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Gambling in poverty
By Grace Shangkuan Koo , Ph.D.
Inquirer News Service

WHEN at least 34 forms of gambling are available in a country where 70 percent of the people are living below poverty line, one can be sure that this is a hen-and-egg question: Why do Filipinos gamble so much and what satisfaction does one get in gambling?

Games, gaming and gambling

Children play spontaneously. At some point, however, they begin to look for structure that games provide. A game is a contest. It must have rules. It takes place with a given, agreed-upon time span. It is in some way, artificial, a make-believe. And most importantly, it is played for fun.

Games can be classified into four: competition, chance, simulation and vertigo. The last group includes games that affect the physiological sense of balance, such as dizzy rides in amusement park, rock climbing, and others that pose physical challenges.

The word gaming is usually reserved for games of chance. With the addition of two consonants, gaming becomes gambling. And what a great difference these two consonants make in the lives of men. While games are diversions for most people, gambling stimulates a deeper passion. For most people, games lose their appeal after a few hours of play. For gamblers the need to gamble becomes compulsive. Gambling is addictive. It may become a way of life—a central part of life.

Games and culture

Marshall McLuhan, in his book "Games," observes how games reflect the popular culture. Baseball, America’s national pastime, was developed in the mechanical age and reflects its characteristics: things take place one at a time, each player handles a specific assignment, and there is a hierarchical management system, much like the factory.

Football reflects the contemporary American culture. It reduces the idea of set positions, requires instantaneous information flow, and has a tribal character that is similar to the modern business world.

Bullfights with their pageantry and fatalism reflect Spanish culture. Soccer is European. Ping-pong requires patience and persistence, valued by Orientals. Tennis is elegant and Wimbledon is very British. 

Gambling and the culture of poverty

Oscar Lewis, a sociologist, popularized the term "culture of poverty" to describe some of the characteristics of the poor. They include a strong present-time orientation with little ability to delay gratification and plan for the future, a sense of resignation and fatalism, a high tolerance for psychological pathology, gregariousness and authoritarianism.

Those who have not been socialized to the culture of poverty have a future that is conceptualized, formed, sequential, and patterned. In contrast, the future for the poor is vague, unstructured, and ambiguous. Being indifferent to the future, they reflect certain personality traits, such as preference for immediate gratification (thus, there’s a greater incidence of premarital sexual experience among the poor), lower educational attainment, lack of financial savings, and unreasonable overspending.

Those belonging to a culture of poverty would be more inclined to believe in luck. They believe external forces control the rewards they receive. In a non-poverty culture, people believe that reinforcements are contingent upon internal factors: effort and ability. They value hard work, achievement, improving their abilities, and delay of gratification to accomplish goals.

The conditions of poverty foster in people a frame of powerlessness and disproportionate risk-taking. A person who does not have much at stake takes a higher interest in chance, seeking the company of friends instead of experts, and has a greater tendency to gamble. Gambling indicates the desperation of the poor.

Gambling and survival

What national game are we known for? Sabong? Sabong is a game of survival, a game of desperation, and perhaps a national phenomenon. In our everyday activity, even riding a jeep is a test of survival of the fittest. When resources are scarce, people fight for survival. People line up in other countries because more buses are coming and they come on time. People obey rules because they trust the people who make the rules and believe the rules will be effectively and equably implemented. 

When the poor cannot hope for a brighter future and are barely able to survive another day, they bet their last peso on lotto or bingo, or whatever. Life for them has become a gamble—a very unwise decision, and doubly so when there is reported so much cheating, injustices, graft and corruption among the gamblers themselves. In the Philippines, gambling is not a game anymore: there are no rules, no fun, no satisfaction, only a sheer waste of time and energy.

A personal story

My husband and I stopped over in Las Vegas on our way to Grand Canyon some years ago. Lines of slot machines in the airport welcomed the passengers to the arriving desks. Some people could not even wait to get out of the airport for their gambling! An overnight stay at a luxurious hotel in Las Vegas could not even make us try a slot machine. There were better things to do. It was our second trip to Grand Canyon and yet the view was never grander after Las Vegas, with its greed, deceit, smog, and alcohol.

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