The Photo Finish

The Desire for a Second Chance

There is a cliché out there on stickers, shirts, and signs that states, “Life happens.” Life does happen, and it happens quickly. We react to life and often make decisions with limited information and frequently based solely on emotions. These reactions and decisions don’t always work out how we wish they would, and we’re left with a desire for a second chance. As the month on gambling draws to an end I’m thinking about photo finishes and second chances.

Photo Finish #4 (D5300-j24.62)
“Photo Finish”

I’ve had a few winners overs the years that were decided by photo finishes. I’ve had a couple of losers too. I’ve also known some gamblers who made the mistake of throwing their wagers away before “Photo Finish” was posted on the tote board (Nelson Algren’s essay “Stoopers and Shoeboard Watchers” addresses this issue). The photo finish is second chance. The horse you bet $20 to win that posted second may actually become a winner if the tote boards flashes “Photo Finish” and the officials’ decision goes in your favor. The photo finish is a chance to go from second to first place. Isn’t that what we want, not just from the ponies but from life? We want the opportunity to move from loser to winner, but that opportunity may require a second chance. Second chances in life are a lot like photos finishes, rare.

Life has a way of not just happening but happening in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes we react to life in ways that result in wishing we could have a second chance. Sadly there are no photo finishes in life; tote boards are final and second chances are few.

-K-

That feeling of being totally in control and so at the mercy of fate.

-K-

A McQueen-Newman Daily Double

The Cincinnati Kid/The Hustler Double Feature

If you are in the same situation as me, which is the same situation as most people these days, you are staying home more often than usual. Staying home does give us the opportunity to watch more movies. Since the focus of this month is gambling I would like to suggest a pair of outstanding gambling movies from the 1960s, The Cincinnati Kid and The Hustler.

The Cincinnati Kid Cover v2
The Cincinnati Kid

The Cincinnati Kid and The Hustler are as much about gambling as Field of Dreams is just about baseball. If your interests are cards and pool then these movies are worth a watch, but they are so much more that their titles and subject matter would suggest. These movies are about card sharks, pool hustlers, high stakes games, and the lives of two upstart gamblers. These are also detailed characters studies of hubris and the frailty of human relationships.

Steve McQueen’s Eric “The Kid” Stoner and Paul Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson are young men at the top of their respective games of poker and pool. Both men display a singular drive and determination in their quests to defeat the reigning champions, Edward G. Robinson’s “The Man” and Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats, in order to be recognized as the best players of stud poker and straight pool.  The hubris each man displays while seeking this recognition impacts not only himself but also each man’s friends and lovers.  These movies are more than stories of poker and pool.  These are stories in the tradition of Greek tragedy.

The Hustler Movie Cover
The Hustler

If you find that you have more free time than usual to watch some movies then The Cincinnati Kid and The Hustler will make for a great double feature. These are much more than two great gambling movies. They serve as two insightful character studies of the impact of hubris.

-K-

The Cincinnati Kid (1965) with Steve McQueen, Ann Margaret, Tuesday Weld, and Edward G. Robinson. Directed by Norman Jewison

The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie, and George C. Scott. Directed by Robert Rossen.

Dose of Dr. Gonzo

 

“A little bit of this town goes a very long way.  After five days in Vegas you feel like you’ve been here for five years.”

-Hunter S. Thompson-

Gambling as Wish

Big Hopes with Small Bets

Have you ever placed a wager or purchased a scratch off?  What would you do if you won a tidy sum of money?  Do people gamble with hopes of big spending or maybe just paying the rent? Do they gamble to make life a little more interesting or maybe a little more bearable? A wager here and there is a wish, but what is that wish for?

I spent more nights than I can recollect playing euchre during my younger days. There were no high stakes games back then. I was no Matt Damon at the card table and there were no Tony KGBs ruining peoples’ lives (yes I know Rounders is a poker movie but I don’t know of any movies about euchre players). We wagered small amounts, five dollars here and ten dollars there. Sometimes we played for booze. I think the most I ever one in one night was a hundred dollars and a bottle of Southern Comfort on another occasion or few. We gambled to make the game a little more interesting, to justify the smack talk and validate the bragging rights. The gambling was part of the competitive spirit, a wish to make the evening more interesting than what it was.

Hole Card #1 (P7000-editj24.50)
“Hole Card”

Fast forward a couple decades (maybe a little more than two but not yet three) and I’m pondering why people place wagers, especially if it’s not to make things more interesting? Two moments come to mind. The first occurred one morning on my way to work several years back. I stopped off at a local quick mart to buy an energy drink (it had been one of those kinds of previous nights) when I noticed the customer in front of me purchasing a couple of scratch off lottery tickets. He was behind the wheel of his truck scratching them as I walked to my car. Was he hoping that this would be the day he could tell his boss to piss off because he hit the lotto? The second occurred a few years ago when I noticed a coworker’s purchase at the end of his shift. We both worked midnights at a big box retail store, I didn’t know much about him except his name. He would buy the same four items every morning at the end of his shift: a tall boy of beer, a couple donuts, a can of cat food, and some scratchers. They were practical purchases for somebody who gets off work at 8:30 in the morning (if your 5:00 p.m. is 8:30 a.m. you understand). Eight hours of being underpaid and overworked is enough to wish for some winning numbers while knocking back a cold brew. I look back and wonder if scratching those tickets was akin to rubbing some sort of genie’s lamp, hoping the right numbers would appear and make wishes come true.

There are people who will argue that gambling is more than wishful thinking. They will argue that there is a level of math and science involved. I won’t disagree with those people. I’ve spent quite some time analyzing stats and examining horses at the track trying to work the best percentage.  I also think that sometimes a wager is nothing more than a wish. It is as wish to have enough money to buy something you wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Maybe it is a wish to get out from behind and maybe even get a little bit ahead. Sometimes it’s just a wish, a hope, that our lives were a little more interesting.

-K-

Authors on Gambling

A Penny Worth of Wagering Wisdom

• “Here the nerves may stand on end and scream to themselves, but a tranquility as from heaven is only interrupted by the click of chips. The higher the stakes, the more quiet the scene.” -Stephen Crane-

• “This was my first lesson about gambling: if you see somebody winning all the time, he isn’t gambling, he’s cheating.” -Malcolm X-

• “The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavour upon the business known as gambling.” -Ambrose Bierce-

The Finish Line (P60-edit)
“The Finish”

• “The action is everything, more consuming than sex, more immediate than politics; more important always than the acquisition of money, which is never, for the gambler, the true point of the exercise.” -Joan Didion-

• “One should always play fairly when one has the winning cards.” -Oscar Wilde-

-K-

An Author’s Gambler

Alexi Ivanovich and the Mind of a Gambler

A good number of stories that are centered on gambling tend to either glamorize or demonize. The protagonist is often portrayed as an individual we should either envy or pity. One exception to these extremes is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. Dostoevsky’s protagonist is a gambler we neither aspire to be or view as a cautionary tale we should avoid.

The Gambller Book Cover
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexi Ivanovich, the narrator and protagonist, is at times admirable and other times pitiful. You may find yourself sympathizing with Alexi at the end of one chapter and then infuriated with him by the middle of the next chapter. In short, Alexi is a flawed man. If one wanted to get all literary one could make a case that Alexi Ivanovich is an antihero of sorts (I’m not one of those literary types, at least not before another bourbon or two). Dostoevsky develops a relatable character who shows us the inner thoughts, motivations, and fears of a gambler without pandering or preaching to the reader.

There are many stories that present gambling as alluring and profitable. There are also many stories that present gambling as bewitching and detrimental. Few gambling stories present the reader with the inner working of the gambler’s mind. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler provides insight into the mind of a gambler and how gambling impacts all aspects of his life. 

-K-

The Gambler (1964/1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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