Rambling and Gambling
Across Our Landscape of Luck
It takes no great social historian to explain the American…
Las Vegas, Nevada
I had never noticed the potential for treachery in an…
Salt Lake City, Utah
Religious doctrine has always been fairly consistent
in its opposition…
Cape Vincent, New York
The wind blows pretty cold and pretty strong off Lake…
Charles Town, West Virginia
The countryside is pretty enough, somewhat rolling,
the Blue Ridge…
Santa Ynez, California
Topping San Marcos Pass, coming from the
California coastline near…
Twin Cities, Minneapolis
I knew at some point, and at some place, I’d…
His voice originated somewhere in Costa Rica,
hooked into a…
About the Author
About the Publisher
It takes no great social historian to explain the American tendency toward risk-reward schemes, both dubious and legitimate. This country, as far as that goes, was founded on a flier.
And every possible advancement in knowledge and wealth has
been occasioned by some fantastic bet. We were always, just
by virtue of our pioneer origins, in the game of speculation.
Gold Rush, anybody? Or just a hundred shares of Pet.com?
By now, through a couple hundred years of just this kind of
political and economic evolution, we have been so thoroughly
self-selected for risk-taking that only a righteous few of us can
avoid scanning life’s tote board first thing in the morning.
Good thing, when it comes to settling a nation or jetting
off to the moon. Or even starting up Yahoo! Or asking that
girl, too smart and too pretty for the likes of us, to marry us.
Hard to imagine where this country would be if our ambition
were restricted to sure shots, if we weren’t careless enough
in our greed to ignore long odds. I guess we’d still be in England and nobody would have iPods. Also, there would be a
lot of bachelors. But what happens when this native predisposition toward risk-taking—now encouraged by civic institutions, a travel industry, a technology boom, a yawning void of
recreation, a collapse in that old-time religion—becomes so
pervasive that nearly every aspect of our culture is now a function of chance?
Well, I was curious. So, with little more than my own personal treasure map (I can see where more judgmental minds
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might call it Satan’s TripTik—but not me) and cash advance
access on four credit cards, I embarked on my own little road
to ruin, exploring our landscape of luck. I didn’t set out to
participate—although there I was, spinning for sausages in St.
Paul and waiting for the river in Salt Lake City (and yes, I did
max out those cards, but that’s another story) and standing in
the Caesars Palace sports book holding a paper sack filled with
$100,000 (and that’s really another story)—but to investigate, to discover where and how we flex that muscle, which
you might have thought vestigial by now, certainly flabby.
Turns out there’s a humming and thrumming economy out
there, never mind our government, totally invested in its
You think this is Fast Food Nation? We Americans bet
each other about $80 billion last year, more than we spent on
movie tickets, CDs, theme parks, spectator sports, and video
games—combined! It’s more than we spent on higher education (and only a little bit less than we spent on fast food,
which has the advantage of a drive-thru; the day you can take
Phoenix and give six at a curbside clown, that advantage will
certainly be eliminated). And, due to a confluence of trends
that make it easier and ever more acceptable to gamble, we
will increase that action year by year until the daily double
really is more important to our economy than a double-double already is. It is impossible to know what limits there might
be to such growth when our lottery libido is unleashed by
civic and moral approval, not to mention Internet access.
Whatever taboos there might have once been (our riverboat
mentality was, for most of our history, held somewhat in
check by the reigning values of hard work and self-sacrifice
and Protestant morality) have fallen at such a pace that a backroom activity has become a parlor game.
But why wouldn’t this country be devoted to the pursuit
of luck? Like I say, the timid were left behind when the May-
flower sailed, the resulting start-up population already inclined
toward overconfidence, a belief in destiny. But, really, what
did we ever find here to discourage our sense of entitlement?
Ever since we arrived, and once we relieved the Indians of
their management (again, another story), it’s been one windfall after another. No wonder good luck has come to seem our
rightful condition. The abundance, however accidental (kind
of a definition of luck), has been simply stupefying.
It’s been Jackpot Nation from day one, as we’ve stumbled
from gold strike to gusher. American history is a timeline of
providence, an epoch of flabbergasting discovery. Mother
lodes, wide-open prairies, vast buffalo herds, timberland: Who
among our adventuring forebears ever set out to chart this
wilderness and was disappointed? Who took a chance and
This is surely our rightful condition. The idea of a payoff,
whereby some small amount of industry gets applied to any
crazy notion and returns investments in wild multiples, has
come to seem a constitutional right. The original groundwork
for such national confidence was purely a product of our natural resources. But as these were explored and exhausted, our
native wit became an equally valuable source of capital. We
were as good at developing things as at stumbling upon them.
Maybe it was the miracle of (mostly) economic democracy,
but smarts became highly incentivized. In this country anyway, it was ridiculously easy to parlay ideas into wealth and
power. Maybe nobody’s come up with a better mousetrap,
but there’s been no end to the refinement of gadgetry to
enrich our lives—or at least its inventor.
It’s been a get-rich-quick country from day one, everybody’s life animated by the certainty of opportunity. We very
well could discover gold, but failing that (say we prefer indoor
work), we might improve our lot marketing vitamins or dabbling in foreclosures. Basically, it’s there for the taking.
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It’s been the work of religion (and, once upon a time, our
government) to deny, or at least counter the element of luck,
which, after all, would dampen the instinct toward holy striving. Something for nothing never squared with our Puritan
origins, even though the team logo back then was a cornucopia. But to deny this continued good fortune, to ignore
American serendipity, is another kind of arrogance, too. Do
we really deserve what we get? Have we really earned all that
Surely there is another part of us that understands, as
smart as we are and as hard as we work, we’ve cashed a ticket
just by being American. And if you don’t appreciate that fact,
take your Subway franchise to Darfur. Let me know how your
expansion plans work out.
To be an American is to be emboldened by our long run
of luck, to be ready for every opportunity, to ante up as soon
as the cards are shuffled. This has made for a pretty exciting
nation, with a lot of entertaining foolishness, of course. We’ve
also enjoyed a lot more progress than less adventuresome
countries. Hands up, who else has the right to vote and has
But to be an American these days, now that all the really
good adventures have been achieved, has meant a gradual
retreat into the safety of choice. It’s no longer necessary to
load the kids into a covered wagon and head West, fighting
Indians along the way, to get ahead. Far easier just to take on
a little overtime, or buy rental properties. Still, that appetite
for risk remains and it’s up to us to satisfy it within the confines of our twenty-first-century comfort. Granted, we no
longer face the somewhat daunting prospect of being scalped,
but we still need the make-believe of mastery, which is why
we have paintball, infomercial get-rich schemes, and all these
other arenas of simulated survival.
We’ve always (seems like always) had Las Vegas, too. It’s
been our testing grounds for the detonation of statistical TNT
(and family values, and architectural insanity) for a hundred
years now. It’s been the frontier where we work out our inclination toward risk-taking, but with clean sheets and magic
shows. And it’s also been part of that double standard by which
our gambling roots can both be embraced and denied. It’s
securely quarantined in the Nevada desert; its very remoteness
has guaranteed its success. Sin City, maybe, but at least it’s
required the effort of travel. Put it this way: Anybody smart
enough to book a holiday package to Las Vegas will not be
shocked by the concept of recreational overhead. The $199
barrier of entry that the Stratosphere might require may be
slight, but at least it weeds out the merrymakers who might
otherwise put the college fund on black. Neither church groups
nor band camps ever wander into Las Vegas by accident.
Thing is, that’s all changed. There is now—quite suddenly, it seems—the kind of encouragement from our government and legitimate industry that requires us to gamble, and
to be able to do it wherever is most convenient for us. Casinos are no longer in legal isolation, but everywhere. With the
redress of the American Indians, which gave them casino
rights in every state but Hawaii and the reliably uptight Utah,
there is hardly anybody more than twenty minutes from a slot
machine (I live in Santa Barbara, California, a remote seaside
resort; I am twenty minutes from a slot machine). What was
once a contained contamination has now spread coast-tocoast, and it no longer has any viral connotations.
And that’s not even the half of it. Gambling is now thoroughly layered within every community. As the recreation has
been recognized for producing profit margins previously
unheard of, it’s been co-opted by local government and mainstream companies, all queasiness forgotten. The numbers
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racket, just for an example, used to be a serious crime, left to
the purview of mafia types. It is now an important tax boon,
overseen by elected officials, its dollars often earmarked for
education. A crime? It’s a civic duty!
Neither American business nor American government can
afford to ignore so much easy money, its cut from the recreational pursuit of better luck. In fact, given its balance sheet
and the difficulty in making everybody pay their fair share,
our government must do everything possible to exploit our
penchant for betting. You might even say it will do everything
possible to pervert that residue of recklessness, the trait that
settled the country but which now gets burned off under the
fluorescence of casino lighting or with the purchase of a few
scratch-offs. Go on, do it for the children!
It is just that cynical. Whatever moral or even sensible
covenants (not to mention centuries of legislation) there
might have been against such a saturation of speculation have
been easily overcome in the face of such a bonanza. Gambling
has had only a grudging legality, growing over the years but
still vulnerable to prosecution even as money floods the Internet in search of a payout. But legal it is, more and more, as
government newly defines what’s good for us (and it). Sometimes the winking hypocrisy can be fatiguing, as when I discovered a Mississippi “riverboat” (the only condition that
allows its operation supposedly being seaworthiness) was
moored quite permanently on a concrete foundation (or was
until Hurricane Katrina). That “riverboat,” which “paddled”
up the river to provide a much-needed tourist destination,
happened to kick in a good portion of that state’s budget in
taxes. Sometimes that hypocrisy can simply be infuriating, as
when something that used to be prosecuted as numbers running becomes a pseudo-tax. Would we even have public education, if not for states’ lotteries?
Look, most of us understand that gambling is not a zerosum enterprise. The difference between what we take to the
table and what we leave with is a function of excitement, the
burned calorie, that unit of work that disappears in the pursuit of fun. Most of us agree that it’s a fair trade-off. Las Vegas
should organize the odds in its favor. If it didn’t, it would look
a lot more like Akron does right now, and what would be the
point of our four-day getaway at the Stratosphere?
We usually know what we’re getting into. Maybe some
Amish kids are getting their lunch handed to them in $5/$10
ring games but the rest of us are less innocent. We’re flexing
that old muscle, firing up some ancient neurons, trying to
remember when the sense of jeopardy wasn’t quite so artificial. And we’ll pay to do it.
Of course there are some who are mortally aggrieved by
the 16 percent hold casinos insist on, or the 50 percent take
the states enjoy, or even the 11 percent the neighborhood
bookies insist upon. And probably there are instances where
the barrier of entry is too low. Now that anybody, of any age,
can nudge the line with little more than a mouse click, the
opportunity for calamity has presented itself to the very children gambling would help, or so the hysteria of prohibitionists would tell us. Not to discount the ravages of problem
gambling, which are genuine. Who hasn’t read about the
church secretary who embezzled the Sunday collection for
her video poker habit?
But, for all the splash such anecdotes make, the risks to individuals are fairly minimal. All the church secretaries with gambling problems have been accounted for by our overworked
press. The communities they live in, though, might be another
story. When youth hockey is only possible because a gaggle of
widows have bingo fever, maybe the problem lies elsewhere.
Gambling has become our twenty-first-century bake sale.
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The only way to find out for sure was to take my own
tour, stopping here and there to pull a slot, play a hand, or
pick a number. Anyone who would presume to explain this
country is doomed by differences in geography, religion, even
weather. I could lose a good chunk of my 401(k) in Las Vegas
yet couldn’t get a double scotch on the rocks in nearby Salt
Lake City. And, yes, they really are both in America. Still, I
couldn’t help but think there had to be something in our
DNA that lured us to the tables, because, obvious differences
aside, we all like to gamble and we’re all finding ways to do it.
Even in Salt Lake City.
Stopping here and there—giving regions representation,
giving religions their say, trying to decide how local governments keep their uneasy peace with human nature—also
allowed me to experience the astonishing variety of gambling.
One day I’m at a meat raffle in the Midwest, the next I’m rattling chips at an Indian reservation in California. Or I’m
deciding who wins an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, or
someone else is deciding whether I’ll ever draw a pension. Or
maybe I’ll just push this little button here and predict Whitney Houston will be in rehab by the end of the month.
I did not return from my travels determined to abolish
gambling, needless to say. We know what we’re doing, if we
don’t always know why or for whom. We’re having fun,
mostly. But if we are going to give ourselves over to the thrill
of gambling—and that’s the way it looks—we ought to know
who might be exploiting our ingrown sense of adventure.
Who’s really sitting across the table from us (Ohio? Phil Hellmuth? Central America?), and are there any cards up his sleeve
(the ace of spades, in all cases). Other than that, it’s just a
matter of recognizing who we really are and where we really
This is America, after all, where every day is another
chance to ante up, double down, or pick six. We’re a dreamy
bunch, always predicting bigger things and better times. We
can’t help ourselves. Border-to-border and coast-to-coast,
we’re demonstrating a stubborn optimism, betting on ourselves when we can, on almost anything else when we can’t.
But always betting.
March Madness, the Mayfield Road Gang, and
Statistical Shit Storms
I had never noticed the potential for treachery in an inbounds
pass, the inherent calamity in each free throw, the emetic
properties of a weakly drafted pick-and-roll. Frankly, I had
never paid college basketball the slightest attention at all.
They were kids, children really, playing an obviously inferior
game, in a vague and poorly predictive incubator for NBA
achievement, if anything. As far as I was concerned—not caring that much about the NBA, either—its only attraction was
as an agent of nostalgia. An alum might muster interest in his
alma mater come March Madness, but it would only be relevant to the extent that there was nothing else on television or
his chores on the home front had been completed.
In my own professional travails, first with the Los Angeles
Times and later with Sports Illustrated, I had on occasion been
dispatched to cover college basketball, but I found it neither as
quaint nor as exciting as my colleagues did. The roost was
almost always ruled by a longtime coach whose tenure had
come to be confused with color or, worse, character. The game
was often boring, the natural effervescence of youth capped by
curmudgeonly adults, the whole thing constrained—strangled,
I thought—by a geographical and cultural close-mindedness.
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Give me boxing, where the human spirit was allowed a freer
Then, for the price of a $110 ticket on North Carolina, I
made a remarkable discovery. It was entirely possible that college basketball was the single most exciting and noble game in
all of sports, its sluggish back-and-forth really the tactical
expression of discipline, the endless passing a symbol for altruism, the five-man weave that was once so tedious now a metaphor for nothing less than democracy. The warm glow I
suddenly felt, sitting in a studentlike desk in the Mandalay Bay
sports book, may not have been entirely a function of spectacle
on the dozen screens hung before me. Probably it helped that
North Carolina, favored by two and a half points in the 2005
NCAA Championship against Illinois, had a thirteen-point lead
at the half.
So, here we begin, as most people have, in Las Vegas. This is
gambling’s ground zero, its fertile crescent, where the riotous
search for destiny first sprang to life. This has to be the starting line for our race across the country, chasing luck all the
way. Where else? Las Vegas is the birthplace of modern gambling, the not-so-little town that was a mythological place
long before it was a cheap tourist destination. Now, as institutionalized as it ever was romanticized, it remains the original
arbiter of outlaw justice, its ability to sort through losers and
winners as unquestioned as ever.
This is where most people come to find out which they
are. I was no exception, first arriving here from Ohio in the
mid-1970s, passing through on a cross-country trip with my
new wife. At that time, the slots and tables were so intimidating the thought of kissing off even a single quarter, even for
the fun of it, was simply out of the question. Even though we
saw plenty of rubes just like ourselves, we felt dramatically out
of place. Our splurge was a milk shake at Caesars Palace’s Café
Roma, and we expected to get tossed the whole time.
Not too many years after that, I became a frequent visitor,
covering boxing for the Los Angeles Times, as many as a dozen
trips a year, the growing exposure quickly rubbing away at
whatever insulation protected my common sense. The frightened hayseed from the 1970s had become Mr. Blackjack himself, discovering an appetite for long odds, tumbling chips of
increasingly dangerous denominations across the felt. Looking back, of course, the frequency of my visits had hardly anything to do with my plunge into this netherworld; not a single
one of my peers, the guys from newspapers, who made as
many trips as I did, or more, ever joined me at the table. It
was just me, something about Vegas lighting me up with
excitement. There would come a time, after one (or maybe
even two) too many trips, when I’d have to come to grips
with whatever it was that kept putting me across from the
And yet, even as my threshold for tomfoolery was increasing, I had never bet on sports. The fact that I hadn’t does not
call attention to a rigidly defined system of ethics. I truly
believe in the right, perhaps even the fundamental drive, to
gamble. More than that: I am quite certain that, in the course
of performing my duties, I often know more than the betting
public. I have seldom been wrong in the prediction of any
fight outcome, for example, and can definitely recognize a
bad line. Evander Holyfield was not, could never have been, a
42–1 underdog in his first fight with Mike Tyson. That’s just
But I didn’t bet on that fight or any other. It wouldn’t be
professional, or at least not sensible. To cover an event, then
return to the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning and
face a blank screen, its liquid gases pulsing the demands of a
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deadline, is an overly choreographed form of torture as it is. If
there were other factors at play—the abuse of mortgage
money in the absolute certainty that Buster Douglas would
retain his title (he gained—holy shit!—how many pounds
during training?)—they might compromise the quality, or at
least the attitude, of the coverage. In any case, I did not want
to be in the position of either lamenting or celebrating an
outcome when it was already so hard just to deliver its news.
For the Carolina-Illinois championship game, though, I was a
civilian, with no more outside consideration or inside knowledge than the yahoos, nimrods, and rubes beside me. And there
were a lot of them, too. It wasn’t as crowded—or fractious, I
would come to learn—as the first week of March Madness,
when the ritual winnowing of a sixty-four-team NCAA field
begins in a fevered multiplex environment. That is, by tradition and actual experience, the wildest weekend in Las Vegas.
There are four games going at once—a sixteen-game betting
buffet the first twelve hours of the tournament alone—and
the staggered starts and off-the-wall props provide a nonstop
opportunity to find one’s destiny in a game between Gonzaga
and Texas Tech, two teams you couldn’t otherwise locate on
Those are the high holy days for the recreational gambler/
sports fan, hand in hand with the Super Bowl. During that first
week of March Madness, it is difficult to find a room in Las
Vegas; all 130,000 are booked. And except for the early birds,
staking their claims overnight, it’s impossible to find a seat in a
sports book underneath the winking tote boards and plasma
panels. It is definitely pointless to seek any calm, not that you
would. It’s bedlam. The cheering is specific to each screen and
so, as you are watching your own overhead monitor, it can
seem spontaneous and bewildering, as if you’ve been institutionalized in a strange ward that treats unexplained seizures.
Author Richard Hoffer Isbn 9780060761455 File size 1.0mb Year 2008 Pages 241 Language English File format PDF Category Gambling Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare Is this a great country or what? You can bet on the turn of the card or a roll of the dice, but also on the NFL, the NCAA, and which Olsen twin marries first. We bet $80 billion a year, the amount growing wildly as more and more people gain access to this huge American wheel of fortune. No longer quarantined in Las Vegas, gambling has become as local and convenient as our neighborhood cineplex. If there’s not a casino around the corner, there’s one on your laptop computer. In Jackpot Nation, Richard Hoffer takes us on a headlong tour, alternately horrifying and hilarious, across our landscape of luck. Whether he’s trying to win a side of bacon in a Minnesota bar, hustling a paper sack filled with $100,000 in cash across Las Vegas parking lots, poring over expansion plans with a tribal chief in California, or visiting the New York prison cell of a retired bus salesman with a poor understanding of three-game parlays, Hoffer explores with wit and heart our national inclinationa cultural predisposition, evento take a chance. Download (1.0mb) Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas Blackjack Blueprint: How To Play Like A Pro Part-time, Revised And Expanded Busting Vegas: The MIT Whiz Kid Who Brought the Casinos to Their Knees The Perfect Bet: How Science and Math Are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling 1000 Best Casino Gambling Secrets Load more posts