Life is a gamble, conventional wisdom tells us; being born, in the first place, is an incredible stroke of luck, a victory over the tremendous odds that favor nothingness. And by that whim of fortune, we are dealt into a long, complex game whose rules never become completely clear to us -- though it is obvious that chance is a constant and sometimes an overwhelming element.
In the long run, it is a game that everbody loses -- and then we are dealt out again. As our awareness of mortality grows, we may drift into morose, metaphysical brooding, as happened to Jack Richardson around his 30th year. He had always wanted to be exceptional, he notes, "to have my life weighed, analyzed, and pronounced rare," and for thie reason he became systematically what we all are by the fact of our existence -- a gambler. A spectacular, decisive streak of luck at cards or dice or roulette might mean winning the larger gamble that began on the day he was conceived -- or give him some insight into the meaning, the rules, of that cosmic game.
His gambling, once he becomes systematic about it, takes him first to Las Vegas, then to other, less glamorous spots in Nevada and California, finally to the coast of China -- Hong Kong and Macao -- where he finally sees the emptiness of his quest, gives it up, and returns to the relatively humdrum life of a professional writer.
In his obsessed wanderings, he meets a number of people with similar obsessions, some of them so vivid and one-dimensional (at least in his description) that they become walking symbols in his book. One is Boris Blake, whose hands can make cards or dice do anything he chooses -- even though his fingers were broken, once, when he was caught cheating in a Greek casino. Boris is now too well-known; no casino in the world will let him play, but he haunts the rundown gambling halls outside of the Strip in Las Vegas, watching the action from afar, and he offers to teach Richardson his tricks.
The offer is tempting, and after a traumatic run of bad luck, Richardson is on the verge of accepting. He changes his mind, because a career of cheating the casinos might make him rich, but it would not satisfy his metaphysical quest. He would have "to go to work. There would be no single moment of revenge in which, masked in innocence, I pillaged the halls of gambling. Rather, there would be long hours of modest thefts, days and days of pleasureless travel, months, perhaps years, of slow, disciplined cheating that would cause no suspicion."
Fleeing Las Vegas and this temptation, he does to Gardens, Calif., a town that has taken advantage of a loophole in the state laws to legalize draw poker. Smaller and less chic than Las Vegas, Gardens is also less of a risk; it is a town where residents eke out their old-age pensions as professional gamblers, taking small winnings from tourists who do not know the game well enough -- for poker is a game of skill and psychology as well as chance.
One resident of Gardens stands out among the aged regulars at the poker tables. Her name is Daisy; she is young, cool and beautiful, and she plays poker with extraordinary skill because she doesn't really like the game. Daisy has set her goal -- $250,000 -- and she works patiently, steadily toward it, filling in her time when she is not handling cards by reading mailorder catalogues and making a long list of the things she will buy with the money after she reaches her goal. Richardson finds himself falling in love with her, and feels trapped when he notices that she has incorporated him in her plans, adding shaving equipment and a man's slippers to her shopping list. When he finally escapes, ultimately to Hong Kong, he is ready to begin his first prolonged exposure to true gambling, his first long dalliance with luck.
Luck is something that comes sporadically, when the situation is right and you can read it properly. Gambling may happen briefly in Las Vegas, but if you stay long enough you are simply making a contribution -- the odds are against you, and they may not work immediately but they always work over the long hall. In Hong Kong, he tries a variety of gambles -- including a bet on which snake out of a basketful will be the first to catch and devour a caged rat. He never goes the same place twice, and his luck follows him from place to place.
The final revelation and decision come in Macao, where he feels his luck drain away and stops playing before he begins to lose. On a deserted hillside there, he has a vision of Satan himself, who sets him straight in a few hundred words of world-weary common sense" "You want infernal pacts and pleasures, a hell incurred and a heaven lost? . . . But now there's nothing to gamble for, nothing of consequence I could win, and nothing of high value you could lose . . . You're bringing no conclusion to your life, you're making it uncomfortable. Withdraw from the table, my friend. Learn to enjoy the imprecision of things that have no number or color to them."
"Memoir of a Gambler" is presented as autobiography, and one should do Richardson the courtesy of accepting it as presented. If its characters and incidents have the structure and vividness of good fiction, this may be simply because he remembers them as one who writes (and writes extremely well) for a living. One would like to be able to go back in time to Gardens and see whether Daisy was really as beautiful and obsessed as he remembers -- or to Macao to check whether anyone else could have seen Satan standing there dressed like a tourist.
But ultimately these points do not matter; they are that way in Richardson's memory and, ultimately, they remain that way in the minds of those who read his book. His evocation of obsession and deliverance makes a lasting impression and, as good non-fiction should, it strenthens one's grip on reality.