The science behind gambling superstitions: It’s all about the illusion of control

Casino chips on a poker table during the opening event of the 2007 World Series of Poker at the Rio on Friday, June 1, 2007.

If the average gambler had one wish, odds are he’d want one of two things: an endless supply of cash to gamble or an endless supply of luck to win.

Unfortunately, such wishes don’t exist. But many gamblers make do with superstition.

When a person's brain can’t quickly break down the solution to a casino game, the player often begins to form superstitions to create the illusion of control. Sometimes, the illusions can be very bizarre.

“The brain is a very powerful learning machine,” said Luke Clark, of the University of Cambridge psychology department. “Gamblers are trying to sense their state of luck.”

What exactly makes a gambler feel like he's bound to win or lose? Here’s a look at some common gambling superstitions:

    • Charms

      We’ve all heard about the power of a lucky rabbit’s foot.

      It might seem predictable, but many gamblers still rely on the fabled charm.

      But you might not know that in order for the rabbit’s foot to be lucky, it has to come from the hind leg of a rabbit captured or shot in a cemetery.

      Other gamblers favor lucky coins or amulets. A few covet charms that are much more bizarre.

      When Bo Bernhard, executive of UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, was a young scholar studying what makes gamblers tick, he interviewed hundreds of people. Many talked about their superstitions.

      But one stuck out from the rest — a lady who traveled with a small urn of her former gambling partner’s ashes because she believed that partner brought her good luck.

    • Steve Dannenmann of Severn, Md., looks across the table before betting $5 million in chips on the hand of the final table of the World Series of Poker Saturday July,  16, 2005 at Binion's Gambling Hall and Hotel in Las Vegas. Dannenmann  finished second and took home $4.25 million.

      Clothing

      In 2005, Steve Dannenmann took second place in the World Series of Poker’s Tournament of Champions, winning $4.2 million dollars. The Baltimore native credits his big win to luck and superstition.

      Dannenmann wore the same shirt and visor for the entire seven-day stretch of the main event.

      When it comes to gambling superstitions, “a lot of times, it’s very personal,” said David G. Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

      Schwartz said lots of gamblers approach what they wear at the tables like an athlete does a lucky pair of socks or undershirt.

    • Steve Wynn rolls the dice after placing a $2,000 bet during the opening of the Downtown Grand Las Vegas Hotel and Casino on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.

      Numbers

      Like many others in his profession, Dannenmann’s superstitions reportedly included numbers, too.

      Rumor has it he arrived to the Rio in an even-numbered taxi, so he made a point to catch only even-numbered taxis every time he traveled.

      But number superstitions can be tricky because what’s lucky in one culture might not be lucky in another. For instance, Westerners consider 13 unlucky, while Asians believe four carries bad mojo.

      Eight is lucky in Chinese culture because it is pronounced “ba” in Chinese, which sounds very similar to the Chinese word for prosperity, pronounced “fa.”

      Incidentally, Andrea Hissom rolled an 8 at the craps table when she and Steve Wynn helped open the Downtown Grand.

    • A floor supervisor trains the craps table dealers at the Margaritaville casino inside the Flamingo on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011.

      Lady Luck

      It’s a movie cliché, but one that's still seen on the casino floor.

      A graying male craps player asks a beautiful woman to blow on his dice for good luck. Some have a lady toss the dice for them.

      But too much coziness can be bad, too, according to the superstitious. Chinese superstition suggests men should avoid sex before gambling.

    • Rituals

      Some people believe that if they tap the deal button on a slot machine a certain number of times between each reel, they will increase their chance of winning. Poker players might cover their cards with a luck token or take the same route to a hotel every day.

      Scholars call these “external” superstitions, which come from the sense that gamblers have control at the slots or tables — which they don't.

      “It’s the illusion of control,” Clark said.

    • $50 bill

      $50 bills

      Many gamblers are dead set against accepting $50 bills in a casino.

      Some casinos don’t even try to pass them out.

      It’s unclear where the bill’s unlucky reputation comes from, but legend says mobsters used to tuck $50 bills in the jacket pockets of victims they buried in the desert.

    • Members of the Culinary Union 226 are seen picketing outside the old entrance to MGM Grand, circa 1984.

      Walking into the mouth of a beast

      When the MGM Grand opened in 1993, Asian gamblers took issue with the design of the resort's entrance, modeled after MGM films’ lion mascot.

      Why?

      Because they had to walk through the mouth of the lion to get to the casino. They viewed the path as bad luck.

      MGM took heed and redesigned the entrance in 1997.

    • Sports book keeper

      You walk up to a sports book and put $10 on the UNLV Rebels to beat the Spartans of San Jose State University. The guy at the register hands you the bet ticket, but he entered the bet wrong. The ticket says you want the Spartans to win.

      The average person without a fear of superstition might ask for another ticket. But not the superstitious sports book gambler.

      He would take the mistake as a sign. Maybe he was off base when he made the bet?

      He’d keep the ticket.

      He doesn’t want to tell his friends afterward that he handed the winning bet back to the casino.

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