Opinion: Take it from a gambler: Don’t throw away your vote


Sloan Marion

Caricature of presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. (Sloan Marion | DailyEgyptian.com)

By Basil Nestor | Orlando Sentinel

I’m a professional gambler and a mathematician, so I know a lot about risk versus reward. Gambling is about taking an action (usually it’s making a bet) in the hopes that something favorable will happen. Mathematically speaking, votes are equivalent to some types of bets.

Think about it. When you vote, you choose what you prefer with no guarantee of a favorable outcome. Then you hold your breath and hope for the best; you hope that other people agree with your choice, and your candidate is elected.

I’ve spent my life finding ways to maximize the value of a bet, so you can imagine how much it hurts me to see people wasting the value of their votes. Curiously, this analysis doesn’t necessarily apply to people who don’t vote. It mostly applies to those who vote for whom (or what) they prefer but do so in ways that devalue their preferences.


How does this happen?

Keep in mind that your vote has measurable value in terms of the contest, but since a vote can’t be sold legally or spent elsewhere, you can judge the value of your vote only in terms of how much it influences the race. How much does it advance your agenda and priorities?

When the choice and outcome are strictly binary, only A or B, then the bet is usually simple. You choose and then hope to win. But when the field is three or more candidates the optimal calculation is less straightforward. I won’t cross your eyes with mathematical formulas, but let’s take two simple scenarios involving food.

Let’s say your first choice is tamales. Delicious! And the other two options are corn flakes and bran flakes. Ehhh … not so wonderful. If you don’t see much difference in options 2 and 3, then the choice is still simple. Go for 1 and hope for the best.

But what happens when you perceive the field to be tamales, corn flakes and poison?

Poison is so toxic, you should do everything in your power to avoid it, right? Now, let’s say there is only a small chance of getting tamales, perhaps 10 percent. Meanwhile, corn flakes and poison are sitting at 45 percent each. One of those will surely win. The obvious optimal choice, then, is to vote corn flakes even if you prefer tamales.

Because your vote does more than only promote what you prefer, it also potentially prevents what you deeply want to avoid. We can complain all day about the supposed unfairness of being forced to choose corn flakes when we prefer tamales, but the practical reality and possibility of poison should wipe away high-minded ideas of voting strictly “on principle.”


Frankly, avoiding poison is the ultimate principled reason to make a choice. People who claim otherwise are kidding themselves. I take money from players at poker tables all the time when they make similar bad bets. They’re aiming at elusive long shots without considering what will happen when they lose.

In the current race for U.S. president, or any other three-way-or-more political race, if you really don’t care who wins besides your guy or gal, then go ahead and vote for your preference without other considerations. Or don’t vote if you don’t care who wins. But if one of the options is poison (by your personal standard), then you should take that into account, and give your vote all the power it deserves.

Note that this analysis is apolitical. It applies to any contest or any candidates.

Gambling provides lots of lessons about strategies and tactics for making good choices in life, particularly politics.

Frankly, one of the reasons why gambling has a bad reputation in some circles is that people make poor strategic choices, and then they unfairly blame the game. This happens also in politics. Some people complain that “the contest is rigged.” Maybe it is, but complaining doesn’t do much.

A better strategy is to learn the intricacies of the contest, and then influence and improve the contest with superior tactics. That’s the best way to win in gambling, politics and life.

Enjoy the game!

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