Winning a Bundle, Losing It All

February 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Gambler.

Dostoyevsky had a serious gambling problem.  This is not news.  Still, it’s incredible that a mind like his could seriously think that he would get rich playing roulette.  It’s so incredible, in fact, that Edward Wasiolek, in his introduction to this edition, makes a pretty convincing counter-argument: Dostoyevsky was a serious masochist, happy in life and in love only when miserable, and always played until he lost everything or nearly everything because, deep down, he wanted to lose.  What good is faith if it actually gets you something?  Fyodor’s soul probably wandered up to the Pearly Gates and then “accidentally” took the path back to purgatory.

All of which makes for great psychodrama in the novel’s climax.  Alexsei decides to gamble his meager savings to try to save his beloved Polina from the suave Frenchman, de Grieux, who has loaned Polina’s father 50,000 francs.  This swing for the fences is presented in startlingly romantic terms by Dostoyevsky:

Yes, sometimes the wildest idea, an idea which should seem utterly impossible, will become fixed in one’s mind so firmly that one finally begins to take it for something practicable… Even more than that: once such an idea is connected with a powerful, passionate desire, one may eventually take it for something fated, inevitable, predestined, for something that simply must be and is bound to happen!

And so Alexsei begins an “utterly impossible” run of luck.  This gambling to win the freedom of the beloved is reprised in Tom Tykwer’s 1998 film Run Lola Run; the pertinent scene is below:

There is a massive amount of tension and satisfaction built into scenes like this — the clear-cut conflict of man vs. fate, a bounce of the ball meaning the difference between love and misery, life and death.  The major difference between the two strokes of luck is that Alexsei’s run is much longer, and much more plausible (even though still highly implausible) than Lola’s: while she wins her entire necessary amount (100,000 marks) on two spins at 37:1 odds, he builds his stake surely, but incrementally, with losses and gains, until he rides red for a remarkable streak of 14 consecutive plays.  For Lola, roulette’s simply the quickest means to her end: she is desperate and needs money quickly, so she picks the number foremost in her mind and guides the ball to it through sheer will and intimidation.  On the other hand, Alexsei — and through him, Dostoyevsky — recounts his streak with loving detail, with a fond memory for how the plays developed and how the piles of money grew, recounting with a frenzied passion the euphoria of winning with massive amounts of money on the line.  It’s obvious, as he tells the story, that it’s not about Polina anymore: he’s in love with gambling.  He’s in love with the chase.  He’s an addict.

Interestingly, both Run Lola Run and The Gambler arguably undercut their romantic notions of the power of love and the intervention of fate or God into the casino’s operations.  Lola only gets to her trip to the casino after we’ve seen her quest fail and be restarted twice, leaving us to choose whether to believe in the “reality” of this version or to think of it all as a fantasy or delusion.  And Alexsei’s triumphant offering to Polina is rejected after their night together, leaving him to throw it all away with money-grubbing Blanche in Paris (a move which makes sense only if you believe he is consciously trying to get rid of his money) and become a sordid casino-haunter, working for gambling money when he must.  (But couldn’t that be construed as classically romantic in its own way?  The fallen man, rejected by his love, slumming around Europe, gambling just so he can feel something, either hope or despair?)

Grandma Goes Gambling

January 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Gambler.

Reading next: The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

I love gambling, though I’m too cheap to gamble for anything but small stakes.  Gambling as a powerful force in American life has forced its way to the surface in the past fifteen or so years after a long, long existence underground: the poker craze (now, maybe, dying out, though the World Series of Poker events and online poker rooms are still drawing more and more players each year, I believe), offshore Internet gambling, stocks and other sordid financial risks.  Maybe most of all, gambling on sports.  I remain convinced that the two biggest reasons why pro (and to a lesser degree, college) football has become the overwhelming spectator sport of choice in the last 30 years have been the perfection of its scoring system and statistics to facilitate gambling (on point spreads, over/under total points, fantasy leagues, and the like), and the matching of the pace and flow of the game to television broadcast.  College basketball might have died out completely by now, were it not for gambling on the NCAA tournament.

All of which has nearly nothing to do with Dostoyevsky.  Nearly, but not absolutely nothing: the darker aspects of American culture that are revealed in its gambling economy (in its various forms, from semi-secret to publicly financed) are also examined in the section of The Gambler in which Grandmother, the matriarch of the group waiting and hoping for her to die, goes on a spree at the roulette wheel.

Grandmother’s gambling is crucial to the plot, but Dostoyevsky also structures his telling of her spree as a kind of self-contained vignette: a primer on how not to gamble, or the worst that can happen with gambling to the wrong sort of personality.  Grandmother has the bad luck to have very good beginner’s luck: seeing zero come up on her first bet (zero being the number in roulette that loses all bets except those on zero), she becomes convinced that she should bet on zero until it comes up, and it does, twice more, soon thereafter, and becoming convinced of her mastery of the wheel, she then bets everything she’s won on red — and wins again. Satisfied, she stops for the night, having won a massive amount.

But now she has the fever.  Grandmother is quite used to things going her way, to people obeying her commands — she is a Russian noblewoman, after all, owner of entire “villages” of people.  Her first observations of people playing roulette convince her that people are just “fools” for placing the wrong bets; they just don’t have God on their side, they just aren’t marked for greatness the way she is.  And so she goes back, and the bets she placed the previous day don’t work now, and she loses, and loses, and loses, and exchanges her Russian funds at a truly usurious rate, and loses some more, and even when she’s full of rage at how much she’s lost she remains convinced that she’ll win it all back, and cancels her first train back to Moscow, and goes through one more round of losing nearly everything she has.

This is how pure gambling (in games with no skill at all involved) works.  It reveals the obvious: there’s no rhyme or reason to luck.  God is absent, on no one’s side, particularly — unless it’s the house’s, which is a rather monstrous thought.  Or isn’t He?  Does He abase Grandmother?  All of this is interesting in relation to Dostoyevsky.  His telling of the passages in the casino is quite detailed, in terms of the wagers placed, the outcomes, the ebb and flow of the game; there is an investment in the play-by-play of the action which reveals his own gambling obsession, his attempts to work out how and why roulette seems so maddeningly simple and yet continues to take her (and his) money.  He is interested in these minutiae, and you can almost hear the frenzy of his narration of the events.

Most of the time the outcomes and wagers are realistically inconsistent, if that makes sense.  Dostoyevsky (through Alexsei, his narrator) inserts observations of how the game seems to work, with runs of numbers coming up over and over and then passing out of favor, with red or black coming up more than the other on a particular night and how this affects the wagers.  He seems honestly perplexed about whether these observations actually mean anything, reveal any system operating behind the random motion of the ball and the wheel.

This pattern breaks during Grandmother’s losing streak, when zero emerges as a Satanic figure.  Twice it comes up at crucial junctures right after she has forsaken it, speeding her fall while also fueling her rage and determination to win it all back; the cruel timing of these appearances in Dostoyevsky’s narrative, after zero has tempted Grandmother into earlier belief in its power, suggests that his roulette is not random, that it is an expression of the metaphysical.  (That Grandmother has been gambling with funds she’d originally earmarked for the renovation of a church is also quite suggestive of the Satanic power at work here.)  But this is not the end of the story.  Will Alexsei gamble his own money?  What will happen when he does?

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