Desert Arabs using stones as pieces, and depressions in the sand as a board, in a form of dara-a gambling game (resembling ticktacktoe) popular throughout Africa.

Incidentally, there is no evidence to suggest that gambling is a natural instinct.  The games of very young children are purely competitive and carry no reward but triumph and, occasionally, token “prizes.” The competitive spirit apparently is born with the baby; but fascination with the elements of risk and the chance of gain develops later in the child’s life, and therefore seems to be an extra provided by experience.  In other words, gambling, in the sense of placing bets, is apparently part of a cultural pattern (though an exceedingly ancient one).

Why, then, do people gamble?  What is it that makes the placing of a bet and the awaiting of its outcome so very exciting to most of us?  It isn’t easy to answer these questions.  You won’t find the answers by trying to observe your own reactions to the turning wheel at Monte Carlo; you’ll soon be far too busy observing the wheel.  But change the ethnological scene, and watch a couple of Africans playing mbao (a game with board and pieces, like chess, and involving some skill); you will witness a scene of emotional intensity, the player’s eyes rolling and limbs jerking as they prostrate themselves and make appeals to gods of fortune.  (But in this case stakes are likely to be higher than you’d play for –a favorite wife, perhaps, or a herd of goats.)

In neither Monte Carlo nor the African bush, though, will you discover exactly what lies behind the fascination exerted by the whimsical turns of fortune.  Actually, it is more than mere fascination for the really confirmed gambler; it is a necessity.  Those of us who think ourselves jaunty devils whenever we place small bet on a horse certainly feel excitement; we yell as loudly as anyone else when our horse makes a final spurt for the post.  But such exhilaration isn’t so demanding that we would fling our families into penury to repeat it.

A baccarat table in France’s Deauville casino.  Though the setting is far removed from desert stones and sand, the fascination of a game of chance remains the same.

In the long history of gambling, there are countless cases of people who have done just that.  Dostoevski, for example.  He was in the clutches of gambling mania from 1862 to 1872.  It was impossible for him to resist roulette as long as he had a penny in his pocket.  His life with his second wife, Anna Grigorievna snitkina, was a limping progress from one moneylender to another.  Sometimes the moneylenders were friends and publishers, sometimes perfect strangers or pawnbrokers.  Whoever they were, the repayments (When made ) kept the writer and his wife in continual poverty.  Yet he fed like a leech on the masochistic pleasure of gambling game gave him.

In her diary, Anna describes a typical scene: “ He returned, having of course lost everything, and said he wanted to talk to me.  He took me on his knee and began to beseech me to give him another five louis.  He said he knew that that would leave us only seven louis and that we should have nothing to live on; he knew everything, but what was to be done?  In no other way could he calm himself; he said that if I did not give him the money he would go off his head….He begged me not to deprive him of the possibility of reproaching himself for his insane weakness, begged my pardon for heaven knows what, said he was unworthy of me, that he was a knave and I an angel, and so forth… I could scarcely quiet him.”

Dostoevski is only one of thousands on record as having towed their loved ones through the mud of poverty to satisfy an irrepressible urge to lose money.  But finding the motive behind such an urge is no easy task.  Ask a chronic gambler why he gambles, and you’ll get a frosty answer.  Naturally he sees no reason why he should explain, even if there is an explanation at hand, which is in mot cases improbable.

To test my shaky faith in gamblers’ knowledge of their own motives, I recently singled out 128 inveterate (as opposed to occasional) gamblers –all known to me personally.  To each I sent a questionnaire-perhaps it should have been called a suggestionnaire-that suggested eight possible reasons for excessive gambling and invited the recipients to indicate any that they felt might apply to others if not themselves (an invitation designed to relieve the exercise of its resemblance to a confessional).  The reasons I suggested were:

  1. The acquisition of unearned money-i.e., a form of greed.
  2. Social cachet-or, more bleakly, snobbery.
  3. Sexual compensation.
  4. Masochism.
  5. Boredom: the refuge of an empty mind.
  6. Intellectual exercise.
  7. The desire to prove one’s superiority to the forces of chance.
  8. Inexplicable excitement.

This portrait of Fedor Dostoevski was painted  by the Russian artist V.G.perov in 1872, when the novelist was 51.  In a letter written four years later .

A quick riffling through the replies to the suggestionnaire confirmed my suspicion that only reasons 6 and 8 would be seen by the recipients as applicable to themselves.  Reasons 1 (greed) and 2 (snobbery) were attributed to gamblers other than the recipients.  Reasons 3 (sexual compensation) and 4 (masochism )got me nothing but some unprintably ribald comments.  And only a very few respondents even bothered to consider 5 (boredom) or 7 (the desire to prove one’s superiority to the forces of chance).

So much for my own probing (though I shall be returning to it later, to prove how seriously based its premises were).  One might as well ask a pyromaniac why he finds so much joy in fire.  An objective investigation is needed, based on a knowledge & skill of the human mind.  Inevitably, one turns to the psychologist and the psychiatrist.

In the early part of the 19th century, a Swedish doctor, Erik Kröger, set up what he called a “study spa” in Zürich and began collecting drunks and compulsive gamblers.  A report on his observations, which he sent to a medical colleague, is enlightening (I have straightened out the doctor’s somewhat difficult English):

“I now have my inebriates separated from my gamblers.  Each room has a spy hole so that I can watch them unobserved… I found my gamblers in Wiesbaden, where they had been thrown out of various gambling houses for unpaid debts and quarrelsome natures.  One of them is greedy (he plays only fir small stakes and snatches his winning impatiently); another clever and conceited, for he plays only games in which he can prove his own intellectual superiority; another so empty headed that he can give his mind to nothing but cards and can’t understand even the simplest book; and yet another crazy with superstition, making him amusing to watch as he performs his ceremonies of mumbo-jumbo, rising from his chair and encircling it, bowing and whispering to his kinds of cards and dice, and working out complex formulae to control his luck.  There are also two who display symptoms of great emotion-tearing their hair, grinding their teeth, and shrieking out in passion whether they win or lose.  They will continue in this manner sometimes for 48 hours before falling into an exhausted sleep.”

Dostoevski thanked his friend and contemporary, the author ivan Turgenev, for lending him 50 taler (about $ 36).  This was one loan that Dostoevski, an inveterate gambler, pair back: At the foot of the letter is a note from Turgenev acknowledging repayment.

Fred saw sublimations of sexual acts in many typical gambling movements and gestures: in cupped hands riffling cards or throwing dice, and ;even in the croupier’s rake reaching out for chips on a roulette table.

Unfortunately, Dr Kröger’s studies petered out when the law gripped him for confining people against their wills.  But, given the chance, he might have got in ahead of Freud with a study of one particular kind of behavior.  In any case, he apparently uncovered at least three of the motives I suggested to my gambling skill friends-greed, boredom, and the desire to prove oneself superior to the forces of chance.

Freud, when he came along, suggested that sexual compensation was very much at the back of the gambler’s urges.  “The fluttering movements of a card dealer’s hands,” he wrote, “the thrust and withdrawal motions of the croupier’s rake, and the shaking of the dice box can all be identified with sublimations of copulation or masturbation.”

Freud saw sublimations of sexual acts in many typical gambling movements and gestures: in cupped hands riffling cards or throwing dice, and even in the croupier’s rake reaching out for chips on a roulette table.

As we all know, Freud had an unsettling tendency to find sexual symbols in almost everything.  But his idea has been supported by evidence from a good many later psychiatrists.  Three whom I have questioned produced among them seven case histories involving marriages that had gone adrift-all of them featuring husbands who were heavy and insistent gamblers, five of them arraigned by their wives for sexual frigidity.  One psychiatrist told me: “Of course I’m not saying that gambling is a consciously selected alternative to sexual activity; but it can be an outlet for sexual activity that has been frustrated –for any of a dozen reasons-in its normal form.  Compulsive gamblers do exhaust themselves emotionally, and evidence sifted from a good many case histories suggests that they also incline to sexual frigidity.”

            Dostoevski wrote to his wife that he actually experienced orgasm on losing (not winning, please note) a large sum at roulette game one night.  And the American psychologist Robert M. Lindner has written a paper on “The Psychodynamics of Gambling” in which he cites the case of one of his own patients whose symptoms almost exactly paralleled Dostoevski’s, and who motive, Lindner found upon analysis, was simply a more satisfying alternative to masturbation caused by childhood frustrations.  Chronic gamblers, Lindner state, “seem all to be strongly aggressive person with huge reservoirs of unconscious hostility and resentment…” Another psychiatrist, Ralph Greenson, says: “The gambler masochistically enjoys his fear of losing and continues it as long as possible, because when he leaves the table or racecourse to take up his ordinary life some really intolerable fear awaits him; the smaller fear of losing his money is by comparison a pleasure.  The mock struggle is a sublimation of a real struggle.”