Because I have friends who love me well, I recently received a gift copy of The Complete Illustrated Guide to Gambling, written by Alan Wykes and published in 1964. I had never heard of this book before (and here I thought I'd heard of everything) but it contains some real gems of thought that I just had to share with you. Some of this pertains to poker, some to gambling in general, but all of it suggests that the estimable Mr. Wykes had a very interesting point of view when it came to gambling and to life. If anyone has any information on this man, please send up a signal flare, because this guy is just too cool for school.
"Gambling is a way of buying hope on credit," says Mr. Wykes. "We are all bonded slaves of the management that issues the credit cards. To realize the completeness of our bondage we have only to remember that each of us owes his existence to the chancy collaboration of two small fertile organisms; while an apparently chancy distribution of chromosomes, genes, and hormones influence our sex, coloring, and disposition. We press on through life toward a death whose manner and date depend entirely on chance. During our womb-to-tomb progress we never stop gambling, for we cannot know the outcome of each of the many decisions we have to make every day; we can only hope for the best."
Wow. I mean, wow. Does that put our enterprise in context, or what? Next time you take a bad beat, remember that you only got the chance to take that beat because you were lucky enough to be born in the first place.
"Everything is older than you think, including horse racing. The Metropolitan Museum in New York has a statuette of an Egyptian race horse and jockey from 2000 B.C.; the Hittites of Asia Minor recorded on their cuneiform tablets instructions for training race horses; and even earlier (about 3200 B.C.) there was some racing going on between Arab steeds that the Arabs had trained by tethering them, making them thirsty, and then freeing them to run to distant water."
Freeing them to run to distant water. Is that a beautiful phrase, or what? Behind the poetry, though, lies a warning to us all, a reminder that it's tragically hard to bet horses successfully. After all, given that we've been at this game for most of recorded history, shouldn't we expect to have it licked by now? And yet, to quote Wykes quoting Damon Runyon, "All horse players die broke." Think about this the next time you're tempted to take some of your poker winnings and invest them at the track. Maybe you're better off re-investing in yourself.
"As nearly everyone knows, the slot machine is a mechanical device that absorbs coins. The inventor of this profitable contrivance was Charles Fey, an American mechanic who must have known as much about human nature as he did about machinery. For wherever a slot machine stands, there stands also for most of the time someone compulsively feeding it with coins."
Wykes, of course, wrote his book in the 1960s. If he wrote it today, he would no doubt note scientists' recent claims that the real appeal (no pun intended or taken) of the slot machine is not the cash payout, but rather the release of the pleasure-chemical serotonin within the human brain at the time of the gamble. This is, in fact, not news. As any laboratory rat will tell you, "Press bar, get treat." It's fundamental to the game.
A propos of absolutely nothing (or perhaps a propos of absolutely everything), I offer Wykes' version of the cause of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. According to Wykes, a man named Louis M. Cohn was shooting craps with some friends in a barn owned by a family called O'Leary. "They were playing by the light of a lantern, and in a particularly exciting moment of the game Cohn knocked over the lantern and set the barn on fire." Cohn subsequently fingered Mrs. O'Leary's cow for the crime, but apparently his guilt caught up with him in the end, and he confessed the whole thing before died. Perhaps as justification for the conflagration, he wrote in his will, "When I knocked over the lantern, I was winning."
I think this can be said of us all. If, as Wykes proposes, life itself is a game of chance, then the fact that we get to play at all makes us winners going in. But it is inevitable that, sooner or later, we'll all knock over the lantern, and leave this marvelous game behind. Perhaps, as I've speculated, Mr. Wykes has already shuffled off this mortal coil. Perhaps he lives on somewhere, deep in the throes of a (one hopes happy) retirement. In any case, his words live on, in a small way, in an obscure book on gambling which, happily, fell into the hands of friends who love me well.
"This, then, is the bedrock of the psychological side of gambling. Egocentricity plus hope (which is as instinctive as egocentricity in human nature) equals the necessity all of us have to take risks." And it's a damn good thing we take risks too; otherwise we'd still be living in trees, wondering where our next banana was coming from. A point, I feel confident, that Alan Wykes would have understood quite well.
(John Vorhaus is author
of the KILLER POKER series and News Ambassador