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Betting kicks in flicks: A brief look at gambling on film

As a researcher in the gambling studies field and an avid watcher of films, it comes as little surprise that I love watching films where gambling is key to the plot. Occasionally, I write academic papers about gambling portrayals in film (most notably an in-depth look at my favourite gambling film, The Gambler – the original 1974 film starring James Caan in the title role and not the more recent 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg – which I published in a 2004 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). I wrote about this paper in a previous blog and I have also written a few blogs where gambling films are central to the articles such as my blog on Philip Seymour Hoffman and his film Owning Mahowny, my blog on the psychology of Columbo (where I argued that gambling and gamblers are central to many of the plot lines), and my blog on the psychopathology of Star Wars (where problem gambling is one of the many disorders that features in the film’s franchise).

casino-movie

The world of gambling and gamblers has been portrayed in many films and in many different ways throughout the years (e.g., The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino, Owning Mahoney, Rain Man). However, I argued (way back) in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior that many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portray gamblers, largely male, as hero figures. I made this observation without doing any systematic review of films containing gambling and my thoughts were purely impressionistic.

A decade ago, Dr. Nigel Turner and his colleagues published a lovely study in the Journal of Gambling Issues examining ‘images of gambling’ in films. They built on Jeffrey Dement’s 1999 book Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. They noted that:

“Dement’s (1999) book, Going for Broke is a thorough examination of movies that depict pathological gambling. He examined a number of films in terms of the extent to which the portrayals delivered accurate and appropriate messages about problem gambling. Although some movies accurately portray the nature of pathological gambling at least during some segments, Dement found that many movies about pathological gambling had irresponsibly happy endings. Film images in some cases reflected societal views on gambling. However, images in films may also alter societal views of gambling (Dement, 1999)…Dement focused only on movies that were about problem and pathological gambling. Many films that depict gambling or have images of gambling that are not about pathological gambling per se. In [our] article we will extend Dement’s work by looking more broadly at films about gambling”.

In their study, Turner and colleagues content analysed 65 films (from an initial list of “several hundred films”) mainly from the two decades prior to the publication of the study. The authors recounted that:

Many of the films we discuss are personal favourites that we have watched several times (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler, Vegas Vacation, The Godfather). Some of the films reviewed in this article have been also discussed by [other scholars]. Some films were included because they were found listed as gambling films in film catalogues or by Web searches for ‘gambling movies’ (e.g., Get Shorty). Other films were suggested to us by recovering pathological gamblers, counsellors specializing in problem gambling, recreational gamblers, video rental store employees, and postings to the bulletin board of Gambling Issues International (a listserve for gambling treatment professionals). Our examination of movies was restricted to movies released in cinemas (i.e., not television), and filmed in English (with one exception, Pig’s Law)…In all cases, either the first or second author viewed each film. In some cases both authors viewed the same film separately. The authors then discussed the themes that they thought were depicted in the film. The authors then collected the descriptions of movies and organized them into general themes”. 

After viewing (and re-viewing) the films, the authors found eight themes (often overlapping) represented in the movies watched. More specifically these were the themes of: (1) pathological gambling (films such as Fever Pitch, The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, Pig’s Law, etc.), (2) the magical skill of the professional gambler (Rain Man, Two For The Money, The Cincinatti Kid, Maverick, etc.), (3) miraculous wins as happy endings (The Cooler, The Good Thief, Two For The Money, etc.), (4) gamblers are suckers (Casino, Croupier, Two For The Money, etc., (5) gamblers cheat (Rounders, The Sting, House of Games, The Grifters, etc.), (6) gambling is run by organized crime (The Godfather, Casino, Get Shorty, etc.), (7) the casino heist (Ocean’s Eleven, The Good Thief, Croupier, etc.), and (8) gambling as a symbolic backdrop to the story (Leaving Las Vegas, Pay It Forward, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.).

After this initial content analysis, Dr. Turner and his colleagues organized these eight themes into a general taxonomy of films. They reported that:

“First these films can be divided into two categories: films in which gambling is a central focus of the film, and others where gambling is a relatively minor topic but serves a symbolic role in the film. The films that are about gambling can be further divided into those that present generally negative views of gambling (e.g., pathology, crime, cheating) and those that present a generally positive image of gambling (e.g., magical skills and miraculous wins). The positive image is mainly related to the ability of the player to win (by skill or by miracle), but some of these films also add additional positive images by hinting at a glamorous and exciting lifestyle (The Good Thief, James Bond films, Rounders). Negative images of gambling are more common than positive images of gambling. Negative images were further divided into pathological gambling, suckers, cheaters, organized crime, and robbing casinos”.

They also go on to note that: very few films show ordinary people gambling non-problematically:

“Throughout the history of movies, gambling-related stories have been present. Movies about gambling are most often inhabited by problem gamblers (e.g., The Gambler), cheats (e.g., Shade), criminals (e.g., The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven), spies (e.g., Diamonds are Forever), people with incredible luck (e.g., Stealing Harvard), and professional gamblers (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler). With the exception of The Odd Couple (1968), we have come across few movies that show ordinary people gambling in a non-problematic manner”.

With regards to problem and pathological gambling they conclude that:

“Some movies provide important insights into the nature of pathological gambling (e.g., The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, The Hustler). However, others make light of the disorder or indulge in the wishful thinking common with pathological gamblers (e.g., Let It Ride, The Cooler, Fever Pitch, The Good Thief). In some movies people develop a problem too quickly (Viva Rock Vegas, Lost in America). Some films take the view that all gamblers are addicted (Croupier, Two for the Money)…Most films about pathological gambling depict a narrow segment of the problem gambling population focusing on the male “action” gambler (see also Griffiths, 2004). Most pathological gamblers simply do not embezzle millions of dollars as in Owning Mahowny or take stupid risks just for the thrill of it as in The Gambler. Films rarely show gamblers hooked on slot machines or other electronic gambling machines even though such machines, where they are available, now account for a majority of problem gamblers in treatment”.

Obviously the sample of films chosen was selective and there were over a hundred films that weren’t analysed. However, even though the study was published ten years ago I don’t think the results (if repeated on more contemporary films) would be particularly different.

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

Further reading

Dement, J.W. (1999) Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Gluss, H.M. & Smith, S.E., (2002). Reel people: Finding ourselves in the movies. Keylight: Los Angeles.

Turner, N. E., Fritz, B., & Zangeneh, M. (2007). Images of gambling in film. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 117-143.

Acting up: Do gambling films accurately portray pathological gambling?

The media undoubtedly has a large impact on how we perceive the world in which we live, especially on matters we know little or nothing about. Pathological gambling is one social concern that has been portrayed by a number of movie-makers around the world, although the depth to which each film explores the issue differs greatly. The world of gambling and gamblers has been portrayed in many films and in many different ways throughout the years (e.g., The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino, Owning Mahoney, Rain Man). However, I argued in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior that many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portray gamblers, largely male, as hero figures.

One film that has dealt entirely with the downside of gambling is The Gambler (1974; directed by Karel Reisz), and starring James Caan in the lead role as Professor Alex Freed, a university lecturer in literature and a compulsive gambler. The film is probably the most in-depth fictional film about the life of a pathological gambler. Back in 2004, I published an academic paper in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction on this film and assessed the extent to which the film accurately portrayed the “typical” pathological gambler by using the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling in the last three editions of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I concluded that the film accurately portrayed most of the criteria in the DSM-III, the DSM-III-R, and the DSM-IV. In addition, I also examined other parts of the film’s text and scenarios to examine the film’s theoretical perspective and its relevance to contemporary representations of pathological gambling.

The start of the film sees Freed go into $44,000 debt after gambling and losing at blackjack, craps and roulette in a casino. The film’s main story revolves around Alex’s attempt to pay back his debt to mobsters. His mother, a doctor, gives him the money that he then gambles away almost immediately through sports betting. Faced with no money to pay the mobsters, and no family to bail him out, he cancels his debt by illegally fixing a basketball game for the mobsters with the help of one of his students who is on the basketball team. The film’s main theme, aside from pathological gambling, is Freed’s masochistic tendency that is highlighted in the final scene. Here, Freed walks into a white “no-go” area of New York, walks into a bar, hires a prostitute, refuses to pay her and is then confronted by her knife-wielding pimp who he dares to kill him. Freed then batters the pimp, but is cut across the face by the prostitute using her pimp’s knife. The film ends with Freed leaving the room with a heavily bleeding face.

When Freed is asked by his girlfriend why he gambles to excess, he responds:

“It’s just something I like to do. I like the uncertainty of it … I like the threat of losing…the idea that…uh…I could lose but that somehow I won’t because I don’t want to…that’s what I like… and I love winning even though it never lasts”.

This reply by Freed, to some extent, hints at the film’s outlook on pathological gambling. However, the film’s basic premise is that gamblers gamble because they want to lose, thereby partially adhering to Edmund Bergler’s [1957] psychodynamic account of gambling. Bergler extended Freud’s ideas about guilt-relief in losing, and argued that gambling is a rebellious act, an aggression against logic, intelligence, moderation and morality. Ultimately, gambling is the denial of parental authority – a denial of the reality principle (i.e., even the gambler’s parents – who symbolize logic, intelligence and morality – cannot predict a chance outcome). According to Bergler, the unconscious desire to lose arises when gambling activates forbidden unconscious desires (e.g., parricidal feelings). The financial loss provides the punishment to maintain the gambler’s psychological equilibrium. According to this view, gambling is, in essence, masochistic. While the psychodynamic perspective highlights the fact that reasons for gambling may involve unconscious desires, there is very sparse in contemporary research literature that supports Bergler’s theoretical perspective on gambling.

In the course of the film, the viewpoint that gambling is masochistic and motivated by a desire to lose is forwarded only once in a conversation by Freed and ‘Hips’, one of the mobsters who is also one of Freed’s friends:

Hips: “Listen, I’m gonna tell you something I’ve never told a customer before. Personally I’ve never made a bet in my life. You know why? Because I’ve observed first hand what we see in the different kinds of people that are addicted to gambling, what we would call degenerates. I’ve noticed there’s one thing that makes all of them the same. You know what that is?”

Freed: “Yes. They’re all looking to lose” Hips: “You mean you knew that?”

Freed: “I could have wiped the floor with your ass” Hips: “Yeah? How?”

Freed: “By playing just the games I knew I’d win”

Hips: “Then why didn’t you?”

Freed: “Listen, if all my bets were safe there just wouldn’t be any juice”

The masochistic tendencies run throughout the film until the very final scene. However, another interpretation was put forward by psychologists Dr Richard Rosenthal and Dr Lori Rugle in a 1994 issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies. These authors said that there is a group of gamblers for whom it is not winning that is all-important, but losing. According to an earlier paper by Dr Rosenthal, it is the risk of getting hurt and losing everything that is exciting for them (i.e., “living on the edge”), which he described as omnipotent provocation. Such omnipotent provocation is akin to a deliberate flirting with fate (and danger) to prove one is in control. Rosenthal and Rugle argue this thesis on the basis of the final scene from The Gambler:

“In the climactic scene, the compulsive gambler-protagonist…walks the streets of Harlem, alone and at night, fully aware of the taunts and the threats that follow him. He enters a bar and provokes a fight with a prostitute and her knife-wielding pimp. After getting slashed, he staggers out, blood pouring from his face. In the final frame, he has stopped to look in the mirror, and while examining what will soon be a huge scar, he smiles. His expression says it all. He has gone to the edge, escaped with his life, and that, for him, is a big win”.

From the synopsis of the film presented above, it could be argued that, for Alex Freed, life in itself was one big gamble. Although the theme of desired losing is the film’s message, the desire to lose is suppressed when Freed talks to most people. To his students, Freed intellectualizes his gambling using the work of Dostoevsky (who was indeed a pathological gambler himself). For instance, quoting from Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky, 1864), Freed lectures his students on reason and rationality. Although not alluding to gambling, he quotes Dostoevsky’s assertion:

“Reason only satisfies man’s rational requirements, desire on the other hand accompanies everything, and desire is life”.

To others around him (i.e., his family, girlfriend, fellow gamblers, and bookmakers), much of Freed’s gambling talk is bravado. For instance, just as he is about to pay his debt to the mobsters with the money his mother had given him, he takes an impulse trip to Las Vegas with his girlfriend.

My analysis of the film The Gambler argued that the Freed character is a fairly accurate representation of a pathological gambler and of what is known about pathological gambling. There is anecdotal evidence that pathological gamblers identify with the film and that it is an accurate portrayal-at least of the typical male gambler seen in treatment. The actions of Alex Freed (e.g., pre-occupation with gambling, deterioration of relationships due to gambling, gambling to win back losses, and illegal acts performed to solve problems) are (a) familiar to anyone who encounters pathological gamblers in either a professional or personal capacity, and (b) would be similar to any pathological gambler, regardless of the rhetorical justifications and subjective motivations (i.e., excessive gamblers will display the same observable behaviour despite different etiological roots or theoretical perspectives). If The Gambler was the only film regarding pathological gambling that the general public ever saw, then it is fair to say they would go away with a good perspective on what pathological gambling is and what it can do to people. What the film does not adequately do is explain that there is more than one reason as to why people might gamble excessively.

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

Further reading

Bergler, E. (1957). The psychology of gambling. New York: Hill & Wang, Inc.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Rosenthal, R. J. (1986). The pathological gambler’s system for self deception. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 2, 108- 120.

Rosenthal, R. J., & Rugle, L. J. (1994). A psychodynamic approach to the treatment of pathological gambling: Part 1. Achieving abstinence. Journal of Gambling Studies, 10, 21-42.