Super Bowl Gambling—Daring the Odds and Gods
Now and then someone plays with us—good old chance. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, #277
Alexander E. Hooke
To spice up this weekend’s Super Bowl, you might place a bet on who will score the first touchdown, total points scored by halftime, or the player with the most rushing yards in the third quarter. Even if the game is lopsided, keep the TV on in case you wagered on the color of Gatorade the victorious team pours on its head coach. (Orange is the favorite, then red, then lemon-lime, you get the idea.)
While philosophy usually focuses on the ethics of gambling—such as how sloth and greed have become civic virtues—it has often neglected the intense, irrational, and varied human experiences of betting on lots of luck and little skill. In the classic movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the old man Howard said, “No gold prospector dies rich.” Much the same is true of every football bettor, “only the oddsmakers come out on top.” So if the odds are stacked against them, what compels football gamblers to place large sums of money on football?
First, they believe they can outsmart the bookies. Football gamblers have an entire week to study Sunday’s games. Each day they review the statistics of players and teams, looking for trends and weaknesses.
Second, gambling produces a microcosm of life. The strong against the weak, the smart versus the dumb, the fortunate over the unfortunate. Those who pick the winner get bragging rights, “I saw what you did not see. Here is how I figured out my winnings.” Oddly, gamblers rarely retell their big losses.
Third, gambling on football has metaphysical overtones. In day-to-day life, everything seems set in its ways: our jobs and domestic lives have become predictable, health or car or home insurance protects us from the inherent risks of life. Gambling gives us a chance to embrace chance and risk. There is even a religious element: consider how often gamblers look above after a profitable win or horrible defeat—as if thanking or cursing the gods.
When it gets down to it, money is just a way of keeping score. As one wit quipped, “The best thing for a gambler is to win. The second best thing is to lose.” In other words, the central feature is action. Analogous to love, whose antithesis is apathy rather than hate, for gamblers the opposite of victory is not defeat but absence of action. Gamblers seek exhilaration, throwing caution to the wind, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat
In his Pensees, Blaise Pascal contends that humans delight in diversions such as gambling so that they can ignore more pressing issues such as one’s inner self, mortality, or the importance of God. Friedrich Nietzsche has a different take. In his parable of the madman, god is already dead. After the crazed visitor announces to the crowds that they have killed God, he asks them, “What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” Our lavish casinos and intricate Internet exchanges offer one answer—they are our current temples and sacred texts.
Neither Pascal nor Nietzsche would be surprised by today’s infatuation with gambling. Humans seek a break from predictability and boredom. Risk and chance is what they seek, and the hell with utilitarian outcomes.
Hence this Sunday’s Super Bowl will conclude with a tantalizing wager on what the game’s MVP will first utter: a) Thanks to God, b) I could not have done this without my lovely family, c) This award really belongs to my teammates, d) Kudos to our great fans and owner, e) Like Muhammad Ali, I have to say that I am the greatest.
Go ahead. You can’t resist. Make a pick. Wait for the post-game interview. Given that philosophers love wisdom, they should have an advantage. Of course, wisdom might tell us that football gambling is a fool’s game.
Alexander E. Hooke is a Professor of Philosophy at Stevenson University. His recent books include Alphonso Lingis and Existential Genealogy and The Twilight Zone and Philosophy (co-editor). He’s got $10 on the Chiefs with a 3 point spread.