Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme

I have a hard time not wanting to shake people who gamble in desperate hopes of hitting it big and sit down and show them the math.

I wasn't great at Math in high school (having the most boring teacher possible for grades 11 and 12 didn't help), but I did take Finite Math, in which I had a ball. I avoided Calculus or Algebra, but Finite was exactly my speed. And probabilities were my favourite part of that class - and we went through most games of chance and looked at probabilities, and why, specifically, the house always wins - the ways in which games are subtly tilted so that the flow of money is always towards the house. Also, dudes, casinos are money-making enterprises. Seriously.

So I have very little patience for magical thinking when it comes to gambling. Making larger bets does not make your base probabilities change. It just doesn't. If you want as close to a sure thing as you're going to get, go with the birthday bet in a room of 25+ people.

I've been in a casino exactly once (my brother-in-law is a dealer at one.) My mother-in-law gave my husband and I each $20. My husband didn't even do anything with his - he was freaked out by the whole casino experience and found it depressing. I have to agree. I, on the other hand, had a great deal of fun by carrying out an experiment. I changed my $20 into quarters, and hit a slot machine with two cups - one with my $20 in it. Into the other, I put all the money that came out of the machine. When my initial $20 was gone, I took my second cup and cashed it in. Turned out I was down about $2.50, so I walked away with $17.50. Of course, this is exactly what casinos don't really want you to do. They want it all to go back into one cup, so you feel like you're winning without an actual gauge.

That meant that while I enjoyed the writing style of Bob the Gambler, I had a hard time being sympathetic. I do get it, I know people are like this. But this is one place where just a tiny bit of numeracy would help.

The main character, an irritable architect, and his wife, live on the Mississippi. They are generally happy, but vaguely discontented. They discover gambling. The wife first, then, the husband. They convince themselves they know how to beat the house with positive thinking and large bets. They get further into debt. They convince themselves that one big score will do it. They get even further into debt.

You can see where this is going. This isn't an overly depressing book - it's not an overwrought tale of dust and degradation. It's just a slow slide by two people who convince each other that they know what they're doing. They don't end up on the street, although they do end up moving back in with the man's mother. They try to stop gambling. Then they're convinced that just one more big bet will do it. They are never completely down and out, but there's no real promise they'll ever actually realize that why they're losing isn't because they aren't holding their noses right.

It's not an ugly book, but it did make me damned frustrated. Which was maybe the point.

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