Why Gamblers Shouldn’t Rely on Willpower Alone

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Gambling is an activity that requires willpower to succeed. You need to have self control to avoid betting above your bankroll and making risky wagers that have little chance of paying off.

Given how important this concept is in gambling, many players believe that willpower alone can help them win more, or at least minimize losses.

The reality, though, is that you need more than just a strong will to be a successful gambler. You also need a high level of discipline — perhaps even more so than willpower.

What’s the difference between the two? And why is discipline possibly even more important than being willful?

Keep reading as I discuss more on these concepts, how they relate to gambling, and how they differ from each other.

What Is Willpower and How It Relates to Gambling

Many people believe that willpower and discipline are the same thing. In fact, you’ll often see these two words used interchangeably.

However, willpower is not exactly the same. As defined by Webster, it’s the “ability to control yourself: strong determination that allows you to do something difficult.”

This definition emphasizes controlling yourself, which makes it seem very close to self-discipline. But the critical difference is that willpower is about a “strong determination.”

This term refers to the short-term motivation needed to accomplish something worthwhile. For example, you’d need a lot of determination to finish the last few miles of a marathon.

Likewise, you need willpower to complete a one-hour workout when you haven’t exercised in months.

Willpower is essentially the ability to control in-the-moment impulses and continue doing what’s necessary to be successful.

It involves a short-term battle on trying to do what’s right for you.

Willpower can relate to various gambling scenarios. For example, you may want to play slots for an hour longer.

But you realize that doing so would potentially cost you money that’s needed for bills and other expenses. Depending upon how willful you are, you’ll either reject this impulse to keep playing or give in.

Another example would be if another poker player bluffs you, and you feel the urge to get back at them by raising or calling. This decision is terrible if you don’t have a strong hand, and you need the willfulness to fold your cards.

Yet another scenario could involve wanting to make bigger bets to win back previous losses. Placing larger wagers just to recoup losses definitely isn’t a good idea. Nevertheless, you’ll find it difficult to fight off this impulse in the moment.

What Are the Biggest Shortcomings of Willpower?

Having a strong will seems like the key to gambling success. However, relying on your willpower over and over again can be a recipe for disaster.

Woman Rejecting Piece Of Cake With Hand Outstretched

As covered above, willpower is the ability to avoid urges in the short run. You may find yourself having to decide between good and bad choices on a daily basis.

  • Is it okay to eat a couple of cookies, or will they ruin your diet?
  • Should you sleep in for an extra 30 minutes, then rush to get ready and risk being late to work?

These are examples of everyday decisions that you may find yourself faced with. Again, your level of willfulness determines how good you are at making the right decisions.

But if you’re struggling with these choices multiple times throughout every day, then the chances of you giving in increase greatly. Experts agree that willpower comes in limited supply.

Author Kelly McGonigal explains in her book The Willpower Instinct that will can only be successfully exercised so many times throughout a day or week.

“Trying to control your temper, ignore distractions or refuse seconds all tap the same source of strength,” she writes.

“We can look at willpower like a muscle — it can get exhausted by overuse. But just like our physical muscles, there are some researchers who believe we might be able to strengthen our willpower by training it.”

As McGonigal points out, there are ways to boost your willfulness. A few methods for doing so include getting more sleep, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and improving your ability to handle stress.

Ideally, you’ll sleep 7-8 hours every night. But work, stress, and daily obligations might convince you to procrastinate on sleep.

You may feel that you can simply tough out the day with a few hours of sleep. However, getting less than six hours of shuteye per night raises your cortisol level (a.k.a. the stress hormone).

High stress causes your prefrontal cortex to struggle with combating urges. You’re therefore handicapping your willpower by not sleeping enough.

You might also tell yourself that you’ll eat better and exercise in the future. But bad lifestyle habits have a way of sticking around.

Eating junk food and not exercising can increase cortisol too. Combining this with low sleep is a recipe for willpower disaster.

The good news, though, is that you can condition your prefrontal cortex to better handle stressful situations. Of course, doing so requires the ability to gradually improve your mind’s ability to handle stress.

The more that you successfully work through difficult situations, the better able you’ll be to deal with these scenarios in the future.

I don’t suggest that you purposely delay paying bills or show up everywhere at the last minute just to practice dealing with stress. However, you can be mindful of these situations and try to handle them better.

One simple technique for navigating through tough times involves taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes and slowly inhale and exhale. This process gives you a few seconds to clear your mind and think more clearly.

Discipline Is a Better Skill in Gambling

Discipline is different from willpower in that it’s a long-term process on the journey to reaching a goal. You don’t necessarily have to exercise your willpower in every tough situation when you’re highly disciplined.

This word can also be defined as prioritizing long-term gratification over short-term impulses. You’ll be better able to combat cravings when your mindset is focused on the long run.

Tae Kwon Do Students Sitting

With a high level of self-discipline, you won’t beat yourself up over whether or not to eat a piece of cake when you’re dieting. You’re already used to eating well and avoiding bad foods, which makes it almost automatic to avoid the cake.

Another example involves pushing through a long day of work when you feel like quitting. If you consistently work long hours each day, for example, then it’ll be easier to avoid stopping.

One more instance could involve when you’re supposed to exercise for an hour, but you feel like stopping short. Having great discipline makes it feel like an afterthought that you’re going to continue exercising.

Relating this to gambling, being disciplined allows you to consistently make responsible decisions without going back and forth with yourself.

For example, bankroll management is all about discipline. You set up a plan for how to manage your gambling funds and stick to it, no matter what happens in a given day or week.

Here’s an example:

  • You’re playing slot machines
  • You have a $2,500 bankroll
  • You break your bankroll into $250 increments — good for 10 total sessions
  • You lose $250 in less than an hour on an unlucky day
  • Your impulses tell you to keep playing
  • But you’re disciplined enough to quickly dismiss the idea

Discipline also comes into play when learning strategy and improving at a certain game. You may not find learning poker strategy to be the world’s most exciting subject.

But if you have a strong mind towards being successful long term, then it becomes easier to put 1-2 hours towards studying every night.

Likewise, you might not be interested in memorizing a blackjack strategy card before heading to a casino. But if you’re used to being an expert at any game you play, you’ll be more motivated to push through memorizing the chart.

The great thing about discipline with regard to gaming is that it puts you into a successful mindset. You make the right bet sizes and study strategy because you’re used to doing so.

Furthermore, you don’t have to expend lots of mental energy trying to keep yourself from doing something foolish.

Discipline vs. Willpower

Now that I’ve covered both discipline and willpower in depth, I’d like to focus more on the differences between them.

Willpower is all about how well you can battle your short-term cravings. I use the word “battle” because it’s not easy to make the right decision when something is pulling you towards the other side.

Obviously, being willful can help you be successful. But it’s hard to maintain your composure when you’re always fighting off temptation.

Discipline, on the other hand, is a long-term mindset that you develop after doing the responsible thing over and over.

You’ve made a habit of wise decisions, which means that you don’t have to constantly battle when temptation presents itself.

For example, you may have been working out consistently for one year. But you’ll still have days when you don’t feel like going to the gym.

Without much discipline, you’ll have to exercise strong willpower to force yourself out of bed. But given that you’ve already been working out for a year, it’ll be easier to get yourself up and do your workout.

Simply put, willpower is how your desire to accomplish something affects choosing between goals and impulses. Discipline, meanwhile, is a mindset that you develop over time that allows you to more easily shoot down urges.

You Can Still Rely on Willpower to Some Degree

I’m always in favor of being able to make smart choices again and again over time. This is why I recommend that gamblers do whatever it takes to become extremely disciplined.

However, willpower does play a role in becoming a gambling success. After all, you need somewhere to start on your journey towards winning profits or at least becoming a knowledgeable player.

When you first set out to become successful, bankroll management and learning strategy may be foreign concepts. You’re not going to be disciplined in managing your bankroll or studying strategy in the beginning because you’ve never done either.

You need to be willful to get yourself off the starting line and into a new habit. Your desire to succeed helps you execute short-term goals in the beginning and improve.

The hope is that you make habits out of doing what it takes to become a better gambler. These habits lead to discipline, which, in turn, leads to consistently making wise decisions.

Again, though, you can’t get reach strong discipline until you have some level of willpower. Therefore, you shouldn’t completely discount the latter concept.

Willpower is essentially the fuel to get you going in the beginning. You’ll need to be willful if you want to get on the path towards discipline.

Sleeping enough, eating right, exercising enough, and handling stress will all help you maintain a strong will.


Willpower is often tabbed as the crucial ingredient with regard to making responsible decisions and reaching goals. Under this assumption, you could become a great gambler just by being willful.

But the reality is that willpower is only one part of the equation. It relates more closely to the short-term desire to accomplish something difficult.

Phil Kessel Playing Poker Asleep

You may be sitting at a poker table full of fish, but you’re struggling to stay awake and take advantage. Being willful would help you stay awake long enough to profit off these fish.

The problem with willpower, though, is that it’s fleeting. You can only win mind battles with yourself for so long before you give in to the easy route.

Your will becomes slowly drained throughout the course of a day or week. This is where discipline comes in because it negates the need to constantly fight yourself over-responsible and less-responsible decisions.

Discipline means doing the right thing for so long that it becomes a habit. Whether managing your bankroll or studying poker strategy, you want to have a high level of discipline.

Of course, both concepts have synergy to a degree. You must be willful in the early going to get on the path towards being disciplined.

You may struggle with your will and have trouble getting started. In this case, study your sleep habits, lifestyle, and other areas of your life. Being healthy and avoiding stress are the keys to having good willpower.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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