Benefits and Drawbacks of Flow in Gambling

Benefits and Drawbacks

Not quite the “flow” we’re talking about here, but still a nice picture, right?

If you are a regular player of slot machines, what would you say is the main thing that draws you to play?

I suspect that the number one answer might involve the hope of winning a life-changing jackpot.

But I would guess that the number two answer, for those that really stop to think about it, involves a desire to “lose oneself in the game” (or another similar theme or phrase).

It is even possible that this is the most common reason to play slots. But whether it is a conscious or unconscious motive probably differs a lot from one player to the next.

The New York Times writes a bit about this losing of oneself, stating, “Some machine gamblers become so caught up in the rhythm of play that it dampens their awareness of space, time and monetary value… They are after ‘time on device’ to use the gambling industry’s term for a mode of machine gambling that is less about risk and excitement than about maintaining a hypnotic flow of action.”

The article more or less equates this to problem gambling. It’s easy to see why, because there are some dangers to this state of mind.

But I would argue that it is a bit more complicated than that, and that this frame of mind likely presents a combination of positive and negative potential effects.

What is Flow?

I want to focus on the phrase “hypnotic flow” from the New York Times article. This choice of words may have simply been coincidental, but the frame of mind which they describe does also call to mind the similar term “flow” from positive psychology.

“Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who brought it into use in 1875.

In this article, flow is described as a “state of effortless concentration and enjoyment”.

Csikszentmihalyi also describes it in the same article as, “complete immersion in an experience”.

When athletes talk about “flow”, they generally refer to it as “being in the zone”. This is a phrase which most people are familiar with, so it may give you a reference point.

You can see why the description in the New York Times article of slot gambling makes me think of the psychology concept in question. The writer talked about dampening awareness of space, time and money, and simply being in the moment.

Flow can also show up in games of skill at the casino. In fact, Csikszentmihalyi mentions this himself in the linked article. He writes –

“It is easy to enter flow in games such as chess, tennis, or poker, because they have goals and rules that make it possible for the player to act without questioning what should be done, and how. For the duration of the game the player lives in a self-contained universe where everything is black and white.”

What Casino Games Can Induce a State of Flow?

Hypothetically, any game in the casino could induce a flow state, though some are more purposefully designed for it than others.

Given the description above, it is easy to see how it could apply to slots in particular. Slots are as black and white as anything can get. Aside from choosing which game to play, there are no questions about what to do next. You either push the spin button, or you stop playing. There is also a continuous flow of action pushing you effortlessly from spin the spin if you simply keep clicking.

Any other simple game of pure chance also could get you into a state of flow just as easily, for instance roulette or baccarat.

Blackjack is a game where skill is involved, but if you have the basic strategy memorized, you know that there is always a right decision to make for any set of circumstances you might encounter during play.

So blackjack, too, can induce a state of flow quite easily.

I actually find it somewhat surprising that Csikszentmihalyi would pick poker as his gambling-related example, because I actually think that that would probably be the game where flow is least likely to occur.

When you play poker, you are not up against the dealer playing by house rules. You are up against other players, each with their own unique strategies. These players also all have different personalities, complete with decisions which may sometimes be irrational.

As such, it is not necessarily as obvious how to achieve the goal of winning each hand. So, you will not get into that same effortless state of repetition.

But Csikszentmihalyi is certainly correct in asserting that flow can occur during poker.

If you are playing a version of poker against the computer rather than other players, you are more likely to make repetitious, rule-based decisions.

Even while playing against real people, you can still get into a flow state with poker if you manage to get a good feel for what is going on around you at the table, especially if that awareness becomes intuitive and effortless.


Much of this article has to do with your personal feelings and emotions. For an interesting read about this, check out this article as well.
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Possible Benefits of Flow While Gambling

Is flow good or bad when gambling? It depends on a number of factors, including what game you are playing, what your goals are, and how you personally react to flow.

While Playing a Game of Chance

Perhaps everyone’s favorite game of chance, the slot machine!

It would be easy to scorn flow entirely when playing slots or other games of pure chance, but doing so does overlook its intrinsic plus sides.

  1. Relax and let go of anxieties
  2. Because flow is a state of mind which involves losing track of the context of a moment (including time, distractions, and intrusive thoughts), it is a good way to unwind, de-stress, and clear one’s head.

    Even though many people are drawn to the casino to experience the excitement, quite a few people gamble to relax. If spending some time in this manner playing slots allows you to recharge and then get back to your life more prepared to tackle the challenges you temporarily left behind, that could be a benefit.

  3. Increase overall happiness
  4. A psychologist once told me that the happiest people are those who can “lose themselves in an activity” routinely. In other words, if you can regularly enter a state of flow, it may be able to boost your overall mood.

    So along with helping you getting rid of stress and checking your anxieties temporarily at the door, entering a flow state while playing a simple game of chance could help you become happier overall.

    There are, of course, some potential disadvantages of being in a flow state while playing a game of chance. I will touch on those later.

  5. Discover what flow is
  6. While most people have heard of ‘being in the zone,’ not all have read up on the psychological concept of flow or how it can be useful in their lives.

    For some, playing slot machines could be the way that they first encounter flow, especially if they have a difficult time finding it on a regular basis.

    If this leads to an increase in their knowledge of psychology and inspires them to look for other sources of flow, improvements in other areas of life could be on the way.

While Playing a Game of Skill

We’ve talked about some of the benefits of flow psychologically while playing a game of pure chance, but there are even more advantages when you are playing a game which involves skill, like poker.

  1. The enjoyment factor is still there
  2. First of all, from a purely experiential standpoint, the joy of flow continues to be its own reward when you’re playing a game which involves skill. As when playing a game based solely on luck, it can help you become less stressed and feel happier overall. But because skill is involved, it can also enhance your feelings of competence and confidence.

  3. Screening out distractions effortlessly can help you focus where you need to
  4. You will recall that flow has been described as a state of “effortless concentration.” If you are somebody whose mind frequently wanders, you may feel challenged to focus the vast majority of the time, even on tasks which matter to you.

    But when you enter a flow state, focusing can come easily. During a poker game, if you’re not in the zone, you could find your strategic thinking constantly interrupted by distractions within your environment as well as your own mind. But when you are in the zone, all of that noise just falls away, and you can focus your mind entirely on what you need to do to win.

  5. Being “in the moment” fully can help you spot relevant signals you might have missed otherwise
  6. When you are “in the now,” that can increase your observational powers. Your brain can pick up on little details. For example, betting patterns or other tells which your opponents betray. Those increased powers of observation could make the difference between losing and winning.

  7. Resist fatigue
  8. Losing track of time can have a benefit in that it can also cause you to be less prone to fatigue. Ever get involved in a task, blink, and notice that an hour has passed and it felt like ten minutes? That can be a big help during a poker tournament where you are playing hand after hand, game after game.

  9. Don’t get lost in second-guessing
  10. Do you tend to second-guess yourself a lot? I know I do. Ironically, while I am second-guessing myself, it is more common for me to make errors, not less.

    But when you are in the zone, the effortless flow of how you are functioning psychologically tends to “unhook” you from the urge to second-guess everything. You are less likely to get hung up on a decision that you don’t need to be second-guessing, and less likely to make the types of mistakes which come from it.

  11. Avoid the influence of irrational thoughts and emotions
  12. Thoughts and emotions at the poker table are not always rational. In fact, they can often be intensely irrational. Such thoughts and feelings can trip us up, causing us to perform below our true competence level.

    For example, if you get over set with anxiety during a hand, you might do something you normally wouldn’t if you were allowing rational thought to guide your decisions, and you could lose as a result.

    But if you are in the zone, you are less likely to be besieged by such emotions to begin with.

    Another example would be an irrational thought. If you suffer from self-confidence issues, for example, because you simply think you are not very good, you could self-sabotage in a normal state of mind. But being in the zone can help these thoughts bounce off of you with more ease or never even register to begin with.

  13. Perform at your best
  14. In this article, I shared a quote from Victoria Coren Mitchell, describing how a flow state enhanced her performance and her experience of poker –

    “I’m familiar with that magical mindset during sporting competition where one feels completely zoned in on what’s happening. There are occasional nights in poker when the mists have cleared, and I just know what my opponents cards are. Everything at the table is slow, loud, and easy. The rest of the world is silent.”

    There isn’t a whole lot I can say to add to this beautiful quote. It captures perfectly what the experience of flow is like, and how it can boost focus and intuition to the point where winning itself seems virtually effortless.

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Possible Drawbacks of Flow While Gambling

We have talked about some of the ways that flow can benefit you when you are playing games of chance and games of skill. You can see that the potential benefits during a game like poker are pretty extensive. But does flow have any drawbacks?

While Playing a Game of Chance

  1. Lose track of time
  2. Even though being in the zone has many clear benefits, as discussed, casinos are aware that it can also have drawbacks. That is one of the reasons that many casino games are designed specifically to be conducive to such a state.

    Losing track of time is one of the most common features of a flow state. While this can be a pleasant experience, is also one which can make it difficult to keep life in balance.

    If you are not aware of how much time you’re spending playing slots, you could find yourself taking time away from other commitments to gamble. And if you are not disciplined, it could become more and more time.

    This can actually be easier to prevent when you are gambling online versus at a casino. There is always a clock in clear view in your own home and on the device you’re playing on. You can set an alarm, or you can ask somebody in your household to let you know if a certain amount of time has passed.

  3. Lose track of money
  4. The most dangerous feature of flow is the chance to lose track of how much money you’re spending. While flow can enhance concentration, it tends to do so selectively. It focuses your brain on the action of the slot machine, and not on the context of your finances.

    This is one of the key reasons why slot machines are so profitable to casinos. Oftentimes, players are so wrapped up in pushing the spin button repeatedly that they forget all about money management.

    If you do have difficulties with this, one thing you could do is try only loading your online gambling account with funds you are willing to lose in a given session.

    This is not the most convenient option, however, so it is better if you set alerts to remind you to take regular breaks instead.

While Playing a Game of Skill

  1. Lose awareness of fatigue
  2. To some degree, being in the zone can help to prevent fatigue. Since you are functioning at your best, and you are not as troubled by the passage of time, you may feel less fatigued during marathon sessions.

    Nonetheless, there is no way to be impervious to the effects of fatigue entirely. It is possible that you may eventually grow fatigued without really noticing it. If so, that fatigue could be eating at your mental processes without your awareness. So beyond a certain point, you might see a loss in performance before your brain catches up with the reason for it.

  3. Miss useful emotional cues
  4. In general, I believe that emotions are frequently misleading, especially in an environment like a casino where extreme highs and lows are common and anxieties, insecurities and hopes can all become supercharged.

    Nonetheless, sometimes our emotions send us valuable insights into the actions we have recently taken or are about to take.

    When you are in the zone, you may feel more level, calm, and relaxed than you usually do. In such a state, you might miss out on some of the quieter messages your brain tries to send you through both positive and negative emotions.

    Slight unease, for instance, could be overlooked when you are used to more intense trepidation telling you that a certain move may not be a good idea. The voice saying “maybe we shouldn’t do that” could be so soft or casual that you ignore it.

  5. Forget to check your chips
  6. As mentioned before, focus and the state of flow can sometimes be selective, especially if you’re someone who is naturally prone to hyper-focusing.

    I can provide a simple example from my own experiences playing poker. I do play poker mainly for entertainment rather than because I expect to make it into the WSOP. So for me, it can be easy to get swept up in the flow with the “effortless concentration” being on optimizing my play in terms of my hands.

    Sometimes, I get so caught up in it that I forget to look at my total chips for several hands in a row. I can then be surprised by just how far I am down from where I thought I was in my mind. As you might guess, sometimes this can be a sudden rude awakening (and sometimes it also means that I am out sooner than expected).

  7. You might get overconfident
  8. One of the lovely things about flow is that it can bring a major boost to your confidence. Sometimes this might register as a conscious thought, but a lot of times, you simply feel calm and competent.

    When you see yourself performing strongly almost without effort, it is an amazing experience, and in some cases, that confidence boost can play to your advantage.

    But it can also be disadvantageous if it goes too far. Particularly if you are in a situation where there are changing factors you do not account for, your mind may forget to snap out of its rhythm and make an assessment.

    Perhaps someone leaves the poker table, and someone new sits down. If this is context which your mind chooses to ignore while you’re in the zone, you could find yourself unprepared, and rudely ejected from that zone when that player takes you by surprise.

How Can You Make the Best of Flow?

You can see how flow can have both positive and negative effects, some of which might be amplified by particular circumstances or even your personality and overall approach to gambling.

So how can you maximize the positive effects of flow and minimize the negative potential drawbacks?

When Playing a Game of Chance
Come up with a plan for money management before you start playing a game of chance like slot machines. If possible, cap your available funds in advance.

Set an alarm or tell somebody else to let you know when period of time you planned to play has expired.
Think about taking a regular break to get up and walk around and do something else.

When Playing a Game of Skill
When you are totally zoned in and kicking ass and taking names, make the most of it.
Never forget that fatigue can creep up on you. Try and monitor your physical and mental responses to some degree. Consider avoiding marathon sessions for the most part (they often do not end well).

Never become overconfident. Flow cannot grant you invincibility.

Context is vitally important when playing a game like poker. Try and build a habit of regularly examining contextual factors and not hyperfocusing too much on any one aspect of the game.

Conclusion: Flow Can Enhance Your Gambling Experience

You have had a chance to learn about the concept of “flow” or “being in the zone” now, and how it relates to gambling while playing games of pure chance as well as those that combine luck with skill. Hopefully, you will be able to leverage the benefits of flow to their fullest while avoiding its pitfalls.

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