How to Take a Break from Casino Gambling

by Michael Stevens
on January 9, 2018

In his 1979 classic “The Gambler,” crooner Kenny Rogers offered sage wisdom for anybody who wagers money on casino games:

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em is a matter of memorizing proper strategy, but knowing when to walk away is a different story altogether. Even the very best gamblers — those rare players who can consistently beat the casino at its own game — won’t wind up in the black if they cave to compulsive tendencies.

Just as gambling enthusiasts have a multitude of reasons to play their favorite casino games —   entertainment, diversion, relaxation, and profit chief among them — you’ll find plenty of reasons to take a step back from the tables. Obligations at work or at home, occasional lapses into problematic habits, or simply separating yourself from a rough losing streak — there’s always a viable reason to take a break.

But that can be easier said than done.

Slot spinners, table game sharps, and poker grinders all know that feeling, as if something invisible was pulling them back into the game. Maybe you’re motivated to avenge a recent bad beat, or you feel like additional practice time is the only way to master a recently learned strategy. Some players stay longer than intended to dig themselves out of a hole, an oxymoronic approach if I’ve ever heard one, but a temptation I’ve given into a time or two in my day.

Whatever your reasons for gambling too long or too often, there comes a time and place when you realize that a break is in order. For the majority of readers out there, taking that break is as easy as flicking a switch. Gambling is a choice, after all, so they simply choose to stop playing, and that takes care of that.

But for many gamblers, actually following through after making that choice can be quite difficult. If you recognize yourself as falling into the second category, this page was written with you in mind.

Take Stock of the Situation

I hope to show readers a few useful strategies intended to break the habit of compulsive gambling. But before going any further, let’s get rid of the stigma that can often be attached to the terms “compulsive” or “problem” gambling.

Every casino game and wager ever invented has been designed with two objectives in mind.

First and foremost, their odds always favor the house.

But secondly, casino games are set up specifically to provide the illusion of control.

Games like blackjack and video poker involve just enough skill so that players can rightfully believe in their ability to win consistently. But even so, the concept of randomization ensures that short-term samples will vary wildly, with the casino winning its fair share of hands against the best players on the planet.

And with pure games of chance like baccarat and slots, players tend to create elaborate illusions of their own to justify their luck-based wagers. Patterns in the last few numbers hit on a roulette wheel, or streaks of certain numbers rolled on the craps tables are said to offer a glimpse into future results.

In any event, casino games are designed to pull players in, offering just enough of the smaller-sized payouts to make it seem as though you’re breaking even, when the house is really pulling ahead.

Even worse, the repeat nature of casino games can create a feedback loop, much like a mouse exploring a maze to find his prize. Each time you spin the slots or take a fresh blackjack hand, your brain’s neurotransmitters begin firing away. Anticipation and desire do their dance, and when you win, an instant release of dopamine floods your system with pleasure.

And that happens dozens of times per hour, over and over again, until the brain becomes almost reliant on the game.

Knowing all this, I’d like to think casino gamblers can be forgiven when they veer into unhealthy habits. That’s not to say letting your gambling get out of hand is a good idea, just the contrary. Problem gambling is just that, as it can create a whole host of problems ranging from family strife to financial ruin.

But I do believe wholeheartedly that what appears to be classic compulsive gambling is, in many cases, simply an extension of that illusion I just mentioned. All gamblers, and especially skill game players, come to the casino believing they have a good chance to walk away ahead. When they don’t, it can be all too easy to excuse the down day as the result of bad beats, cold decks, and other aphorisms us gamblers fall back on when luck isn’t on our side.

And why not? If you’re applying optimal strategy and making the mathematically correct play at every turn, you should be winning a bit more than you lose. But that’s only in the long run, and I’m talking the infinite long run of a gambling game’s “lifetime.” When confined to your own lifetime, short sample sizes of a session, a week, a year, or even a decade just aren’t enough to weed out the variance.

It all sounds so simple when you hear the cold, hard facts about gambling games. It’s a whole different story when you’re at the table, with chips in hand and a heated game going on.

This is why so many casino gamblers have trouble cutting their losing sessions short, or walking away after a breakeven day. Aside from the rare case of legitimate gambling addiction — which I’ll address later in the page — this desire to play “just one more shoe” or try to get back into the black before heading home isn’t really a classic compulsion in the sense of substance abuse and other dependency issues.

The first step every gambler thinking about taking a break should take is simple: take stock of your personal situation.

Do you fit the profile described above, playing a little too much or too long in hopes of turning things around? Or do you suspect that your gambling hobby has become a habit that could very well get out of hand in a hurry?

Whatever you decide, any combination of the following steps may provide an answer. With that said, I always recommend seeking additional assistance when legitimate gambling addiction is concerned.

Find a New Hobby

For most gamblers, taking a $100 bill to the casino on a Saturday or depositing a few bucks for online slots is simply a hobby, and nothing more.

But unlike a lot of hobbies out there, gambling involves assumed risk and the loss of cold, hard cash. At some point — long losing streaks come to mind — it’s only natural to think about taking a breather.

Whenever I need a cool off period from casino games, I try to immerse myself in other hobbies that have nothing to do with gambling. Hiking and fishing are among my personal favorites, along with painting and reading the latest nonfiction literature. These additional hobbies are important not only for maintaining a balanced lifestyle when I am playing, but for providing an escape when I want to stop.

It’s always a good idea to have a fallback activity that provides the same sort of entertainment value as casino gambling. While these other hobbies won’t exactly replicate the thrill of betting and winning real money, they can often satisfy the same motivations that bring you to the tables in the first place.

For me, gambling is partly a heated competition with the casino, and a personal test of skills such as discipline, mathematics, and game theory. And over the years, I’ve found that those very same impulses can be fulfilled while playing chess at the local library. Sure, I don’t take home a fat wallet when I checkmate my opponent, but I don’t head home broke either.

Other people are motivated by the relaxation and diversion found on the casino floor. These players don’t necessarily mind losing what they came with, so long as they can stretch out a few dollars into hours of pleasant conversation, anticipation, and let’s be honest here, the dopamine release associated with wagering on slots and table games.

If you’re more of a casual gambler, but find your sessions stretching out to the point where a break seems like a good idea, consider hobbies with relaxation at their core.

Take a yoga class, get into meditation, or just head to the theater to catch the latest action flick. The point here is expanding your horizons, by realizing that the same form of escape from reality casinos provide can be found in plenty of places where gambling isn’t required.

No matter what brings you to the casino, look for hobbies that itch the same scratch. Sports bettors might play Madden instead, while poker players can always fire up a Twitch stream to live vicariously through their favorite tournament players.

When you have other hobbies making up an important part of your life, it’s that much easier to take time away from the casino. And conversely, folks who allow themselves to rely on gambling as their sole source of entertainment often have trouble readjusting to life without the action.

Finding a sense of balance between your gambling hobby and other ways of having fun is the best way to keep gambling exactly that — a hobby.

Wean Yourself Off

Shifting away from the gambler’s lifestyle can be a shock to the system.

The casino floor, for all its faults, is still a glamorous place where action abounds. High rollers betting a Benz on hands of baccarat. Strangers becoming fast friends during a hot shooter’s long and lucrative roll at the craps table. Slot machines sounding sirens to signal big time jackpots. All around you, cash and chips are changing hands at a dizzying rate.

The buzz is undeniable, and almost impossible to duplicate.

This is why so many players have trouble trying to go cold turkey when taking a break. If you’ve been hitting the casino five times a week — enjoying a proverbial night out on the town when you do — sitting on the couch watching Game of Thrones reruns isn’t exactly an inspiring alternative.

Moving from a gambling heavy routine to complete abstinence can almost feel like quitting caffeine, alcohol, or tobacco cold turkey. Anybody who has tried to quit a substance like that knows all about withdrawal symptoms, and leaving the world of casino gambling – even for a break – can prompt the same emotional and physical reactions.

I’ve always stuck with the tried and true method of weaning myself off gambling when I need to take a step back. Knowing myself, and having tried the cold turkey approach a time or two before, it’s just easier to dial things back gradually rather than taking the plunge.

I use a system based on halving my play week by week, with the end goal being to stop entirely within a month. If I’m playing six times per week to start and want to take a break, I make sure to cut my action to three casino trips the next week. The week after that, I’ll play just once or twice total, and I should only play once in the third week. By the fourth week, I don’t go at all, and from there my real break begins.

You can feel free to tinker with that system as you see fit, but I swear by weaning as the most effective way of pulling back from a fully-fledged gambler’s lifestyle.

Research Self-Help Methods

Let’s say you’ve tried to take a break by going cold turkey, then attempted to wean yourself off the action, but you still find yourself firing away at your favorite casino games.

In this case, it may be time to consider the possibility that your gambling hobby has morphed into problem gambling. Like I said in the introduction, there’s no shame in that whatsoever, and indeed, gamblers more than most are at risk of addiction simply due to the design of casino games and wagers.

I’m by no means a trained professional when it comes to addiction therapy, so it’s not my place to issue any diagnosis on this page. Instead, I’ll gladly refer any interested readers to the real experts, as several organizations have sprung up over the years to help players address problem gambling.

Most people have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), groups which pioneered the 12-step program to help millions of addicts enter recovery and find sobriety. An extension of these groups, called Gamblers Anonymous (GA), is devoted to assisting casino game players, sports bettors, and other gamblers. GA utilizes the same 12-step program as AA and NA, challenging participants to be honest with themselves while taking personal inventory.

Part of that process involves answering a simple survey known as the 20 Questions. When taking the 20 Questions survey, Yes or No answers to queries like the ones below are used to assess your susceptibility to problem gambling:

“Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?

Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?

Did gambling affect your reputation?

Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?

Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?”

If you find yourself answering in the affirmative to any of the questions above, consider taking a look at the GA website to complete the full 20 Questions survey. From there, explore the site further to see if GA seems like a good fit for you.

Another group, known as the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), offers the following description of its methods and goals:

“The Responsible Gambling Council (RGC) is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to problem gambling prevention.

RGC works to reduce gambling risks by creating and delivering innovative awareness and information programs. It also promotes the adoption of improved play safeguards through best practices research, standards development and the RG Check accreditation program.

RGC is committed to bringing together all perspectives in the reduction of gambling problems including those of people with firsthand experience with gambling problems, gaming providers, regulators, policymakers and treatment professionals.”

It can’t hurt to visit the “Get Help” page on the RGC website to see what they have to offer.

KnowTheOdds.org is a great addition to the treatment of problem gambling, because this program takes a realistic approach. Rather than demonize casinos as bastions of evil, or cast players as fools trying to beat rigged games, KnowTheOdds realizes that most problem gamblers started out like anybody else — just trying to have fun.

Here’s how KnowTheOdds describes the situation afflicting problem gamblers:

“Gambling opportunities are all around us. They’re in our casinos, grocery stores, gas stations, sports bars and churches, and they can even be found online. Gambling is a popular form of entertainment, and for many people, it is a spontaneous social activity. Though small amounts of money may be lost, for many people, gambling has few negative effects.

But for some people, gambling can have devastating consequences. For some, gambling can lead to financial problems, broken relationships, losses of property, careers and reputations, and much more.

Problem gambling happens throughout our communities. Some of us just don’t know it yet.”

According to KnowTheOdds, more than two million American adults — or 1% of the adult population in the U.S. – have been diagnosed with problem gambling. And that number grows to approximately five million, or 2-3% percent of American adults, when you consider players who satisfy one more of the diagnostic criteria.

And as the organization observes, most of these individuals counted themselves as casual players early on, before embarking on a darker path. Take a look at this helpful Path of Problem Gambling infographic to see exactly how beginners fall into the trap without ever noticing.

Finally, the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC) has created an innovative prevention program known as GameSense to meet problem gambling head on.

GameSense is based around the idea of proactive education, with its originators believing that an informed gambler is less likely to succumb to addictive tendencies. Users are taught about the true odds and probabilities associated with casino games and wagers, with the goal being to show exactly how the house’s edge is always ensured.

The BCLC describes GameSense as a game changing approach to problem gambling prevention:

“Introduced by BCLC in 2009, GameSense is an innovative, player-focused responsible gambling program that encourages players to adopt behaviors and attitudes that can reduce the risk of developing gambling disorders.

This includes setting and sticking to personally allocated time and monetary limits for gambling, as well as being open and honest with family, friends and oneself when it comes to personal gambling habits.”

Under the GameSense “How Gambling Works” page, players can learn about several common myths and misconceptions which fuel compulsive play. Dangerous fallacies such as “hot” and “cold” slot machines, or numbers being “due” on a roulette wheel, are dispelled to show players how gambling really works.

The best part about GameSense, however, is the customizable limits you can impose on your own play.

In February of 2017, one of the world’s major casino operators adopted GameSense throughout its properties, as MGM Resorts International took extensive measures to integrate the program.

At the time, Jim Lightbody, who serves as president and chief executive officer of the BCLC, praised MGM Resorts for protecting players:

“We believe it’s our role to take the lead in providing better responsible gambling programming that supports our players, helps reduce harm and strengthens the gaming industry as a whole.

We are thrilled MGM Resorts recognizes the value of our GameSense program, and wants to align with us to further the positive role it can play in reducing gambling-related harm.”

Thanks to this historic move, players who frequent MGM Resorts venues in Las Vegas, or anywhere in the world, can apply GameSense protections to their own play using the PlayMyWay card.

Let’s say you want to limit yourself to three hours of slot play per day, while capping the action at six hours per week. After signing up for a PlayMyWay card, and inputting your preferred play time limits, the system will begin tracking every slot spin you make. When you’ve hit your limit, the game will simply end and cut your session short.

In this fashion, gamblers who feel like things may be getting away from them can institute hard and fast limitations on their own play.

The PlayMyWay card can also be programmed with monetary limits, so you can begin the weekend with a $500 bankroll, and rest easy knowing that you’ll only be permitted to lose that much.

By taking advantage of any of the resources found above, or a combination of them, you should be able to get a handle on your gambling before things get too far.

Consider Self-Exclusion

Finally, the last resort for players struggling to take, but falling short time and time again, is entering a self-exclusion agreement.

Back in my heyday, the idea that casinos would willingly turn away compulsive gamblers was unheard of. These venues have always padded their bottom line on the backs of addicts, after all, and back then problem gamblers were known only as “valued” regulars.

Fortunately, things have changed for the better throughout the industry, and today most major casinos employ a policy known as self-exclusion. Essentially, any player who wants to stop playing, but can’t quite get over the hump, can enter a self-exclusion agreement with the casino.

From what I understand of these policies, players can opt for periods of a month, a year, or even their lifetime. After adding the player’s name and face to the self-exclusion database, a casino operator basically bans them from the premises. Self-exclusion usually applies to all properties under a particular operator’s umbrella as well, so a ban from Caesars Entertainment casinos would encompass Caesars Palace, Bally’s, Flamingo, Paris, and several others just on the Las Vegas Strip alone.

Obviously, this is a harsh approach to cutting one’s gambling habit off, but for a select few, it’s the only viable option. Addictive gambling is a reality, and for those suffering from this scourge, drained bank accounts, lies to loved ones, and the loss of a real life are all consequences.

With that in mind, any reader who feels like they’re having trouble taking a break from the casino floor should at least look into the idea of self-exclusion. Perhaps you start out with the shortest available window, just to see how things go.

These matters are intensely personal, so my parting word of advice is to be honest with yourself and do whatever feels best for your situation.

And if that includes self-exclusion, embrace this change of pace and put everything you have into making it work.

Conclusion

Taking an interest in casino gambling can happen to anybody, as can that sinking feeling that you can’t quite stop. As I’ve said time and time again, that’s not your fault, it’s merely an extension of an industry designed to overload the senses and offer the illusion of control. When the time comes to take a break from the game, you’ll discover a lot about yourself in the process.

For most, diving headlong into another hobby is all it takes to break the spell. Others will need to wean themselves off of the adrenaline rush we call action. A few out there may encounter difficulties that self-help methods can address, while others will be forced to use self-exclusion as a final straw.

Whichever group you fall into, just know one thing — you’re already a winner when you accept that a break is necessary.

And on a final note, I hope this page gave you a different perspective on the concept of problem gambling — both its roots, and the best ways to address it going forward. Compulsive play is not a sign of weakness or moral deficiency, and anybody who admits that their play may be a problem deserves praise and a helping hand.

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