Sort of a book review.

I jotted down a full page (OK, a 3×5″ page, but still) of notes as I finished reading this book, Double Down, by two lesser-known but still published Barthelme brothers. I picked it up in the ship’s library on our Alaska cruise; I usually read one or two books from the ship’s library along with the ones I take along.

It’s an odd book. These two professors managed to squander a quite substantial inheritance and any other spare money they had because of “addictive” gambling–and astonishingly stupid gambling at that.

How stupid? Driving down to the Mississippi barge casinos in the evening; playing straight through from midnight to 8 a.m. or sometimes for 24 hours straight, never stopping or taking breaks to walk around, making insane bets, violating every rule they knew (and they did know some of the basic advice).

My short summary was “addictive, well-educated idiots”–who admit that they write (or at least used to write) to hide their feelings, which makes them interesting candidates to teach writing to others.

So far, so good–until they say (when they somehow realize that those casinos are actually businesses, and that they only survive because the odds favor the house), “They take your money, and you go home”–in a manner that seems to regard this as a dire indictment of casinos.

It’s true. For most people, most of the time, casinos do “take your money and you go home,” after having some cheap or expensive entertainment.

So do movie theaters, restaurants, bowling alleys, spas, theme parks, hotels… (when we go to Reno, we know that we’ll spend less overall on a good hotel, good food, and entertainment in the form of slot poker than we would for just a good hotel and good food in many other vacation areas–and we assume we’ll spend all the gaming money we’ve allotted, even though we never actually spend that much. Admittedly, we don’t seem to have addictive personalities).

Oops. I slipped in “gaming” instead of “gambling.” I do think there’s a difference. When I go into a casino, I’m playing games for a price. I never expect to win (although, for a two-year stretch, I almost never lost–a long-running fluke that almost certainly won’t be repeated). I expect to spend some portion of the money I’ve allotted, enjoy myself, and quit when I run out of money, get tired, or stop enjoying it. That’s gaming, not gambling. Casinos involve both.

I would have let that slide, but shortly thereafter the brothers talk about casinos “fleecing you.”

OK, I haven’t been to the Mississippi casinos. Maybe they do have people at the door who remove money from your wallet as you enter. Maybe they cheat at the table, not providing the odds that you think you’re getting (which, for blackjack, would take some doing). But I doubt it.

The Barthelmes fleeced themselves. They also lied to themselves about it. They excuse the whole sad affair by saying that it’s the playing, not the money–and that it wasn’t “real money” because it was an inheritance (not including all of their own money, of course), and it’s pretty clear they didn’t care for their father, who provided that “fake money.”

OK, for us, it really is the playing, not the money. Which is why we play quarter slot poker. Whereas the Barthelmes would apparently warm up for blackjack by touching the quarter slots, then moving on to $1, $5, whatever…and would escalate blackjack bets to thousands of dollars per hand. (Reading about just how badly these two behaved is engaging, if appalling.)

At which point, it’s the money–and, I began to suspect, the thrill of losing.

Gambling addiction is real enough for some people, although apparently a lower percentage than many other forms of potentially-addictive behavior (drinking, smoking, heroin, golf…) But to accuse casinos of “fleecing you” when you deliberately abuse every sensible guideline for enjoyable as opposed to ruinous gambling…well, sorry, but I don’t buy it. Most bars really don’t set out to turn drinkers into drunks; most good restaurants don’t set out to turn diners into obsessive, obese foodies; and I don’t believe most casinos set out to ruin or fleece gamblers. It’s not good business, for one thing–and casinos are businesses.

4 Responses to “Sort of a book review.”

  1. jessamyn Says:

    I found the weirder part of this book to be how they discussed the windfall of money they had gotten through their parents’ death fueled them being crazy with it, and how their mourning for their brother [easily the more talented, definitely the most revered of the Barthelme brothers] sort of sent them over the edge. I found that they did a good job at explaining the craziness of gambling addiction but, like you, I found a lot of their justifications and complaints to be largely dismissable.

  2. tangognat Says:

    Was part of this published in the New Yorker? The story sounds really familiar to me, but I haven’t read the book.

  3. walt Says:

    Someone else may know; I don’t read the New Yorker, and the book’s back on the Crystal Harmony, so I can’t check the credits.

  4. tangognat Says:

    Ah, I did what any librarian should have done in the first place, I looked it up, and it seems like they published an essay on the topic in the New Yorker around 1998.


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