This Chinese New Year, one of the coolest things I saw was watching my 6-year old relative play blackjack. She played hand after hand, elbows on the table, her brows furrowed in concentration. Whenever she hit 21, she would smile, proudly show her cards and go “YAY!!”.
I was fascinated by this young lady who could quickly add up the values of her cards, strategically decide to hit or pass, and bet reasonably. As someone who only really got interested in gambling and statistics in college, I clearly missed several important life lessons from not learning to gamble as a kid.
I’m not a parent yet (and to everyone my wife and I saw this CNY – okay, okay, we get it.), but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s so crucial to teach your kids to gamble.
Yes, I know. Gambling could ruin your life. If left unchecked, it could lead to terrible, terrible consequences. I’m not discounting the fact that there are problem gamblers who need psychological help. BUT in itself, gambling is just a tool, like a sharp knife: How you use it matters – you can use it to make a wonderful salad, or cut someone up.
My future kid is going to be exposed to gambling anyway, one way or another. I’d rather teach him/her how to gamble in a safe, controlled environment (like, you know, surrounded by prawn crackers and yelling relatives), and teach these valuable life lessons along the way:
You Won’t Always Know If You’re Making The Right Choice
The dealer gives you a pair of cards. You pick it up and groan – it’s a 16, the “meh” blackjack hand which is neither too low nor too high. As a kid (or even as an adult!), the decision can be agonising. Should you take a chance and hit, hoping to draw a 5 or below? Or should you stay and hope the dealer busts?
There are several ways you could play this. You could calculate the probabilities. You could go with your gut. You could ask for advice. No matter which method you try, sometimes you’ll win, and sometimes you’ll lose.
Kids don’t have many opportunities to deal with uncertainty. Growing up, my biggest “uncertainty” was trying to guess which topics would appear in my Chinese essay exam. Other than that, a kid’s life is pretty straightforward: Study more and get good results. Don’t do your homework and get punished.
Unfortunately, that sort of thinking doesn’t prepare us for real life. Last year, I chatted with some IB students who wanted to know which subjects would give them the highest chance of landing a job after university. Many of them wanted me to say something like, “Just study Engineering and you’ll be fine!” but as we’ve all seen, nobody really knows.
Last month, someone asked me what was the “right” savings percentage for a young adult. I couldn’t tell him. As Singaporeans, we’ve grown up expecting that there’s a “right” answer for everything. It completely throws us off when we realise that there isn’t one. No matter which choice you make, the outcome is never guaranteed.
Gambling teaches kids to be comfortable with that uncertainty. To make a bet, be confident in it, and calmly deal with the outcome whether it’s positive or negative.
Luck Plays A Bigger Role Than You Think
Have you ever had a “hot hand” before? You know what I’m talking about: That magical experience when you’re just winning hand after hand after hand. Maybe you got dealt a blackjack twice in a row. Maybe it’s getting three 7s (which, according to our house rules, gives you a 5X payout!).
Sometimes, your kid might attribute it to the “feng shui”. Sometimes, he might think it’s because he placed two oranges next to him while playing. Whatever the reason is, he starts feel invincible. Unstoppable. Like he’s entitled to win.
But when it comes to games of chance like blackjack (the Singaporean version, not the Vegas one where you can count cards), luck is a fickle lady. Play for an hour and your kid could build up more pocket money than he’d have in a month. Play for 2 hours and he could lose it all. Play for longer and he’ll realise that luck having a “hot streak” doesn’t actually mean anything.
I want my kid to learn that luck plays a larger role than we’d care to admit.
Take investing, for example. When my kid makes his own investments, I want him to learn that it’s almost impossible to determine if he’s skilled at it, or if his performance is simply because of luck. Many of us (especially guys) want to believe that we can beat the system, when in reality most of our performance can be attributable to luck.
For example, UCLA finance professor Brad Cornell analysed a large sample of mutual funds, and found that 92% of the variations in the funds’ returns were “attributable to random chance”.
Let’s not let success go to our heads. Let’s be humble enough to admit that not all our achievements come from our own efforts.
It’s Not Always About Winning
In college, I used to play poker with some guys on Thursdays. I always had mixed feelings about those poker nights. On one hand, I loved playing the game. On the other, it was always so damn competitive. At the poker table, those guys would transform from best buddies into aggressive, manipulative Type A personalities who would think nothing about screwing $200 from the guy across the table.
I don’t know what it’s like in other households, but gambling during CNY with the family is the complete opposite. It’s incredibly friendly.
The dealer never asks you to show your hand even though she knows that your cards are crap. People bet the minimum when they realise that the dealer is running low on funds. While playing gin rummy, we announce that we’re about to “game” so everyone gets a chance to get rid of their high cards before it’s too late.
If a kid observes that their parents are playing friendly, they realise that there are more important things in life than winning. That’s such a valuable lesson today, especially when our kids surrounded by a system that encourages winning and “success” at all costs.
Maybe it’s because we’re family. Maybe it’s because the game isn’t as fun when you force other players out. But whatever the underlying reason is, it makes life so much better, doesn’t it?
Always Be Honest, Even In Small Things
Gambling is an incredibly chaotic activity. There are people cheering. Cards are being shuffled. There’s an annoying Channel 8 CNY countdown show playing in the background (seriously, it’s physically painful to watch those things. But I’ll save the rant for another post). And amidst all that chaos, there’s always money changing hands.
If you think about it, there’s an incredible level of trust built into CNY gambling. There’re no casino cameras watching you. Everyone’s called to manage their own wins and losses. The dealer trusts you to pay up when you go bust, even if she never sees your cards.
Now, when kids see their parents reminding the dealer, “Hey, you didn’t collect $2 from me! I busted on that last round. Here’s my money.”, that’s an incredibly powerful lesson to learn.
How many money conflicts, how many heartbreaking family lawsuits, we could avoid if everyone learnt the value of honesty from a young age?
Sure, we could teach that in the classroom (do kids still learn Hao Gong Ming these days?), but nothing is more powerful than seeing their parents set an example. And since we don’t always get an opportunity like this UOB ad, CNY gambling gives us the perfect way to showcase this value – in a very tangible way – to our kids.
Come To Think Of It…
… We need to re-learn some of these lessons too.
Besides the fact that gambling is an excellent way to bond with relatives, pass the time and distract us from those painful Channel 8 shows, I love learning and re-learning these lessons. So when I have a kid of my own, I’d like to sit him/her down at the blackjack table.
But hey, I’m not a parent, so I’m curious to hear about what you think. Would you let your kids gamble? What other lessons would you teach them?