DIY stun gun

Rocket man

The delirium of gambling

I have to avoid casinos, because I love blackjack — and despite my laughable attempts to devise “a system”, get fleeced within an inch of my life at least half the time. Why do I do it? Indeed, why does anyone gamble? Given that gambling revenues are, in one of our age’s typical ironies, increasingly providing a local tax base for motherhood stuff like hospitals and schools, we probably ought to be glad that fools like me are occasionally bit by the gambling bug. But anyone who gambles knows that it’s almost impossible to explain the attraction to those who don’t.

Over at the Culture Raven blog, my friend Erik wrote a short review of Frederick and Steven Barthelme’s Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss, a memoir of their years spent flushing their professorial salaries down the toilet that is the Mississippi casino circuit. Their descriptions of the weird ecstasies of gambling are superb:

The possibility of perfection was something most of our friends and colleagues at the university where we worked no longer believed in. They had grown up, become wise, accepted things as they were. But everybody in the casino believed. However crude, however, dizzy, however self-deluded these people may have been, they knew how to hope, how to imagine life as something other than a dreary chore. They imagined that something wonderful might happen, something that could change their lives. This was their fool’s secret, one they shared with drunks, artists, and children, all of whom they resembled.

Cool enough, but Erik takes it up a notch by comparing the Barthlemes’ description of their inner states with Roger Callois’ theory of “delirium” in play. Play is, after all, a sort of social anarchy — part of what makes play fun is the sense of careening around inside a system and enjoying the chaos created by its simple rules, whether that’s hockey, Counterstrike deathmatches, or hopscotch. But Callois mostly talked about this delirium as an offshoot of intense physical play; Erik points out that the cool thing about the Barthelemes’ book is that it shows how this state can emerge even in the entirely interior headcase mental space of a gambler:

Caillois and those who follow him direct their attention to forms of play where physical activity is at its peak. They rarely attempt to analyze the delerium that possesses gamblers who, aside from getting the flop sweats or staring vacantly with dilated pupils, appear completely focused on the mechanics of the game. The Barthelmes, like Dostoevsky, make up for the omissions of the scholars.

Damn, now I feel like taking the bus down to Atlantic City and playing a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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