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Indignity Vol. 1, No. 48: Putting the "vice" in advice.
Always Bet on Lunch
Dear The Sophist,
Several years ago I moved from the United States to a country nearly as puritanical with one notable exception: it's a gambling free-for-all here. Until recently, I mostly ignored this new freedom, except to occasionally lose small amounts of money at the bookies on the national team's plucky underdogs.
Then my brother-in-law convinced me that there's actually a lot of money to be made on their betting apps, so long as you play it smart. Sure enough, this has become a steady stream of income for me. Without going into too much detail, it's basically a glorified version of how credit cards operate in the US. There are lucrative sign-up bonuses and then incentives to remain in the game, all the while they're waiting for you to become impulsive and undisciplined so they can profit.
Bet X on upcoming match in cash to receive X in free bets = bet on stupid things twice and lose everything.
10 free spins on a slot machine each day you check the app = win 'big' during that short period and lose more in your excitement.
Those who are mathematically-minded or fiscally-reticent are able to see what, with patience, you can make over time if you combine low expectations with steady persistence. Suffice to say, I'm making at least enough to cover lunch each day, and, on the occasion I do make a stupid choice (you cannot understate the role of gambler's fallacy, even at such small stakes). I try to rectify this by making a change in my real life finances that I've been putting off which will save me more money in the long term. With the exception of the moderate drain it has on my time and thoughts, this has been a positive experience for me.
Here's the dilemma: more and more is coming out about what an astoundingly negative effect these companies have on society here. People are killing themselves, throwing their income away, destroying close relationships. I'm not worried about falling into this trap myself because I'm very open about what I'm doing and would stop as soon as I fell behind. But I don't want to make things worse for anyone else. My brother-in-law counsels that we're doing a positive thing by reducing the industry's bottom line, though I wonder if we're actually upholding their image and that they'll use us in an aggregate to present good, responsible gamblers to any regulators. Is there a way to mitigate this collateral damage? Should I walk away from what is for me an idle pastime but for others a system of life-ruining predation?
Unsure whether to hold them or fold them
You are asking if it is OK...to enrich yourself...at the expense of...a casino? The Sophist cannot think of a better way to illustrate the rightness of taking free money than by answering the easiest question ever to cross this desk. You want the money, collect the money!
Since gambling sets itself up as a source of entertainment, The Sophist might as well play through your various bluffs on the way to the answer you already know. Does the gambling industry hurt other people? Yes. And the booze industry feeds off alcoholics. Your choice to have a nice little glass of scotch after dinner has no measurable bearing whatsoever on the fate of the liver of the guy going through a case of Old Milwaukee every night. The problem exists on a scale immune to your influence.
Are you somehow laundering the reputation of the gambling-app industry by refusing to go into a losing spiral, thereby presenting a falsely healthy example of its relationship to its customers? Check yourself in the mirror next time you're thumbing a wager into your phone—do you look like you're tossing back Clicquot while facing Le Chiffre across the baccarat table? You are not the bait, here; the app industry is not selling itself to customers as an aspirational lifestyle.
In that aggregate you're fretting about, you are a lone figure in the ones column of some very large number, if that number is even audited for public consumption. You're a rounding error. If you weren't, the companies couldn't afford to be as generous as they are with the play credits.
Everything you do in this world is going to be harmful somehow. Choosing to spend your time doing low-grade computer wagering is almost certainly better than putting gas in your car and going for a drive. Or eating a steak, or flying back and forth in jet airplanes between your new home overseas and the U.S.A. You've probably taken on more guilt for human suffering from the mining of the minerals to build the device you're gambling on than you have from the gambling itself.
There is a whole tradition of collecting the spillover from the casino industry's predatory cash flows for your own benefit. Elderly people ride the casino buses from Flushing to get the free buffet food, selling off their promotional casino credits to fellow passengers to cover the bus ticket and turn a small profit. Follow their example and their discipline—keep real track of how many times you make a "stupid choice," and don't talk yourself into pretending it didn't happen—and enjoy your free lunch.
Know when to walk away,