Why Americans gamble.

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Jan. 24 2003 6:45 PM

There Goes the House

Why do Americans love to bet?

Last Sunday, a few minutes before Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon went to his knee to run out the clock for a convincing victory over the Tennessee Titans, crowds gathered at the Stardust Casino to hear the announcement of a magic number: 3 1/2, or the number of points Oakland was favored over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this Sunday's Super Bowl. Those assembled had drawn lottery tickets, as they had every Sunday night of the season, to take the earliest shot at the line, when they might still be able to take advantage of the bookmaker's misestimation of how the betting would fall. The Stardust, the grits-and-hard-toast Las Vegas casino that traditionally is first to post the football lines, is full of high rollers on Sunday nights, and the heavy play on Oakland forced the Stardust's sportsbook director to adjust the number upward a half point, to draw in more bettors willing to wager that Tampa would win outright or lose by fewer than four points. And there, at 4, the line—which is distributed to other Las Vegas casinos, then to offshore Internet sportsbooks, and eventually to billiard-hall bookies across the country—has largely stayed throughout the week.

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Odds are you already know this. In the United States, betting on the Super Bowl has become what the arrivé of the Beaujolais nouveau is in France: a devil-may-care spree of abandon, a super-hyped product that is essentially a cash cow for those on the receiving end. Last year, bettors drove the legal handle on the Super Bowl—a frequently lackluster game—to $71.5 million, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. And that's only the money put through casino tills: Estimates from the American Gaming Council and the New Jersey Council on Compulsive Gambling put the amount nationwide at $6 billion. That's about a buck for every human being on the planet.

Not availing itself of the action, though, was the NFL, which refused to run spot ads for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority during the game—an anti-gambling stance that Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Smith called "as phony as the smiles at a Boardwalk beauty contest." This raises two obvious questions: Why is the NFL so unwilling to recognize the reality of sports betting—which clearly boosts interest in its product? And why are Americans in such a mad rush to wager on a mostly dull event over which we have absolutely no control? If Jackson Lears is correct, the point-spread fervor has less to do with Peyton Manning than with mana. In Something for Nothing: Luck in America, the Rutgers professor of history makes the case for what he describes asthe particular and peculiar worldview of the gambler—a view that the deep faith in luck (and its simultaneous devaluation of the money economy) has long roots in a cosmology that looks markedly different from the ordered schemes of God and Progress. For Lears, the secret history of subcultures of chance is nothing less than the story of a revolutionary refusal to embrace the bootstrap philosophy of Horatio Alger-esque success—it's a story where the Lemon Drop Kid becomes a sort of Holden Caulfield manqué. In his eyes, that virtue, viewed against the backdrop of our busted economyand dreary stock reports, now looks more essential than ever.

In the American narrative of fortune, the aleatory perspective has long been a heavy underdog—the province of immigrants and slaves, largely shunted to the margins of decent society by mainstream Protestantism and mainstream business leaders. What all rebel-without-applause punters share—whether the 18th-century gentleman at a South Carolina cockfight, a Mississippi gambler on a 19th-century steamboat, or a mid-20th-century numbers player relishing Lucky Dog perfume and John the Conqueror root—is a deep denial of the dogma of the self-made man, be it constituted in the Puritan mantra of good works or the stolid management notions of productive citizenship. In surrendering to what the pragmatist William James described as "a world of pure experience," the player at lots and dice becomes the uncelebrated actor in the untold story of fleeting grace on the American stage. Lears may be one of the few academics who would endorse casino honcho Benny Binion's line, "If a guy wants to bet twenty or thirty thousand dollars in a poker game, that is his privilege. This is America." Or, as A. Alvarez memorably glossed it in The Biggest Game in Town: "That too is Las Vegas, the only place on earth where they justify gambling as a form of patriotism."

Throughout American history, cultures of chance and control, as Lears calls them, have existed side by side, usually at vicious odds with each another. But part of Lears' project is to show that historically there have been times when the two have come uncomfortably intimate: The dot-com decade is a case in point. (How different is the day-trader, circa 1998, from the bettor in the Stardust last Sunday?) For every Horatio Alger tale, there's a Damon Runyon to counter it. Think of the tremendous role risk played in Gilded Age mercantilism and the rapid switching between Lears' vying cultures during westward expansion. Lears puts terrific weight on the interchangeability of the entrepreneur and the confidence man, who made three-card monte out of the game of manipulating the signs of success; reading his account of the market machinations of a Jay Gould or a Daniel Drew, we are asked to elevate Melville's protean "man with the weed" in The Confidence-Man into the figure of a genius.

However close the score in the 19th century, the culture of control enjoyed a long winning streak over chance in the last century. A period that saw a massive federal investment in the Keynesian effort to balance control and chance, and witnessed the triumph of positivist models in the social sciences—not to mention the offshoot rise of mass advertising, market research, polling, and so on—left the embrace of pure risk profoundly unappealing. It comes as little surprise that gambling became more vilified than ever in post-World War II American society; we began to see gambling as a pathology, even as the "industry" became synonymous with underworld interests. So it's no surprise either that as the Great Society safety net was gradually lowered throughout the privatizing '80s—a tacit withdrawal of Washington's investment in the culture of control—that states suddenly discovered the overwhelming popular interest in craps, blackjack, and slots and moved to reap the economic benefits of legalized, regulated gambling.

Of course, Lears has a dog in the fight of control and chance. He writes for those he sees as victimized by the myth of the self-made man—those for whom failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that losers get what they deserve. "A culture less intent on the individual's responsibility to master destiny might be more capacious, more generous, more gracious," he writes. "A recognition of the power of luck might encourage fortunate people to imagine their own misfortune and transcend the arrogance of the meritocratic myth." If the just-desserts principle serves to validate the gaping divide between the rich and, well, not-rich today, how much more appealing, he suggests, the elevation of the poor, huddled, gambling masses, with their emphasis on "the precariousness of wealth, the impermanence of life, and the arbitrariness of money as a measure of worth"? And so Lears too often loads the dice against the "secular Protestant Ethic," depicting his adversary with cardboard depth and hyperbolic rhetoric. In what could be the book's motto, he quotes a passage from a turn-of-the-century Wolfville story by A.H. Louis :

JaCK KinG
LifE AiN'T
IN
HOLDING A GOOD HAND
BUT
In PLAYing a PORE HAND
WeLL

Not bad advice. You might even see setting it in needlepoint and hanging it next to the baize table in your rec room. But Lears cannot resist the self-serious touché: "Such sentiments constituted a counterforce … against the blustering moralistic denials of luck that continued to blow across the American cultural landscape."

If the culture of control ultimately proves too strong a straw man in Lears' history—is it possible, after all, to imagine chance or control existing without its enabling other?—this doesn't detract from his extensive (and important) reading of the links between risk, chance, and luck—from 17th-century Hurons remedying the loss of the soul in a sacred bowl game to anyone plunging on the Raiders or the Bucs. Where Lears goes one-dimensional on the tyranny of control, he more than makes up for the gaffe in emphasizing the overlay of what his two cultures share—a common denominator of the dollar. And it's here that Lears' alternative mythology of grace really pays off.

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