On the sunny June day my father bought remarried 25 years in the past, only a comparatively quick time earlier than the ceremony, I used to be at Belmont Park betting horses with him and his good friend Bruce, a mild soul who, for his eager and obsessively practiced handicapping abilities, had been given (by my father) the tongue-in-cheek nickname the Shark. I’m a punctual, anxious particular person, so I reminded Dad that the nuptials approached. He assured me we would go away after the following race.
You find yourself in some attention-grabbing locations at attention-grabbing occasions when you recognize gamblers, and the gamblers themselves are sometimes good firm. These info alone are salutary. But playing itself — investing in probability — is an exercise that must be rehabilitated as a lot as really helpful. In a ebook I just lately learn, it was casually grouped in with different dangerous habits like smoking, mendacity and dishonest.
Few topics encourage stronger aversion in those that dislike it. Light disgust is one response I’ve acquired once I’ve talked about partaking in it. Terror is one other. Admitting that you just take pleasure in often risking your exhausting-earned cash on the flip of a card or the end result of a soccer sport being performed three,000 miles away is, to some cautious ears, akin to saying that on weekends you unwind by taking part in in freeway visitors. When I informed a colleague that I used to be writing in reward of playing, she blanched and stated, “Rational people don’t do that.”
In my expertise that’s unfaithful, however that is definitely one of playing’s attractive qualities: It embraces the irrational.
The brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme have written that the joys of playing “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.