May 22, 2003 (Ira Pilgrim)


He was … a degenerate gambler. That is, a man who gambled simply to gamble and must lose. As a hero who goes to war must die. Show me a gambler and I'll show you a loser, show me a hero and I'll show you a corpse.

Mario Puzo

Some forty years ago, I stopped in Reno, Nevada and spent the night there. The food was good and cheap. Then I went to a casino. There I saw gigantic rooms full of slot machines. In front of almost every machine was someone frantically feeding money into it. Many were old women.

I had known of machines that you put money into. In New York there was a place called the Automat which was full of machines. You put money into one and it gave you a sandwich; into another and you got a piece of pie; another yielded coffee or milk. I though that it was wonderful; no waiters to tip. But here, in Reno, people were putting money into machines and getting absolutely nothing back. Occasionally one of the machines yielded up a few coins to its contributor. I thought that if I owned some of those machines, I wouldn't have to earn a living. All of the money that I needed would be given to me by fools. And there are many many more fools than there are wise people.

That casino was one of the most depressing place that I had ever been in. Just the thought of an immense room filled with fools putting money into machines depresses me. The only other environment that I found more disturbing was during the brief period when I worked in a mental hospital. It was full of crazy people and I was never sure who was crazier, the inmates or the staff.

I never stopped in Reno again; it was too depressing. I have long been aware that there were a hellofalot of fools in the world, but to have such a large number all in one place, acting like fools, was more than I could take.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they aren't all fools. Maybe some are reasonably intelligent people who have a peculiar craziness or obsession about one particular thing. One of my favorite writers is Mario Puzo. I learned that he, in his later years when he was rich, became addicted to gambling. He would go to Las Vegas, where he was a "highroller" and blew lots of money.

I know several very bright people who love to play poker. They do it with friends, not professionals, and probably end up winning or losing small amounts. It can be a more entertaining evening than watching televisions.

Recently, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett was unmasked as an addicted gambler. This wouldn't have been considered news if it wasn't for the fact that he preaches, in print, against every sin but gambling, and some Christian sects consider gambling to be sinful. Bennett excuses himself by saying "I play fairly high stakes. I adhere to the law. I don't play the 'milk money.' I don't put my family at risk, and I don't owe anyone anything." There are, however, lots of compulsive gamblers who are not rich who are depriving their families. Bennett also says that over the years he has broken even, which tells me that he is deluded. A person who plays poker once a week with friends might say that honestly, but not someone who plays the slot machines. The Washington Monthly puts his total losses at more than $8 million.

Five to ten years ago, I would have had to cross into Nevada to see gambling casinos. Now I no longer have to cross a state line to find rooms full of fools. I can find one less than an hour away from my home. However, I don't like being depressed, nor do I like losing money, so I stay away from it.

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