Gamble. v. n. [To] Play extravagantly for money. — Dr. Johnson
At various times during my brief pilgrimage on this planet, I have regarded the human race as mere insects. As if, I suppose, we all lived a Kafkaesque experience, walking our streets like respectable Gregor Samsa’s, understood, mind you, for all share the same plot. It is easy enough to imagine all human’s scurrying about as one small vessel, like ants zipping around their hill. In cities that hold millions, this image makes sense. And so does another. Looking at a city at a giant’s viewpoint may suggest an anthill by day. But by night we resemble something different. In our ecstasy, many of us head for the brightest lights we see. We head downtown. Like flies, we fling ourselves headfirst into the chaos of the lights. We go there to die.
Not too many days ago, I was drawn to what may be the brightest district in America. Las Vegas Boulevard. Unlike other cities, this district does not necessarily attract its own. Nay. Las Vegas Boulevard is so bright it attracts men from every area of the globe, who come to stare at its monstrosities and gawk at its vanities as kids used to stare at candy shops. It should be correctly called Vanity Fair. For one crowds in amongst thousands of mindless tourists, insisting on stopping every two minutes to take pictures; one will watch these tourists do nothing but walk and gawk; one will hear seven-year-olds ask their father if they can stay to watch Britney Spears, only to hear the father say, like some grand idiot, “I don’t know, sweet-heart. We’ll see.” Young men, dressed up as if they’re going to prom, waltz around with long, skinny drinking glasses, chasing skinnier women in skinny outfits smoking even skinnier cigarettes. The smell of sweat and bodies mixes with the smell of cigarette smoke as more people fly toward the lights. Men—without hesitancy—pass out fliers to unsuspecting, or suspecting, young men, as long trucks with mere advertisements covering their women, suggest other ways a man can be led to death. And then one remembers there is a seven-year-old here. The Homeless also join the fray, playing instruments if they have the energy, or sitting and looking as miserable as one can possibly look. And when one isn’t noticing them, he is given another flier by another shameless man. And when one has had enough of the idiotic fathers and shameless men, he turns to the casinos, and gambling does not seem so sinful after all.
It is erroneously thought in this country that mere stupidity is the equivalent of gambling. The equivalent of mere stupidity is not gambling. The equivalent of mere stupidity is foolishness. The man who puts down his lifesaving on a racehorse does not have a gambling problem. He has an intelligence problem. The man who flings himself onto crocodiles his whole life, only to end up eaten by one, is not gambling with his life; he is throwing it away. The man who holds a view that is contrary to tradition is not a man “taking a chance;” he is merely a rebel, rebelling against he knows not what toward something he knows even less about.
It is supposed that being intellectually risky, having some sort of opinion that questions the supposed belief, is a type of wisdom. A professor will saunter into a room, lay down the beliefs of our forefathers with perfect clarity, and then debunk the whole thing. He will do so not with anything necessarily concrete. For to be concrete in one’s thinking is not being quite risky enough. He will debunk the concrete beliefs of dead Theists with such statements as, “It’s hard to really know if God exists. He may or may not.” “I believe there is truth, but it is something fluid, something constructed from both within us and among us.” “It’s possible that our death is part of some larger order. What that is, is hard to say. But it could be something great. It usually is reserved for those who love the most.” And so on and so forth. The professor may believe he is taking great risks in his belief system, when really he is only stating platitudes that offer little hope. And if one has little hope, it cannot be said that he is taking any sort of thing that can be called a risk. For to gamble without hope is not to gamble at all. To say, “I do not know. Therefore, hedonism” is not a life of risk and adventure but a life of sad slavery to pleasure.
If one wants to meet a real gambler, one who is willing to take a risk, it is not the intellectual snob who knows not why he believes his own unbelief. It is the family praying to the invisible God at dinner. It is the Christian holding onto his hope in the face of beheading. For those in America, it is often the man unwilling to succumb to the nonsense of the world, throwing in his lot with the nonsense of heaven. Not without mistake did the great apostle claim that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. But, indeed, it is better to be a knave or a jester in the courts of the king, than a sage or tyrant in the hierarchy of hell.
We chose the Bellagio. The most iconic perhaps. It is a gorgeous building rounded in a half-circle which opens to a small pond. Tourists often stop outside to watch the fountain show (which is quite good if the correct song is played) and pretend they are Brad Pitt.
I cannot do justice to the description of the Bellagio casino, for they all look quite similar to my Midwestern eyes. They are quite pleasant places, if one does not mind cigarette smoke. They are very clean, and actually not so crowded. I find them enjoyable to be in after being out on the strip. I suppose that is what they want. Anyhow, looking for penny slots, we sauntered on up to some shiny slot. After much initial confusion, the time came to place the bet. Having virtually no idea how the machine worked, I slowly inserted my cash. I quietly said goodbye to Andrew Jackson as I put him in what I thought was a fancy garbage can.
“Alright,” I said. “Here goes.”
I hit the button that said, “max bet” and saw it light to life. Then, fully expecting nothing to happen, I hit the “place bet” button. Now, it would be a lie to tell you what happened next with the slot machine, for I have little idea. This slot had roughly six or seven columns of icons—those in the movies, you will remember, have three—and nothing really seemed to line up with anything else. But what really caught my attention was a quite audible dinging sound mixed with many coins on the screen falling down like large, golden raindrops.
“I think you won,” I heard from behind me.”
It certainly seemed that way.
“Eh? Where does it say…” I questioned as I squinted my eyes, looking frantically for some type of indication as to what happened. Then I found it. $120. Just. Like. That. I will not fail to confess the temptation in my breast to put that $120 back in the machine. But greater heads prevailed. Vowing to never place a bet there again, I strolled out and watched the fountain show, feeling as if I had broken the Bellagio.
Each day, on my way to work at the local university, I drive down Flamingo Road and see that Casino in all it's morning glory. As I park and begin my walk into campus, I give the Boulevard one last glance. It is not a temptation but a reminder. If I am indebted to One, it is only because I am the Gambler.
Written and transcribed at my apartment, The Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada
August 18, 2015
Painting: "The Gambler"
By Christian Ludwig Bokelmann,
Oil on canvas, 1873