Return to story
GAMBLING BEARDING THE GODS OF CHANCE
Barbara Holland (1933-2010), a Washingtonian, moved to Bluemont (pop. 200) in Loudoun County in 1993 and wrote "Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences." A manifesto for enjoying the unsung, out-of-fashion, and slightly disreputable joys of life, the book was a defiant rejoinder to the Puritan spirit that variously possesses religious crusaders and radical feminists, fitness fanatics and subdivision covenanteers, vegans and workaholics, and all the other grim tribes of Scold Nation whose purpose is to make us feel bad about feeling good.
With the permission of Barbara Holland's publisher, we are excerpting chapters from "Endangered Pleasures" on this page each month.
We do not necessarily endorse every indulgence profiled by the author. But by golly she does make them sound good.
TACITUS noticed that the Germanic tribes, even when cold sober, would gamble themselves into slavery. In China, a dedicated gambler might wager his own right hand, though it's hard to know what use this was to the winner. Emperors Augustus and Nero set up state lotteries to fatten the national treasury; so did Queen Elizabeth I. In America, snobs who wouldn't be seen dead with a lottery ticket play the stock market.
We like to gamble. Winning, we have closed our eyes, leapt across the yawning abyss, and landed knee-deep in daisies. Even losing has a certain gloomy glamour: The gods of chance are worthy opponents; we have engaged them in hand-to-hand combat and though we lost, at least we shrank not from the contest.
Naturally the higher the stakes the more exciting it gets, and some hold that it can't be called gambling at all if we can afford to lose. Risk--the depth of the abyss--is the champagne of the bloodstream. The thrill is also deepened when, instead of merely checking numbers in the paper, we have a personal, hands-on relationship with the matter; kiss and throw the dice ourselves, or howl as our horse drops behind in the backstretch. Buying more lottery tickets than we can afford simply doesn't provide the same quickening of the pulse, not like slapping the deed to the house on the table among the chips and drawing to a busted flush. It helps to be there.
People have so much fun gambling that for generations, most forms of it were illegal in most of the United States. The Puritans considered it blasphemous, and later churches railed against its wickedness except when church-sponsored, as in Wednesday-night Bingo games to benefit the new social hall.
The upper and lower classes continued to gamble anyway. It seems to be basic to the human animal. When I was in elementary school, little boys pitched pennies in dark corners of the playground; the attendant penalties were awful to contemplate and must surely have added to the fun.
Illegality reinforced the joy of gambling and produced colorful "Guys and Dolls" characters and a steady income for the Mafia, while many an underpaid policeman sent his kids to college on the bribes. Then in 1951 the Kefauver Committee did a little snooping and announced that illegal gambling around here came to $20 billion a year, and in 1951 that wasn't chump-change. The government, nobody's fool, realized they weren't getting any of this, so they made the gamblers sign up to pay taxes.
Little by little, respectability has reared its ugly head. This is due to the link between taxes and morality, by which everything that produces taxable income is fine with us. Losing your shirt at Las Vegas or Pimlico is unfortunate but morally okay; losing it at the Saturday-night poker game is wicked, because the winners won't be telling the IRS.
Some complain that gambling is now so respectable it's quite dismally middle class and much of the joy has fled, what with everyone and his dog playing the slots and lotteries, and no office without its football pool. Gone are the fleet and skulking numbers runners; gone the sinister hats and snappy suits of the Damon Runyon touts; gone even the dazzlingly wicked concept of vingt-et-un at Monte Carlo, where countesses in shoulder-length black gloves wagered their diamond earrings and Russian Grand Dukes, having lost an estate the size of Nebraska, shot themselves on the balconies. What, alas, do we need with Monte Carlo when Atlantic City's so much closer, and has saltwater taffy besides?
Fiddlesticks. This is like saying the sexual revolution of the sixties took all the fun out of sex. What gambling has lost in romance it's gained in availability, and it is our duty in these pages to provide pleasure for all, even the respectable. Elitists who still miss the illicit thrill can always try Russian roulette.
Barbara Holland wrote "Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanities, and Other Indulgences" and other books. The above commentary is excerpted from "Endangered Pleasures." © 1995 by Barbara Holland . Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Co.
Next month: Seasonal food