Reflections on Gambling and Loss

By Frederick and Steven Barthelme

Houghton Mifflin. 198 pp. $24

24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas

By Andres Martinez

Villard. 329 pp. $25

Reviewed by Peter H. Stone

For millions of Americans the allure of gambling casinos has risen in recent years as they have spread far from Las Vegas's famed neon palaces to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and to Indian reservations. Gambling has sunk deeper roots not only in many communities but also in the nation's psyche, as the casino industry has become a $30-billion-a-year business and tried to project a fresh image. Even Las Vegas, long known as a getaway for high rollers, fantasy lovers and escapists of all stripes, has undergone a makeover of sorts: Highbrow art and entertainment have become more commonplace at casinos as the industry has tried mightily to develop a more sophisticated, wholesome and family-friendly atmosphere.

Two new books about gambling shed light on the magnetic pull of casinos, as well as their sometimes grim and devastating effects on individual lives. Though strikingly different in tone, style and narrative approach, both books convey some of the intensity and flavor of the very late nights, the wild ups and downs and the bittersweet pleasures that often go with gambling.

In Double Down, brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme have told an intensely personal and moving story of how their careers as fiction writers and university teachers in Mississippi -- the kinds of lives that would seem to make them unlikely casino denizens -- were turned upside down by the deaths of their parents just a year apart. The Barthelmes recount in vivid detail and with good psychological insight the trauma of coping with that dual loss. First their mother, whom they adored, died in 1995. Then their father, a gifted architect but a very aloof and tough parent, died the next year, leaving the brothers filled with guilt because they hadn't done much to ease his suffering or been with him at the end.

What began as a mild flirtation with gambling a few years earlier quickly became a passionate affair that grew ever wilder and more costly. And after they received an inheritance of $150,000 each after their father died, the Barthelmes' fondness for blackjack and slots kept them away from their homes for days at a time. Gambling filled several emotional needs at once. They reveled in the "ordinary" people they encountered at the casinos, people whom they contrast favorably with their less authentic colleagues in academia.

Sometimes gambling became a way of "beating logic," and blackjack was a kind of "therapy" with the dealer as therapist. In Double Down -- gambling argot for double or nothing -- the Barthelmes repeatedly and incisively probe their motivations in order to explain why, despite the risks, they didn't cut back on their visits to casinos. "Gambling was only producing the release, the euphoria, and the opportunity to behave bizarrely," they write, "just like -- we imagined -- ordinary, everyday people."

In a poignant last chapter, the Barthelmes return to their guilt over their father's death and the large inheritance they received: "It was as if the money were burning our hands, burning our imaginations, burning our lives, as if the loss and guilt were too much to bear and the money was therefore also too much to bear." Sadly, the Barthelmes' adult lives never measured up to their memories of their youth and always seemed anticlimactic. Their marriages were childless, leaving them with little reason to save and "plan a future" -- and in some ways more susceptible to the strange pull of casinos.

The Barthelmes are good at detailing their own mindsets when their losses mount. "It's a terrible feeling to be far ahead and then start losing in a way that you just can't stop -- an ineluctable fall like gravity." Alas, their infatuation with casinos ended with losses totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars. In a bizarre twist, in November 1996 they were caught in an apparent sting at Gulfport's Grand Casino that led to a two-count felony indictment against them for conspiracy to cheat the casino. Not surprisingly, the brothers were so jolted by the prospect of going to jail and so consumed with their pending trial that they quickly lost interest in going to casinos. (The charges were dismissed last August.)

By contrast, 24/7, Andres Martinez's look at contemporary Las Vegas, is a breezy Baedeker. Written with a whimsical style and a kaleidoscopic narrative approach, the author's portrait of Las Vegas is chock full of color about how the nation's gambling capital has been changed by the addition of great art, upscale entertainment and new, ritzy resorts.

A reporter and lawyer by training, Martinez took a $50,000 advance for his book and spent almost a month in early 1998 living it up and playing blackjack, slots and baccarat at 10 of the city's leading casino resorts, including Caesar's and the Mirage. In highly impressionistic fashion, he charts the changes that Vegas has undergone with the advent of tonier casinos such as Steve Wynn's art-filled $1.6-billion Bellagio resort, which opened to great publicity late last year. Martinez also offers a fast and fact-filled tour of such older landmarks as the World of Coca-Cola Museum and the famous Little White Chapel, where he renews his wedding vows with his wife, Kat.

Martinez introduces many local characters and gamblers, including Asian high rollers who in recent years have kept the casino business flush. He spends long hours at Baccarat and other games, recording his mixed successes and detailing the tics, moods and ups and downs of other players. During his stay, the size of his nest egg falls by only about $7,000. But he returns in the fall of 1998 to attend the opening of the Bellagio, which costs him dearly: When he gets back to his New York home, he's lost almost 90 percent of his original stake.

24/7, an allusion to the saying that the city is open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, doesn't have much on the darker sides of gambling or Las Vegas. Still, Martinez does introduce some problem gamblers, such as Roger Thomas, a retired fireman from Ohio who saw most of his life savings disappear in a few years because of his fondness for video poker and other games. Unfortunately, Martinez has filled his book with too many superfluous facts and cute, personal asides that tougher editing could have trimmed.

Despite its flaws, 24/7 provides a useful update and some intriguing snapshots of how Las Vegas's gambling culture is undergoing a major face-lift and what this may mean for the future of a fast-growing and powerful business.

Peter H. Stone is a staff correspondent for the National Journal.