Why Is it So Hard to Quit While You’re Ahead?

Everyone has their own rules for when to stop gambling for a day.

Maybe you give yourself a certain amount of time to play, and once that time runs out, you are done. Or maybe you wait until you have a certain amount of drawdown in your account. Or perhaps you only quit when you bust your bankroll.

At what point during a “hot streak” should you quit?

But we do not always want to walk away from the casino at a loss, do we? Obviously, you cannot expect to always get ahead while gambling, so “I’ll quit while I’m ahead” is not a rule you can follow every day.

But when you are winning—or close to breaking even—it becomes an option, and an appealing one at that.

That does not make it an easy option, however – and we often underestimate just how hard it can be.

We have all been there. The last few hands of poker have gone so well, and you are clearly on a roll—what’s the harm in playing just one more hand?

Think how many times that hand ended up being the one that broke you.

Or, to take another common scenario, think of that time you battled your way back from a big loss, and were right about to break even.

What would be the harm in taking one more spin? You’ll quit when you are back in the black. You are so close, after all.

Of course, you know what happened next. You went right back to a bigger loss.

Psychologically, it is just really hard to quit when we are ahead.

But have you ever wondered why, and what you can do about it? In this article, we are going to explore the concept of “gambler’s conceit,” and present some ideas for how you can walk away with winnings in your bankroll more often.

What is Gambler’s Conceit?

Gambler’s conceit is the name given to this phenomenon by David J. Ewing, a behavioral economist. Here is the definition:

Gambler’s conceit: The irrational belief that one is in full control of one’s behavior while engaging in a risky activity, and may quit at any time.

But we are in full control of ourselves when we are gambling, are we not?

Well, in the sense that we always have a choice, sure. But whether or not we can make the choice we want depends on how impaired we are.

What Can Impair Our Ability to Choose?

  • Substance use

The most obvious source of impairment would be substance use, whether alcohol or other drugs. There is a reason many casinos give free drinks to patrons. Naturally, you can avoid this issue altogether by only playing casino games when you are fully sober.

  • Poor control of impulses

Not everybody has equally good impulse control.

  • Addiction

The vast majority of casino patrons are not compulsive gamblers, but for those who are, addiction can also lead to the impairment of decision-making abilities.

  • Emotion

Anytime emotions become dysregulated, it can become more difficult to control impulses and make rational decisions. So, whether you are struggling desperately to break even or you are exuberant because of a winning streak, it can be hard to quit.

  • Beliefs

Finally, perhaps the largest and least obvious source of impairment in our ability to make rational choices is our underlying and often unconscious beliefs.

So, if any of the factors above apply, it may not be entirely accurate to say that you are in full control of your actions while you are playing.

Why Do You Want to Quit While Ahead?

Before we continue further in our discussion of gambler’s conceit, you might be wondering why it is so important to have the ability to quit while ahead.

As I said already, most gamblers do not engage in problem gambling behavior, so that is not what I want to focus on.

I will give you a couple reasons:

  1. Gambler’s ruin
  2. Quitting while ahead is a more satisfying experience

Gambler’s Ruin

What is “gambler’s ruin?” This is a concept with varying definitions, but it is basically the same as, “the house always wins.”

Wolfram MathWorld offers this scenario:

Two people are playing a game.
Each person has a finite pile of coins.
Each party makes bets on coin tosses.
The winner of each bet receives the coin.

The site says, “If the process is repeated indefinitely, the probability that one of the two player will eventually lose all his pennies must be 100%.” It goes on, “Your chances of going bankrupt are equal to the ratio of pennies your opponent starts out to the total number of pennies. Therefore, the player starting out with the smallest number of pennies has the greatest chance of going bankrupt. Even with equal odds, the longer you gamble, the greater the chance that the player starting out with the most pennies wins.”

Obviously, the house has more “pennies” than you. Are they infinite? No, but that doesn’t matter. They vastly surpass your own.

Ultimately, playing casino games is a losing proposition. That is exactly why when you are beating the house, you may want to cash out, at least for a little while. Your luck will not last indefinitely, and if you keep all of your money in your bankroll, eventually, the house will take it back.

Quitting While Ahead is a More Satisfying Experience

Another reason to quit while you are ahead when it is possible is because it is just a better feeling overall than quitting when you are at a loss.

We tend to feel more confident about our performance when we have winnings to show for it.

If you are someone who tends to under-perform when you do not feel good about yourself, increasing your confidence in this manner may actually lead to smarter bets the next day.

Also, leaving the casino at a loss is something that is going to happen regularly, and it is something you probably are used to. But that does not make it an awesome experience.

But leaving the casino with a small windfall? That can leave you with a good feeling for days afterwards.

Okay, I’m definitely walking away if I win the giant check…

Situations Where Gambler’s Conceit is Common

Now that we have gone over some reasons why you might want to quit while you are ahead when you are playing online casino games, let’s talk about some situations where you might find it especially tricky to make the decision to stop playing.

  1. When You Are Really Close to Breaking Even

If you are in the red and have not yet reached a breakeven point, technically, you’re not really “ahead.” Nevertheless, you might feel like you are, especially if you spent much of this gambling session down a deep, dark hole of losses you thought you would never climb out of.

At times like that, it is really hard to stop, because is just so tantalizing to cross over the breakeven point to say you are actually winning. You figure even if you just come out $1 ahead for the night, you will feel better.

  1. When You Are On a Lucky Streak

Is also incredibly tough to make the decision to stop gambling when you are experiencing a lucky streak. That can be true no matter how much you have won. There is still that temptation to keep pushing forward to see how much more you can rake in.

  1. When You Want To “Win it All Back”

Probably the hardest time to pull yourself away from gambling is when you are trying to win all your money back after a major loss.

That is not particularly relevant to the topic of quitting while you are ahead, but it is still an example of another time when gambler’s conceit comes into play.

It is also an example of a time where it can be extra damaging to lose control.

  1. When You Do Not Want To Lose a Perceived Opportunity

Any time you think you might be forfeiting an opportunity by quitting for the day, it is going to be difficult to convince yourself to do so. Some examples might include:

  • When you are on a lucky streak, and want to ride it out for maximum wins.
  • When you believe you have an edge.

Actually, depending on the game you are playing, the latter possibility might be worth sticking around for in case you really do have an edge.

But in the case of the former, the idea of a “lucky streak” is an illusion founded on false beliefs; we will get to that shortly.

  1. When You Have a “Near Miss”

With slot games in particular, it is common to experience a “near miss.” You watch as reel by reel, the winning symbols appear on the payline — but the last one is just out of place.

Having felt like you came so close to a massive jackpot, you cannot help but think that it is still close.

Walking away when you are that close to a major win feels like it would be foolish.

  1. When You Are Having an Awesome Time

It is hard to cash out for the night when you are having a ball! And hey, if your main reason for playing is just for fun and not for profit, you might as well keep going.

Beliefs That Can Underlie Gambler’s Conceit

Having laid out some situations where gambler’s conceit can crop up, it makes sense to dig into some of the beliefs we may have that compel us to keep playing even when we want to stop for the day.

Once you understand why those beliefs don’t make sense, they lose some of their power. It then becomes easier to quit playing when you really want to.

  1. Superstition
  2. Hey, don’t you worry about what helps me win!

Sometimes, gamblers who have a hard time quitting while ahead have superstitious beliefs.

They think that a force from on high is influencing their outcomes. They may call it luck, or perhaps fate, or maybe some other name.

They might not even think about it consciously at all. But if they believe it exists and is involved with their wins, they will have two motivations not to quit while ahead:

  1. They do not understand that they are participating in a series of independent trials, and thus may believe that a “lucky streak” is something with continuity.
  2. They may be concerned about insulting the powers that be.

Once a gambler understands the nature of independent events and sets aside the belief that a supernatural power is at work, it becomes much easier to quit while ahead.

One no longer is concerned about insulting Lady Luck or some other deity. One also realizes a lucky streak is not a “thing” one can ride like a magic carpet.

  1. The Gambler’s Fallacy

One of the most prevalent cognitive mistakes that gamblers make is believing in the gambler’s fallacy.

The gambler’s fallacy states that an event that has happened with a reduced frequency in the recent past will happen with an increased frequency in the near future, and vice versa.

This has more to do with why gamblers do not want to quit while they are behind. After so many losses, not only are they desperate to “win it all back,” but they also think it is more than likely they will win it all back. After all, winning has not been happening lately. Surely, their luck is bound to swing around in the opposite direction.

But this could also be an issue, if, for example, a person who has been on a losing streak abruptly gets a big win that brings them back to breakeven or even puts them in the black.

They expect more wins to follow, so it is hard for them to stop playing while they are ahead.

Plus, underlying the gambler’s fallacy is the failure to understand that games of chance involve independent events.

There is no causal connection between independent events. There is no link between one spin of a slot machine and the next.

So long as you believe that there is, you are more likely to make errors in judgement.

  1. The Converse Of the Gambler’s Fallacy

Just as some people believe in the gambler’s fallacy, there are others who tend to believe the opposite. They think if an event has happened with increased frequency recently, it should keep doing so going forward.

That is, in essence, the idea of a “winning streak” as something with continuity that one can “ride out”.

It is even possible to believe in both the gambler’s fallacy and its opposite at different moments.

But the key to dismantling this belief is the same as the key to dismantling a belief in the gambler’s fallacy, and that is to understand that independent events have no causal connection.

Once you grasp that, you will no longer worry about riding out a winning streak and whether you will miss an opportunity by getting out while you are ahead. A winning streak can end at any time.

  1. A Failure To Understand Gambler’s Ruin

Most gamblers understand at least on a conscious level that they cannot beat the house. “The house always wins” is a ubiquitous saying, after all.

But that does not mean that every gambler understands the concept of gambler’s ruin. It also does not mean that different beliefs may not be operating unconsciously even in the mind of a gambler who does grasp the concept.

If you think that you can beat the house, even if you suspect it is just a deep-seated emotional belief, reading more about the math that proves why you cannot may help you to overcome that belief.

When you really understand that the house always wins, you will be more motivated to get out with a nice win when you can.

If you get a large jackpot, you will also be more motivated to put some of it in your bank account permanently.

  1. A Belief That They Have Increased Their Knowledge

Another reason it can be difficult to quit while one is ahead has to do with a belief that one has increased one’s knowledge of what is going on in a casino game one is playing.

With a game like poker that involves testing your skill against that of other players, that can be a correct belief, and a good reason to continue playing.

But with a game of chance, it simply is not applicable because of what we discussed previously involving independent events.

But this is a cognitive error we can dive into in more detail, so let’s take a closer look.

There is a concept called the “inverse gambler’s fallacy.”

You might assume that this would be the same thing as believing in winning streaks, but it is actually something different. With the gambler’s fallacy, we project forward about the future, but with the inverse gambler’s fallacy, we project backwards about the past.

Philip Goff gives the following scenario in Scientific American:

Roll them around all you want, you’re not going to change the outcome!

In the regular gambler’s fallacy, the gambler has been at the casino all night and has had a terrible run of bad luck. She thinks to herself, ‘My next roll of the dice is bound to be a good one, as it’s unlikely I’d roll badly all night!’ This is a fallacy, because for any particular roll, the odds of, say, getting a double six are the same: 1/36. How many times the gambler has rolled that night has no bearing on whether the next roll will be a double six.”

He goes on, “In the inverse gambler’s fallacy, a visitor walks into a casino and the first thing she sees is someone rolling a double six. She thinks “Wow, that person must’ve been playing for a long time, as it’s unlikely they’d have such good luck just from one roll.” This is fallacious for the same reason. The casino- visitor has only observed one roll of the dice, and the odds of that one roll coming good is the same as any other roll: 1/36. How long the player has been rolling prior to this moment has no bearing on the odds of the one roll the visitor observed being a double six.”

You can see how whether you are projecting forward, as with the gambler’s fallacy, or backwards, as with the inverse gambler’s fallacy, either way, you are assuming that just by observing one roll of the dice, you have attained knowledge of other dice rolls.

So, if you did see the double six come up, you might feel like you have an advantage. You now “know” that double sixes have not been rolled in a while, and probably won’t be rolled in a while again.

It is hard to walk away from a game when you think you have that kind of edge, even though that edge is an illusion.

But for all you know, a number of double sixes were recently rolled before the one you observed. And for all you know, the next roll will be a double six.

What can make it even harder to walk away is if you have already placed a lot of bets and lost a lot of money.

You may feel you have “invested” in a particular outcome.

Let’s say there hasn’t been a double six, and you keep betting on it, losing over and over again.

You may believe it is “necessary” for the double six not to be rolled for a long time before it can be rolled.

So, as far as you are concerned, if you walk away now, you are “wasting” all the bets you previously made.

But the truth is, there is no requirement that numerous rolls not come up on the double six in order for the double six to appear.

There is also no requirement that the double six ever appear on any particular roll.

Probabilities state that it should eventually show up, but since every roll is independent and random, it is no more likely to happen after a long absence than it is back-to-back.

Thus, your “investment” of losses is meaningless, and is not setting you up for a win.

Another article of interest is this piece by gaming mathematician Catalin Barboianu. The article includes a scenario where a philosopher, a mathematician, and a gambler are all debating dice rolls. The gambler sides with the mathematician, saying she would not expect the same number to come up twice back-to-back were she to bet on the next roll after witnessing the first.

Barboianu explains, “The gambler’s ‘argument’ is a mix of conceptual inadequacy, misinterpretation, irrelevant application of mathematics, and misleading use of language. She thinks that she has some new information that will increase her chances of winning – that there are now five numbers to choose from instead of six, and as such the randomness of the game is ‘losing its strength’. This sort of belief reinforces a gambler’s impulse to bet – it won’t make her quit the game, but rather continue gambling.

Of course, we are essentially talking about the gambler’s fallacy again.

One way or another, if you think you have increased your knowledge of the past and/or future with a game of chance, you are always committing that same fallacy or the inverse version of it.

The result of every dice roll, every roulette wheel spin, and every slot machine spin, are all random, independent, and unpredictable.

So, you do not need to worry that you are throwing out advantageous information when you decide to wrap it up for the day.

Any information you think you possess about what will happen next in a game of chance is fallacious.

  1. Self-Sabotaging Beliefs

Sometimes, the beliefs that make it hard for us to quit while we are ahead (or not too far behind) have nothing to do with probabilities or randomness. They might have to do with how we see ourselves and our place in the world.

It would be great if all of us could claim to have excellent self-esteem, and feel that we are capable of making smart decisions, and that we deserve good things in our lives.

But a lot of us have problems with our self-esteem. We believe we are not as capable as others. We think we deserve to fail. We may even see ourselves as “losers.” We may have started perceiving ourselves that way as children. Beliefs like these are hard to shed without conscious effort.

It is important to know that these types of beliefs often are buried beneath the conscious level of thought.

You may or may not be aware of them some or all of the time if you have them. It is also possible to experience them more as feelings or emotions than as concrete thoughts.

But suffice to say, if these types of self-sabotaging beliefs are operating in your mind, they will influence your behaviors.

Indeed, you may have an urge to “prove” those beliefs on an everyday level.

Say you are up $80. That is a nice little profit. You know you should call it a day and enjoy your winnings—but you are having a hard time pulling yourself away.

You probably are not going to say to yourself, “I don’t deserve these winnings, so I am going to stay here and blow it.”

But you may come up with some other rationale or excuse to keep playing. It could even involve one of the other cognitive distortions we have talked about.

When you lose the $80, you are reminded of just what a “failure” you are.

You do not go home happy, but you do go home feeling a sense of the familiar. Nothing that happened challenges your beliefs about yourself.

It is sad to say, but a lot of us can get to be quite comfortable feeling bad about ourselves.

But if we learn to question those beliefs and break free of them, we stop making as many self-defeating decisions.

  1. Incorrect Beliefs About Impulse Control

Impulse control is something that is not easy to improve, but it is not impossible either. But many people with poor impulse control have an underlying belief that it is simply part of their makeup and there is nothing they can do about it.

If that is something you believe, it could make it more difficult to exercise control when you want to.

In may also stop you from practicing better impulse control, and might serve as a convenient cover for any other covert motivations you have to blow your bankroll (such as self-sabotage, as discussed above).

Quitting While Ahead: Problems and Solutions

We have now talked about some of the different beliefs and cognitive distortions that can make it difficult to escape gambler’s conceit or quit while you are doing well.

But what steps can you take to improve self-control? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Improve Your Understanding of Mathematics and Explore the Concept Of the Infinite

It seems it would be easy to advise gamblers to just learn more about math in order to make smarter decisions while gambling.

Barboianu points out, however, that things are not so simple, as it is easy to misinterpret mathematics and probabilities.

Barboianu says, “Perhaps the biggest difficulty with using mathematical concepts in the context of gambling is that all probability theory is grounded in the idea of infinity – yet all our gaming experiences are finite. This inconsistency lies behind many cognitive distortions.”

The article offers the difficulty in interpreting this statement as an example: “‘the relative frequency of the die showing a 1 will converge towards 1/6 with the number of throws.’”

It is easy to forget that the “convergence” happens across infinite trials.

So, it is not accurate to say that the number should come up every six throws. Our finite gambling experiences can include many very un-average experiences.

The more you come to understand this sort of thing, the easier it will be for you to put aside cognitive distortions that make you think you can predict the future.

As you will be seeing through clearer eyes, those distortions will no longer have control over you, and you will be able to decide when to start and stop playing a game of chance without them muddying the psychological waters.

  1. Come Up With Strategies For Impulse Control
  2. Impulse control may be more important than you may think at first!

There are ways you can improve impulse control. The simplest and most common suggestion is to practice counting to 10.

Here is how it works:

  • Throughout the day, regularly remind yourself that you will count to 10 if you feel an impulsive urge to do something.
  • If you do that, it should enter your mind at least on some occasions to count to 10 when you do have an impulse.
  • Count to 10 on those occasions.
  • Gradually, this will turn into a habit, and you will start instinctually remembering to count to 10 more often when you have an impulse.
  • Begin training yourself to consider the advantages and drawbacks of an impulse after you finish the count.

You can use this technique in any area of your life, including gambling.

In the future, you will count to 10 and think about whether it is worth it to keep playing when you could quit while ahead.

On some days, you might decide to cash out. On others, you might keep playing.

But at least you will be making a conscious, rational decision to play rather than letting impulses take over.

  1. Remind Yourself That Quitting When You Are Ahead Has Some Intrinsic Emotional and Financial Payoffs

If you have managed to set your impulses aside enough to think about advantages and drawbacks, you can think about some of the payoffs that come with quitting while you are ahead.

As we talked about before, regularly leaving the casino with more money than you came in with can do wonders for your confidence, and leave you feeling great about your life.

Plus, you have the money! You can save it to gamble with tomorrow, or you can withdraw some of it to cover a bill or buy yourself something nice.

  1. Give Yourself Some Additional Motivation

While the rewards listed above might be all you need to compel you to cash out when you are in the black, a little extra motivation may make it easier.

So, reward yourself for quitting while ahead. It could be anything from purchasing something fun but frivolous with the money you won to allowing yourself an extra scoop of ice cream for dessert. It doesn’t matter. Just pick something small that makes you happy.


So, to wrap up, let’s go over what we learned.

  • It is nice to quit while ahead sometimes. We all like to enjoy our winnings. Beating the house in the long run is impossible, so it is wise to enjoy it in the short run. The concept that the house always wins is also known as gambler’s ruin.
  • We tend to believe we can quit a risky activity like a game of chance at any time we like, but often, we find it harder than expected. This is known as gambler’s conceit.
  • There are a variety of reasons gambler’s conceit can happen. Some are cognitive, others are emotional.
  • Gambler’s conceit can kick in during a variety of situations, some where you are ahead, others where you are behind.
  • Gambler’s conceit will have less power over you if you come to understand more about randomness, probabilities, and infinity.
  • Identifying your hidden beliefs about gambling or yourself can help you quit while you are ahead. So can enhancing impulse control or motivating yourself with extra rewards.

With what you have learned in this article, you can stop blowing through your winnings every time you play at the casino. You will still bust out some nights or walk out with a loss, but now you also should find it easier to cash out when you are ahead. Have fun making the most of your winnings the next time you get lucky!

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