I don’t know how to start writing this post.  I don’t even know if I should.   It feels risky . . . and very uncomfortable.  You’ll think less of me (I do). Or maybe you’ll think it’s no big deal and chuckle that I am so worked up about it.  

The whole “no regrets” thing never really made sense to me.  Human beings do truly stupid things all the time. This was my turn to do something so unbelievably foolish that it still makes me nauseous to think about it.  If I could take it back I would – that’s regret. It sits like a stone in my stomach.

But good writers (and good fathers) put themselves out there. I know this.  They admit their vulnerability so they can move past it. Patch it up.

I’m not sure I am all that great at either writing or fatherhood, but I’ve decided that I will try to do what I think a good writer and father would do.  I’m going to tell you about something I did that is out of character, idiotic and deeply embarrassing. Can we be foolish without being fools? I hope so.

I will preface my asinine anecdote by saying I’m not a gambler.  Never spent a dollar in a casino. Don’t buy lottery tickets. No online poker.  I’m too analytical. I know the odds are stacked against me.

I’m still not sure what possessed me, but while in Zakopane, Poland we were strolling along a very touristy boulevard of souvenir shops, stands, and carnival-type games.  Everything was designed to milk the tourists of their cash. First clue. Ignored.

In the middle of the path I came upon a small group of people – maybe 5 or 6 – surrounding a man who was taking bets on his variety of the shell game.  You know the one – there is an item under one of the shells or cups, but he moves them around so quickly it is difficult to keep track of where the item is.  He stops. You make a bet. If you’re right, you double your money.

For a while I watched.  Every single time as people bet, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but I got it right.  Every time. The bets were large – the equivalent of about $40CAD each time but it seemed so easy.

The cups stopped moving and – I still can’t believe I did this – I raised my hand.  The others turned to me. Trying to be responsible, I handed over a smaller bet. In broken english they  informed me the minimum bet was higher. Second clue. I should have walked away at that point, but they surrounded me trying to “help me understand”.  I handed over more money.

And I got it wrong.

“It’s okay!  It’s okay! You can try again!”

I must have been distracted by the money confusion.  One more time.

I watched carefully.  I knew where it was. I made my choice.


I was shocked.  Incredulous. Confused.  Without the minimum bet in Polish currency, I started to walk away.  I couldn’t think straight. What just happened?

One of the other players trotted over, “He will give you special deal – more money!”  I had a $20 Canadian bill in my wallet that I wouldn’t be needing. He said that was okay.

I rallied.  I focused. I got it wrong again.

As I walked away for the second time it dawned on me that I had just blown over $100 Canadian in about two minutes.  Not only that, but my kids had watched me do it. I would have rather been robbed. At least that wouldn’t be my fault.  This was all on me.

It was the start of a beautiful day in the mountains of southern Poland and I was miserable.  We’re on a budget and I had just handed over almost all of our Polish currency to some stranger.  I could have vomited.

“And that’s why I don’t gamble!” I said to the family, trying to say something lighthearted – anything – rather than just wallow in self-pity.  

I looked at the boys and it dawned on me that they thought they could have won.  They’d been sucked in too.  They still thought it was easy, that I’d just made the wrong choices.

The human mind is a funny thing.  When confronted with acute pain, either physical or mental, the powerful reflex is to escape – even if it means making matters worse.  I wanted to run away. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to slap my own face. But I couldn’t undo this and there was just no denying that what I’d done was completely, utterly, and ridiculously Stupid.  With a capital S.

After a few minutes of walking, the firestorm of self-loathing calmed down just a little and I realized that the only way the kids would learn from this would be if I owned it myself.  Maybe I could salvage something out of this mess.

I told them that what I’d done was stupid.  I should have known that the man is there because he is the one who makes money.  The game is designed to make you think you can win.  Just because you can’t see the trick, doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  I should have been more suspicious. More skeptical. In a country where it is not the social norm to be overly friendly with strangers, warning bells should have gone off when the other players started trying to “help” me.  They were likely in on the scam.

I think a lot of people keep playing those games because they constantly think they are one bet away from figuring out the trick.  But that game is probably thousands of years old for a reason. There’s a damn good trick concealed within a deceptively simple – even fun – process.  Some things are easy to recognize but hard to define. There was a trick, I just can’t tell you what it was.

It was at that point I decided to write this blog post.  We returned to the area where the game was being played to catch some video for the vlog too, but the man and his likely compatriots were gone.  Perhaps the police had ushered them away. Perhaps they had made enough money from the foolish Canadian for a nice big lunch of perogies and beer.

I got sucked in, chewed up and spit out by an age-old gambling scam.  Perhaps a more experienced gambler would have seen the red flags. Or maybe they would have gone back and forth to the bank machine until their account was dry.  I don’t know.

I could invent reasons for my actions.  I could justify my irrational decisions.  I could think of many ways “it could have been worse . . . “.  But I’m just going to own this. No excuses.


  1. You’re not alone. Perhaps not the same scam, but, been there, been roasted. The mind is complex and hard to understand but sometimes it’s too predictable.

    1. I have a sick fascination with learning about the myriad ways the human mind is fallible. A wonderful, entertaining and very readable book on the subject is Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational”. It’s the antidote for overconfidence. Clearly, it’s been too long since I read it!

  2. You’re too hard on yourself. They were also there because it works and lots of tourists do it. Plus that was likely the best way to teach your sons that lesson—not through a lecture as you walked by. Sounds like a good way to invest $100 to me. 😉 Plus it remind s me of a quote: “ Adventure is discomfort in retrospect.” Sometimes the discomfort is physical and sometimes it’s mental. Hope you can have fun the rest of your time in Poland. Thanks for being a brave writer and sharing.

    1. Thanks, Dan and Angie. A few days have passed and there are a few countries between us and Poland now (we are in Italy as of yesterday) so already it feels less . . . acute.

      I like the quote, “Adventure is discomfort in retrospect.” Very true! As we walked away from the game I told myself that somehow the situation would end up as a funny story. Even though it was true it didn’t help at the time! These things have a way of bypassing our rational brains. Still, the long term lesson has more value than the short term pain.

  3. We’ve all been there in one form or another. Whoever thinks they have never or can’t be conned, is probably the easiest to con. I can only imagine how many times I have been fooled, never mind the times I was aware of.
    I recently read a book you might be interested in. It’s called ‘The Confidence Game’ by Maria Konnikova. It’s about the psychology of the con and why we fall for it.
    As another poster mentioned, $100 for the experience and lesson learned isn’t a bad deal, might end up saving your boys thousands (or more) in the future! In that case, the $100 spent was a bargain 🙂
    Enjoy your ongoing adventure!

    1. That looks like a great book, Winnie. I do have more time for reading these days . . . 🙂

      Getting through life successfully is a fine balance of confidence and humility. I’m a long way from figuring it out.

      We talked about these blog comments over dinner tonight. I think it was great for the boys to hear other people’s take on what happened – thanks!

  4. Omg, I was afraid to read the post. Man, you are hard on yourself! I agree with others, Good lesson for the boys! Matt it took you 40 years to gamble away that $100.00 as that is so not your thing (normally) lol. You should have it out of your system for another 40….at least! Great blog, a lot of people would not have posted this! Very honest!

    1. Thanks, Colleen. Linds said the first two paragraphs made it sound like I was about to confess some infidelity or something! But she will tell you I wasn’t being over-dramatic. That was a big deal for me. You are right, though – definitely out of my system for another forty years!

  5. “What’s The Worst That Can Happen?”
    Looking at your blackboard map which provides all the answers and given the trajectory of your life at the moment, I’d say you had the perfect experience! Risk, confidence, the possibility of abundance, excitement, fun plus new lessons learned from life on the road!
    By the way, can I borrow that map for my art class email blast? Perfect question to ask a class full of nail biting students who I suspect took the summer off!
    Thinking of everyone this first day of school. No school bells and line ups for the Poyner’s!!

  6. Another great post Matt. Thanks for sharing we have friends that lost their money playing the same game.
    Lessons learn Beware of the Gypsies & the Pick Pocketers when travelling Europe. We were swindled by the gypsies in Spain on the beach they are so fast and come out of nowwhere and they disappear faster by the time you realize your money is gone. We thought we had taken all the precautions as we were warned about some of the tricks they use. It was on Valentines day and we were walking the beach and a pretty girl handed me a red carnation I was suspicious and tried to hand it back and they wouldn’t take it back, and all of sudden their is another gypsy working on Brian, and they are demanding money for the flowers. I give her some change while holding tightly on my wallet she still wouldn’t leave me alone even though I was giving her money which never seemed to be enough and the the other one was working on Brian and he’s trying to hang on to his wallet that is in his zipped side pocket as the mother gypsy was unzipping his pant leg pockets and then they must have had a signal and all of sudden they disappear. As were digesting what just happened I say to Brian check your wallet, he replies they didn’t get anything it was in my zipped pant pocket I say check and sure enough we were out $100 Euro. This bothered us for days not about the money as we figured they must need it but we felt invaded and outsmarted & neither one of us could help each other as we were both being worked on that was the scary part. Stay save and be careful of the swindling gypsies in Spain and be careful of the pick pocketers in Paris.

    1. Wow, I’m sorry that happened to you but it’s a great story. It will heighten our vigilance for sure, especially as we are headed to Spain within the next month.

      The industry that people show in their efforts to swindle others is at once impressive and infuriating.

      Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

      1. All of Europe swindlers are about distraction. Matt I actually laughed reading your post. It is a great post and a fabulous lesson for your boys. Go easy on yourself, we all do silly things we wish we could take back. We are human after all. Thanks for sharing!!

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