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Jewish World Review June 29, 1999 /15 Tamuz 5759

Sam Schulman

Sam Schulman
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Games people don't play --
MY SCHOOL-CLASS was most the one most wounded by the 60s. Here's a sure test: Among the those who graduated in 1967 from my elite high school (the Eton of Chicago) not one of us who was the son of a doctor became a doctor himself.

But while we boys of the intellectual elite were dosing ourselves with all the nostrums of our time, two groups among our schoolmates were preparing themselves to do much better. More-perhaps most--of the black kids became doctors. On the other hand, there were the irresponsible white boys, sons of businessmen rather than of professionals like our dads, who neglected their studies and ignored our ecstasies, but spent their time playing poker for breathtaking stakes beneath the basement stairs. For them another fate awaited: they stayed in Chicago and became traders in the futures markets, some of them making fortunes big enough by their mid-thirties to retire. The gambling skills they honed on the sly gave them a sense of odds and proportion and timing that served them well.

I thought of this reading William Safire's latest spluttering denunciation of state lotteries. Safire can't see that gambling exists for a reason. It crystallizes in a few hours humankind's encounter with fate - uncontrollable, but within limits delicately predictable. Gambling's utility is to offer a playful way to get a grip on how chance and probability operate in our world. Fortune plays an enormous role in a life lived by anyone who isn't a peasant tied to a single patch of ground-it is our reality, civilization's substitute for natural selection. And nowadays gambling offers a far more meaningful and useful encounter with nature in the sense of ultimate reality than do hunting and fishing. Lacking a sense of fortune's interplay with events, it's all too easy never to get a sense of how to handle the world, and how its things work.

Of course the state lottery is only the dumbest form of gambling, but in even it offers a lesson-that small risk brings an even smaller chance of reward. And it operates for most people as entertainment rather than a game. But real gambling as a part of everyday life has almost been eradicated. No one plays cards any more. Almost from the first time the middle class began, card-playing for small stakes was its most common indoor amusement. And suddenly, in the 1960s, this reality dramatically ceased to be. And I wonder if civilization can be maintained without it.

Of course gambling can be overdone, but it's more likely to be seriously harmful among the top drawer (there! I've used it!) than among the masses. In the last century it was a staple of fiction that the oldest son ruined his family by his gambling debts, and it certainly happened in real life. But that it did was an effect of immense class differences that no longer exist. A young man unknown to society could only prove that he was a gentleman or man of honor by running up debts and paying them if he could. Nowadays there is little danger from young men going to extremes because they want to be accepted by good society.

Now people play video games if they play at all. And when playing these games, the only thing you have to lose is time, and the only thing to win is to have justified the time you've spent playing it. What video games lack is the application of human intelligence to the laws of probability and fate. Instead of playing against nature and nature's God, confronting the immutable rules of fate that govern the glorious universe in which we live, you play according to the whims of the t-shirted Gen-Y'er on a Pepsi high who designed the game a few months back.

Have we lost anything? I doubt that a generation of card-players could have been suckered into waging the war we just pretended to fight and now pretend to have won. It began in a game of cards that we lost miserably. Between our position and Yugoslavia's across the green baize table at Rambouillet, there was a point of compromise that a couple of more hands could have reached. Now, at wars' end, we have accepted a weaker hand than what we were dealt. All the rest-all the billions spent and yet to be spent, all the human dispossession prompted by NATO's air campaign, all the deaths of civilians caused by NATO bombs, Serb militia, and KLA action, all the destruction of houses and churches and infrastructure - was the result of misplaying our hand, or, more accurately, refusing to play it at all.

Seldom has so much destruction been caused by so few for so little. If you ever have the chance to play poker with our Secretary of State-take it. And give me a piece of the action?

JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.


06/23/99: Kosovo Reckoning
06/15/99: A bet on our kids' future
06/08/99: Suddenly Samuel Berger
06/02/99: If Hitchens is not for Podhoretz, than whom shall he be for?
05/25/99: Kosovo's History Lessons
05/18/99: Faintheart
05/11/99: Is Literary Success Overrated?
05/04/99: A Better War
04/27/99: A Sahibs' War
04/21/99: The Two Bills
04/13/99: The Imp and the Ingenue
04/05/99: Col. Blimp is Alive ... and in Washington

©1999, Sam Schulman