Gambling with the future of humanity

One of the many great things about events like Bridport’s Film Festival is that you are drawn to performances that you would probably not otherwise see. Take the film Molly’s Game for example. If screened at a local cinema it probably would not have caught my attention. But because you want to support the festival, and because it’s right on your doorstep, you have licence to be less circumspect. And this was a gem.

It’s the true story of Molly Bloom, a beautiful, highly intelligent young American skier who, on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics literally crashes out of her sport. Picking herself up she goes on to run, over the course of a decade, a number of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games, before being arrested and put on trial by the FBI. This film works on many levels, but I want to focus on just one. The psychology of those addicted to high-stakes gambling.

What has really haunted me about the film is the image of one of the poker players, a supposed ‘professional’ player who knew exactly what he was doing and who was more than capable of assessing the odds, being broken by a chance event – a rare piece of ‘good’ play from an otherwise complete amateur. Unable to back-down and walkaway from the table, unable to accept that things have not turned out as planned, unable to accept the loss, he just keeps on betting – and, as emotion takes over from reason, keeps on losing. This normally rational player gets sucked into an irrational vortex of his own making: borrowing more money than he actually has, losing, borrowing and losing, convinced that just one win will balance everything out. It doesn’t happen.

And all time I’m watching this I’m simultaneously thinking of two high-stakes politicians constantly ‘upping the ante’ on the world stage. One threatening missile strikes to deter and punish a third party for their use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and alleging the complicity of their opponent at the table, the other denying their involvement and threatening to not only shoot down any missile fired at their friend and ally, but to retaliate by striking the sites the missiles were launched from.

In the poker games depicted in the film, most of the winning and losing derived not from who had the better hand, or who had calculated the odds more accurately, but who was able to out bluff their opponent – who was able to convince the person sitting opposite them that the hand they held was the higher, even though it often was not. But in the scene I described above the players managed to position themselves into such a corner that there was no room to back down. As the surge of irrational responses overwhelmed their play the only way they felt they could walk away from the table was by beating their opponent. It was literally winner takes all. The loser lost everything.

This loss was heart-breaking to see. But when applied to the world stage the metaphors start to break down. Potentially there will be no winners and losers, just losers. The world, at every level, environmentally, politically, and economically, is now so highly connected that it will be impossible to confine the results of losing ‘the game’ to the opposition. We will all suffer. And when it comes to politicians with a nuclear arsenal at their disposal, the stakes include the very future of humanity.

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