compared to males (12%). Typical reasons that female participants gave as to why they did this were that they believed other males would not take them so seriously if they knew they were playing against a woman. It also gave them a greater sense of security as a lone woman in a predominantly male arena. Males and females clearly had different motivations for gender swapping. For males it was a tactical move to give them a strategic advantage. For females it was more about acceptance or privacy in what they perceived to be a male dominated environment. Similar findings have been reported in relation to online computer game playing. In more general terms, the apparent rise in female Internet gambling is most likely because the Internet is a gender-neutral environment. The Internet is seen as less alienating and stigmatising medium when compared to male-dominated environments such as casinos and betting shops. The most obvious example is online bingo where online gaming companies have targeted females to get online, socialise, and gamble.

Emergence of new type(s) of problem gambling: The emergence of new technologies has brought with it new media in which to gamble. As noted above, the rise of online poker has been one of the success stories for the online gaming industry. This rise has also led to more research in this area including some that suggests a different way of viewing problem gambling. For instance, research has suggested that online poker may be producing a new type of problem gambler where the main negative consequence is loss of time (rather than loss of money). This research has identified a group of problem gamblers who (on the whole) win more money than they lose. However, they may be spending excessive amounts of time (e.g., 12 to 14 hours a day) to do this. This could have implications for problem gambling criteria in the future (i.e., there may be more criteria relating to the consequences of time conflicts as opposed to financial consequences).

Increase in use of behavioural tracking data: Over the past few years, innovative social responsibility tools that track player behaviour with the aim of preventing problem gambling have been developed including (e.g., mentor, PlayScan). These new tools are providing insights about problematic gambling behaviour that in turn may lead to new avenues for future research in the area. The companies who have developed these tools claim that they can detect problematic gambling behaviour through analysis of behavioural tracking data. If problem gambling can be detected online via observational tracking data, it suggests that there are identifiable behaviours associated with online problem gambling. Given that almost all of the current validated problem gambling screens diagnose problem gambling based on many of the consequences of problem gambling (e.g., compromising job, education, hobbies and/or relationship because of gambling; committing criminal acts to fund gambling behaviour; lying to family and friends about the extent of gambling, etc.), behavioural tracking data appears to suggest that problem gambling can be identified without the need to assess the negative psychosocial consequences of problem gambling.

Technological help for problem gamblers: Much of this article has discussed the potential downside of technological innovation. However, one area that was not predicted a decade ago is the use of technology in the prevention, intervention, and treatment of problem gambling. For instance, technology is now being used for health promotion using the Web, video games, and/or CD-ROMs. Internet gambling sites are beginning to feature links to relevant gambling awareness sites. For those sites that analyze their online behavioural tracking data, it may be the case that such data could be used to identify problem gamblers and help them rather than exploit them. Finally, help in the form of online therapy (such as online counselling) may be an option for some problem gamblers. For instance, an evaluation that we carried out of an online advice service for problem gamblers showed that clients were very positive about the service and that Internet gamblers were more likely to access the service than non- Internet gamblers.

Obviously the changes I have listed here are the ones that have been most important to me personally and have formed the backbone of my research. In writing these blogs, part of me finds it hard to believe that I am still actively researching in the gambling studies field and that there is always something new to learn and discover.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013).Limit setting and player choice in most intense online gamblers: An empirical study of online gambling behaviour. Journal of Gambling Studies, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). Gambling technologies: Prospects for problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 15, 265-283.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Online betting exchanges: A brief overview. Youth Gambling International, 5(2), 1-2.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). Impact of gambling technologies in a multi-media world. Casino and Gaming International, 2(2), 15-18.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Interactive television quizzes as gambling: A cause for concern? Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 269-276.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Internet gambling in the workplace. Journal of Workplace Learning, 21, 658-670.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Technological trends and the psychosocial impact on gambling. Casino and Gaming International, 7(1), 77-80.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Social gambling via Facebook: Further observations and concerns. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 104-106.

Griffiths, M.D. & Cooper, G. (2003). Online therapy: Implications for problem gamblers and clinicians. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 13, 113-135.

Griffiths, M.D. & Whitty, M.W. (2010). Online behavioural tracking in Internet gambling research: Ethical and methodological issues. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3, 104-117.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A. & Parke, J. (2009). Social responsibility tools in online gambling: A survey of attitudes and behaviour among Internet gamblers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 12, 413-421.

Meyer, G., Hayer, T. & Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Problem Gaming in Europe: Challenges, Prevention, and Interventions. New York: Springer.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Griffiths, M.D., Orford, J. & and Volberg, R. (2011). Defining the online gambler and patterns of behaviour integration: Evidence from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. International Gambling Studies, 11, 339-356.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Online guidance, advice, and support for problem gamblers and concerned relatives and friends: An evaluation of the Gam-Aid pilot service. British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 35, 373-389.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Punter gatherer: What is the role of competitiveness in gambling and problem gambling?

Over the last decade, I have been asked by the mass media on countless occasions about the increasing popularity of online gambling. The two biggest successes appear to be the use of betting exchanges and online poker. Gamblers clearly feel these types of gambling provide value and an opportunity to exercise their skill. This is coupled with increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems, increased realism (in the shape of “real” gambling via webcams, or player and dealer avatars) are all inter-linked facilitating factors. However, another factor that I feel is really important in the rise of online gambling is the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same. What’s more recent research has suggested that being highly competitive may not necessarily be good for the gambler.

I’m sure many people’s view of psychology is that it is little more than common sense (and to be honest, some of it is). For instance, psychologists claim that male gamblers are attracted to sports betting because they love competitiveness. There has also been North American research examining the high participation in US college basketball. The researchers found that above anything else, males were attracted to the competitiveness of betting on teams and games. Professor Howard Shaffer, a psychologist at Harvard University, claims that men are more likely to develop problematic gambling behaviour because of their conventionally high levels of aggression, impulsivity and competitiveness. Clearly, the idea of the competitiveness of the activity being one of the primary motivations to gamble is well supported.

Based on the fact that so little research has systematically examined the links between gambling and competitiveness, my own research unit published some research into this area in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. Dr. Adrian Parke and myself speculated that a gambler who is highly competitive would experience more arousal and stimulation, and be drawn to gambling as an outlet to release competitive instincts and drives. We also speculated that competitiveness may be linked to problem gambling. For instance, being highly competitive may help in explaining why in the face of negative and damaging consequences, problem gamblers persist in their potentially self-destructive habit. Psychological research in other areas has consistently shown that highly competitive individuals are more sensitive to social comparison with peers regarding their task performance. Applying this to a gambling situation, it is reasonable to suggest that competitive gamblers may be reluctant to stop gambling until they are in a positive state in relation to opposing gamblers, perhaps explaining why excessive gambling can sometimes occur.

Psychology is not the only discipline to suggest that competitiveness levels can be associated with problem gambling. Sociologists have speculated that factors of the human instinctual expressive needs, such as competition, can be temporarily satisfied when engaging in gambling activities. Evidence exists supporting gambling as an instrumental outlet for expressing competitive instinctual urges. The US sociologist Erving Goffman developed what he called the ‘deprivation-compensation’ theory to explain the relationship between gambling and competitiveness. He suggested that the stability of modern society no longer creates situations where competitive instincts are tested. Therefore, gambling is an artificial, self-imposed situation of instability that can be instrumental in creating an opportunity to test competitive capabilities.

In the published research study that we carried out, we hypothesised that problem gamblers would possess higher levels of competitiveness than non-problem gamblers. Using a competitiveness scale, gamblers were asked to rate statements about competitive reasons for gambling (such as ‘I like to gamble to show others how good I am at it’, ‘I like to gamble to beat the system’, ‘I like to gamble to see how good I am at it’) and general competitive tendencies (such as ‘I am competitive’, ‘I enjoy taking risks’, ‘I am abitious’). We found that problem gamblers scored significantly higher on the competitiveness scale. Put simply, we concluded that having a highly competitive streak may in fact be a potential risk factor for problem gambling.

It is not hard to see how a highly competitive person would be attracted to gambling by the competitive and challenging nature of the behaviour. However, why are competitive people at particular risk of developing pathological gambling behaviour? It could be the case that highly competitive gamblers are less inclined to ‘throw the towel in’ or accept a loss, and, as a result are more prone to chasing behaviour. Chasing behaviour – that is, increasing frequency and stake of bets in an attempt to recoup losses – is self-perpetuating. When gamblers chase losses it is highly probable they will lose more and the need to recoup losses increases as time passes. What’s more, chasing losses has been shown to be a major risk factor in the development of gambling problems. At the other end of spectrum, winning is potentially more rewarding for a competitive gambler as they are more inclined to perceive gambling as an internal and external challenge than a non-competitive gambler. In addition, winning will be much more rewarding after incurring losses. Put very simply, the competitive person feels greater triumph by defeating unlikely odds and emerging from what appeared a hopeless situation.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Goffman, I. (1972). Where the action is. In: Interaction Ritual (pp.149–270). Allen Lane, London.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment (pp. 91-111). New York: Wiley.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M.D. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008).Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Conforming to type: A typology of poker playing

I apologize in advance that today’s blog spills into ‘pop psychology’ but I thought I would share it with you anyway. A number of years ago, I helped a leading Internet poker company do some research on different types of poker player and developed a typology. With the help of US poker tournament director Jack McClelland, the typology was based on a survey of 2000 poker players and produced seven different types of player. These were subsequently called ‘The General’, ‘The Joker’, ‘The Wallflower’, ‘The Calculator’, ‘The Hunter’, ‘The Artisan’, and ‘The Politician’. The study found that 39% of players were Wallflowers or Calculators (40% male and 38% female), 17% were Jokers (16% male and 17% female), 15% were Generals (17% male and 13% female) and 4% were Hunters (5% male and 3% female). The ‘Politician’ and ‘Artisan’ sub-types constituted only a very small minority of players. So which type of player are you? Here is a quick psycho-portrait of each type.

The General: Instantly recognisable for their guts, Generals won’t shirk in the face of risk and are comfortable in their ability to fight back from a short stack. In everyday life, The General’s supreme self-belief can be overbearing, but Generals tend to reap the rewards and are often very successful in their careers. At the green baize, the high risk-high gain strategy employed tends to see them bust out first or win the lot.

The Joker: A natural born entertainer, a jester at the table who ensures everyone will have fun. Well liked, Jokers command other’s allegiances and will use this to their advantage. But beware, they are more than happy to talk you off a pot should they choose to.  Unfortunately, Jokers are as easily distracted, and can be distracting at the poker table. This can be dangerous. A lack of discipline and patience can make you question whether the Jokers are equipped with the will to win. What’s more, their need to be liked can often stand in their way of closing in on the kill.

The Wallflower: The Wallflower is happy to sit on the sidelines and wait for others to fight it out before they get involved. In everyday life the Wallflower will rarely throw in their lot with anyone and will take their time to make allegiances. Wallflowers are equipped with the most important of all poker virtues – patience. Their tendency to avoid the quagmire of the group dynamic gives them an extra edge – their relationships come with no baggage. While the others fight it out the Wallflower will sit back, observe and learn. According to journalist and female poker player Victoria Coren, while Wallflowers can survive quite a while in a game, they can’t necessarily change gear later and nail money finishes.

The Calculator: Cool, composed and naturally conservative, Calculators will only go into a hand with the best of it. In everyday life, Calculators were often the cleverest kids in their class – if not the ones with the biggest circle of friends. Instinctively risk-averse, their strengths as a poker player include a methodical approach and the ability to separate emotion from decisions. Skilful as they may be, there is no easier player to read than a Calculator. What’s more, Calculators can be quite passive and are unwilling to chase the action if it doesn’t come their way.

The Hunter: At first glance, the Hunter can easily be mistaken for a General. Both exude the same forcefulness and strength of character, but where The General is all about thought through risks, The Hunter is all about naked aggression. Off the poker table, Hunters aren’t always the best communicators, but are hugely loyal and very determined. On the poker table, a Hunter is a formidable opponent and loves the thrill of trying to beat the odds. A loose player, they’ll play a lot of hands and will feed off the weaker players by bullying them off pots.   

The Politician: An arch manipulator, you can spot Politicians because they’re your best friends. Trouble is, they’re also your next-door neighbour’s best friend and even your enemy’s best friend. Their good qualities are highly tuned instincts and a whole deck of charisma. Both will serve them well at the poker table, but both can also lead to trouble. A tendency to play the people rather than the cards can spell disaster, and the Politician is one of the most likely players to bluff.

The Artisan: At first glance, the Artisan may not appear to be a natural born poker player. Led by the creative left side of their brain rather than the more mathematical right hand side, Artisans are more usually found engaged in less competitive activities. However, Artisans have very finely honed intuitive skills and always love to rise to a challenge. An Artisan will take a very lateral approach to the game and won’t be scared to make a move if their instincts tell them to.

I’m not pretending that the work I did was particularly scientific but it was certainly interesting. Obviously the whole problem with formulating sub-types like this is that they are usually based on a particular way of looking at the activity. For instance, I have a typology based on the types of playing mistakes players make – but I’ll leave that for a future blog.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

Stock tales: Is financial trading a form of gambling?

One of the questions I am most asked by my students and the media alike is whether trading on the stock market is a genuine form of gambling. That might sound a simple question, but it all comes down to what definition of gambling you are using. My own view on gambling is that it boils down to the staking of money (or something of financial value) on a future event. When I first started my research into gambling back in the mid-1980s, there were four fundamental types of gambling:

  • Gaming – Staking of money during a game (e.g. slot machines, roulette, blackjack, etc.)
  • Betting – Staking money on a future event, typically sports events (e.g. horse race betting, greyhound betting, football betting, etc.)
  • Lotteries – The distribution of money by lot (e.g. National Lottery)
  • Speculation – Staking money on stock markets (e.g., investment in shares, day trading, etc.)

In a previous blog I briefly examined whether stock market speculation was a legitimate form of gambling. However, back in the 1980s, psychologists were only interested in studying the first three of these activities (i.e., gaming, betting and lotteries). Although a few academics accepted ‘speculation’ as a true form of gambling, the majority of researchers in the gambling studies field did not (including me). The prevailing view at the time was that ‘speculation’ was viewed as involving a fair amount of skill and/or relied on ‘insider information’ and therefore was not a legitimate form of gambling compared to other forms of gambling. Although there were clearly accepted forms of gambling that had skilful elements (e.g., poker, blackjack), academic psychologists still rejected speculation as a form of gambling worth investigating.

However, this all changed after the introduction of spread betting. I argued in a number of articles at the end of the 1990s that spread betting had taken the mechanics of stock market trading and applied it to sporting events. For me, this was a game changer in terms of studying the psychology of gambling. No longer could we say that speculation shouldn’t be studied because spread betting was clearly a form of speculation and it was something that appealed to a new type of gambler because it involved sporting events that many people think they know a lot about.

There was also one other key factor in changing psychologist’s perceptions of speculation as gambling – the ‘Nick Leeson effect’. In 1995, Leeson single-handedly brought down the UK’s oldest investment bank (Barings). Leeson was a derivatives broker whose fraudulent gambling caused the spectacular collapse of one of the UK’s most established financial institutions. From the early 1990s, Leeson made countless speculative (and unauthorised) gambles on the stock market that at first made large profits for his employers. However, as with most gamblers, his ‘beginner’s luck’ soon ran out and he started to lose huge amounts of money. Leeson’s losses eventually reached £827 million. Leeson’s psychology and behaviour was identical to that of a problem gambler (except he was gambling with much larger amounts of money and with someone else’s money).

There was perhaps another reason why speculation was seen as psychologically different from gaming, betting and lotteries. Unlike these other forms of gambling, speculation is a type of gambling where the gambler does not know how much they are going to win or lose on the gamble. If I put £1000 on a horse to win the Grand National or on black to come up on a roulette wheel, I know that losing will cost me £1000. On most stock market trades or spread bets, no-one knows beforehand what the losses could be. However, there are financial trades that could perhaps be argued to be more like betting than speculation. For instance, binary options look as though they are going to grow in popularity over the next year or two as the gambling payoff is more traditional than usual financial trading.

In binary option betting, a cash-or-nothing binary option will pay a fixed amount of money if the option traded on expires in-the-money (i.e., it is a simple ‘win-or-lose’ bet as the potential return it offers is certain and known before the purchase is made). One of the attractions of binary options is that they can be bought on virtually any financial product and can be bought in both up and down directions of trade. The simplicity is likely to attract more people especially if they feel they know something about the product being traded upon. This is the same reason why spread betting took off in such a big way because people feel they know about the market (e.g., football) that they are betting on, even if there is a huge element of chance (which there invariably is). My guess is that most people who work in the financial markets don’t see binary options as an investment opportunity – they see it for what it really is – a pure gamble.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). ‘Gambling and Speculation: A Theory, History, and a Future of some Human Decisions’ by R. Brenner and G.A. Brenner. Journal of Economic Psychology, 12, 197-201.

Griffiths, M.D. (1998). Gambling into the Millenium: Issues of concern and potential concern. GamCare News, 3, 4.

Griffiths, M.D. (2000). Day trading: Another possible gambling addiction? GamCare News, 8, 13-14.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). An overview of pathological gambling. In T. Plante (Ed.), Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Vol. I: Behavioral Issues. pp. 73-98. New York: Greenwood.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling Addiction and its Treatment Within the NHS. London: British Medical Association (ISBN 1-905545-11-8).

Griffiths, M.D. & Auer, M. (2013). The irrelevancy of game-type in the acquisition, development and maintenance of problem gambling. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 621. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00621.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Financial trading as a form of gambling. i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 40.

Risky shifts: Can gambling be a transferable skill in the workplace?

About ten years ago, following some work I had done for a very well known online gambling company, I was quoted in a number of newspapers and on the BBC News commenting on how skills learned in poker can be applied in the workplace. I claimed that playing poker could offer lessons for success, even in non-mathematical lines of work. For instance, being given an assignment or a particular team to manage might be akin to playing with the cards that you have been dealt with. Playing with the cards you have is a winning strategy in poker. And top poker players are insatiable in their desire to win. Being this focused is an important leadership skill in the workplace. Then there’s the art of deception, not normally seen as a desirable skill, but in poker it’s all part of the game. In many workplace situations the ability to get away with white lies, to save face or be diplomatic, or to smooth over or disguise mistakes and errors, is a big advantage.

Whether it is an act of problem solving in a work meeting or a major corporate decision, we act in the hope that we will achieve the desired result, even if it is unknown before we start. To some extent, this sounds like gambling. A book by Harvard academics Howard Stevenson and Eileen Shapiro called ‘Make Your Own Luck’ argues that the best gamblers serve as an ideal role model in how to get on in the workplace. They argue that the best gamblers are those that use “predictive intelligence” in their day-to-day lives. These are the types of gamblers who in the face of uncertainty know how to bring about the desired outcome by assessing the decisions they make on the basis of relative impact and uncertainty.

Using these two variables, Stevenson and Shapiro created a ‘gambler’s prediction map’ of four zones based on two factors – the degree of certainty and the impact. These four zones were called the ‘wallpaper zone’, the ‘wild card zone’, the ‘ant colony zone’ and the ‘ strategic rat zone’.

  • The ‘wallpaper zone’ is where decision-making has high certainty and high impact and is (the authors argue) like wallpaper because it is often ignored but can be very powerful. This is the classic low risk, high return gamble.
  • The ‘wild card zone’ is where decision-making has high uncertainty but high impact and is the classic high-risk gamble with huge rewards if it comes off.
  • The ‘ant colony zone’ is where decision-making has high certainty but low impact and is so-called because when ants act together they can still have a positive effect. This is the low risk but moderate pay back gamble.
  • The ‘strategic rat zone’ is the worst scenario for decision-making because there is both high uncertainty and low impact that in effect is putting all your money on an absolute no-hoper.

It is claimed that by using various strategies in the right zones, gamblers with good predictive intelligence will come out winners in all walks of life. So what are these winning strategies? In a nutshell, winning gamblers:

  • Identify big goals: Winners imagine the future they want to create and formulate a strategy that will help them achieve their goals.
  • Weigh the upside/downside: Winners calculate the possible upsides and downsides to decide if the risk is worth taking in the first place. They know all the rules of the venture they are getting themselves into.
  • Jump bets: Winners are able to change plans at the appropriate moment. They may have to decide very quickly whether to stay or shift from their chosen path. Gamblers with high ‘predictive intelligence’ jump before all the available information is to hand so that they can grab the opportunities that they think will not be there later down the line.
  • Have an implicit strategy: Winners make sure that it is their actions (and not just words) get them to where they want to go. They focus on the micro-details as well as the macro-goal.
  • Create a real alternative: Winners make sure they have a back-up plan in case their main strategic decision-making plan goes wrong.
  • Use prediction maps: Winners are able to forecast all the major potential influences in their chosen strategy by assessing the relative impact and uncertainty of the situation.
  • Risk splits: Where possible, winners calculate how to reduce or spread risk to others and consider all possible outcome scenarios.
  • Know what’s the ‘it’ they’re betting on: Winners know in advance what they are going to do, why and what the expected outcome is likely to be. This helps clarify whether the decision is the right one in the first place.
  • Assess possible domino effects: Winners know what actions they will take in the future based on the ones they are making now. They can assess very quickly if they will be locked into a series of follow-on bets as a result of their decision.
  • Know when it’s game over: At the simplest level, winners know when to call it quits.

The message here is simple. Good gamblers with high predictive intelligence possess many life skills that in the right circumstances can be transferred to the workplace environment.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Exploring gambling practices in work and educational environments, Casino and Gaming International, 3(1), 17-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Can gambling be a transferable skill? i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 58.

Logan, T. (2004). Gaming helps traders score big-time. BBC News, October 10. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3723922.stm

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Shapiro, E. & Stevenson, H.H. (2005). Make Your Own Luck: 12 Practical Steps To Taking Smarter Risks In Business. New York: Portfolio.