Stoicism was a popular line of philosophical thinking (and action) in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Much stoic thinking originated from thinkers like Zeno, Socrates, Heraclitus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.
Stoicism focuses on morality, and a stoic’s goal is to seek happiness through living a good (virtuous) life.
A stoic’s goal is to accept the present as it is, not as you wish it were. Your goal is to free yourself from pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidance. Instead, as a stoic, you’ll find happiness by being a good person.
I should point out that you don’t have to be an ascetic to be a stoic, nor do you have to deny yourself pleasure. Wealth and pleasure are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. Yes, you can gamble as a stoic. The trick is to detach emotionally from the outcomes—at least somewhat.
Stoicism is enjoying a revival in popularity lately. I thought it would be fun to look at how a gambler might be happier if he employed some stoic philosophy and attitudes toward his hobby.
The Enchiridion of Epictetus
The Enchiridion of Epictetus is a short manual to stoic philosophy and living the good life. The first line is possibly one of the most important premises in stoicism.
“Some things are in our control and others not.”
How can this make you a better gambler?
Suppose you’re a poker player, and you put a bunch of money into the pot with pocket aces pre-flop in your Texas hold’em game. You get called by a guy with 7-8 suited, and he wins the pot with a flush.
You get mad, and you decide that since other players are winning pots with weaker hands than yours, you’re going to start betting and raising indiscriminately.
This is called “going on tilt.”
Most poker writers will be happy to explain to you the foolishness of going on tilt. You’re having an emotional reaction to something that’s out of your control. You should derive your sense of satisfaction from what’s in your control.
In this case, you raised preflop with pocket aces. That’s the correct move to make, even if you lost a pot by making that move. Rational people understand that they’ll occasionally lose in that situation.
In fact, you’ll probably lose in that situation multiple times in a row at some point in your poker career.
It doesn’t matter.
In the long run, making the correct moves in poker will result in profits.
The emotional player who focuses on what’s out of his control—the cards that fall subsequent to his raise—loses in the long run because he makes irrational decisions.
The stoic player who maintains his calm and derives his satisfaction from making the right decision regardless of the outcome wins in the long run. Rational, positive-expectation decisions result in long-term profits.
I used to play poker with a guy whose nickname was “Lobster.” I don’t even remember his real name anymore. He used to say, “DBSRO.”
That stands for “don’t be so results-oriented.”
He’s talking about orienting yourself around making correct decisions instead of orienting yourself around the results of those decisions.
This same line of thought can be used to make better decisions in any gambling game that requires any degree of skill. It even applies to those games where the only skill is in choosing the bet with the lowest house edge.
In blackjack, the stoic would use basic strategy and possibly count cards. He would never be discouraged after a losing session. His only regret would be if he had made incorrect decisions.
In video poker, the stoic would choose the game with the best pay table and play with as close to optimal strategy as humanly possible. Win or lose, he’d feel good about making correct decisions repeatedly.
A stoic will find a European roulette game to play instead of an American roulette wheel. The house edge for European roulette is only 2.70% compared to 5.26%. He would take pleasure from choosing the right version of the game even if he lost money playing it.
A stoic will stick with the pass line or don’t pass bets at the craps table. He’ll also take the maximum odds bet when it becomes available. Win or lose, he’ll be happy that he didn’t bet on any of the sucker bets on the table—of which there are many.
A stoic gambler is the living embodiment of the serenity prayer in a casino setting.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
2- The Stoic Virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Justice, and Temperance
The stoics believed that the only real route to happiness was to develop virtue and take pleasure in that. To that end, they created a taxonomy of virtue, categorized into 4 main virtues.
They subdivided these virtues into categories, too.
Per the stoics, wisdom consists of the following
It’s easy to see how these virtues of wisdom apply to your gambling hobby. A gambler with good sense doesn’t wager money he can’t afford to lose. A gambler who can make good calculation sticks with the games which offer the best odds. Discretion also involves choosing the right games for the right reasons.
A resourceful gambler can find a stake for a game if that’s what he needs to do to make a living.
Courage consists of the following traits and activities.
It’s hard NOT to see the immediate applications to successful gambling. If you’ve ever played in a poker tournament that lasted 8 hours or more, you’ve seen how endurance is necessary to be a winner. It’s also hard to imagine a poker player who wins if he isn’t confident in his abilities.
High-mindedness is less obvious, but isn’t it high-minded to refrain from giving advice at the blackjack or poker table? Giving your opponents credit for being intelligent and rational is an important aspect of gambling etiquette.
When you’re focused on what you can control in gambling as opposed to what you can’t, it gets a lot easier to be cheerful. After all, why would it matter if you’ve hit a streak of bad luck in the short run?
You know that if you continue making the correct decisions, the worm will eventually turn your way.
Industriousness means being willing to work hard. I know professional online poker players who work harder than any entrepreneur I’ve ever met. Gambling might be play for some people, but it’s work for professionals. Laziness has no place in gambling success.
Justice might be a virtue that doesn’t seem to apply to gambling, but let’s see what makes up “justice” to the stoic gambler.
This one’s tricky. I think it’s hard to be pious when you’re gambling, so let’s skip that one.
Honesty is a stoic virtue that applies to gambling. After all, who wants to gamble with a cheater? In fact, cheat at some of the table games in Las Vegas, and you could spend some time behind bars. It’s a felony there.
On the other hand, honesty isn’t the default setting for successful poker players. Deception is a major part of poker strategy. But since the other players presumably understand that you’ll sometimes try to misrepresent your hand, it’s not really dishonest in the way some people might think.
Fair dealing might simply mean tipping your dealer and the cocktail waitresses.
Temperance might easily be translated to “moderation.” Here are the qualities that make up this virtue.
Everyone knows that self-discipline matters when it comes to gambling. If you don’t have the self-discipline to only gamble with money you can afford to lose, you should stay out of the casino.
If you don’t have the self-discipline to fold bad hands in a poker game, don’t sit down at the card table. Self-control is roughly synonymous with self-discipline.
Seemliness and modesty might seem less relevant, but consider what the opposites of those are. Braggarts and show-offs are no fun to gamble with. You’ve probably seen them in the casino. They’re not pretty, are they?
Some people might think that temperance would encourage you to refrain from gambling altogether. This might be true for some people, especially people with demonstrated impulse control problems. Most addicts and alcoholics probably should avoid gambling, too.
But other people can enjoy gambling in moderation. That’s a personal decision. My job is to educate you in the hopes of making you a more effective gambler. It’s your job to decide if gambling is something you want to engage in
In fact, it’s hard to imagine how these stoic virtues DON’T apply to becoming a better gambler.
Spiritual Exercises of the Stoics
The stoics didn’t just lay out these virtues and say, “Hey, go be virtuous, and here’s what we mean by virtue.”
They had specific spiritual exercises to help them develop these virtues. Many of these stoic exercises have obvious applications for the gambler.
One of the easiest spiritual practices is to habitually question your impressions of events. Your initial impression of something is often mistaken, so it’s good to get into the habit of questioning it.
For example, if you see someone winning at a casino game you’ve never played before, it might be tempting to think it’s easy money.
On closer examination, though, you’ll usually find that new casino games have a higher house edge than the classics. This isn’t true about all of them, but it’s easy to get fooled.
An even easier way to get fooled is to read the advertising copy on some of these websites selling bogus systems for winning at casino games. If someone really knew the secret to winning at slot machines, he wouldn’t share it on the internet for $79. He’d keep the information quiet so that he could continue to use it to make real money.
But it’s easy to fall for such lines of bull when you just stick with your first impressions.
Another stoic exercise is to meditate on the ephemeral nature of everything. Nothing lasts forever. This includes your wife and kids. By contemplating that eventuality, you’ll make better decisions about how you spend time with them. You’ll have fewer regrets when you do lose them.
It’s also helpful to realize that the fortune you win today could be gone tomorrow. You might think it won’t happen to you, but a majority of lottery winners find themselves broke within a year or 2 of winning the lottery.
How much better off would you be if you’d prepared for that eventuality emotionally?
You might have even been able to take some steps to prevent or mitigate that eventuality.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a friend in Alcoholics Anonymous who has over 40 years of sobriety. One of the things he does is pray constantly.
“Thy will be done.”
You might not believe in God, but if you take a stoic attitude, you’ll realize that very little outside of yourself is something you can control. Accepting this and reminding yourself that things will work out “fate permitting” can help you maintain some serenity during the inevitable losing streaks that gamblers face.
Those are just some samples of stoic spiritual exercises that might apply to a gambler.
Stoicism is trendy right now, but it’s an ancient philosophy—almost as old as Christianity. This source of ancient wisdom can do much to inform your gambling decisions and habits.
If you want to learn more about stoicism, some readable newer books are available that might be of interest. The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday is especially readable since it breaks things down into daily chunks of bite-sized wisdom.
A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine is also readable, useful, and entertaining.
Even if you don’t pursue any additional study of stoicism itself, I hope you’ve come away from this blog post with something practical you can use next time you place a bet.
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