Movies represent one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. Stories and worlds find their way on the big screen, stories that quite often, portray real life in a fantastical manner which might leave us with distorted views and stereotypes, but on the other hand, some movies tackle difficult issues like gambling addiction in a way that might be exaggerated, but it is still fairly realistic.
What are the actual mechanics of gambling?
Gambling, in essence, is playing a game of chance where you wager something of value on the outcome of a game, winning something of a bigger value, usually money, or losing it all. When you win, your reward system is triggered, and you get a dopamine rush which makes you feel good. So good that some people become addicted to this feeling – thus becoming addicted to gambling, and it might take them years and a financial ruin for them to admit it and realize the extent and the gravity of the problem. This is one of the main reasons why problem gambling can ruin a person’s life if they do not seek help as soon as it becomes apparent that they suffer from pathological gambling. Getting help in this situation is crucial for the person who suffers from the problem, especially since today, it becomes more and more apparent that many people around the world suffer from gambling addiction. Read more about gambling addiction and how to make gambling a safer activity.
There are several themes connected to gambling addiction which are the focus of movies where gambling is portrayed. The first one is the false portrayal of gaining easy money not through luck, but through skill. In many of the movies where gambling is portrayed, the gambler protagonist manages to win all of the games he or she plays by sheer skill of incredible proportions. For example, in the movie Rounders, the protagonist named Mike, pays off the cost of law school by playing poker. During the film, we hear Mike’s voiceover as he analyzes the other players, and we see him miraculously guess their cards. In real life, a skill of that caliber is almost unheard of, and most players of poker still depend on luck just as much as skill in order to win a game. However, this portrayal glorifies gambling, making it seem not only as a fun activity that can bring you large amounts of easy money, but also that being good at poker means you have incredible skills, when in truth, many of your wins will depend on luck in real life.
Trial and error
Another misguided approach to gambling is where characters become addicted to gambling way too fast for it to be feasible. Of course, most movies do not have the time to depict the reality of becoming addicted to gambling, so this unrealistic portrayal can be overlooked by generous fans. However, on the other side of the story is the recovery – which also does not happen in a realistic way. In many cases, the problem gambler realizes his or her problem, but they never get better in a way that real problem gamblers do, and they never seem to have trouble doing it, leading to the misguided conclusion that it is not difficult to overcome a gambling addiction. Going to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, seeking help from a therapist or family and friends are almost never depicted, except in rare occasions, and almost never become the focal point of dealing with gambling addiction.
There are many other themes that seem to seep into movies that focus on gambling, or have gambling as a backdrop. Most of these focus on glamour, depicting gambling as something only the rich can do, and giving the misguided image that they never suffer any consequences, even though they spend fortunes on games of chance. On the other hand, games where skill is necessary, for example, like horse racing, are portrayed as games of pure chance where skill is nearly irrelevant, while other games that depend on luck in real life, are depicted as games that require great skill to be good at. Gambling is often connected to crime, as well as debt, and the gambler in the story is either viable to lose everything, or get a big win that will solve all of their problems. And somehow, miraculously, becomes cured and is not affected by gambling anymore.
On the other hand, the theme of danger, of gambling with something bigger than yourself, is also a theme in these movies. In the movie, The Gambler, this is touched upon very well. Axel Freed, an English professor at a NYC college, is shown repeatedly losing his bets, over and over again, until his life is in danger. In the end, he manages to pay his grand debt, but is still unsatisfied because this does not provide the excitement he needs. This portrayal is very realistic, and an interesting aspect of gambling addiction – because many problem gamblers fall into the claws of addiction not because they wish to gain easy money, but because they want the excitement of not knowing whether they will win or lose. Some of them even do not need to win, just need to gamble, even if they promise that they will stop as soon as they even out.
This theme offers a very good insight into a pathological gambler’s mind – the need to gamble not only with money, but with bigger things. This is very entertainingly presented in the Japanese movie called 30 Lies or So (Japanese: Yaku san-ju no uso). In the movie, a group of con artists, after successfully conducting a heist, begin to suspect each other that each of them wants to take off with the money they have managed to bamboozle out of people. In a very funny way, the movie also touches upon another reoccurring theme in movies about gambling: the con.
Distorted or real portrayal?
Many movies portray gamblers, who, in real life, would suffer from pathological gambling, managing to control their gambling problem as well as be highly successful in conning people, and even making careers out of gambling. In these movies, there are ridiculously happy endings, where every trouble the gambler has fallen in is solved through his or her wits and cunning, while their problematic gambling never comes into the light and is never paid particular attention to.
There is no middle ground where it comes to gambling addiction in movies. On one hand, we have extremely happy endings where all is well, and on the other end of the spectrum fall endings where the gambler loses it all, and maybe even goes to prison or is killed. A highly realistic approach would be if happy endings ended on a less happy, but hopeful note, where not only are the immediate problems of the problem gambler solved, but he or she is also showed to seek help to get better and battle the addiction, instead of having miraculously disappear.