Alcohol & Gambling: Should You Have a Drink When You Roll the Dice?


How Alcohol Affects Your Judgement When Gambling photo JO203-01.png

Alcohol and gambling are closely connected. Both can be enjoyable in moderation. Both are open to abuse. And, when you're sitting around a card table, can anything make you feel cooler than a scotch on the rocks?

This “007 effect” may be seductive, but it's also likely to result in less intelligent, less informed gambling. Many studies show that a couple of drinks can make us feel invincible and ready for the casino. Other research indicates that we'd be better off playing our hand stone cold sober. So what are the effects of booze on the way we gamble? Read on to explore some of the effects that a tipple or three can have on the way we play. Including:

An impaired attention span & worse judgement

A reduced “oops!” reflex

Blurred vision

Less insight into opponents

Increasingly poor decision making

A dangerous cycle...

Alcohol can reduce “prefrontal cortical excitability”

In plain English this means that even a couple of drinks can have a marked impact on the part of your brain responsible for your attention span, memory and judgement. This crucial piece of your brain is known as your prefrontal cortex and it's essential for good decision-making.

It may sound like common sense, but Kähkönen et al.'s 2003 study provides scientific proof that the more you drink, the less attention you pay to what's going on in front of you and the less reasoned your decision-making becomes. If you reach the tables with a game plan, a few too many could seriously scupper your strategy.

One stiff drink can impair your “oops” reflex

Ridderinkhof et al.'s research published in 2002 reveals that, not only can one stiff drink (or two glasses of wine) slow down your decision-making, it can also stop you from realising you've made a mistake in the first place. This reaction is something Ridderinkhof calls “the oops response”.

We've all done things we regret whilst under the influence, but usually it's not until the morning after that our mistakes really catch up with us. When we make an error sober, scientists can detect a brainwave that recognises our mistakes. When we're drunk and make mistakes (which is statistically much more likely) this “oops” response is almost non-existent, preventing us from fixing or learning from our slip ups. Not a good gambling trait.

Alcohol blurs your vision

We all know about the effect of “beer goggles” but, in reality, alcohol badly affects our vision, impairing our eye muscle coordination and making it more difficult for our irises to respond to changes in light. So that ace of spades you have in your hand could turn out to be a club...

Men who drink heavily experience a reduction in empathy

A 2012 study of chronic male drinkers found that regular boozing can reduce men's ability to recognise emotions in verbal communication and from both posture and facial expressions. Sitting around the poker table, you need to be able to pick up on your opponents' body language and read their emotional signals. Staying sober will keep you sharp.

Chronic drinkers make worse decisions

You only have to look at the performance of non-drinkers compared to that of heavy, regular drinkers to see that booze can badly compromise your decision-making skills. Even when you're not under the influence.

In this 2009 study by Loeberm Duka, et al, subjects who had a chronic alcohol dependency found it far more difficult to learn to choose from decks which contained more advantageous cards. Subjects without an active alcohol problem learned more quickly to choose from the better decks. Just imagine if they'd all been around a blackjack table...

Chronic gambling and boozing feed each other

When problem gamblers are winning, research suggests that they think more about drinking. This typically leads to them drinking more heavily and impairing their decision-making further. This typically results in a loss. When drinking, problem gamblers tend to think more about gambling. It's a lose-lose and a dangerous spiral. Particularly since gamblers who drink heavily tend to gamble for longer and take much greater risks.

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