Reflections on Gambling during Tết

Chúc mừng năm mới!

Translation (from Vietnamese): Happy New Year!

For anyone who’s not aware Tết—which is also known as Chinese or Lunar New Year—started yesterday for this year, on January 25th. I say “started,” because the tradition is observed for up to 15 days, and actually celebrated for weeks in some countries. Think of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Eve, and [input favorite holidays here] combined.

Not a hyperbole.

This is the part where I’m supposed to elaborate, right? But I won’t. I actually tried, but inadvertently turned my original attempt at this post into a short story, so more on that later. Let’s suffice it to say that Tết stands as an irreplaceable inheritance that transcends ethnicity, language, history, and even religion. Though I’ll be nice and leave links to some photos, compliments of CNN, and a YouTube video that provides a glimpse into Tết as celebrated in a place that’s a little closer to home for me, Orange County, CA.

Now that introductions are out of the way, I want to explore a thought that curiously crept into my mind last night as I was hazily throwing money at different pictures of animals:

Gambling as a conduit for developing social bonds and for navigating feelings towards gains and losses.

Bầu Cua Tôm Cá—played by rolling three six-sided dice, each side representing a different animal on the board, inside a container (usually a big bowl with a bottom cover)

Yes, I know, I know. Gambling bad. Greediness. Impulsiveness. Clouded judgement. I agree that those vices and more are indeed provoked by the act of gambling, especially as obsession seeps into the bones.

But to play devil’s advocate, let me ask, what is it about gambling that’s so compelling? The thrill of winning? The fear of losing? The cliff of uncertainty upon which you hang until an outcome arrives? A sense of excitement that arises due to loss of control? A sense of empowerment that awakens as you triumph over unfavorable odds? Or simply an indescribable feeling of “fun?”

Perhaps gambling exhilarates many, yet terrifies others, because just by mere thought of placing a bet, the act serves as a “stress test” that forces us to examine the resilience of our mind and willpower. While some might cling to optimism or hubris that they will “beat the odds,” others succumb to what some may call human inclination towards “loss aversion”—that in short, we’re more emotionally affected by the prospect of loss than we are by that of equal gain. Strange isn’t it?

I believe there’s truth in the concept of “loss aversion,” but that concept is challenged indeed in the case of gambling. But perhaps that’s precisely why we see gambling as such a vice—for it has the tempting ability to lure us away from what we’d normally find as “typical” human behavior—that it has the power to recondition utterly one’s feelings towards gain and loss.

But I’m not exactly interested in all that.

The above understanding hinges upon a desire for gain and a fear of loss as its premise: to be under the spell of those emotions illustrated above, first, you’d have to be invested in the outcome and desire to win.

What if, though, a person can truly, as some of my friends and family would say, “chơi cho vui thôi”—playing just for fun. That is to say, one must be completely removed from the outcome altogether, regardless of win or loss. Is this truly possible?

I’d like to think so. Gambling is condemned typically as a vice. However, on Tết the act is acceptable actually. It would not be out of place to see even a child using his or her Lì Xì, envelopes containing money that’s gifted from the older generation to the younger during the new year (typically red, but not necessarily), to place a bet.

Yes, we start them young.

But definitely not what you think! It’s an act that symbolizes luck—spending that “lucky money” to try one’s luck and pass forth that luck to your neighbor, so to speak.

In theory, we learn at a young age to focus on the process, the tradition, the custom—not just the outcome from win or loss. Of course nobody enjoys losing money, but an acceptance of win or loss as part of the process of celebration should be understood after all as the lesson gained with every bet. Similarly, we’re taught that we shouldn’t be focused on how much money is actually contained within each envelope, but rather the well-wishes and feelings associated with or perhaps embodied by each. It’s not that we’re taught money doesn’t matter—but that there are certain bonds and interactions that should be deemed more important.

Returning to my naive assertion from earlier: no, I don’t truly believe anyone can fully detach themselves from a loss, especially concerning gambling. However, though I can’t speak for everyone, for me at least, throughout the years, this celebration has indirectly taught me how to value more the different journeys I take in life for each step that is taken as opposed to the resulting destination. I mean, I sure as hell would like to win more money than lose; but at the end of the day, the sincere smiles and laughter echo more soundly in my heart during Tết than anything else, crackling with joyful sounds of appreciation to the beat of firecrackers.

In part, cultural celebrations as these have helped teach me how to stop to smell the flowers and enjoy the scenery, if you will.

Considering that each celebration of Tết, in all its particular practices and superstitions, is supposed to prepare you for the new year, sweeping away old grievances withheld from the previous year, and bringing in luck for the new one, I’d say the lesson on how to appreciate and understand better the steps you take towards a particular goal is a valuable one—that perhaps sometimes, the unexpected and non-materialistic gains on the path itself may be more valuable and lasting than what you find or intended to find upon reaching the finish line.

We’ve got to learn how to enjoy the journey and the people that accompany us along our paths in a much more meaningful manner. Roads may diverge inevitably, but take each step with the full weight of sincerity and curiosity. Don’t drag your feet, fully commit to those steps, and pace forward firmly.

Less haste, more speed, if you will.

And if you find welcoming stops along the way, celebrate until the bottles run dry. Place some bets. Lose some money. Lose it all even! But do it with laughter. Win some. Then win some more. But do so with grace. Then spend your winnings on those you’ve come to love, passing along the fortune you’ve gained to and for the sets of eyes that sparkle in your presence. But remember to do it all with a sincere, uncalculating smile.

Then again, my luck was pretty good last night, so perhaps I still have rose-colored goggles on and am still enjoying a lingering, hungover sense of euphoria.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll understand more about these reflections and feelings in a future Tết celebration when lady luck utterly fails me. But until then, let’s keep rolling the dice!

Once more, Happy New Year, everyone: hope the coming year brings favorable health, success, and luck for all!

P.S. lest anyone misinterprets, this is not a vindication for the act of gambling and, for any Vietnamese or Chinese readers, I know I omitted some notable detail and oversimplified certain explanations for the sake of space. I apologize—don’t stone me!

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