The Gambler

By Ellen Moyer

Gambling is America’s favorite pastime. Attesting to human passion for games of chance, revenue investment is in the billions, two times greater than money spent on fast foods, movies and musical recordings. Evangelists abhor it and some religious sects outlaw it. The rest of the world seems to accept it as long as it is fair.

Humans have been allured by some form of gambling since the beginning of recorded history. In 4 B.C. an ancient Indian treatise on government policy urged taxation and control of gambling. Thus began a long history of government regulation and government wealth built on the human propensity to wager on improbable outcomes in the hopes of gaining greater wealth or power or advantage. It is a human need to meet challenge, to beat the odds that life has dealt and to climb a ladder to success.

About 2000 years before the Indian treatise the Hindu prayers Rigveda, the oldest religious text in continuous use, carried a most remarkable literary product titled “The Gambler’s Lament.” Author unknown, the poem is a monologue by a repentant gambler mourning the alienation of his wife and friends. Addicted to the give and take of dice games that excited his spirit and left him feeling lonely when he attempted to quit, he advises others to avoid the ups and downs of dice games, and to cultivate the land, be satisfied with the wealth produced and to follow a life of stability.

The human need for sociability, the challenge “to beat the odds,” the adrenal rush experienced with a win underscores the life of the gambler.  Sebastian Brandt, a German humorist and satirist, in 1494 described this lifestyle in a portrait of the “Ship of Fools.” His illustration depicted frivolous, oblivious passengers in a leaderless boat, destination unknown.

By the 1590s gambling was attracting the attention of artists such as the Italian Caravaggio. His oil paintings the “Cardsharp” and “The Fortune Teller” depicted low-life realism against Venetian high style. During carnival season in 1638, Venice opened its first government-controlled gambling house, the Ridotto. The government closed it in 1670 when it was perceived  to impoverish the local gentry.

French and English Royalty, men and women, gambled daily at cards. Fearing the wealth of courtiers to be fast evaporating and that it could  bankrupt the court, King Charles II in 1670 banned the high-stakes game of Basset. At this time in our history, gentlemen were expected to bet and gamble. The term “bet the farm” arose in contests between landed gentry pitting their horses against each other in steeplechase match races. With the feet of monarchs on a roulette wheel, Cartoonist Charles Fox criticized England and continental Europe gambling addiction for economically devastating the countries.

Private casinos, housing the first multiple games of action, were introduced by the French in 1796. Roulette, built from the philosopher Pascal’s attempt to find a perpetual motion machine, was the most popular game of the time. It almost ruined the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Writing to his brother he described a system he had devised that couldn’t lose. Of course, he did lose, since the house never loses. He even spending his rent money and finally sold his watch. Deeply in debt, the author entered into a contract with E.T. Stellovsky, who demands Dostoyevsky deliver a novel to him by Nov 1, 1866. Failure to meet the deadline would give Stellovsky the rights to his publications for nine years. Dostoyevsky delivered his novella entitled The Gambler and saves his hide.

While Dostoyevsky was battling his demons, Germany in 1866 banned gambling.  Famous spas closed, towns faced economic decline. Casino operator Francois Blanc moved his casino to the new town of Monte Carlo. At the time some said Blanc sold his soul to the devil to favor the world of roulette whose sum of numbers on the “little wheel” is 666, the sign of the beast. Today Monte Carlo is an international byword for Europeans – a leading tourist attraction and extravagant gambling mecca for the elite of the world.

Devil or not, gambling in Europe was the province of the elite. In the United States the roulette wheel and gambling in general moved from French New Orleans up the Mississippi River and west in makeshift games organized by con artists who followed the American attitude of laissez faire rather than our Puritan origins. Puritan claims closed down gambling for a while. When Maryland made slot machines illegal over 50 years ago, the economy of Southern Maryland was devastated.

Nevada became the first state to favor gambling. Today gambling revenue fuels almost every state’s coffers. In one month, January 2015, state-supported gambling returned approximately $110 million to the Maryland state treasury. It won’t go away. Whole industries  — insurance, the stock market, bingo charities, horse racing, lotteries, card games of skill based on the luck of the draw, TV shows and sports betting are fixtures in our risk-taking life.

In the challenge to beat the odds some may strike it rich in the short term. A group of MIT students once beat the odds in Vegas for a million dollars. It is doubtful it will happen again. Again, in casinos, the house never loses.

Away from the casinos lights and sounds that inflame the brain and excite the adrenalin, citizens of means call their stockbroker, citizens of lesser means buy lottery tickets and friends and family gather in homes for recreational game nights, bridge and penny ante poker. On the TV, America’s favorite singer Kenny Rogers sings “The Gambler” for a GEICO ad: “You’ve got to know when to hold them. Know when to fold them. Know when to walk away, know when to run … ”   The games go on.

Ellen, a former mayor of Annapolis, can be reached at [email protected]m 


We all know there is a downside to gambling. Actually doing something about a gambling addiction is another matter. Look deeper than someone who is having problems paying bills. Whether you are looking in the mirror, or at the behavior of a friend or family member, keep an eye out for these signs that gambling has become more than a harmless recreation:

  • Is this person missing important events, family obligations, work or school, to gamble much of the time?
  • Do you notice someone gambling a lot who may be trying to escape problems at home or at work?
  • Is there someone you know who is always talking about how he wins all the time, but never mentions losing?
  • Do you notice somebody who has big mood swings that may reflect when he wins or loses and who also may be excessively angry or anxious when not gambling?
  • Have you seen a person try to quit gambling, but keep failing?

A list very much like this was compiled by a casino, not an anti-gambling organization. Gambling interests don’t want to be seen as promoting a sickness. The Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling offers a 24-hour helpline at 1.800.GAMBLER, where compulsive gamblers can get someone to talk to, professional counseling, Gambling Anonymous information and other services. Started up about two and one-half years ago, the center is part of the University of Maryland Department of Medicine.

While reasonable people could argue about the number and the definition, the Center for Excellence estimates at least 150,000 Marylanders are “problem gamblers.” As it happens this year, the 29th annual National Conference on Problem Gambling will be held in Baltimore at the Hilton Baltimore Inner Harbor on July 9-11. The event is sponsored by the center and the Maryland Council on Problem Gambling.



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