On the sunny June day my father got remarried 25 years ago, just a relatively short time before the ceremony, I was at Belmont Park betting horses with him and his friend Bruce, a gentle soul who, for his keen and obsessively practiced handicapping skills, had been given (by my father) the tongue-in-cheek nickname the Shark. I’m a punctual, anxious person, so I reminded Dad that the nuptials approached. He assured me we would leave after the next race.
You end up in some interesting places at interesting times when you know gamblers, and the gamblers themselves are often good company. These facts alone are salutary. But gambling itself — investing in chance — is an activity that needs to be rehabilitated as much as recommended. In a book I recently read, it was casually grouped in with other bad habits like smoking, lying and cheating.
Few subjects inspire stronger aversion in those who dislike it. Light disgust is one reaction I’ve received when I’ve talked about partaking in it. Terror is another. Admitting that you enjoy occasionally risking your hard-earned money on the flip of a card or the outcome of a football game being played 3,000 miles away is, to some cautious ears, akin to saying that on weekends you unwind by playing in highway traffic. When I told a colleague that I was writing in praise of gambling, she blanched and said, “Rational people don’t do that.”
In my experience that’s untrue, but this is certainly one of gambling’s enticing qualities: It embraces the irrational.
The brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme have written that the thrill of gambling “goes so much against common sense that it stays a secret.” (Their lovely memoir, “Double Down,” is a cautionary tale, as are many stories about this pastime. There’s a remarkable amount of good and interesting writing on the subject — it’s the one shelf where Dostoyevsky and Damon Runyon make sense together.)
The most obvious (and probably most dangerous) appeal of gambling is the pure feeling of undeserved reward. Many years ago, with friends at a casino, I quickly found myself up several hundred dollars at a roulette table. One friend — an especially prudent one — surveyed the unlikely stacks, looked at me and said: “That’s what your pockets are for.” I took his point, stuffing the majority of my winnings away so as not to quickly hand them back. The delight of rare moments like that one, I trust, is clear without my enthusiastic annotation.
But loss is also a counterintuitively alluring draw. It’s a good idea to be on speaking terms with bad luck. Not to recklessly court it, but to inoculate yourself with it from time to time rather than trying to avoid it altogether. “I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against,” Runyon said, and even those odds might be generous. It’s a fact that we spend much of our time trying not to think about.
It has become a cliché to note that participating in athletic competition is good preparation for life: a way to invest and discipline yourself, and then to both triumph and lose with grace. For the more pessimistic among us, gambling offers even more profound practice, because its wins and losses occur for no reason. Unless you’re clinically crazy, you can’t believe you affect the results of a roulette wheel. To gamble is to give up control. If fortune smiles on you, you can exercise humility in the face of good luck. And when, more often, it crushes you, you are forced to directly confront (and maybe absorb and integrate) how vain all our designs and efforts can be. Something for nothing is a thrill. Nothing for something is a test.
That all of this is often accompanied by a social component only heightens the pleasure. There’s no feeling quite analogous to sitting with several strangers at a blackjack table and razzing the dealer as he sweeps away all of your chips after he has had an outrageous stroke of good luck against long odds. The gallows humor and camaraderie is the closest you might ever get, in the material world, to an audience with a capricious God.
I don’t gamble often, and when I do it’s rare that the thoughts I’m trying to articulate here run through my head. But it’s also true that, beyond the amusement it provides me, the sum total of my experiences with this hobby feel like some kind of existential drill. It’s something to do with the constant cycling of enchantment and disillusionment.
You might persuasively suggest that life offers plenty of this cycling without your having to seek it out. But I would argue, as an often risk-averse person myself, that seeking it out — actively putting yourself in the random game — is key to experiencing these particular intensities. Dostoyevsky noted that “little interest and big interest” are the same. “What’s small for Rothschild,” he wrote, “is great wealth for me.” If the thought of gambling repulses you, then betting just five dollars on something would most likely give you a rush — a thrill, even if it’s of the stomach-dropping kind, that doesn’t correspond to the fact that you haven’t spent any more than you might on an iced coffee. On the one hand, you’ve taken a risk for no reason and with a good chance of being the poorer for it. On the other, you’ve been given a chance. Let’s see coffee do that.