Michael Kinnucan

Notes on Gambling


1. The medieval method of determining guilt in criminal cases through single combat—taking the truth of a claim to be demonstrated by the accident of its victory—is a miniature of the whole of the political order: the outcome of a battle, manifestly contingent in itself, is taken for a sign of natural necessity, and the victor determines what will be true and just in a way that assumes the mask of eternal necessity until the next war. And in certain respects we ought to be thankful for this superstitious forgetting of contingency: the world of circumstance is hard enough to bear as it is, without the constant awareness of how easily it might have been otherwise. Since we must bear it, since it is necessary for us, we might as well take it to be necessary in itself. Thus the government and the governed collude in veiling the origin of order in chance.

The gambler in certain respects defies this collusion: he refuses to accept the real as rational and is “unreasonable” in this respect. The rest of humanity accepts its lot; the gambler demands that the drawing be repeated, double or nothing. He regards the hand he has been dealt by fate with scorn; an addict of chance, he knows how easily it might have been otherwise. He demands of every established fact that it be subjected once again to the test of the contingency which is its origin.

2. Borges’ “The Library of Babel” portrays a society which, like our own, is working through the ramifications of a scientific revolution. The Universe in his story is a vast or possibly infinite library, consisting entirely of hexagonal rooms lined with books, connected by stairs and hallways. A few of the books say something in some language; the vast majority are filled with what appear to be arbitrary sequences of characters, gibberish or code. The residents of the library speculated for a long time about what it might mean, why there is Library rather than nothing, to what end the Library is fitted with librarians—but then one day someone discovered a fragment of a text on combinatorics, and a great realization swept through this world. The library is not indefinite and incomprehensible, but complete and perfect: it contains all possible books. Every sequence of characters that could be written down exists in some room, on some shelf. The library has everything.

When it was first announced, this tremendous discovery, this rationalization of all Creation, was met with tremendous joy. It was realized that since every book must exist, there must exist a book with your name on it—what the librarians called a Vindication. “Vindications: books of apology and prophecy, which vindicated for all time the actions of every man in the world and established a store of prodigious arcana for the future.” It was hoped, in other words, that just as human reason had established the order and necessity of the Library, the Library might return the favor, explaining the order and necessity of every human life.

Alas, it was not to be: there are as many books in the librarians’ universe as there are atoms in ours, and so the odds of you or any human finding his vindication among the few hundred thousand books she’ll have a chance to examine in her brief life are essentially nil. There is indeed a book that can explain and justify your life down to its last detail—no doubt even explaining why you lived and died in a hexagon hundreds of thousands of rooms over from where it still lies shelved, unopened. But you’ll never find it. The Library is in itself perfect and complete, but its intersection with the human order produces only a cruel and arbitrary irony.

This realization produces horror and despair in the Librarians. Some react violently: they begin tossing books down the infinite stairwells, hoping to give the Library a taste of their own chaos. Others turn to gambling:

A blasphemous sect suggested that all searches be given up and that men everywhere shuffle letters and symbols until they succeeded in composing, by means of an improbable stroke of luck, the canonical books. The authorities found themselves obliged to issue severe orders. The sect disappeared, but in my childhood I still saw old men who would hide out in the privies for long periods of time and, with metal disks in a forbidden dicebox, feebly mimic the divine disorder.

The librarians, in other words, take up an odd sort of creative writing—in the bathrooms of a library filled with every book there could be. Why? The narrator implies that this behavior is irrational: after all, every book a man encounters in the uncaring Library is, from his perspective, a matter of chance. Even if from a synchronic and universal perspective every book is necessary (without it the Library would be lacking), from a diachronic and human perspective the encounter with a book, the event, is contingent. A given Librarian’s placement in a given hexagon at a given time is itself a roll of the dice. But perhaps that’s the point: this cult of gamblers was thrown, and now they are throwing.

One is tempted to ask—why don’t they try real writing, why introduce the element of chance? But this ignores how much of the chance encounter there is in any writing—as though creation were all will and no happenstance, all skill and no inspiration. One can imagine Proust’s great work as an existing Vindication, and he’s the first to admit how much luck came into it:

I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognised their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life. And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

3. There is something “noble” in the figure of the gambler for all his ignominy—and it has to do with the way the gambler is stupid, his apparent inability to calculate the odds. He considers it base to stake less than everything. It’s the sort of thing one admires despite oneself in literary characters who fight duels for honor—honor is nothing, it’s their very life at stake, and yet…

Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler, and many of his characters share this quality: their pathos and his comedy comes from dragging an aristocratic sense of honor through a 19th-century European world where it can only appear foolish, ridiculous. Think of the Underground Man, spitting on the Crystal Palace in order to prove that man has free will and can’t be bribed by anything as sordid as comfort. Dostoevsky’s Russians venture into the 19th century as self-conscious Don Quixotes or sad clowns, knowing themselves to be too late or too soon for the lives they could live well. But their audience, the scoffing crowd in the courtyard of the Crystal Palace, is still more ridiculous.

A gambler would like to challenge fate to a duel, to prove that he is a man to be honored and feared and no base coward. He doesn’t win the duel, and can’t even really lose it—fate remains as impassive as the windmills Quixote tilts at. But it’s hard not to wish him well.

4. Money is a pure means—absolutely neutral, pure potential, symbolizing everything and nothing. Presumably that’s why it’s the root of all evil. Because money is not an end and does not refer to one, the desire for money has no end—of money as such there is no sufficiency, and those who desire money as such will never be sated. In this respect the gambler shares something with the capitalist (and his great-grandfather, the miser): both relate to money in the appropriate way, that is, they relate pathologically to a pathological object. The pure means is their end. The gambler is as little likely to stop gambling when he has won enough as the capitalist is to stop accumulating because he’s rich enough: their passion is as indefinite as its object.

Nonetheless the gambler is by no means a kind of capitalist—a stupid capitalist, for instance, one who invests poorly. They have opposite relations to potential. While the capitalist wants to become heavy with money, wants to see money accumulate and solidify and remain, the gambler loves money as it’s flowing through her fingers, flowing away. When a gambler doesn’t simply bet her winnings, she wastes them ostentatiously, dramatically, passionately—buys everything in the store, buys on credit, buys everyone at the bar a round. The value of more money for the gambler is that there is more madness, more divinity, in staking it all on a single roll. If you want to feel the texture of a gambler’s fascination with money, light a twenty-dollar bill on fire and watch it burn.

5. In “The Lottery in Babylon,” Borges tells the history of a city in which everything happens by chance. The game began simply enough: people bought tickets, a drawing was held, some of the tickets won prizes. Then the company conducting the lottery realized that to engage only man’s greed was to leave money on the table: what about fear? Tickets were introduced which carried financial penalties—and so began a gradual development, as the lottery sought to subject the full range of human passions. A winner might gain power over her beloved, or her enemy; a loser might be discredited, imprisoned, mutilated, killed. The lottery thus became so fascinating that it provoked social unrest: the poor, too, demanded to play, since those who can’t afford a ticket need chance introduced into the tiring orderliness of life. After a struggle, they gained a kind of universal suffrage: the lottery became free, mandatory and universal. The Company which administered it assumed the role of a government, since the scope of its operations required absolute control. Its operations become secret, the better to surprise. It introduced new dimensions of possibility: “if the lottery is an intensification of chance, a periodic infusion of chaos into the cosmos, would it not be desirable for chance to intervene at all stages of the lottery and not merely in the drawing?” Thus the decisions of the lottery itself were subjected to further drawings, and on to infinity. It ceased to be possible to determine, concerning a particular event, whether it was due to a drawing of the lottery or to an ordinary cause. In short, the lottery became coextensive with and indistinguishable from the world:

The Company, with godlike modesty, shuns all publicity. Its agents, of course, are secret; the orders it constantly (perhaps continually) imparts are no different from those spread wholesale by impostors. Besides--who will boast of being a mere impostor? The drunken man who blurts out an absurd command, the sleeping man who suddenly awakes and turns and chokes to death the woman sleeping at his side--are they not, perhaps, implementing one of the Company's secret decisions? That silent functioning, like God's, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and teaches that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half-dreams that come at dawn. Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance.

Since every parable has the structure of a joke, I suppose the joke here is that we ourselves live in the domain of the Company—in a state of exception in which the orderly workings of the universe are suspended, continually, to inject contingency. A game would seem to be a way of introducing chance into the usual order of the world; in fact, however, the chaos of the world far outstrips that of the game. The stakes and rules of a game are set beforehand, its players choose their positions, its outcome determined by the interaction of a limited set of factors; life, however, is played for indefinite or infinite stakes, never begins, never ceases, hangs in the balance of a thousandfold and ever-changing set of conditions which determine not only who wins and who loses but what it is to win or lose. As Heraclitus says, “Eternity is a game of draughts played by a child. Kingship is in the hands of a child.”

5. The rhythm of the game has something in common with the Fort-Da game Freud described watching a young child play: the child would toss a spool of thread away, shouting “Gone!”, then yank it back, shouting “Here!” According to Freud the game was a way of symbolizing (repeating, mastering, comprehending) the boy’s mother’s frightening tendency to be sometimes “Here!” and at other times “Gone!” In one reading, the game is an attempt to “master” the anxiety of absence—but how, exactly? Empirically, so far, the mother has always returned sooner or later, and in this respect she’s like the spool, but she’s not attached to a string, after all, and the child does not control her return. Perhaps the child is trying to falsify the phenomena, to pretend he has more control than he does; maybe the string is wishful thinking. Maybe, though, the moment he seeks to master is not her return but her going: maybe he’s fantasizing that instead of being abandoned by the mother, he’s casting her off. Maybe the pleasure of the game is less in the here than in the gone.

The gambler, too, throws something away to watch for its return—he puts money on the table (Gone!) in order to (ideally) take it back (Here!). While the money is on the table, at stake, he is as vulnerable as a child alone. The difference, of course, is that the gambler has no string to pull it back with—if it returns, it will return by a stroke of luck.