The World of the Gambler

Down and out at Yonkers Raceway and everywhere else there's Joker Poker (Jacks or Better) and an ATM

BY KEVIN HELDMAN

 

GAMBLING IN MODERN-DAY AMERICA HAS BEEN
retrieved from the margins, domesticated to suit main-
stream sensibilities and asepticized by an influx of leisure wear
warm-up suits. It has been tied into municipal budgets
and varnished over with a glitzy coat of consumerism and two-
for-one coupons.

This is not to put forth the typical objection against the
Disney-like sterilization of another slice of attractive
decadence (for all those digging the esthetics of poverty).
Because for all the domestic and corporate incursions, institu-
tional gambling remains pathologized. That it is so has
something to do (I use this phrase not out of smarm but
rather in honest description of the ambiguity here) with
the mythically-proportioned thin line that is always credited
with separating the social from the dysfunctional. It's
a line that is guarded and continually relocated by public
relations departments that work to image race tracks and
casinos as a hybrid of a Mets game, an amusement park
and dinner theater.

To wit:  Omar Sharif is in Atlantic City, wondering
whether you get a soda with the special.

 

The esthetics of gambling has evolved, over the years,
from the delinquent fun of Guys and Dolls and Slip
Mahoney rolling boxcars (gambling as criminal, hip,
counterculture, but wholesome in a studio-lot musical way); to the
Bogie prototype turning over his ace to beat the mustachioed
scumbag's cut king with the casino on the line (gambling as
the domain of the big boys; virility as economic gain through
risk); to watching the diseased wagering of  James Caan in '74
(gambling as dope); to smiling in delusive nostalgia with card
cowboy Kenny Rogers in '80 (gambling as knight's work for
drifters with hearts of gold and nerves of …); to accepting it
into the living room via the innocuous and fun physiognomy
of Gabe Kaplan at the World Series of Poker right in between
figure skating and the floor exercise (gambling as family fun,
in the finished basement, eating chips and shooting pool with
Willie Mosconi on Saturday afternoons); to its brief stint as
more of a jism-shooting competition (Atlantic City, Steve
Wynn elegant in a three-piece, Trump with blondes, scotch,
limos, suspenders), to - - ultimately - -  relegated to the pitiable
mainstream, where average Joes - -  (one child still living at
home attending community college with some vague, soon to-
fail plan to study computers, that's where the money is;
another an administrative assistant at Amex having her STD
gossiped about; and the remaining .5 still wandering lower
Manhattan, going to shows, and soon to enter Daytop Village
residential treatment facility for a dust-inspired DUI.


Paying blackjack in the dark in the back of the class
during
BEEP filmstrips in ninth-grade biology class, thus I know little
about the fetal pig, Gregor Mendel and the difference between
osmosis and diffusion).
TRUST ME AS A CREDIBLE NARRATOR ABLE TO MUSE
knowingly on all this as I offer the following  ridiculously
personal data: I have gambled many many times in my life,
starting as a small boy picking winners with paper-route
money at Monticello racetrack; going through eighth grade
with a deck of American Airlines cards constantly in my hand,
continually being shuffled in a nice, smooth, almost imperceptible
bridge. Playing blackjack one-on-one for 50 cents or a
dollar a hand during filmstrips in ninth-grade biology class;
playing Cilo (a three-dice game with the ultimate objective
being the 4-5-6 combo) outside instead of going to class, with
money from the fronted grams of hash I sold (for about two
weeks) -- a gentler era, back in the days when maryjane was
copped in the friendly baggie, reminiscent of the daily
Mom-packed snack in grades K-6); dropping $900 in Las Vegas
when I could not really afford to lose that much (I say that with
an understatement only I or more likely my mother would
ever appreciate).

During my adolescence I could not play any sport, could
barely partake in any activity, unless there was money on the
line: jumping rope, handball, touch football in the street,
watching sports on television (scribbled notes to myself all
over the room reading "Kev has Bills + 7 1/2"), tennis, darts,
pool, bowling, racquetball, basketball, crumpling up pieces of
paper in a ball and taking waste basket shots.

I might add that the feeling that consumes you when you
realize that you've just lost on credit, say $75 at 14 years old,
is formidable. You feel like crying, but the futility this has in
terms of addressing the debt becomes so salient in your
heightened state of materialism, you can't (you become unable
to waste anything more at this point, even the energy it
takes to cry). You feel like dying, I'm tempted to say, but the
reality of it is that you hope more than anything that the
person you owe the money to will die (in a house fire, as I

(continued on next page)