McCain’s Gambling Problem — And Ours

It’s already getting its fair share of play, but the enormous NY Times take out on McCain and the gambling industry is must reading for any voter, leaning any which way.

Most of the article is a meticulous, and to my eye devastating account of McCain’s deep-inside-Washington maneouverings on behalf of favored friends and allies in the gambling world.  While the article is meticulous in avoiding charges that Senator McCain violated laws, its account is a powerful, blow-by-blow description of the practical corruption and DC business-as-usual life of a powerful Senator.

But while I’m sure that this story of the corrupted false messiah will get its share of play, the article touches on — but does not delve into — what is to me much the more important issue.

There are hints.  Here is the lede paragraph to the piece:

Senator John McCain was on a roll. In a room reserved for high-stakes gamblers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, he tossed $100 chips around a hot craps table. When the marathon session ended around 2:30 a.m., the Arizona senator and his entourage emerged with thousands of dollars in winnings.

An aside here:  Mathematically literate readers will wince at the phrase “a hot craps table.”  The notion of a hot table is nonsense: in Wikipedia’s version, “since there is no correlation between die rolls, there is no possible long-term winning strategy in craps.”  Rather, the odds in craps are set to ensure that the house always wins over time — and rather modest increments of time at that.

There are thus only two possible explanations for McCain’s success at the table that night.  He could have  benefited from the fact that randomized processes can produce’ patchy outputs.  Alternatively the casino bosses for whom he was the lead Senator on gambling matters decided to improve their odds in the bigger game of Washington lobbying, and juice McCain’s chances with a little mechanical help.

There is no way of knowing of course what occurred that day – and all casino games are set up to ensure that there are enough winners to persuade the losers (ultimately, everyone) to keep coming back.

So without knowing McCain’s results over a much longer series of his gambling weekends, I wouldn’t  accuse him or anyone of impropriety or worse.

Rather, the deeper issue here is what McCain’s gaming habits tell us about the kind of mind he has.

First, you have to know that McCain has a well documented love of gambling — and specifically for craps with its high reward-higher risk profile and its significant house edge.*  (Which is another way of saying that if over his years as a Senator with oversight over the gambling industry he shows a notable net positive return on his wagers, he is most likely being bribed.  Anyone check his tax records on this?)

This pleasure in the game can take on the color of urgency.  When, during the campaign, his advisors blocked him from heading to a casino floor in Las Vegas to play, he proposed bringing a craps table to his room.

His aides blocked that idea too, but that it even occured to a man in the middle of a Presidential campaign illustrates the depth of McCain’s gambling jones.

Now, what does this love of high risk, immediate reward, and long-term inevitable loss say about McCain’s emotional and intellectual fitness for the Presidency?  Does an affinity for a gambling rush imply anything about the rest of McCain’s capacity for judgment and decision making ability?

The answer, according to both empirical observation and recent neurobiological research, is at least a provisional yes.

Anecdotes (which I know are not data) first:

Just take the last week of the campaign to see what happens when an impulsive risk taker gets on the loose.  McCain’s sudden decision to call for a delay on the debate and assert a (false) suspension of his campaign were widely seen as on-the-spot impulse decisions.  They do not appear to have benefitted him.  His decision to demand a role in the bailout negotiations has been widely described as a disaster…and so on. Going a little further the selection of Gov. Palin looks like another impulse acceptance of great risk for potentially great reward.

Such examples of  McCain’s behavior under pressure does not prove that he is an erratic, risk addicted menace, of course.  But they do provide a portrait that is consistent with that view.

Now, enter neuroscience.  The study of the brain chemistry of gambling is a young one, and anyone looking for a deterministic answer to the question of whether regular but not ruinous risk taking is an indicator for a broader collection of mental attributes is not going to find it there, at least not yet.

But the current focus of the research on dopamine metabolism and the way centers of your brain respond to the stimulus winning and losing, do show the connection between emotion and brain states.

At the same time, studies of problem gambling suggest (and I emphasize suggest) that the brain states that correlate with behaviors like chasing losses, in the words of one such investigation, “might underlie the loss-of-control over appetitive behaviors in other impulse control disorders.”

Other types of studies —  suggest, for example, that gamblers can’t take the long view as well as non gamblers.  (Again, suggest, because no one small sample study can be said to mean very much at all.  Just reminding everyone of what I’m sure y’all know very well).

John McCain the candidate is a gambler — that’s on the record.

He likes to roll the dice. The metaphor is exact. Both his own history and the accumulating evidence of psychological and neurobiological work make it impossible to assume that his love of the game can be confined to a craps table in the basement of the White House.

This is not a comforting thought to attach to someone whose hands could hold the nuclear codes.

*Obama’s gambling as profiled in the same article linked above, has centered on low-stakes poker.  Describing his regular game at the Illinois State Legislature, the article reports:

He always had his head in the game. The stakes were low enough — $1 ante and $3 top raise — to afford a long shot. Not Obama. He studied the cards as closely as he would an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff. “He had a pretty good idea about what his chances were,” says Denny Jacobs, a former state senator from East Moline.

It seems to me worth noting the obvious:  where craps is a game of chance with the inevitability of long-term losses, poker is a game of strategy, rewarding an understanding of probability and a capacity for psychological assessment of your opponents.  Hand by hand results may vary, but over time, the more skilled player wins.  So the question in the upcoming election becomes:  would you rather have a craps player or a poker player staring down Putin next time around?

As our French friends would say: the question answers itself.

Image:  William Hogarth “The Gaming Table” from A Rake’s Progress, 1732-35.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Explore posts in the same categories: brain and mind, McCain, Obama, Politics

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8 Comments on “McCain’s Gambling Problem — And Ours”

  1. wds Says:

    Check your first link — it links back to post-new.php on this blog?

  2. Tom Says:


    My apologies.

    It’s the old truth: fast, cheap and good — you get at most two.

  3. […] neither he nor I in this post conveyed was one other aspect of McCain’s game of choice that has to make  you wonder about […]

  4. Chris Says:

    In point of fact, craps actually has a significantly _low_ house edge, not a “significant house edge” as you claim. In fact, craps offers the ONLY bet in the casino with absolutely no house edge at all – the so-called “free odds”, which you place after a point is made. By loading up on these free odds (“max odds on that”, a craps player would say), you reduce the house edge by a great deal. Even without the free odds, house edge in craps is about 1.4% on the pass line, much less than the ~5% in roulette or up to 10% at some slot machines, and less than the “average” blackjack player who makes mistakes in basic strategy. With 5x free odds, the house edge in craps is as low as 0.32%, and NO OTHER game can come close to this.

  5. Chris: yes, the odds in craps are arguably better than, say, roulette, and — if one makes the safer sorts of bets — even better than in blackjack. But the “free odds” bet is a little misleading, as a craps dealer in Vegas recently explained to me (and several others). You can only make the free odds better after a point has been established — and in order to be in the game, you’ve got to make a line bet before the point has been set. So yes, the “free odds” bet has no house edge, but the house still has an edge on your initial bet, and all the other bets. Craps is a particularly insidious game in that respect: a series of short-term apparent “wins” can blind players to the fact that they are slowly bleeding out over the long term.

    Bottom line: you might get lucky a few times in the short term, but if you play long enough, you will lose everything.

    I’m not comfortable extrapolating any of this directly to McCain, although his fondness for craps is pretty well documented. But I think we’re seeing something of that “short term small wins vs long-term loss” motif playing out right now in his campaign. The lesson of craps McCain should bear in mind is this: Roll the dice often enough, long enough, and start making the wilder, high-risk bets, and you’re far more likely to lose it all in the end. But it sure does make for an exciting ride!

  6. COD Says:

    I played craps with Sen. McCain at the Bellagio in Vegas in 2002. He was not throwing serious money around as I remember it. Original blog post on it at

  7. […] This post about McCain’s ties to the gambling industry reminded me that I was at the same craps table with Sen McCain (and George Carlin) when I was in Vegas in Jan 2002. Original blog post on that trip. […]

  8. Wet Saw Says:

    my sister is an addict on Slot Machines, she always play any kind of game on the slot machine ;..

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