Gambling: Crash Course Games

Hi, I’m Andre, this is Crash Course Games, and today we’re going to take a chance on talking about something a little different than the board games and video games we’ve focused on in the rest of this series. We’re going to bet it all on the hope that lots of people will want to watch an episode about gambling.

Gambling is kind of an outlier in the world of games. In fact, there are some pretty solid arguments that gambling doesn’t even have anything to do with games. I’d argue that some gambling very clearly falls in the realm of games, and even when gambling isn’t really a game, the two still frequently go hand in hand.

In the most basic sense, gambling is the playing of games for money. And that broad definition can be a little problematic. As we’ll see, people, in general, like to gamble, and will bet on just about anything. When we talk about pure gambling though, there are essentially three types: wagers, lotteries, and games of chance. A wager is a bet on the outcome of an event.

Wagers in online casino are things like bets on sporting events, horse or dog races, an election – even a coin toss. You can wager on just about anything, and people do this all the time. I once made a bet about how long the national anthem was going to be sung in a football event. I won it, too. While wagers are often related to games, like a bet on a sports game, wagering itself isn’t often thought of as a game in itself. Lotteries and games of chance have some things in common.

According to the textbook on internet gaming law, creatively titled Internet Gaming Law, “Lotteries and games of chance depend on the generations of random numbers through set parameters.”

At their most basic level, lotteries and casino games rely on a random number generator. That generator could be a drum full of numbers, like with a lottery, or it could be a deck of cards or a pair dice, like in casino games. Lotteries are pretty simple.

A player chooses a group of numbers – or has numbers assigned to them randomly – and wins if the matching numbers are spit out of the number generator. The lack of player agency in a lottery means it’s not much like a game, either. Games of chance are more interesting, because they rely on giving the player an illusion of control. In reality, a pair of dice, or a roulette wheel, or a deck of cards is just as much a random number generator as a lottery drum. Almost all of the games in a traditional casino like blackjack, roulette, craps, baccarat, and slot machines are all considered pure games of chance.

These are games where the player’s skill can improve their chances, but the house always has a statistical advantage. That’s why these games are always backed by the casino or whoever’s running the game. The casino or other game operator understands the odds of these games very well, and sets up the rules of each one so that even the most skillful player is at a slight disadvantage to the house. But when players are allowed to throw the dice themselves, or place the ball in the roulette wheel, or cut the cards, they get a sense that they’re influencing the outcome of the game.

In effect, they’re not. But it still leads them to bet more. Casinos usually keep that advantage relatively small, though.

If people didn’t win frequently at casinos, they wouldn’t have fun, and they wouldn’t want to come back. So some of these casino games, like blackjack or craps, only give the casino a very small advantage, if the players are able to place the best bets. But even if a casino is keeping 5% of bets on average, it still adds up to a lot of money over millions and millions of bets. And then there’s Poker, the one casino game that many will argue is a game of skill.