I Gambled $20,000 During The Pandemic.

I found seven key fallacies associated with gambling, and learned some valuable lessons. (And yes, I tell you what I won too.)

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

In my career as a copywriter I’ve written a lot about online gambling. It’s become a weird niche of mine. If you’ve ever searched for a guide on playing a certain game, there’s a good chance you’ve seen something I’ve written.

What I’ve never actually spent a great deal of time doing is…well, gambling.

Aside from some time spent in brick and mortar casinos, much of my game knowledge is theoretical. Derived from things like volatility, payout percentages, and playing games in practice mode.

Starved of excitement during the pandemic, I chose to wager the money I might usually spend on things like commuting, lunch, and Starbucks (guess I’m one of those damn millennials you keep reading about) on casino games.

I wanted to better understand the lure of gambling, particularly online gambling, and maybe get some insight into why so many older people spend their golden years (and sometimes their life savings) in Las Vegas pulling on the arms of slot machines.

As it turned out, I managed to do both.

The Rules of the Game

Let me be very clear: the figure I allude to in the title is NOT how much I spent overall, but an appromixation of the figure I’ve wagered over the pandemic. If I’d lost $20,000 gambling then this would be a very different blog post.

I decided that I would wager up to a limit of $30 per day…and learned early on that sticking to limits is often difficult when gambling. I’d sometimes wager a little more, but managed to stick with this limit for the most part.

Although I dabbled with sports betting and table games, I decided to focus my attention on slot machines. Using an online slot machine is quick, easy, and can be done without giving it your full attention. Perfect for this experiment.

I would try just about any slot machine I encountered, though I mostly steered clear of progressive games — the ones with jackpots in the millions of dollars — because their RTP (Return To Player) % tends to be quite a bit lower.

A few of my favourites turned out to be:

  • Secrets of the Phoenix
  • Wonder Woman
  • Gonzo’s Quest
  • Alice Cooper and the Tome of Madness

There’s nothing particularly special or lucrative about these games, but maybe it’s worth noting that they all offer some form of re-trigger feature. In simple terms, that means multiple wins and spins are possible from a single wager. As a result, I would end up spending 30 or so minutes a day playing.

But this isn’t a guide to which online slots offer the most bang for your buck. And I should know, because I’ve written a few of those. It’s a look at a very specific case study that, as it turned out, taught me a lot about gambling.

Gambling Fallacies Explored

It didn’t take long for certain ideas, even ideas that I’ve called out as misguided or downright wrong in my gambling writing, to come to mind as I played. The more I played, the harder they became to escape.

When you’re playing, it’s almost as if your brain splits into two parts: rational brain and gambling brain. And, boy oh boy, is gambling brain one loud SOB. Below you’ll find a few of its favourite observations:

1. “Just look at that maximum payout!”

If ever there was an advert for reading the small print, slot machines are it.

Let’s take one of my favourites, Alice Cooper and the Tome of Madness, as an example. The game’s maximum payout is 3,000x the player bet. Betting a relatively modest 30 cents per spin, that’s a maximum payout of $900.

Close to $1,000 from a single spin? Sounds good to me. Except the small print reveals that the game’s max. payout is triggered every one in a billion spins. No, that’s not a typo. Even I’m not that much of a fan of this game.

2. “This game always pays out.”

Mathematically speaking, your past experiences with a game have no bearing on the session you’re about to start; the odds of triggering a bonus round or jackpot are always the same. But the human mind can’t accept that.

There’s a reason more Roulette players are willing to bet big on red after the ball has landed on black ten times in a row…even though the red/black odds are still exactly the same as they always are.

Counterintuitively, though it’s pure superstitition, the best time to ditch a game forever might be right after you’ve had some good experiences with it.

3. “This machine owes me.”

The longer you play a slot machine, and the more you lose on it, the more you come to think that the game owes you something.

“Well, I’ve put $100 in over the past few days. I must be due a bonus round!” you might find yourself thinking. Of course, the truth is that your $100 is already long gone. The machine has given it away to some other player seconds after you played.

You might get some other player’s $100 back, or you might not. But the machine has no say in that; it’s all down to the statistics of when the machine needs to pay out to maintain its RTP percentage. It “owes” you nothing.

4. “I can win it all back.”

True, you can. But, as soon as you think that, you probably won't.

If you’re in a hole, it’s a bad idea to chase a loss. Obviously, you need to win more money just to recoup what you’ve already spent. The more you spend chasing that loss, the bigger the win you need to land just to break even.

As we’ve seen above, there’s no quota of good or bad luck you’re playing against; RTP percentages are based on theoretical players with an infinite bankroll, not the relatively short-lived habits of the average gambler.

Besides, chasing a loss often leads you to think things like…

5. “That win wasn’t big enough.”

The aim of gambling is to win big. But, as soon as you place your first bet, you’re on a losing footing. It only feels like you’ve “won” if your winnings recoup your losses first. And they don’t always do that.

Let’s say that you’ve put $100 into a slot machine and it’s almost all gone. Then, on your final spin, you win $85. The smart move is to cash out and take the hit. Well, good luck with making that smart move.

In this situation, the temptation to deposit another $15 and play through another $100 is huge. After all, you could trigger a bonus round earlier this time and win another $85! And that’s true, you could. Or you could lose it all.

6. “That was pretty good, I only lost $X”

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that gambling changes your relationship with money. Nowhere else would you spend hours (almost) losing a sum of money then be thrilled to win most of it back.

But there are days when that feels like a good outcome. The fact that online casinos have managed to turn a SUPER MEGA BIG WIN *that doesn’t even quite take you back to your starting balance* into a positive thing is huge.

And this is one of the things that keeps you coming back for more: winning $50 after losing $65 makes you think things like “hey, imagine if I could win that again tomorrow after only spending $5 or so!”

7. “This is a sure thing!”

Folks, this statement bears repeating: there is no such thing as a sure thing. Just because an outcome, like getting just one more Scatter across tons of remaining reels, feels inevitable doesn’t mean that it is.

But there’s a flipside to this coin.

In Gonzo’s Quest you can trigger 20 free spins, instead of the usual 10, by lining up three Free Fall symbols. I’ve always found it to be pretty elusive but, in one unassuming session, it happened. Then it happened again during those free spins. And for (almost) the trifecta, I landed another ten during those.

Gambling helps you come to realise that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but that the least likely outcome might also happen at any time. Which might be THE most compelling thing about gambling, because there are few other activities that can replicate that sense of potential.

Photo by Benoit Dare on Unsplash

What did I win?

Ah, now we’re getting to the good stuff. The grand finale, as it were.

After 18 months or so I finally got the spreadsheets out and tracked everything I’d spent, along with everything I’d cashed out while gambling.

And this is what I won:


Zilch. Nada. Goose egg.

When I calculated everything I’d deposited and withdrawn on each site, the difference between the figures was staggeringly close to zero. Actually, I might even be a couple of hundred dollars or so down at this point.

This is pretty much exactly what you would expect from online slots, which tend to have an RTP (Return To Player) percentage of 95–98%. In fact, when you put it that way, I did a little better than one might have expected.

Here’s an interesting thing about gambling that feels obvious but, in the moment, eludes you. Consider these two scenarios:

  • Deposit $50, lose it all
  • Deposit $50, win some money, cash out $65

When you see the withdrawal of $65, your brain thinks “cool, I just won $65!” Of course, that’s not true: you won $15. Nevertheless, this misconception serves to make even small wins feel more notable than they are.

In the long term, I think it also makes you more comfortable losing because your brain thinks “oh well, I won $X the other day.” Even though you didn’t.

I know for a fact that there were moments during this experiment when I was up a few hundred dollars. Which begs the question: why didn’t I cash out then? Maybe I got greedy and thought I was lucky enough to keep winning.

Maybe I got overconfident that I was now playing with house money, and could “afford” to lose some of it. Or, just maybe, my gambling became just a little too habitual. I’ve since deleted my gambling accounts.

What did I learn from all of this?

In a nutshell, I could sum up what I learned as follows:

Gambling is unpredictable in the short term, but predictable in the long term.

This probably isn’t an original thought, but I’ve never heard it described this way. And it goes a long way towards explaining why people keep playing.

No matter how much someone has lost, they will (in theory) always make most of it back as long as they just keep playing. Gambling is a steady IV drip of excitement with, over enough time, relatively low stakes.

Photo by Senad Palic on Unsplash

In case it isn’t blindingly obvious by now, this is NOT a post on how to make big money from gambling. Nor is it a post designed to point out the evils of gambling, because that doesn’t quite tally with my experience either.

Still, I noticed how my habits would change based on whether or not I had won or lost that day. Big win? Sure, let’s get those new sneakers for a treat. Had a loss this morning? I don’t think you should order that pizza later.

A more positive spin on this is that you come to see money as abundant; whether it’s coming to you or moving to someone else, it’s always out there. It’s no coincidence that many online casinos have a section showing how much other people are winning at that moment to remind players of this.

And that was valuable for me. I once lost a £20 note in a bowling alley as a teenager and was irrationally upset about it for years. But the reality is that I’ve already “found” and “lost” that money thousands of times since then.

If you want to have fun gambling, I’d offer the following two pieces of advice:

The first: Don’t make a habit of it. Infrequently put down a sum of money that you’re comfortable losing, and try to enjoy yourself while playing.

The second? It’s an adage you’ve heard before: quit while you’re ahead.

These days I mostly write here:

Please come by and check it out, I’d love for you to join me over there.

I recommend checking out the following resources if you’re concerned about how much money (or time, which is just as important as the financial impact) you, a friend, or family member is spending gambling: