Confessions of a Gambling Addict

Today is Friday the 13th, a date forever associated with bad luck and sociopathic hockey players named Jason. In these highly rational times, few take serious note of such superstitious occasions. Sure there is a general awareness, but few business meetings have been rescheduled for fear of offending the spirits. I, however, am a close observer of Lady Fortune, and I fear Friday the 13th. I fear it because I am a gambler.

By this confession I do not imply that I live life on the edge or participate in "extreme" sports. Nor did I watch "Dead Poet's Society" and decide, carpe diem, that I would drop out of school to pursue an unlikely acting career. No, when I describe myself as a gambler, I mean it in the most base sense of the term. I wager money on the outcomes of random phenomena.

The roots of my gambling addiction (clinically that is how one would describe my condition) lie somewhere in my genetic composition. My grandfather, bless his soul, carried on an illegal craps game in the back room of a kosher deli in Scranton, Pennsylvania. A few unfortunate brushes with local law enforcement did nothing to squash his gaming spirit and he instilled his passion in my beloved uncle. The bug seems to have skipped over my mom, but it was clear at an early age that the predilection for cards and dice had been passed on to me. In third grade I bet my teacher that Penn State would defeat Rutgers in their annual football match-up. She insisted that we play the point spread and after consulting with my father, I accepted her terms. On the fateful Saturday, the Nittany Lions made the spread and I enjoyed my first gambling profits in the form of an ice cream sundae.

By the time I reached high school, my family had re-located from New York to beautiful Tucson, Ariz. I was pleased to discover that my new home was a mere half-hour drive from the famous Desert Diamond Casino, a gaming Mecca established by the T'ono O'dham people. I gained easy access to the casino's poker room where I found myself going head-to-head with some of the finest degenerates west of the Mississippi. If you think that Las Vegas is mired in sleaze, you haven't seen anything until you've visited the Diamond.

There's Jack, the prototypical World War II vet who's got a metal plate in his head, and Elaine, who got so wrapped up in the slot machines that she forgot to visit her kids on Christmas. And of course there's Ida, an aging widow who wears her finest gown and all of her jewelry to come play cards. Twice a month, I took my place among this vulgar spectacle to try my luck at Seven Card Stud or Texas Hold'em. My first few visits were far from pretty; not just a slow bleed of cash, more like an agonizing, gushing laceration. Soon I got the hang of things, the hand signals, the lingo, and before long I was turning a sizable profit. The first night that I returned home with a crisp Ben Franklin in my wallet, I knew that I was a casino man, a high roller.


Some of my friends in high school funded their social lives through jobs at local fast food restaurants. My job was poker. I never won enough to buy a car, or fly to Europe, but my earnings were enough to keep any active 16-year-old happy. Since I arrived here at Harvard, I have lived in fear of the Ad Board, so my portable roulette table has remained dormant. This period of relative inactivity has forced me to reflect on my only true passion.

Most view gambling as a vice, even an illness. I'm proud of my affliction. For me, the beauty of gambling lies in its sheer irrationality. While some successful gamers rely on complex schemes to improve their odds, real gamblers never try to count cards or read a strategy guide. I couldn't tell you the chances of drawing a straight flush, and that's why I like to wager that I'll pull one. Every card dealt promises unbounded opportunity. Every hand is like a fresh start on life. Of course the rush I feel in the casino might just be from the second-hand smoke, but I'd like to believe it lies in this dance with fate.

This past November, I finally broke the restraints of my collegiate exile with a trip to Foxwoods Resort and Casino. I hit the blackjack tables, that corner of the casino where so many poor souls hand over their paychecks. I proceeded to employ a tactic whereby I doubled my bet every time that I lost a hand. This approach is derisively known as "chasing a loss," and based on the structure of the casino's betting limits, it is statistically guaranteed to bankrupt the player--unless that player is extraordinarily lucky. And lucky I was.

So, on this Friday the 13th, while the rest of the world goes about its business, my gambling kin and I must pause in religious devotion. Lady Fortune is the gambler's muse, and we cannot disrespect her holy day.

Noah D. Oppenheim '00 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.


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