By Robert Wachtel
Because both the law and society as a whole disapprove of gambling, most skill players – participants in games like poker and backgammon that require considerable calculation and judgement – think of themselves as inhabitants of a competitive underworld, far removed from the one so minutely reported on and analysed in the sports sections of the major newspapers and web sites.
But complex games of mixed skill and luck such as backgammon and poker, are indeed, by any sane definition of the term, sports. True, they are not yet recognized as such by the Establishment; but we ought not use that temporary oversight as an excuse for behaviour amongst ourselves that would draw public scorn if it were ever put under the spotlight.
Sportsmanship in Sports
A huge portion of the daily sports news is devoted to the consideration of what are clearly moral or ethical issues: whether a player has shown proper loyalty to his team or respect for his fans, whether his on-court behaviour has gone over the line from fair play to gamesmanship; whether he has been serious enough about his career or too interested in living the high life; whether he has used performance-enhancing drugs or other illegal
aids in his quest for fame and riches.
A cynic might say that people care about these sorts of things only because they are jealous of excellence. It makes them feel less inferior to drag the champions down from their thrones, to expose their feet of clay. But the public, at the same time, loves its sports stars, idolizes them, exalts them as heroes and role models. It desperately wants them to be as morally excellent as they are athletically outstanding. The ethical ideal which we hope athletes will live up to is called sportsmanship.
But sportsmanship is not really a special kind of conduct expected of sportsmen: it is just ordinary civility and decency transplanted into the competitive arena. We are somehow are surprised to find it growing in that environment, because we fantasize that, within the boundaries of the field or in the court, a primitive struggle for survival is taking place. But all competitive games are governed by rules – quite strict rules in fact (look at backgammon official rules for example) – which make participation in them as much as a social act as voting.
Why Sportsmanship in Backgammon is a Winning Policy
Because the gambling world is a much smaller place than you realize, ethical conduct is usually good business as well. Let’s take an example: imagine that you have an acquaintance who likes to make small bets on football games with you. You rely upon standard point spreads and know you have a nice advantage against him. Today he is clearly in a hurry when he calls you: “I want the Chargers,” he blurts out, “I’ll lay the three.” This means that he wants to bet that the Chargers will win by at least three points. All well and fine and understood, but you know he has made a mistake. The Chargers, according to every published point spread, are three point underdogs, not favourites. Your acquaintance should be getting, not giving three points. Somehow, in his haste, he has gotten the line wrong.
Of course you could simply say nothing and take his bet. Maybe he would even pay you when he lost, but what are the chances he would ever bet with you again? Don’t go down that path! Stop him, correct his mistake, and show him your good character. He will appreciate your generosity and remember the incident for years to come. You will have transformed a casual bettor into a loyal customer and established your reputation within that corner of the gaming community as a straight shooter. In the business of gambling and skill gaming, as in all others, sportsmanship is a winning policy.