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Casino bill in Massachusetts inspires a look at books about gambling

Playing the hand that’s dealt us

There’s an old saying among card sharks: Don’t tap on the aquarium. If you really want to fleece the little fish, don’t scare them off. Let them win a little. Make them feel happy and in a spendy mood.

Here in Massachusetts we’ve been tapping the glass for a while - and now we’re tapped out. At Foxwoods, Bay Staters constitute 36 percent of the bettors, and 48 percent at Rhode Island’s Twin River Casino. That’s a cool billion dollars swimming over our borders, a rotten situation in this rotten economy, and now we’d like our own cash machine. That’s why the casino bill passed big time in the state House in September, and the Senate is about to rake in their own yes.

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For now, let’s skip the strong case against casinos: perilous addictions, the specter of organized crime, Michael Bolton concerts. The American Gaming Association says 22 states licensed casinos, slot parlors, or video lottery rooms by 2010, not including Indian tribe casinos. But are casino owners interested in us? “We’re a 1.8-billion-dollar market and they’re all salivating,’’ says Senate President pro tem Stan Rosenberg, a Democrat from Amherst. “This is the last big frontier.’’

So what are we getting into, my fellow fish? You can plumb the long view in “Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling’’ (Gotham, 2006) by David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. It validates the verities: There has always been gambling (humans are wired for risk) and disapproval of it (because risk can bring ruin). Cro-Magnon used to roll “astragali’’ (sheep bones) in games of chance. The Bible says lots about casting lots. The Greeks and Romans thought gaming was only about luck, since they didn’t know the concept of probabilities. That would come a millennium later, when a Renaissance polymath named Girolamo Cardano first hit on how to calculate odds.

Such mathematical eye-openers (Galileo even wrote a treatise on dice) helped create the professional gambler, because now you could bolster luck with logic. Cardano and Galileo, however, didn’t factor in the house advantage, something losing bettors will discover, painfully, over dirty martinis in the Pair o’ Jacks Lounge, soon enough.

Most American Colonies banned gaming, mindful of how Jamestown tanked since “many [of the] settlers preferred playing and gambling to work.’’ Many Native American tribes thought gambling sacred; the ancient Navajo had a huge gambling temple in Pueblo Alto. It wasn’t until 1931 - the Depression finally trumped any moral misgivings - that organized gambling became legal across Nevada, which had suffered major declines in agriculture and mining. Atlantic City followed in 1978. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act passed in 1988, and here we are.

“What’s Luck Got to Do with It?: The History, Mathematics, and Psychology of the Gambler’s Illusion’’ (Princeton University, 2010) deepens the narrative. Joseph Mazur, a Marlboro College math professor, writes with verve, only occasionally lapsing into scary math terms (“binomial frequency curve’’ + me = flop sweat). If you’re an odds calculator, you’ll relish the arithmetic, while the rest of us can curl up with the psychology section. The counterintuitive take-away? We gamble not only because we like to win but because we subconsciously want to lose. (One of every 20 gamblers falls on the pathological side of the spectrum, Mazur reports.)

As for great novels about gambling, there’s “The Gambler’’ by Dostoyevsky about a roulette addict who pawned his wife’s wedding ring to pay for his losses, and “Loser Takes All’’ by Graham Greene, who knew when to stop. And the last few decades are flush with some wild, wonderful nonfiction, led by “The Biggest Game In Town’’ (Chronicle, 1983), much of which was first published in The New Yorker, by A. Alvarez, the acclaimed author and poet. It beautifully chronicles the 1981 Binion’s World Series of Poker - which, with its 75 entrants, now seems quaint (7,000-plus players competed in the 2010 series). There’s good color on such famous players as Stu Ungar and Doyle Brunson, and many sapphires of wisdom such as: “One of the interesting things about poker is that once you let your ego in, you’re done for.’’

James McManus pays homage to Alvarez in his “Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker’’ (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2003), which covers the 2000 contest held after casino owner Ted Binion was allegedly killed by his pole dancer girlfriend and her lover. (Such richly tawdry material! For the trial, she paints her house arrest ankle bracelet to match her outfits.) The book started as a piece for Harper’s Magazine and bloomed into a Hunter Thompson-minus-the-drugs fabulous read - funny, full throttle, smart. You feel you’re at the tournament amid “the locustlike clacking of chips.’’ And you root for McManus, who does far better than expected at Texas hold’em.

It appears that casinos are coming to Massachusetts and with them, according to one perhaps slaphappy study, 15,000 jobs, and up to $600 million in revenue - not to mention exponential thrills and sorrows. I guess this is our New Deal.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.
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