Gambling is a way of buying hope on credit. We are all the bonded slaves of the management that issues the credit cards. To realize the completeness of our bondage we have only to remember that each of us owes his existence to the chancy collaboration of two small fertile organisms; while an apparently chancy distribution of chromosomes, genes, and hormones influences our sex, coloring, and disposition. We press on through life toward a death whose manner and date depend entirely on chance. During our womb-to-tomb progress we never stop gambling, for we cannot know the outcome of each of the many decisions we have to make every day; we can only “hope for the best.”
Even a man who sets out deliberately to free himself from the grip of chance is going to have a thin time. He can stop smoking because of the risk of lung cancer; he can give up alcohol for fear of damaging his liver; he can stay indoors to avoid the hazards of travel; he can keep his money in an old sock to avoid the risk of losing it. But if he carries his apprehensions to logical conclusions he will atrophy in bed, while his risk-taking nephew grabs the sock, spends the money on riotous living, there is little justice.
Sensible people don’t expect justice from chance. If they did, they would give up breeding children in a world that can’t support them; they would not drink before driving or speed when sober; they would choose selfless leaders instead of maniacs. As it is, they propagate ad libitum, have a last drink for the road, and risk everything on the leadership of a Genghis Khan on a Hitler.
The crowded floor of the Bourse, the Paris stock exchange. Even the respectable brokers of a great financial center are in a sense gambling, for they are risking money on uncertainties. But a broker takes his risks hoping to make a profit. The true gambler’s goal is primarily excitement entertainment gaming news.Dedicated gamblers can always find something to gamble on. In these scense from the French film. The Sheep Has Five legs (1954), gamblers turn from cards and dice to a more off-beat gamble-betting on which of two cubes of sugar a fly will land on first. Far left, the gamblers excitement as the fly hovers between the cubes (top) before finally settling on one of them (below).
In 1949-to press home my point about the injustice of chance-a man was haranguing the multitude at England’s Ascot race course. His purpose was sincere: to discourage the gamblers. He had set up an iron-railed podium, under a sheltering tree and had attracted an amused crowd. While he ranted away with many an apocalyptic gesture, black clouds gathered and heavy rain began. He turned the storm to his advantage. “The wrath of God is made manifest,” he boomed. “The heavens are displeased by the evil of gambling.” Perhaps however, the heavens were more displeased by the lecturer’s presumption. As the storm built up and the audience scattered to shelter, lightning struck the tree and the iron rail of the podium and gave the anti-gambler severe shock and burns.
Statesmen are for the most part thought of as cautious people. But every international conference is hedged about with the risks of crackpot challenges and diplomatic bluffs. And it would have been impossible to advanced stud even to our present state of world relations without political leaders chancing their arms. Guillaume Dubois, a court favorite during the reign of Louis XIV, sought England’s help in shoring up the crumbling morale of his decadent country. In doing so he risked his own somewhat pockmarked career and the future of France. But his gamble led to the first entende cordiale among England, France and Holland, and eventually gained him an archbishopric, a cardinal’s red hat, and appointment as prime minister. Today, statesmen hold the destruction of the world at arm’s length by risky diplomatic maneuvers that offer odds that few steady gamblers would accept.
Inevitably, then, we ourselves gamble, and we entrust our future to the hands of gamblers. But in this book I am not especially concerned with our unavoidable daily risks as we cross a busy street or cast a vote. I am concerned with one of the most persistent-and perhaps forgivable of human failings: The pleasure that so many of us take in placing bets, however small or large, on the uncertain outcome of events.
The paraphernalia of the gambler is varied and extensive. Cards, gambling at dice, mahjongg tablets, rings, and many another cryptic shape or design; animals of every kind (from insects to primates) in competitive events; men and women in every manifestation of human conflict; pawnbrokers’ tickets in squalid back-street shops or ticker-tape machines in Wall Street; airplanes, motorcars, and water craft; electric hares, computing machines, newspapers, and telephone; wheels to spin and drums to mix lottery tickets; firearms, slot machines, matchsticks. One could go on interminably. The point is that all this apparatus merely offers variety of interest and a chance to develop skill. None of it is strictly necessary.
Determined gamblers will bet on which of two raindrops will first reach the bottom of a window pane, or on the number of hairs growing on a hirsute mole. Nor need the stakes necessarily be financial or even useful. The 16th-century English historian Stow reports that one Sir Miles Partridge played at dice with King Henry VIII for the bells of St. Paul’s Church, and won them. The annals of the town of Chester le Street, in the north of England, record that in 1735, “a child of James and Elizabeth Leesh was played for at cards by Henry and John Trotter, Robert Thomson and Thomas Ellison, won by the latter pair and delivered to them accordingly.” From China in the fourth century B.C. comes a poem telling the story of two gamblers who, having nothing else to stake, bet their ears on which side of a birch leaf would lie uppermost after its fall from the tree; the loser honorably severed the lobes of his ears and presented them on the leaf to the winner.
The annals of gambling are full of such anecdotes-some spectacular, some not. All of them substantiate the fact that there must be complex motives behind such compulsive urges to lose (which is what those of us who gamble a great deal inevitably do in the long run).