By chance

David Walsh | Posted on March 1, 2018

What’s the worst decision I’ve ever made?

I’ve made a few bad ones. In my brief bad bridge days, I put down a cold four clubs contract, or so my mates told me. One former friend was particularly precise—‘the only bridge you seem to know is an open space spanning construct’. Those words taunt me thirty-five years later. And romance—I’ve messed up great relationships, and persevered with some shockers. After a bikie taunted me with, ‘Don’t bash us up’, I heard my weaselly fifteen-year-old voice, ‘I won’t, but only because you asked nicely’. When asked by the Israeli airline (El-Al) security guy if I was traveling with anyone, I gestured towards my Palestinian mate and replied, ‘Only that terrorist over there’.

None of those are anywhere near the worst decision I’ve ever made. The worst decision I’ve ever made was to give up my studies and start gambling with a bunch of itinerants I had just met. Ok, so that turned out well for me. Very well for me. Almost everything I’ve become is a result of that decision. Nevertheless, it was an appalling choice. Staying at uni, and studying, would have lead to a decent outcome 99% of the time. Gambling—not so much. I very much doubt that 1 in 100000 gamblers is able to make a living. I made a bad choice, but fell in with a good crowd, and got lucky.

If you ask anyone about the good and bad decisions they made in their life, they will offer those that resulted in positive outcomes as good decisions, and those that resulted in negative outcomes as bad decisions. They shouldn’t. The outcomes are only slightly coupled to the choices. But human beings are not biologically primed to measure randomness. They are designed to seek cause and effect. Cause and effect has positive symmetry. That’s because, years ago in the savannahs in Africa, where we were mostly designed, it didn’t hurt to see a lion that wasn’t there. But those who didn’t see the lion that was there—their genes departed the gene pool. They won the Darwin Award.

Possibly more importantly, seeing the world as cause-and-effect meant they could make quick decisions. Probabilistic reasoning doesn’t help, because it is too slow. Let’s see, there's a 400 to 1 chance that that’s a lion, but I can’t be sure without a closer look... The shortcuts that help us to make a useful decision faster than the correct decision are called cognitive biases, or heuristics. They kept us alive, but we don’t get a choice about where we apply them. In cultural situations heuristics are often useless.

Consequently, and I’ll get back to this, we are very bad at measuring low probability events. And we are very bad at decoupling a stimulus from an outcome, when the outcome is random, or linked by low probability. So we learn poorly in situations that are mostly random. Chess is deterministic—it’s relatively easy to learn chess, or to teach a computer. It’s really hard to get good at poker, and so far computers are poker novices (at least in real world situations). Learning poker requires building appropriate reinforcement on non-deterministic outcomes, and not being ‘fooled by randomness’. Since bridge is like chess—easy—and I couldn’t play bridge, I made a good decision to not play poker. In general our brains are repositories for believing we are right when we make lucky stupid decisions (so are they suppositories?).

Our savannah generated pattern matching engines make games fun, and they make randomness (stochastic processes) look ordered. Poker machines tap into this—they are fun because the biological engines that once kept us alive are pleasurable. Sex is pleasurable for the same reason. We don’t have a drive to have sex, or to play pokies. Our drive is to seek pleasure because, well, it’s pleasurable. Sex is good for us. Pokies, not so much. But we, savannah programmed meat machines, can’t discriminate. And we don’t have identical programming—there’s also an addiction lottery, that we all buy tickets in.

As I said, years ago I made a bad choice to gamble, but it turned out okay, so it’s easy to conclude that it was okay. I had already placed bets then, so addiction wasn’t likely, but a misspent life was. But a few years before, I placed my first bet. That’s a really bad decision. It was on the doggies (greyhound racing)—my dad was a dog trainer. That bet probably had about a 1 in 500 chance of causing a gambling addiction. (Later, I say that for pokies, that might be 1 in 20. And a pokie addiction is much more ruinous.) So, if I understood unlikely events, I would never have placed that first bet. That first bet is the only choice you get. And choices have consequences beyond the individual. Some choices have clear (but, perhaps unlikely) consequences for other individuals, and for society as a whole. That’s why they’ll put you away if you keep driving drunk, even though a negative outcome is unlikely. And that’s why smoking in hotels isn’t permitted anymore. You only get to make bad decisions if they don’t affect others, or because the causative links haven’t been demonstrated (as was the case with passive smoking for years).

Twenty-five years ago Greg Farrell said, ‘Direct access to gaming machines in pubs and clubs would have a disastrous effect on the social and special culture of Tasmania’. He was most likely correct, because each link in the causative chain was highly probable. However, in terms of outcomes he was apparently wrong. He believed that he might not get the poker machine licence, and if he didn’t, and others did, it would impact his casino business. In terms of probabilities he was right. In terms of ethics, he was also right. But I bet he wishes he hadn’t said it.

Right now, I’m actively opposing pokies. I’m not sure what I thought in ‘93 when Greg was so vocal in opposition, but the social evidence has ossified my opinion since. That could have negative consequences for me. The Liberal Party has been a significant ally, particularly with the festivals, but it is the favourite to win the election, and, even though I stated my opinion before they did, some Liberals might be grumpy at me thereafter. I might regret my decision to spend $250 grand opposing pokies, but that won’t make it the wrong decision.

Because individuals make bad decisions, but there is (with the right distribution) wisdom in the crowd, democracy works. Betting markets, which essentially comprise aggregate opinions, are very efficient. A Russian newspaper had its readers play Boris Spassky, then the second-best chess player in the world. The readers’ moves were chosen by tabulating options and choosing the one that had the most votes. They achieved a draw (so, ironically, one of the bests tests of democracy was in the Soviet Union). But that wouldn’t work for poker. Biases that everyone possesses push aggregate opinions in one direction. I said earlier that betting markets are efficient. In fact, we can only beat them by assuming they’re right and looking for biases. The pro-pokie lobby is trying to bias our population. That’s why I’m involved. I can live with pokies, provided they are what the people want, so I’m spending money (but much less money that the pro-pokie people) to attempt to de-bias the election. At its best, democracy works even for those that bet on the wrong side, because it needs the weight of opinion to become an efficient market. Ideally, unlike betting markets, those opinions should be weighted evenly. And when they aren’t (because some, like me, can get their opinions heard) the right to express an opinion should be voided by skin in the game. You shouldn’t be able to buy an election for the purpose of enriching yourself.

Getting back to our imperfect natures, we find meaning in stochastic (random) links because in our biological background (i.e. the savannahs and other ancestral environments) seeing a connection when it was there does not inhibit survival, but seeing when it is probabilistically linked abets survival. Since it is difficult to discriminate between the two, and there is no survival impediment to linking them, evolution has not decoupled them. So here we are, trained to respond to the stochastic as if it is causal.

Addiction-by-design machine designers know this. They have degrees in all the right disciplines. And they are biologically primed to seek status (status gets you laid, status gets genes into the next generation), and money is a proxy for status—so they take the cash and self-justify. It works even when the stimulus is decoupled from the effect, such as when the guy that owns the machines has no benefit from extra cash since he already has enormous privilege and prestige and is beyond breeding (but not the almost equally efficacious grandparenting), and it works even when the guy writing about the effects possesses similar privilege and prestige, and needs no more.

Let’s play a game called, ‘Bet your life’. The game goes like this. A weird rich guy offers you a proposition. ‘Put a bullet in a chamber of a six gun. Spin it. Point it at your head. Pull the trigger. If you survive I’ll give you a million bucks’. Would you do it? After all, the odds are pretty good. Five chances in six of getting rich. Of course, it’s a stupid bet. It seems logical that one should never make a bet that entails a downside of ruin. Here ruin means death, but it could mean financial ruin, or a loss so great that it is intolerable.

As it turns out, I’m a weird rich guy. Let me offer you another proposition. Here, you’ve got one chance in 45 million of getting seriously rich, and one chance in 45 million of losing your life. This version is worse than the version with a gun, because in that scenario the chance of getting rich was five times the chance of getting dead. Here, the chances of dying and getting rich are equal, but the signal is hidden in the noise. Would you play that version of Russian roulette? If you’re like most Australians, the answer is yes. When you play Oz Lotto you’ve got about one chance in 45 million of winning. But for each five kilometres you drive to buy the ticket, you have the same chance of crashing your car and dying as you have of winning. So if you’re buying a lottery ticket, do it online. And don’t think about what getting the first few numbers up does to your risk of having a heart attack. Why would anyone drive to buy lottery tickets? The noise disguises the asymmetry. More particularly, we see the positive consequences—rich lottery winners on TV, but we don’t see the lottery losers in the morgue. Our genes do not benefit from being able to discriminate between the chance and potential consequences of very unlikely events that are ever-so-slightly predictable. Stochastic events are, in terms of our ability to discriminate between them, inseparable, like death or a lottery win. Our biology sees, and seeks, the bright side. We seek serendipity.

When I’m in a taxi, and the taxi driver is tailgating, I tell him he is taking an unnecessary risk. He says, ‘I’ve never had an accident’. I don’t tell him, but I’m telling you, that when he isn’t tailgating his chance of dying (and mine) is about 1 in 300 million for every kilometre driven (taxis are slightly safer than random). By tailgating, he is at least doubling that risk. If he is a lifetime taxi driver, and he drives that way all the time, he is lopping two years off his life. Noise disguises his risk. He is playing Russian roulette.

There are two things worth noting here. We are not designed to understand risk. Even when we understand it mathematically, we don’t understand it biologically. I know smart, mathematical gamblers—card counters who win at blackjack—who got addicted to poker machines. And, although it looks like freedom to be able to have a punt on the pokies, it isn’t. If you stick a spike in your arm, you are about 23% likely to become a heroin addict. If you have a drink, you are about 8% likely to become an alcoholic. And if you play a pokie, you are about 5% likely to become an addict (a bit of guesswork here—20% of people occasionally play pokies, but I’m guessing around 50% have played pokies). The heroin addicts don’t choose to be heroin addicts (although, unlike pokie players, they are aware there is risk). They choose to try heroin, and then the biological lottery takes over. Willpower, honour and intelligence don’t come into it once you’ve had a taste. All that matters is biology (provided there is access). That’s why heroin is illegal. Alcohol isn’t illegal (everywhere), but alcohol has a significant social upside (just ask Bacchus). It nevertheless does great harm. If you advocate for poker machines you are advocating for an unlikely (but not very unlikely) addiction for every individual that tries them. You are not advocating for choice, because addiction doesn’t discriminate, except by chance. And, apart from the spurious freedom argument—where’s the upside with pokies? It does seem to be the only form of gambling that is addictive by design. I note that it’s the addiction by design element that has cigarette companies on the back foot (a key discriminating factor in U.S. v. Philip Morris was, ‘Defendants have designed their cigarettes to precisely control nicotine delivery levels and provide doses sufficient to create and sustain addiction’).

One approach to protecting freedom is harm mitigation. But the harm is indiscriminate, and blameless. A supply of bandaids does not make inadvertent harikiri a better option. This sort of harm mitigation is like getting rid of traffic lights, but buying more ambulances (these ambulances run others over—each pokie addiction affects several other lives negatively).

Poker machines use noise to disguise the fact that they are financial Russian roulette. Addiction-by-design machines reinforce the positive asymmetries. Every outcome feels like a lottery win. But it’s a bullet in disguise. So here we are, a community that has had a stochastic gun pointed at its head. On Saturday you get to pull the trigger. Are you feeling lucky, punk?



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James Williamson | March 1, 2018 at 09:46 am

Fat chance disguised as free choice?

Glenda Stasse | March 1, 2018 at 09:54 am

Thanks David for an interesting article about gambling addiction. I know it's a great source of revenue for government but if they really care about their constituents they would never countenance inflicting this on our most vulnerable members of society. The damage it will do will last for generations. Besides anything else, it's so obviously morally wrong.

Janine | March 1, 2018 at 10:50 am

An incredible read: passionate, compassionate, intelligent, etc etc etc. pity it won’t get through to politicians and voters.

Adam baxter | March 1, 2018 at 11:25 am

A scourge on our whole country, get rid of them a bring back the live music spaces they have invaded

Denis Lovell | March 1, 2018 at 11:45 am

A great analytical and philosophical view on risk taking in our societies. Let's vote these parasitic machines out of our pubs and clubs for the betterment of all Tasmanians.

Greg Wilson | March 1, 2018 at 11:47 am

Like that David, much food for thought. Opened up my brain box to look at the broader picture and community effect. Have pushed the buttons on the odd occasion and the only reward was a presentation of sounds fit for a kids party and a kaleidoscope of colours that had me bumping into machines on my exit as my eyes refocused. Anyway will reflect and cheers

Greg Were | March 1, 2018 at 11:51 am

This says it better:

Adam | March 1, 2018 at 11:56 am

Sometimes I think we would be better off chucking out the whole concept of government in Tassie and "outsourcing" to Mr Walsh. Premier David Walsh, Premier for all Tasmanians.

Juliana | March 1, 2018 at 12:18 pm

Fantastic reading and analogies. Hope it will reach voters accross the state and keep the discussion going.

Karina | March 1, 2018 at 01:06 pm

A great article David

Renate Hughes | March 1, 2018 at 01:34 pm

Thank you David. Having contributed to numerous submissions on the cost of poker machines to the Glenorchy LGA and the impact of their use on our community members I found your blog inspiring and informed. I hope Tasmanians use their vote wisely.

Sean | March 1, 2018 at 01:38 pm

Thank you for funding the campaign against the pokies. The money coming from the other side is disgusting.

Rebecca Lenc | March 1, 2018 at 01:44 pm

Interesting read. Really interesting. One I will need to go back on. Curious, how people can become addicted to them. Like another of your readers, I too become dizzy from the sensory assault to my head. I am driven out by the unpleasant sounds, lighting, and usually gaudy carpet. Great read and good luck.

David Burke | March 1, 2018 at 02:12 pm

cheers for this, a thoughtful stream of consciousness that is way woke

Mike McBain | March 1, 2018 at 02:59 pm

I just love your ability and insight David. As one of the 1:100,000 and a non-pokie machine player I have been exposed to a number of players addicted to these noisy brassy beasts but I see no reason to interfere with the legal choice of our Tasmanian community to spend their money in any manner they see fit. There are ways and means of avoiding, treating or dealing with addictions and those few poor souls should not be dependent on a nanny state to protect them at the expense of the legal freedoms of the majority. If we did not have such dumb voters giving us weak politicians a Statesman would come along and lead a change in our State law to make these machines illegal, simple solution really.

Robert | March 1, 2018 at 03:18 pm

I was born in NSW many a long year ago and under a much different poker machine regime. Way before pokies were in pubs and the only place you could play a pokie was in a local sports club or RSL. Yes there were addicts in those days and yes lives, including the innocent, were ruined. The positive aspect of that set-up was that the profits didn't go into individuals pockets they went back into the community through support of junior sporting teams, construction of community and sporting facilities or support for the aged & returned service men who the government ansd society largely neglected. Yes this is a naive approach but we are a self destructive, addictive, pleasure seeking animal that will do as we want. Removing pokies entirely will simply create a void for another "entreprepreneurial entertainment investor" or on-line provider to take advantage of and fill their pockets. I don't play poker machines, don't gamble in any form - I worked too hard for my money to waste it so foolishly. Having said this many people like to gamble and many of them do it "safely" without addiction and should be able to do this. For me the answer is limiting the availability of machines by strictly controlling the venues so that generated profits can go back to the community & greater support for problem gamblers, not an individual. Limiting the dollar size of bets per spin to limit the rate of turnover/loss & monitoring/controlling/limiting the time any individual spends playing machines across all venues. If people want to gamble let them register and get a licence to do it so their movements and activities can be tracked. This will also help identify those with a problem for targetted intervention & support. No doubt the "do gooders" & "rights to privacy advocates" will be up in arms about this licensing suggestion the same as they are about ID cards. What's the issue? We are currently monitored by surveillance cameras, key strokes, internet searches & card transactions and many in the community voluntarily expose their lives in minute detail through social media.

Brian Kennedy | March 1, 2018 at 03:26 pm

Great article David. There are some horrible statistics and stories around regarding poker machines. I recall reading recently in the Courier Mail that Queenslanders lost $647 annually for every man, woman and child in Queensland through poker machines. Of course State Governments wont take action to oust pokies because they secure a financial windfall through the sale of each License and from the monthly turnover tax. Good luck with your campaign.

Tricia Ramsay | March 1, 2018 at 03:51 pm

Go Walshie!!!

john harris | March 1, 2018 at 04:14 pm

brilliant for those with a good vocab. now i know why it is taking so long to read your book. Should've brought it with me monday at the SLT gig with Paul Hawken and got it autographed. doing the right thing when no ones looking..good on..and your clean shirt.

Tracey Stokes | March 1, 2018 at 04:14 pm


Thomas Headland | March 1, 2018 at 06:17 pm

Thanks for a great read. Interesting how the comments on mona blog and Facebook are quite polarised - highlights how filter bubbles are preventing people from being objective. Please consider setting up a Patreon or similar so we can chip in to help further transform Tasmania.

Jackaltrades | March 1, 2018 at 06:17 pm

“I might regret my decision to spend $250 grand opposing pokies, but that won’t make it the wrong decision.” You never regret decisions that are morally right. Politicians come and go and it’ll cost the pokie barons for every iteration but your investment is in the interests of Tasmanian society and not the cronyism that pervades the political circles and now the public sector.

Morgwn | March 1, 2018 at 06:54 pm

Your next article should be: "why do poor, stupid people vote for rich people who hate them?"

Steve | March 1, 2018 at 08:21 pm

Walshie, your success in life inspires me, not for the monetary wealth you have accrued but for staying true to who you are and surrounding yourself with the important things in life for you and your loved ones. You have a gift (a severe understatement in numbers there) please never stop using it! Regardless of your regrets, your intelligence passion and opinions inspire me to keep living the dream for all the right reasons and not the wrong ones. Keep fighting the good fight!

Josh | March 1, 2018 at 10:21 pm

David, I'm impressed and thankful that you've spent the cash to 'unbias' the election, but I really hope you've spent it in marginal and remote communities. The billboards in Sandy Bay are preaching mostly to the converted, meanwhile it's the communities tucked away and isolated from cosmopolitan life that the Liberals have targeted (and who are tragically the people who should be voting Liberal the least!).

Greg Conroy | March 1, 2018 at 10:32 pm

Hi David, I was born in Hobart and I also created one of the wagering tools that provided you and Z the opportunity to accelerate your exploitation of opportunities via pari-mutuel betting for a few decades. I like to think that I'm part of the noise that made Mona :-) I also abhor pokies (I haven't put a single $ in one for over a decade) but do love wagering (racing and sports) which I see as a much better intellectual challenge than RNGs. I really enjoyed your article and I'll be sharing it with my extensive network tonight. There's another shared story. You've been clear that your investment in MONA is to give back to the people from the gambling proceeds, and I've dedicated my knowledge and skills to rebalance the wagering ecosystem, ironically, to give back to punters the resources to emulate what you and Z exploited, via staking, using my wagering tool. In that, I've created a patented software product that will make everyone happy besides you and Z. So as you've given back via MONA, you may also be interested to give back by supporting my product which is designed to move players from gambling (pokies, keno) and to wagering (racing, sports). You may find that supporting me is of far greater long-term consequence that what you can do within Tasmania as we are globally focussed. Food for thought. Greg.

Tony | March 2, 2018 at 07:02 am

Thanks, David. An intelligent friend of mine has described this piece as "One of the most clearly explained description of how and why we become addicted - and how (& why) we definitely don’t understand the statistics and how to evaluate the risk! ". Thought you'd like to know. Though I'm not a Taswegian, good luck to the anti-pokie campaign in Saturday's election.

Ngaire | March 2, 2018 at 07:25 am

Thank you David. A fabulous read!

George | March 2, 2018 at 08:57 am

Very interesting, and thank you for your actions.

Daniel Green | March 2, 2018 at 09:16 am

The saddest thing out of all of this is the realisation that our democracy in Tasmania can be bought. Pokies have now proven to not only ruin families, but also the meager hope of a representative government. The definition of democracy: "control of an organization or group by the majority of its members", we are living with the opposite of democracy now.

Lisieux | March 2, 2018 at 02:20 pm

Brilliant! Thank you 🙏🏼

Mandy Pearson | March 2, 2018 at 03:21 pm

David Walsh for Premier!

Mike Burke | March 2, 2018 at 05:58 pm

As a proud Tasmanian living interstate at the moment - I say Bravo David Walsh !! A beautifully written article. There is no upside to pokies and that is the truth. They are designed scientifically to attract and addict as many as possible. The machines have to win by the nature of this design. As to jobs - This “loss of jobs” dialogue is nonsense. Money not spent on pokiies still gets spent. Spent in a way that circulates far wider and is not concentrated into the hands of government and one already interstate wealthy family. Spent in a way that will create far more jobs. Spent in a way that will create full time and permanent jobs. Well done to the ALP for waking up and opposing something that they have supported for decades! Ironic that they are now being shunned by former labor heavyweights now in the employ of Federal. Finally - many thanks to Mr Walsh for MONA and the wonderful events etc it has spawned. A great Tasmanian who has made us much bigger on the map.

Tony | March 3, 2018 at 12:39 am

I’m going to have to ask you to excuse my initial response of, “F—ing Oath that was a good read” at this point the day is already upon us , and to be honest I’ve never voted for the winner of an Election of any kind , I guess I’m always behind the underdog, Today it’s an easy decision

Castor | March 3, 2018 at 01:58 pm

If Walsh ran, he'd win. He'd be like Tassy's Manny Pacquiao.

Thérèse Chaperon | March 4, 2018 at 07:49 am

Well said!

Lee | March 4, 2018 at 07:13 pm

Heads u win tails I lose

Margaret Blackburn | March 4, 2018 at 07:39 pm

Oh my god, David I ran out of Puff just reading your very interesting and clever article . Thank you for your efforts and empathy with the average human. But way too long. Précis !

Brett Pritchard | March 5, 2018 at 05:16 pm

Working as as a croupier at Wrest Point Casino was my first job back in 1979 and I've seen gambling addiction first hand, though it would take blackjack junkies much longer to go through their cash than the much more addictive pokie machines and if you were quick and smart you could actually win. I have a cousin on palliative care with polycystic kidney disease living in a caravan behind her mother's house as she lost her own to the pokie machines. She said they were so hard to avoid as no matter where she went there was a pub with a bank of them. Thanks David for supporting the anti-pokie side.

Stephen Nichols | March 5, 2018 at 08:43 pm

You have convinced me. Well and truly. Hope many people read your blog.

Pellicle | March 5, 2018 at 11:35 pm


Heath | March 23, 2018 at 07:18 pm

I believe we are the sum of all that we leave in our wake. I am not a gambler but for 45 million if 3 chambers were loaded, I would roll the dice - 3 are empty. It should be noted that I do not consider myself a lucky punk. I have not won so much as a meat tray in my time. At 45, (beyond the half way mark) the opportunity to better the lives of those who tolerate my company, to wake up to clean air, an uninterrupted horizon line and the opportunity to travel and the occasional indulgence, I would, after a moment of hesitation, play - the pokies, not so much. There is always a price. We all have a perceived value of sef and our worth to others. My current and forecast valuation falls well short of 45 million dollars. I say play.