Gamblers’ ruin

First I bought some $1.35 Smart popcorn. The package got kindof stuck in the machine.
No problem. I will just buy one of the heavy chocolate bars right above it to jostle it loose. Landed right on top. Neither moved, even when I shook the machine. $2.65.
OK now I am annoyed. I will have to buy a second heavy chocolate bar to jostle both of them loose. Maybe I can keep these in my desk. I’m out of change. Fortunately Aramark takes Visa. Again–Landed right on top. Nothing moved, even when I shook the machine. $3.95.
Dammit. A third heavy chocolate bar seems wasteful. But I paid $3.95 for nothing so far. I swipe the VISA. Again nada–Landed right on top. Nothing moved, even when I shook the machine. $5.25.
Those awful Rice Crispy treats are heavy. This should work. I swipe the VISA. Glances off the pile without dislodging anything I want to eat. $6.60.
Grrr, but the engineering mind kicks in. I need something to land on the pile from a greater height. I try a heavy bag of peanuts from high up. Nope once again. $7.95
Burned by the incremental logic of escalation, I call it a day. Who knew that Smartfood package-bridges were so beautifully constructed?
Now my real dilemma: How do I explain to the wife that the university police just robbed $7.95 from me at gunpoint?

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

6 thoughts on “Gamblers’ ruin”

  1. LOL.

    At least you didn't end up flattened under a snack machine, crushed and dying for the sake of a $1.35 Smart food popcorn (and misc others.)

    There's probably some deeper point about the "sunk cost" fallacy here but I don't have it ready to hand.

  2. If you have ever "read" Milt Gross' He Done Her Wrong, one of the most wonderful graphic novels ever created (published in 1930), you will recall how a vending machine changed the course of events so dramatically. This little gem is worth acquiring and enjoying.

  3. I'm an actuary.

    Gamblers ruin, summarized: the house always wins; even if it's the odds are in your favor, if you don't have unlimited funds, you'll be broke before they will.

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