The gambler in fact and fiction

The gambler in fact and fiction

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People who gamble can be subdivided into three possibly overlapping types. Casual gamblers bring a clear sense of enjoyment to the act of gambling. Of course they hope to win, but they may not expect to win and they play at stakes sufficiently small that maximum losses will not usually be a financial hardship. While losses may bring regrets, personal embarrassment, and even guilt and self-recrimination, these feelings pass quickly and are not dwelt upon. Casual gamblers may not be aware of odds or strategic subtleties and may not even fully comprehend the rules of the game. They do, however, know how much time and money they can afford to spend and are able to tear themselves away when these limits are approached.

Compulsive gamblers are happy primarily in the act of gambling. The dizzying contrast of emotions between the exultation of winning and the despair of losing is fueled by the belief that the player is truly blessed with a forthcoming streak of luck or a self-discovered inexplicable system which must work. Consequently the size of bets will escalate whenever possible, and quitting either while ahead or behind is an act of supreme willpower or financial necessity. The ability to rationalize, to violate self- made promises, and to find a way to make the next bet is present in creative abundance. The parallel with alcoholism is apparent, and it was no long shot that an international organization entitled Gamblers Anonymous began in California in 1947.

What are the internal and external forces that drive a compulsive gambler to continue this often self-destructive behavior? A complete answer to this question, if indeed one exists, would take us too far afield here. We note, however, that psychological research over the past half century provides some fascinating answers based upon experiments with animals and hu­ mans. Among the various reinforcement schemes used to induce repetitive behavior, the most effective have been the “variable ratio reinforcement schedules.” Such schedules provide reinforcement in seemingly random fashion but with the frequency of reinforcement increasing with the number of repetitions. One can hardly imagine a random reinforcement schedule more effective than the payoffs on a roulette wheel or a slot machine!

Professional gamblers may at times gamble casually or compulsively. In any case they gamble well and make a good living out of it, for otherwise they would be in another profession. We are not referring here to racetrack owners, casino owners, numbers racketeers, and the like. For they, like bankers, do not work a gamble but a near sure thing. Professional gamblers may have little mathematical background, but they fathom odds, games, and people with seldom erring instinct. Their professional activities involve private games such as poker and bridge, informed betting at racetracks, and well placed bets on any variety of games and events with odds over which they exercise careful scrutiny if not control. They may indulge as a whim in such casino games as Keno, roulette, craps and slot machines, but only for pleasure or to feed the nonprofessional aspects of their gambling urges. Indeed they realize that nobody plays such house games regularly and profits from it. Possible exceptions, as we shall sec, include blackjack and a few very generous implementations of video poker.

Clearly the above are rather stereotyped descriptions of the three gam­bling types proposed. In fact, the casual gambler may have all the game sense of the professional or the passion of the compulsive player. The point is that, whatever the inclinations, the casual gambler plays occasionally, under control, and only with nonessential funds. The compulsive gambler may have an outwardly ordinary existence and regular employment. The compulsion may manifest itself at irregular intervals, but when it does the gambler is, in a sense, out of control and possibly out of a considerable sum of money. In the following paragraphs we attempt to add flesh to our gambling stereotypes by describing some specific characters from history and fiction.

One of the most remarkable yet unrecognized characters in history must be Girolamo Cardano. Born in Italy in 1501. his life, even by conservative accounts, is awe-inspiring in its fullness, vicissitude, notoriety, controversy and. above all. intellectual breadth and attainment. A brilliant medical stu­dent, Cardano became the most highly regarded and sought-after physician in Europe. He was one of the foremost scientific minds of his era and pub­ lished numerous popular and scientific works. His book on games is judged to be a first and major step in the evolution of probability theory. He is a central figure in the famous mathematical controversy concerning priority in solving a class of third degree polynomial equations. His undoubtedly exaggerated but brutally frank and self-analytic Autobiography is the first of its kind and is still read by literature students today. Overall Cardano left 131 printed works and 111 additional books in manuscript (and claimed to have burned another 170).

In contrast to this impressive array of intellectual achievements. Cardano spent time with his family in the Milan poorhouse; developed bitter enemies (and loyal friends) throughout his life: engaged in constant controversy and debate on questions in medicine, science, and mathematics; and saw his oldest son executed for murder and his youngest son jailed and exiled as a thief. He dabbled in astrology, casting horoscopes for royalty and of Jesus Christ (after the fact). Partially as a result of this latter activity, he was arrested and jailed as a heretic at age 69. Throughout all this Cardano gambled incessantly. A moving and rather supportive account of this stormy life can be found in Ore’s book Cardano. The Gambling Scholar, which also includes a translation of Cardano’s The Book on Games of Chance.

Cardano seems to have played and written about almost all types of games common in his time. He excelled in chess, a game accompanied then by much betting and handicapping. He played backgammon and other dice games along with a variety of card games including primero, an early version of poker. His moral observations on gambling are both perceptive and amusing, especially in view of his almost total inability to heed his own advice. Thus he says in The Book on Games of Chance in a section on “Who Should Play and When”: “So, if a person be renowned for wisdom, or if he be dignified by a magistracy or any other civil honor or by a priesthood, it is all the worse for him to play.” He follows later in this section with: “Your opponent should be of suitable station in life; you should play rarely and for short periods, in a suitable place, for small stakes, and on suitable occasions, or at a holiday banquet.”

There is nothing “suitable” about Cardano’s gambling. He seems to have gambled continually, for large stakes, and with all variety of men. He says in his Autobiography:

From my youth I was immeasurably given to table games; through them I made the acquaintance of Francisco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and many friends among the nobles. But through the long years I devoted to them, nearly forty, it is not easy to tell how many of my possessions I have lost without compensation. But the dice treated me even worse, because I instructed my sons in the game and opened my house to gamblers. For this I have only feeble excuse: poor birth and the fact that I was not inept at the game.

Then, in a chapter on “Gambling and Dicing”:

In perhaps no respect can I be deemed worthy of praise, but whatever this praise be. it is certainly less than the blame I deserve for my immoderate devotion to table games and dice. During many years—for more than forty years at the chess boards and twenty- five years of gambling—I have played not off and on but. as I am ashamed to say every day. Thereby I have lost esteem, my worldly goods, and my time. There is no corner of refuge for my defense, except if someone wishes to speak for me, it should be said that I did not love the game but abhorred the circumstances which made me play: lies, injustices and poverty, the insolence of some, the confusion in my life, the contempt, my sickly constitution and unmerited idleness, the latter caused by others. An indication of this is the fact that as soon as I was permitted to live a dignified life, I abandoned it all. It was not love for the game, nor a taste for luxury, but the odium of my position that drove me and made me seek its refuge.

In this poignant passage we see the gambling compulsion revealed in a way that shows how little some things have changed in four hundred years. Cardano was many things and a gambler on top of it all, and one wonders how he found the time and energy for everything, while feeling grateful that he did. For whatever the gambling urge did to his life, it has left us with a rich picture of a brilliant and possessed man plus a priceless first treatise on the mathematics of games and gambling.

A better documented and more specific picture of compulsive gambling can be seen in the life and writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). It is no doubt significant that the life of this celebrated Russian author rivals that of Cardano in its turbulence and swings of fortune, but we focus here on the roulette playing episodes experienced and written about by Dostoyevsky. He first became seriously involved with roulette in August of 1863 in Wiesbaden, where he wrote: “1 won 10,400 francs at first, took them home and shut them up in a bag and intended to leave Wiesbaden (he next day without going back to the tables; but I got carried away and dropped half my winnings.” 1

In a letter to his sister-in-law requesting that his wife be sent some of the money he had won, he said of the roulette experience:

Please don’t think I am so pleased with myself for not losing that I am showing off when I say that I know the secret of how not to lose but win. I really do know the secret: it is terribly silly and simple and consists of keeping one’s head the whole time, whatever the state of the game, and not getting excited. That is all, and it makes losing simply impossible and winning a certainty. But that is not the point; the point is whether, having grasped the secret, a man knows how to make use of il and is fit to do so. A man can be as wise as Solomon and have an iron character and still be carried away. Therefore blessed are they who do not play, and regard the roulette wheel with loathing as the greatest of stupidities.

Dostoyevsky’s lack of respect for the constancy of roulette expectation (see Chapter 2) is coupled with a belief that keeping his head and not being carried away are the key to sure winnings. Already we see the pattern of a man with a system engulfed by the gambling urge. A week after he sent the letter just quoted. Dostoyevsky wrote from Baden-Baden to his brother Misha to ask for a return of some of his winnings:

My dear Misha. in Wiesbaden I invented a system, used it in actual play, and immediately won 10,000 francs. The next morning I got excited, abandoned the system and immediately lost. In the evening 1 returned to the system, observed it strictly, and quickly and without difficulty won back 3.000 francs. Tell me. after that how could I help being tempted, how could I fail to believe that 1 had only to follow my system strictly and luck would be with me? And I need the money, for myself, for you, for my wife, for writing my novel. Here tens of thousands are won in jest. Yes, I went with the idea of helping all of you and extricating myself from disaster. I believed in my system, too. Besides, when 1 arrived in Baden-Baden I went to the tables and in a quarter of an hour won 600 francs. This goaded me on. Suddenly I began to lose, could no longer keep my head and lost every farthing I took my last money and went to play: with four napoleons I won thirty-five in half an hour. This extraordinary luck tempted me, I risked the

thirty-five and lost them all. After paying the landlady we were left with six napoleons d’or for the journey. In Geneva 1 pawned my watch .

So it goes in an irregular succession of roulette forays throughout Europe with recently acquired but sorely needed funds—requests for more funds, pawned watches, and unpaid hotel bills until 1871 when somehow Dos­toyevsky gives up roulette. It is not surprising that the slate of mind and the events which characterized the earliest of these experiences should appear in Dostoyevsky’s beautiful short novel The Gambler, a remarkable profile of one kind of compulsive gambler. It is worth noting that the actual writing of this novel was itself a gamble, with free rights to all Dostoyevsky’s past and future writings as the stake. Indeed, as a result of a variety of family and financial problems plus considerable procrastination, he found himself on October 4. 1865 with a deadline of November 1 for presenting his creditor with a work of at least 160 pages, with the above-mentioned stake as the penalty for failure. By dictating to a specially hired stenographer (later to become his second wife), Dosloyevsky completed The Gambler on October 31.

While it is often tempting but usually stretching a point to regard certain fictional characterizations as clearly autobiographical, there seems to be ample justification in the case of The Gambler’s narrator and title character Alexis. Employed and traveling abroad as a tutor to the family of “the General,” Alexis observes and interacts with the family as they holiday at Roulettenburg pretending to live in grand style, while counting on much coveted additional funds from the will of the very wealthy and ailing “Grandmama,” rumors of whose death arc in the air. Having become pas­sionately and slavishly attached to the General’s daughter Polina, Alexis is commissioned by her to win at roulette.

As did Dostoyevsky. Alexis introduces himself to roulette and has imme­ diate positive reinforcement, leaving the table a dazed but excited winner. We already see in him several symptoms of the gambling compulsion: the fatalistic certainty that gambling will shape one’s own destiny, the loss of control, the sensations of plummeting and soaring. But Alexis is not made truly aware of the depth of his compulsion until the arrival of Grandmama who, despite her illness, has herself carried to Roulctlenburg in response to the General’s telegrams of inquiry about her death. In her we see a portrait of a totally unlikely victim being energized and swept away by the idea of gambling. (One recalls stories in Las Vegas of a 75 year old man or an 8 j months pregnant woman playing the slot machines or the roulette wheel 18 hours a day.)

Grandmama watches the wheel and becomes attached to the 35 to I payoff on zero. After a frantic series of escalating bets, zero is again called, leaving Grandmama a triumphant winner. Alexis is possessed by other feelings:

I was a gambler myself: I realized it at that moment. My arms and legs were trembling and my head throbbed. It was, of course, a rare happening for zero to come up three times out of some ten or so; but there was nothing particularly astonishing about it. I had myself seen zero turn up three times running two days before, and on that occasion one of the players, zealously recording all the coups on a piece of paper, had remarked aloud that no earlier than the previous day that same zero had come out exactly once in twenty-four hours.

As the perceptive reader might guess, the heavy winnings of her first outing (would she have escaped had zero stayed away?) lead Grandmama to gamble away her whole fortune in the next two days. Alexis refuses to be a part of Grandmama’s downfall after her first day of losses and independently is compelled to attack the roulette tables in an attempt to restore the honor and peace of mind of Polina. With just one hour remaining before closing time, he dashes to the tables, possessed of the necessity of winning heavily and quickly:

Yes. sometimes the wildest notion, the most apparently impossible idea, takes such a firm hold of the mind that at length it is taken for something realizable. More than that: if the idea coincides with a strong and passionate desire, it may sometimes be accepted as something pre-destined. inevitable, fore-ordained, something that cannot but exist or happen! Perhaps there is some reason for this, some combination of presentiments, some extraordinary exertion of will power, some self-intoxication of the imagination, or something else—I don’t know: but on that evening (which 1 shall never forget as long as I live) something miraculous happened to me. Although it is completely capable of mathematical proof, nevertheless to this day it remains for me a miraculous happening. And why, why, was that certainty so strongly and deeply rooted in me, and from such a long time ago? I used, indeed, to think of it, I repeat, not as one event among others that might happen (and consequently might also not happen), but as something that could not possibly fail to happen!

Alexis knows that the experience for which he has been specially singled out by fate is upon him. In a spiraling sequence of bets he wins a fortune of two hundred thousand francs. The money is almost meaningless to Alexis, but the experience of winning it will never leave him. The reader is made convincingly aware that it is the act of gambling, the next crucial spin of the wheel, that will rule Alexis’ life. The story closes with Alexis, having spent time in debtors’ prison and as a servant, in a poignant soliloquy as he weighs the choice between delivering himself to Polina (who is now wealthy and loves him) in Switzerland or taking his tiny stake and gambling anew.

The Gambler is much more than a narrative about gambling and gam­ blers, but we have focused on that brilliant and revealing aspect of the book. Hopefully this has given the reader increased feeling for the psychological and emotional dimensions of the gambling phenomenon. With these “ro­ mantic” aspects in mind, we examine in the remaining chapters some of the more practical and rational aspects of games and gambling.