Chapter 3 - Illusions of Control
Why do we bet? To a gambler, this is not so much a question as an invitation. Ask and in no time, odds against well worn theories would be chalked up somewhere; including, the basis for gambling is a desire to lose everything in order to test the unconditional love of a father. It would be odds on that a good few of them would also feature something about maternal relations, too.
Sigmund Freud on betting would not be anywhere near favourite these days. To summarise his theory, gambling is a form of masturbation would be an extremely simplified précis. Even in full, academics dwell little on these notions today. In a book published in 1995 and titled Adolescent Gambling, by Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling at Trent University, he outlined a host of more contemporary explanations behind the subconscious desire to bet. These largely focus on the part of the population – between 0.2 per cent and 1 per cent, according to experts – that are reckoned to be pathological gamblers.
Griffiths, himself, has a taste for casinos. This is leisure time, he reasons, which, along with other distractions, he ‘buys’ by exposing himself potentially to financial losses. In other words, time and money spent at the tables incurring inevitable losses is no different to that spent watching Nottingham Forest, his other passion, having splashed out comparable amounts of cash on a match ticket. Professionally speaking, Griffiths is not short of subject matter in the shape of the world’s many gamblers to analyse in addition to the pathologically challenged who are the focus of much specialist work. National surveys of betting habits almost universally conclude that in the Western world there are more gamblers than nongamblers. Estimates of the proportion of Britain that bets in some form or other vary from 80 per cent to 94 per cent of the population, with up to 68 per cent of Americans and as many as 92 per cent of Australians sharing in the habit. In the UK, recent estimates suggest that, on average, citizens each bet £800 a year with a quarter of all turnover staked on the Internet. All this before even considering Asia.
That a majority in most countries bet, fits in with a conclusion to some of the research undertaken by Emmanuel Moran, published in 1970, one of a number of scholars referred to by Griffiths in his compelling book. He found that gambling flourishes because of the pressures on those to bet, who find themselves among other risk takers. In other words, peer pressure is a big factor in gambling. Other factors unearthed in what compels us, overall, to have a bet include the desire to release stress and tension. This may puzzle those who find a bet achieves the exact opposite. Each to his own.
"Why do we bet? To a gambler, this is not so much a question as an invitation."
According to Griffiths, Owen Wolkowitz, Alec Roy, and Allen Doran published work in 1985 that supported the theory that most gambling habits have their roots in adolescence. These desires are then kick-started by an adult shock such as a death or birth. A year earlier, Henry Lesieur and Robert Custer identified phases in escalation of gambling habits; the winning phase, the losing phase, and the desperation phase for those who develop a fullblown addiction. Various views exist on what each of these phases involve. Suffice to say that one school of thought claims to have unearthed a fourth relevant period; the hopeless phase. Reputedly, this is gambling for gambling’s sake. The research behind this touched on ‘laboratory animals with electrodes planted in their pleasure centres, they gamble to the point of exhaustion’. A word of warning, there, if ever there was one.
Back to Freud; we should note that his theorising on gambling was based primarily on one patient’s experiences, whom the good doctor is reputed never actually to have met. (Edmund Bergler, whose idea that gambling is simply guilt relief in losing is rated more credible today, did at least have 200 cases to consider in his research in the 1950s). So Freud’s analogies between betting and masturbation – impulses, promises to stop often broken, guilt on completion – probably deserve, along with plenty of other Freud musings, to end up discarded. Certainly they are currently discredited along with much of Freud’s other work. Back in 1920 Georg Simmel gave them more credence than they might expect today, equating a bet with foreplay and winning with orgasm. Losing was akin to ejaculation? Apparently? Well I never.
In Bergler’s day, Griffiths maintains, behavioural theories began to take a hold of the debate as to why people bet. The argument here was that if you won at the first time of asking or early on in your gambling experiences, you would bet again. After that – as most gamblers who start off winning do eventually lose – the simple thrill of having a bet in the hope that you might win is what shapes the behavioural pattern. Indeed, some argue that the more you lose, the more an eventual win – and a return back to that elated state of mind that came with early successes when all things seemed possible – is cherished and desired. Gamblers can be a nostalgic bunch, it would seem. Modern-day arousal theories of betting – the desire to experience again the thrill of success – to some extent take us back to Freud, though there is a distinction made between sexual arousal and other forms of heightened human states that gambling theories mean by ‘arousal’.
Cognitive therapists, something of a fad in the present day for those who prefer not to handle questions on maternal relations when on the couch, perhaps represent the opposite view. Some of these emphasise that gamblers suffer, not from heightened states but from the illusion of control. Research in the 1980s unearthed within gamblers the state of mind in which they were happy to claim that winning was as a result of skill while maintaining that losing was a consequence of bad luck. If you are a gambler, ask yourself this: do you think you are in general better than everyone else? If the answer is a deluded yes, these theories urge you to bet carefully. Things may yet spiral.
Consider for a moment a more sophisticated form of gambling. In the financial markets, they prefer to call the process speculation. The selection of top traders featured in Jack D. Schwager’s American bestseller, Market Wizards, can claim tangibly to have enjoyed a considerable edge. In other words, they believe themselves to be better than the market on the grounds of annual dividends from their betting. The book is one to which Andrew Black often refers when considering the mindset of those who speculate or – call it what you will – gamble. Titles of chapters, each featuring the gambling philosophy of a respected, successful trader in stock, options, and commodities range from ‘Respecting Risk’ to ‘The Art of Selection’, ‘One Lot Triumphs’, and ‘Everybody Gets What they Want’. The final chapter is, tellingly, ‘Understanding The Basics’.
"In the UK, on average, citizens each bet £800 a year with a quarter of all turnover staked on the Internet."
In Market Wizards – it is hard not to note that the author’s name is Sch-Wager but this is no invention – there are seventeen individual traders featured all of whom expand on highly contrasting approaches to investment. What does this say to us? Perhaps instead of looking for one theory that fits all, best to consider some further words from Griffiths, on why we bet. In Adolescent Gambling, he writes: ‘Gambling is a complex, multidimensional activity that is unlikely to be explained by any single theory.’ Simon Cawkwell is seated in front of a bank of computer screens, looking out onto an affluent Chelsea street rich in BMWs, Porsches, and Aston Martins with, naturally enough, personalised number plates. His contributions to academic speculation by the likes of Griffiths on the reasons for gambling are modest. Cawkwell is a most helpful and accommodating sort of cove. But he offers no deep insight into the subconscious reasons for him betting. Simply, he does it to make a living so that he can continue to call home an expansive ground floor flat that is in an area with such horsepower alongside a liberally sprinkling of the area’s renowned Four-by-Four ‘Chelsea tractors’.
The screens in front of Cawkwell in his study room looking out on to the well-heeled neighbourhood show listings of stock market prices and fluctuations in currency rates. To the right of the electronic information wall is a television showing a live feed of the afternoon’s horseracing. To the left is a small library of tax manuals, and some back issues of Investors’ Chronicle. Rather than a psychological digression offering insight into what drives him to speculate huge sums on a daily basis at great risk, this is all Cawkwell needs to conduct his business – in addition to tea at regular intervals brought in by his wife. A little Buddha figure on the mantelpiece watches over proceedings, serenely, alongside photographs of adoring daughters. This is not the office of a troubled soul. Sure, he analyses his trading back to days in short trousers but this hardly qualifies as the sort of case study that occupies the likes of Professor Griffiths.
On the matter of betting, Cawkwell, a large man both figuratively and philosophically, is quick to become nostalgic. ‘Gambling at Rugby school was such an exciting world,’ he recalls. ‘Captain Heath’s tips in the Daily Mail, I was fascinated. I was always interested in statistics. Though I’m no statistician, this awareness of the maths did help me back a few winners. In those days, the extra money was handy. Then I read Memories of a Fox Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon – Edwardian England; another world to try and understand – and Memories of an Infantry Officer by the same author. In these books, a hunting acquaintance has a horse laid out for one of the Flat season’s big handicaps. I was fascinated. Something like Flying Banana and £10 each way! I really cannot remember. Was it the Cambridgeshire Handicap at Newmarket? Whatever the details, I was gripped by the thought.’ Cawkwell wanted to sample more of what was behind this, himself.
‘This was in the 1960s. We would catch the train to Sandown. I could well be wrong but I recall that a gin and tonic en route was 2’6” with admission to the track at 30 shillings. I remember one afternoon in particular. There was practically no wind so the air was thick with cigar smoke. I looked down the bookmakers’ rails, where they all stood. I could see only a blue haze. The way the bookmakers used their voices to shape the market was fascinating. It was like trading on the Stock Exchange in those days and showed me, up close, how this was done. I knew I could learn from this environment as there were some masters in action.’ He sighs, deeply adrift in the past: ‘I was earning £600 a year working at Cooper Brothers, the accountants. More interesting to me was the Druid’s Lodge, with private gallops on the Wiltshire Downs. They knew exactly how good their horses were but no one else did. What a marvellous state of affairs.’
Cawkwell is also known, among fellow professionals, as Evil Knievel, a billing he made up for himself when, preferring to remain anonymous, he circulated a critique flagging up the vagaries of the late Robert Maxwell’s financial set up well ahead of its ultimate collapse. Being the first to rumble that Maxwell’s empire was far from financially sound is perhaps his most substantive claim to fame, so far. In this particular case, by ‘short stocking’ he made a fortune playing the markets. (Short stocking is leasing shares, then selling them at a price in the expectation that the price will fall. Then buying them back at a reduced, and profitable, price ahead of returning them to their original owner.) There have been other great days. At the same time, from the day he opened his first bookmakers’ account with D.Upex of Argyll Street, the premier turf accounts of the day (evolving ultimately into Heathorns before being swallowed up by Jennings-Bet in 2007), he has won – and lost – millions betting.
As Griffiths had warned, rooting out why people bet is complex. Rather than considering the general question, why do we bet, let us narrow our inquiry to asking, instead, why do the likes of Cawkwell chose Betfair above other bookmakers when betting? Analysing beyond why Betfair is his choice of outlet for bets today could prove as difficult to fathom as the multitude of digits and colour codes on his screens.
"According to Freud, gambling is a form of masturbation."
Even with access to someone who is by reputation something of a professional gambler as a point of departure, offering potential insight to the mindset of those who bet, there is a more fundamental obstacle to finding an answer to the question: why do people in growing numbers trade on Betfair? Any analysis of the Internet behaviour is hampered by the pursuit under scrutiny having little more than a decade of evidence to consider. Gambling reputedly goes all the way back to when Thoth, the Egyptian god of gambling among other perhaps more worthwhile pursuits, won a bet with the moon to add five days to the lunar calendar, making possible – so legend has it – the creation of the human race. Yet, the most recent innovation of Internet wagering, significant only since 2000, remains virtually untouched substantially by research.
To the end of 2008, the only truly significant study of Internet betting behaviour drawing on a representative sample was a paper published the previous year. TitledAssessing the Playing Field: A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Internet Sports Gambling Behavior, Richard A. LaBrie, Debi A. LaPlante, Sara E. Nelson, Anja Schumann and Howard J. Shapper put together research that ultimately appeared in the Harvard Medical Journal. The five researchers cannot be accused, like Freud, of drawing on a limited sample. Over 40,000 account holders with the Austrian-based web sports betting operation, bwin, were quizzed on the assumption that, unlike with other surveys, those questioned with the absolute guarantee of anonymity, actually answered truthfully. Overall, splitting behaviour into that related to fixed odds and betting-in-running, they concluded, among other revelations, that the latter lost less (18 per cent of stake) than those who took fixed odds, who were 29 per cent down, and that women bet for shorter periods than men.
Also concluded was that ‘big gamblers’ don’t all fit into one category; some bet big and infrequently, some bet almost compulsively yet for relatively small stakes, and some – of course – bet big and often. Overall, the work of LaBrie, LaPlante, Nelson, Schumann, and Shapper is, like Cawkwell, at least a point of departure. As for other insights, pending new research we are reduced to considering the case of Bryan Benjafield. Benjafield, a bookkeeper, was sentenced in August 2008 to five years in prison for stealing over £1 million to bet on the web. ‘When one sits at home alone in a room, the figures become meaningless,’ the court heard. Bearing in mind, with the Internet it is possible to place a bet of many thousands simply by pressing a button, relevant also might be the idea that some gamblers suffer from the equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) with primary symptoms of inattention and impulsivity critical when your finger hovers of the keyboard.