Strange Bedfellows: Buddhism, Betting, And Becoming A Better Person

Can the lessons learned in gambling be translated into personal growth?

As far as hypotheses go, “becoming a good gambler will lead to you becoming a better person” is, admittedly, pretty far out there.

But it was a thought that struck me when listening to Adam Levitan’s “Solo Pod” segment on the podcast Establish the Run (which is also the name of the popular DFS website he co-founded). Levitan, who has been a gambler his entire adult life — first at the poker tables in Atlantic City and later as a DFS player and sports bettor — mentioned that gambling had ruined his emotional teeter-totter, in that there was no longer any teetering or tottering.

He had trained himself to “trust the process” and not be results-oriented in his gambling life, and he felt this attitude bled far too much into his personal life — to the point where “normal” joys and disappointments failed to move the needle.

When I heard this, I had the exact opposite reaction. I thought Levitan had beaten the system. I thought he stumbled into one of the main tenets of Buddhism, the “middle way,” which basically means steer clear of the extremes. Don’t let the highs get you too high, don’t let the lows get you too low. This too shall pass.

And I wanted that in my life, because I didn’t — and still don’t — have it. My personal life whipsaws between feeling like I’m Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic — screaming, “I’m the king of the world!” — and, well, feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio at the end of Titanic. 

I have trouble finding the middle. It’s elusive.

But what if gambling held the key? What if being a successful — or perhaps a “thoughtful” — DFS player and sports bettor was a path toward being a better person in my day-to-day life? Can finding the “middle way” be reverse engineered? Is gambling the key to a more meaningful life? Would the Buddha himself find peace in a three-team parlay?

Some say yes.

Rufus, Buddha. Buddha, Rufus

“Gambling has led me here. I was not present beforehand,” said Rufus Peabody, the noted gambler and co-founder of Unabated. “I found Buddhism as a result of gambling. I needed to calm my mind. I started exploring meditation in 2014, and I had been gambling for five years at that point. It was taking a toll on me. It’s hard to cope with the swings in gambling unless you have good balance in your life, and I didn’t have good balance, and quite honestly, I still struggle with balance.”

Peabody was given a reference to a Buddhism class, attended, and immediately saw the parallels between a gambler’s life and the ancient teachings.

“It’s about controlling what you can control,” Peabody said. “If you’re having anger or another negative reaction, if there’s something you can do about it, do it — and don’t stress about it. And if there’s nothing you can do about it, then there’s no need to stress in the first place. 

“You can’t control all the externals, you can only control your reaction, can only control your own process. And that really resonates with me, because with betting, you have to be process-oriented. You can’t be worried about the fluctuations, about the ups and downs. Buddhism is a very process-oriented religion, and as paradoxical as it seems, Buddhism and gambling totally complement each other.”

Peabody, who counts himself as a practicing Buddhist, said it was, without a doubt, gambling that led him to the spirituality of Buddhism. And while he’s sure he’d still be doing what he does without Buddhism in his life, he also has zero doubts he’s a better person for discovering it.

“I think I’d still be gambling and still be successful, but Buddhism confirmed what gambling already taught me, and it enabled me to apply it to other parts of life,” he said. “It enabled me to be happy and to better handle the ups and downs. It has given me the tools to be happy in a sustainable way. I know what to do, and I know the recipe for happiness.”

And for Peabody, it’s not only the Middle Way. It’s also recognizing another central tenet of Buddhism: Everything in life – from the very breath you take to tonight’s MLB DFS slate – is impermanent. 

And from a gambling perspective, not only can you not get too attached to the highs and lows of winning, you also have to be able to move on. Life – like gambling – demands acceptance of change.

No lessons from tigers

“As humans, we’re biased to a huge extent to connect with the outcome, which was probably a survival mechanism that served us very well 200,000 years ago, but does not serve us very well in gambling,” said Will, a professional sports bettor and DFS player who goes by the handle “Saramek” on Twitter. “For instance, if 200,000 years ago you’re on the savannah, and the outcome was you got eaten by a tiger, that’s a pretty disastrous outcome you’re not going to recover from. So that was probably a really good thing to be fearful of and avoid as much as possible. If you had a near-miss from being eaten by a tiger, you probably want to react to that in the strongest possible way, so you minimize the chance it ever happens again.”

Makes perfect sense, right? But the issue is that deep fight-or-flight, 100-or-zero response is embedded in us, and it’s a hard habit to break – even when you’re not being attacked by a tiger.

“Now, if you have a losing week, or a losing day, it might feel like the end of the world, but it actually isn’t, and you need to know how to react to that proportionally,” Will said. “These kinds of human biases that we built up and that ensured our survival 200,000 years ago can now actually lower our chances of surviving in the gambling industry if we don’t learn to react to them more appropriately.”

Will does not count himself as a Buddhist, but he says he practices some aspects, such as meditation. And it all started about a decade ago, when Will plied his trade as a blackjack card counter.

“That was my intro into professional gambling, and it taught me a huge amount about mental discipline, about understanding risk, understanding how to interpret results in a healthy way that has stayed with me ever since,” he said. “In blackjack, it really is so much about the process and focusing on the things you can control, and distancing yourself as much as possible from those things that you cannot.” 

Will’s education just grew from there as he expanded into sports betting and DFS.

“It was a gradual process, not a sudden aha moment where I suddenly went from a reactionary, impulsive person to a less reactionary, more balanced person,” he said. “But it becomes apparent as a gambler that if you’re going to survive mentally and do this in a sustainable way, you have to come up with techniques to distance yourself from results and instead channel more of your energy into the process and things that actually matter. You need to start thinking of ways to withstand these emotional swings better, to learn to interpret these swings better — and that’s where Buddhist practices start to help.” 

Much like Peabody, gambling came before Buddhism for Will, and much like Peabody, it has led him down a path he didn’t expect.

“Gambling led me to the aspects of Buddhism that now play into my life,” Will said. “And not just my gambling life — all aspects of my life.”

Peabody doubles down on the sentiment.

“Gambling has taught me so much about the world and made me a better person,” he said. “It has made me process-oriented and made me understand randomness and probability in my everyday life.”

But, predictably, not everyone is on board the Buddhist train to happiness with a pit stop in Gamble Town USA. Not even all Buddhist gamblers.

Heavens and hells

“Well maybe, in some people, I think it might lead to happiness,” said Scott Wellenbach, a poker-playing Buddhist who donates all his winnings to charity, which included a $670,000 haul from a 2019 victory at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure. “But I also think the opposite is true. When things get out of control, and you’re on this roller coaster experiencing the heavens and the hells very vividly and in extreme measure, I think [some things] — particularly the hells — really penetrate you and really can, depending on your reaction to it, change your life in remarkable ways.”

Wellenbach, who translates ancient Buddhist texts as his profession, has been a Buddhist since 1975, and for a short time afterward, tried to support himself as a professional poker player. He’s not entirely confident his successes at the poker table are a result of his Buddhist beliefs.

“Maybe? It’s really hard to know where your success comes from in just about anything. There’s always so many factors,” Wellenbach said. “Buddhist meditation talks about two results that sometimes occur. One is a sense of peace or calm, of not being overly affected by highs and lows of your life. The other result is insight, or clear-seeing. I’d like to think my Buddhist practice has afforded me some access to some measure of calm. To use the poker parlance, perhaps I’m a little less likely to go on tilt, although it certainly happens.”

And while Wellenbach isn’t ready or willing to say gambling can make you a better person, he has noticed over the near 50 years of being a poker-playing Buddhist that other poker players seem to be more interested in his attraction to Buddhism than anything he does at the table.

“You’re exposed constantly to that roller coaster of the heavens and hells of fate, and what card came up off the deck on the turn, and all that stuff,” Wellenbach said. “Gamblers become fairly intimately acquainted with not only the vicissitudes of up and down, but also the haphazard, coincidental, or almost random patterns of success and failure. And some start to develop a thirst or curiosity to try and look at what’s going on there, which means looking into your mind. And that’s where Buddhism comes in.”

Too Buddhist for his own good?

“I trained myself to not feel anything,” Levitan told me. “To play my best, I need to not feel. And no, I don’t think it’s good for normal life. I feel like I should be out there feeling a wider and more acute sense of emotions in my normal life. I kind of think it’s bad the way I am.”

To be fair, Levitan doesn’t completely blame his gambling adventures for his “middle way.”

“I can’t say for sure it’s from gambling, but it doesn’t help,” he said.

Levitan’s middle ways were on full display last December, when he appeared live on Tilt Space, winning $250,000 in a FanDuel Casino DFS contest.

“I didn’t really feel much then either,” he said. “I think if I was in my younger days — and a lot of times playing poker, I’d have 50% of every dollar to my name on the table — if that happened then, I would hope I would have had more emotions about it. Now, when I win, it feels more like relief and less like I’m going to go around screaming and taking my clothes off. It’s bad not to feel good when you win. I feel awful when I lose and relief when I win.”

But even Levitan, despite his self-diagnosed emotional flatness, admits gambling has taught him some powerful lessons about life.

“It’s taught me that getting too high or too low about money is not the right way to do it,” he said. “That’s easy to say when you have money, but I mean for everything. I worry about people who lose a few hundred on Sunday and it affects them all week. They’re in a bad mood, they’re mean to their wife. If that’s happening to you, then you need to get control of that. Anyone who gambles knows you’re going to lose. … Winning players lose all the time. If you’re letting it affect your life, it’s the worst.”

A new disciple

Rufus Peabody’s brother, Tom, is a musician who spent much of his 20s working in schools. About 18 months ago, at the height of the pandemic, Tom decided to join up with his brother and enter the world of professional sports betting.

So I asked him directly: Has it made you a better person?

“In short, yes. My experience has led me to learn to be a lot more grounded, to take the highs as temporary and the lows as temporary,” Tom said. “In the beginning, I’d sweat everything, and it would ruin my day, ruin my week, or make my day, make my week. But now I realize not getting too high is as important as not getting too low, and I think that’s absolutely true. It all comes back to the middle.”

Tom said he is, by nature, a “fairly anxious” person, and the transition to a profession where hundreds of thousands of dollars can depend on a putt has been “difficult at times.” But the good life lessons have outweighed the bad. 

“The perspective it gives you, just dealing with big amounts of money coming in and out, knowing if you make $100K today, you can lose $100K tomorrow — that way of thinking easily translates to everything in life,” he said. “Anything can happen, and so you have to just control what you can control.”

The Peabody brothers were put to the test a few weekends ago when they had $500 down on Mito Pereira at 300/1 to win the PGA Championship and watched him fall apart on the 18th hole to lose.

“That’s a massive swing in my net worth,” Tom said. “And I was sort of surprised in how I dealt with it. A year ago, it would’ve taken me weeks to recover. But now, I let myself feel it, realized there was nothing I can do, that I had to move forward. Rufus and I talked about how nice it was to be able to let this go.”

In fact, days before the Mito meltdown, this is what Rufus had to say about tough losses: “I have this vivid memory of the 2016 Super Bowl. I had been going to these Buddhism classes for a few months. It was the Broncos and Panthers, and the Broncos won in a blowout. My business partners were all at the game, we had all these prop bets, and we had a very bad result.

“And I remember being like, ‘You know what? I’m feeling this feeling of disappointment, and I’m going to let myself sit with this feeling of disappointment, and it’s OK to feel disappointed,’” he continued. “And then I started embracing it and actually enjoying it. And I don’t mean enjoy it like a problem gambler that really has a secret desire to lose. It was not like that. It was accepting the situation and accepting my feelings. And I think that is the conflict so many people have in life. They want things to be different than they are. And Buddhism is very much about accepting the situation as it is — and knowing it’s also impermanent.”

And now it’s rubbed off on his brother. 

“The parallels are there, certainly,” Tom said. “Not to get too cliché about it, but life is gambling. You’re making the best decisions you can with limited information, hopefully making plus-EV decisions. But at the end of the day, random sh*t is going to happen. Someone is going to get sick. People who are close to you are going to die, or leave, or say something mean to you, and all you can control is how you respond to it. You can’t control the world. That has been a big lesson for me, something I didn’t grasp before I started betting.”

Accidental Buddhists

For the right person, being a gambler might lead to insights about life, and Buddhism — oddly enough — certainly can speak to the experience. And while drawing the line from one to another for all gamblers might be stretching things, everyone I spoke with for this article agreed on one point: There are a lot of “accidental Buddhists” out there in the gambling world.

Levitan: “When I was coming up playing poker, the good players, when they would win, they would quietly collect their chips, and when they would lose, they’d give the cards back to the dealer and move on to the next hand. That’s how a pro acts. They’re not practicing Buddhism, but that’s how a professional acts. No doubt about it.”

Wellenbach: “It (gambling) could be a sharp catalyst.” 

Peabody: “If you took all these sports bettors and gamblers, and if you introduced them to Buddhism, they’d be like, ‘Yeah, I get it.’ Not the religious side of it, but certainly the philosophy.”

Will: “There are many gamblers who have taken on Buddhist-like traits in order to survive in this industry without knowing they are Buddhist-like traits.”

So, yes, many gamblers take on Buddhism without realizing it. And perhaps realizing it, and applying the same principles to everyday life, can make us all not only a little better at gambling, but also a little better at being alive. 

Photo: Shutterstock


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