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Gambling can be fun - deal with it!
by Jon Bryan

Jon Bryan
The enjoyment of going to a casino and playing poker

One of the things I've always liked about having an extended break from work is having the time and space to go to the casino and play in a poker tournament. It's better going with friends, but even when you go by yourself, you get a feeling and anticipation that you just don't get anywhere else. Walking in, hearing the sounds, and just seeing the space and the set-up in a casino is totally different to entering any other building where you might spend some leisure time. I managed a couple of casino visits over Christmas and New Year with some friends, and absolutely loved it.

Most casinos are quite spacious. The restaurant and bar areas are rarely crowded - ideal for social distancing for those with concerns about Covid. They have yet to recover the number of visitors before the pandemic, so there's plenty of room to meet and catch up before the poker over some decent and reasonably priced food and drinks.

There is nothing quite like a live, "in person", game of poker, especially if you've not played for a while because of the pandemic. As well as a convivial atmosphere to chat with your friends, casinos offer a regulated and controlled space where you can test your poker skills against dozens of others, and they are full of expectation and excitement. What's not to like!?

The thrill of poker tournaments

Poker tournaments are great for anticipation. You pay a set amount to enter and then wait while the clock counts down to the start time. The draw takes place just before play begins - where the computer randomly allocates you a table and seat number. To find out where you're playing, you often need to squint your eyes to see your name on one of the computer screens on the wall, and then you begin searching for the right table and seat, hoping that one of your friends is on the same table as you. Or perhaps not, if they are a particularly good player!

The anticipation then starts building again when you've found your seat and sat down, and you mentally start to prepare for the game to begin. Have you got a side table for your drink? Do you have enough room to easily manoeuvre your chair if that becomes necessary? And then you focus on the poker table itself and the other players sitting around you, opposite you, and next to you. In some cases you may be on a full table of ten players, or perhaps it's a casino where a full table is only nine people. Any familiar faces? Anyone friendly? What's the dealer like? Have you seen any of them before?

poker chips
Then there are the poker chips. Casino chips are a well-known part of gambling, and in this case everyone has the same amount on the table in front of them. You count them, checking that you have the right amount, and then check them again thinking about how to stack them, perhaps playing with them to show that you are confident with handling them and aren't some novice who has only ever played online poker. And then the cards are dealt. There's nothing quite like the feel of picking up those first two cards and the anticipation you have before looking at them, hoping for a good start. This is something that you only get from playing live poker, in person, in a tournament, at a casino.

The Challenge of Poker

Poker tournaments are a way to challenge yourself, as well as the others sitting around you. You challenge yourself to play better than everyone else who has entered the tournament and forked out the entry fee. You try to outplay those around you, making moves at certain times, and being patient at others. You are trying to last longer (and perhaps get luckier!) than all the other players. If you are there with a group of friends, you can even have a bet on which of you lasts the longest in the tournament.

Breaks during the game are an opportunity to talk with your mates about "the one that got away", or to share tales of luck, flukes, or how you have been skilful, or perhaps have been "sussed out" by some of the other players. There is always a tale to tell from the poker table which you want to share with others when you are not at the table.

The pandemic and the Gambling Review

With all that has taken place over the pandemic, I have only had one other opportunity to play live poker over the last 22 months. So, over the festive period, it was just great to be out and to be reminded of the enjoyment that can be had from a night at the casino. I say this as there is a huge gap in the discussion about the government's gambling review. The 2005 Gambling Act is being looked at - we are expecting a White Paper in the coming months. Yet the fact that many people enjoy gambling barely gets a mention in all of the coverage of the ongoing review.

One of the things being considered by the government is whether to limit the amount of money individuals are allowed to spend on gambling each month. These so-called "affordability checks" are a ludicrous and illiberal proposal, which I have written about previously. Why do I think this? Well, despite being financially ahead after my two trips to the casino over the New Year, I would have spent my 100 pound "allowance" on gambling already this month. So unless I wanted to open up my private and financial life either to the government or to the casino, there would be no more gambling for me for the next few weeks. In no other area of life or leisure activity is there a discussion about legislation setting a "cap" on how much you can spend. Such a draconian and authoritarian approach to gambling needs to be opposed.

I know very well that gambling can have a negative impact on people's lives, and there are perhaps some changes that could be made to the regulations. But there is great enjoyment and fun that many of us get from it. That is almost never written about and seems to be completely ignored by those discussing and deciding gambling policy.

I enjoy gambling, I enjoy playing poker. Long may that continue! And let's hope that when new regulations are being looked at, the impact on millions of us - intended or otherwise - is seriously considered by policy makers and politicians.

Miserabilists seem to dominate the narrative on gambling at present. Let's make this the year to try and change that.

Jon Bryan is treasurer of The Great Debate and regularly writes about gambling. He is a poker player and tweets at @JonBryanPoker.

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