Winners &Losers

Winner & Losers
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One Dark Night>
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In The Casino

Take Risks
So Why Gamble
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Percentages and Chances

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Nevada & New Jersey

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The Game of Life
Real Until


Lesson 2

So why gamble?  The reasons are as many and various as the stars in the sky.  I prefer to take the question the other way round.  Why do some people not gamble?  It ’s such a widespread trait of human conduct that it might be considered abnormal not to do it.  The though is not new.  Gaming in all its various forms – casinos, horse-racing, lotteries, card games is simply too large an industry to be based on services catering for a deviant sub-group of the population.  As the great gambler and early student of probability, Girolamo Cardano (c.1530) observed, ‘Even if gambling were altogether an evil, still on account of the very large number of people who play, it would seem to be a natural evil… Thus it is not absurd for me to discuss gambling, not in order to praise it, but in order to point out the advantage in it, and, of course, also its disadvantages, so they may be reduced to a minimum.’

            One of the very few proponents of this point of view in modern times is Dr. Felicia Campbell, who teaches literature at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.  Perhaps you didn’t suppose Las Vegas and Reno went in for academic life?  Well, these two campuses, oases in the desert, offer degree courses to some 20,000 students, studying everything from hotel management to desert biology.  Dr. Campbell, a bit of a gambler in her own life, (her marriage, made on impulse, was over in about five minutes, as she cheerfully admits) has noted that the professional literature, at least that in English, largely ignores gambling as a normal part of human behavior, treating it as the Victorians treated sex.  Most of the behavior studies are flawed, she maintains, either because cultural and emotional bias of which they are largely unaware. 
            She is particularly severe on Dr. Edmund Bergler, whose finding in The Psychology of Gambling (first published in 1958) that people gamble in order to lose, to punish psychological studies of gambling.  His work was based on a group of sixty neurotic patients, most of whom did not consider their gambling as psycho masochistic,   and termed the gamblers a rebel against his own self.  (An approach which echoes Veblen’s censure of gambling as ‘a hindrance to the highest industrial efficiency of the aggregate in any community where it prevails.’)

            By contrast, Dr. Cambell’s own research among gamblers in Las Vegas led her to the opposite conclusion, that ‘by and large gambling is beneficial to the gambler and increases rather than decreases his efficiency and productivity.’ In one study she interviewed elderly people in the down town casinos, local or retired people, eking out a living on small means; most of them elderly women, they were all utterly absorbed in their play at the slot machines.  That absorption, she felt, was the clue: they were once more engaged in life.  (A point which superior people, so dismissive of the little old ladies with their plastic cups of nickels and dimes, usually ignore.) Thus one woman, who had turned down the offer of living with her daughter in Kansas: ‘Here I can wear what I want and play the machines.  I never lose much and I like to play.  Whenever the money drops, I feel real good.  I won something, and I ain’t won a lot of things in my life.’

            Stakes are not important, in the sense that such people get as much thrill from playing penny slots as do high rollers ten feet across the floor betting thousands at the craps table.  it ’s all relative to a player’s resources.  The winning go back into the machines, of course, but that doesn’t matter.  What counts. Dr. Campbell maintains, is not how much is taken home but how many jackpots are won and the amount of play that people were able to sustain on the little money they had.  Many old men frequent the downtown casinos.  Far from being shells of human beings who have destroyed themselves gambling, as tourists usually assume, many are retired blue collar workers such as railroad men and factory hands. quite a bit of socializing goes on, especially at bingo.  ‘Momentarily they feel alive, involved, possibilities exist, victories are possible, and tomorrow the game exists to be played again.’ Dr. Campbell thinks that old peoples’ homes might do well to include some form of gambling in their routine, to add spice to fading lives.
            The value of social life among gamblers can be similarly seen in the day-by-day routine of a group of horse-race punters, as reported by John Rosecrance under the ironic title The Degenerates of Lake Tahoe (1985).  The relationship between these mostly down-and-out players was less than friendship, but more than acquaintance, a kind of comradeship without entanglements.  The relationship was defined by the shared preoccupation of playing the horses and (as in a poker school ) did not go beyond that.  The advantages are listed as ‘empathy without deep emotional involvement, interaction on demand, ease of exit and entry (to the group), and absence of the “strain towards totality” ’ (i.e. not trying to get to know the whole person).  The key to all such special interest groups, whether in gambling or the wider world, is involvement, or at least understanding of the common activity.

            In the neighboring town of Henderson just outside Las Vegas – an industrial area half-smothered by chemical fumes many workers , Dr. Campbell found, managed to relieve the soulless blight   of their existence through gambling.  As in downtown Vegas, the casinos in Henderson offer a spit-and-sawdust style with low stakes.  Just what people on low incomes with no hope of bettering themselves or of getting away from Henderson need.  ‘It buys me some time for myself.  It ’s the only way I can get anything for me.’  For people who feel they have no influence over the forces which rule their lives, such gambling is not rebelling against the self, but the system.  ‘All day long, you do what them dumb supervisors tell you.  Don’t make no difference if it makes sense or not.  Dr. Campbell goes further in adducing the therapeutic benefits of small-time gambling by suggesting that, if factory workers were given ‘gambling breaks’ like coffee breaks, it is possible that absenteeism would be reduced and the accident rate cut.
            Likewise in prisons: picking up another point from Cardano that ‘play may be beneficial in times of grief and that the law permits it to the sick and those in prison and those condemned to death, ’ she observes that it is a pity that Nevada prisons have given up the practice of recent years of allowing some gambling.  As one prisoner told Dr. Campbell, being allowed to gamble was all that saved his sanity during years of incarceration in vermin us, brutalizing conditions.  In such play, prisoners could lose themselves; in making decisions, feel human again.  Why shouldn’t gambling, along with re-training, have positive use as a recreation for prisoners?
            Well it has, at least once.  This episode, which must be one of the most extraordinary in the whole history of gambling guide, deserves  celebration in a movie one day, like Birdman of Alcatraz.  It centers on the imaginative approach to running a modern prison by a former warden of Carson City prison, Jack Fogliani.  During his six years as superintendent and eight years as warden (1953-67), social conditions were unusually good, thinks in large measure, so it appears, to the use of a casino in the prison itself, to reduce tension.  Thus, there were no riots at Carson City during Mr Fogliani’s time.  When he left, trouble started.
            Metallic chips made of brass, called brass money, were used; there was a cashier in the prison to take charge of the money won or lost in the card and dice games; the playing table were made by the prisoners, on the model of real casinos.  ‘It may be against all precepts of prison administration elsewhere, ’ a report ran in The Sacramento Bee in 1962, ‘but here behind the old limestone walls of the institution two miles east of Carson City, gambling – legal, above board, sanctioned, aided and abetted by prison officials – is high on the list of approved recreation.’

            The precise beginning of the Carson City prison casino is not clear, but officially it dates from the legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931.  Interviewed at the age of 82, Fogliani assured Tomas Martinez, Professor of Criminology at California State University, Fresno, that there had been gambling at the prison for 100 years.  ‘Mr Fogliani seems to have been a very sensitive and sensible warden in his use of the casino to control the prison population, ’ -artinez says (The Gambling Scene, 1983).  But then, the day after Fogliano retired, the new warden shut the casino down.  ‘Warder Hocker did not study the function of the casino because he did not have an interest in doing so.’  But he did provide some activities to replace the gambling.  The main one was … knitting!
            Defending this change of policy by the new warden, a public information sheet from the prison stated: ‘When the brass money … was retrieved … it was found that one inmate had virtually all the cash in the institution … at one time the Bullpen (as the locale was called) was out of bounds to institution staff.  Many beatings and other nefarious activities took place under these conditions.  This was the most degrading, non-productive activity that Warden Hocker had seen in thirty years of prison work.’  What the official hand-out failed to add was that tension among the prisoners began building up as soon as the new warden arrived and shut the ‘casino’ down.  Tension has remained high through the years since then, with periodic outbursts never seen in Fogliani’s days.
            The trouble is, as Dr. Campbell says, that the gambler has acquired a bad press.  He is frequently viewed as an erratic, unstable and irresponsible sort, driven by unknown forces to take foolish and unnecessary chances.  The consequences of this risk-taking, so the public feels, may be financially and psychologically dangerous to the poker player, as well as to those whose lives interact with his.  (I am not, it goes without saying, recommending people risking more than they can afford; as with alcohol, excess is dangerous and destructive.)

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