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High Rollers

In the space of a couple of crazy years, the brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme, respected writers though by no means in the big time, managed to blow more than a quarter of a million dollars in the Mississippi gambling boats. Double Down is their account of how this happened, what led up to it and spurred them on, and how it ended in tears when, as a final insult, the casino which had taken their money charged them with conspiracy to cheat.

It is a fascinating and bewildering story, although its real subject is not so much their fatal addiction to gambling as, in every sense, their inheritance. The small fortune they destroyed came to them after the death of their troublesome father and they are more interested in him than in what they did to his money. In the end, their book is a memorial to their parents; the gambling is a colorful extra, a narrative thread, a symptom of some larger upset, an excuse.

Like most addicts, the brothers began innocuously. Both of them were night owls and occasionally, instead of going to the movies or settling down to write, they used to drive the seventy miles from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where they taught creative writing, to the casinos around Gulfport. Sometimes they went with their partners or a colleague, more often they went on their own. They played the slots, goofed around at the blackjack tables, won a little, lost a little, then drove back to their sober university routines. It was just another night out, fun and noise and dazzle, and a chance to rub shoulders with the kind of people they would never meet on campus—ordinary folk with boring jobs and no interest at all in books or ideas or whatever else went to make the small change of academic and literary life. Hattiesburg is a placid, relatively affluent little town, “clean and bright,” they say, “and the people were friendly.” The casinos were another world.

Back in the 1830s, when cotton prices were high, the gambling boats that plied the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis were fitted out as floating palaces for the benefit of plantation owners flush with money and determined to have themselves some fun, no matter how much it cost them. The boats were also crowded with professional gamblers and cardsharps—Clark Gable figures with diamond stickpins, gold watch chains, embroidered vests—equally determined to help themselves to the easy money on offer. All that romance is long gone. These days the professionals wear track suits and baseball caps and there is nothing palatial about the modern gambling boats. They don’t even go anywhere; they are simply top-heavy, neon-strung barges—“Wal-Mart[s] with a high flashing-light content,” the Barthelmes call them—moored to concrete pillars a few feet off a particularly dreary stretch of the Delta Coast: “The beaches had never been much good. The sand had been sucked out of Mississippi Sound and spread alongside Highway 90 like something in the bottom of an aquarium. It looked wrong, like a bad hairpiece. The water was the color of pot roast.” The casinos were as frowsy as the landscape: “paddle-boat quaint: cheap tux shirts, black bow ties, red cartoon suspenders…. The architecture…[was] Disneyesque: pirate ships and mock cowboy saloons slathered in happy neon….”

For the brothers, the awfulness was part of the casinos’ charm. In joints like these the usual rules didn’t apply; they could do whatever they wanted for as long as their money lasted. Or, as they say in Vegas, the casinos have a golden rule: the man who has the gold makes the rules. Unluckily for the Barthelmes, they got lucky on their first visit: they played the slots, hit a couple of jackpots, and walked away with the casino’s money. It was only a few hundred dollars, but that wasn’t the point. The point was it was so easy: eleven hundred dollars they hadn’t sweated for by writing or teaching, eleven hundred dollars that had simply happened to them while they were having fun. Later, they discovered that “this was typical, that it happened just this way for a lot of people who went to casinos. You win something sizeable, and thereafter gambling takes up residence in your imagination.” But by the time they learned that old truth they were hooked.

Free money is a beguiling illusion. Gamblers who play only games of chance over which they have little or no control—roulette, baccarat, craps, slots, even blackjack—are kept going by the dream of some deus ex (slot) machina who will transform their dingy lives with a shower of gold. They tend to be superstitious, to favor certain clothes, to finger lucky charms, to believe in the power of thought to influence the fall of the cards or the spinning roulette ball. Above all, they believe in their luck, in their special relationship with fate, in the possibility that they are somehow chosen or blessed. In other words, they are romantics and also—against all the evidence—optimists. The ones who survive temper their optimism with caution. They know that the casinos make their unseemly profits out of one simple certainty: nobody stays lucky. The house’s edge—the 1 to 16 percent permanently in its favor—will always eat up the gamblers in the long run. So if the wise get lucky, they play their rush, then quit while they’re ahead.

Professional gamblers are another breed entirely. They know about runs of luck and how to use them, but they believe in percentages, logic, calculation, in the immutable laws of probability, and, even more, in their own skill. Most of them play poker and avoid casino games, although some of the professionals have what they call a “leak”: having sat for hours at the poker table watching every move and calculating every bet, they will wander over to a crap game and throw their winnings away. But usually that is simply a release of tension after the iron discipline of high-stakes poker.

The professionals who gamble for a living are compulsive winners in much the same way as the Barthelme brothers, like all the other gamblers who keep the casinos in business, are compulsive losers. But they have one thing in common: an utter disregard for the reality of money. In the gambling world money ceases to be something you need to lead a life—to pay the rent or the dentist’s bill, to buy food and drink and clothes. It becomes, instead, just a way of keeping score. The professionals carry around doorstop wads of $100 bills and regard them in the way that a plumber regards his wrench—as a tool of their trade. As a token of their disdain for the usual ways of the world, they omit the zeroes when they bet, then divide by ten. Depending on the size of the game, a “nickel” is $5, $50, or $500; a “dime” is $10, $100 or $1,000. And nobody even notices because money, in casinos, doesn’t even look like money. Instead of a green treasury bill validated by a president’s face, it is a little colored disc stamped with a number and the name of the casino. A New York gambler who went by the name of “Big Julie” once remarked sagely, “The guy who invented gambling was bright, but the guy who invented the chip was a genius.” The chip is like a conjurer’s sleight of hand that turns an egg into a billiard ball, a necessity of life into a plaything, reality into illusion.

This blasé attitude suited the brothers just fine. They had learned to feign indifference at their parents’ knees. For the Barthelmes it was both a sport and a code of honor:

For us it was a family thing, helped you get by in the family. Lots of fast folks in the family, people who were always thinking, always ahead of you, so what we practiced was making everything look like nothing, smoothing stuff out, taking things in stride. Do otherwise and you were vulnerable, at risk, somebody was sure to make a joke at your expense….

But that wasn’t the end of it. Rationality was prized, but so was intensity. Feeling was admired and given broad authority, but any display of feeling tended to get mocked….

We cared a great deal about things, because that was what you were supposed to do, but caring made us vulnerable, both inside the family, which was pretty much a nonstop you-blinked game played by seven people, and in the outside world as well. Appearing to be blasé—indifferent, relaxed, casual, unconcerned—was essential protective coloration disguising this vulnerability.

There were five Barthelme children—a sister, who became a public relations executive, and four brothers, all of them writers. Donald, the most famous, died of cancer in 1989; Peter writes mystery novels; Frederick (Rick) has published eleven works of fiction, and Steven a book of short stories. Rick and Steve were the youngest, a family within the exclusive family, joined to the others by what they call “fierce tribal solidarity,” but sharply aware that they belonged to a secondary, junior branch. This drew them close and made them mutually supportive. They taught at the same university, gambled together, went broke together, and have now written this book together so seamlessly that it is impossible to tell stylistically where one leaves off and the other starts.

The father of this talented, edgy brood was an avant-garde architect in Houston, successful and respected, but an outsider by temperament, imperious, impatient, and hard to please—a decent man,” they write, “but troubled and not at all accessible.” The mother, whom they adored, was an architect in a different way: “The family was something she invented, shaped, guided, and protected as parent, pal, co-conspirator, nurturer, teacher, dresser, role model.” She was also the mediator between the children and their difficult father, and after she died at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995, their father became more exasperating and inaccessible than ever, and the children more or less gave up on him. He died sixteen months later, aged eighty-nine, leaving them with a load of guilt as well as a load of money.

Rick’s and Steve’s gambling had already intensified after the death of their mother; it had become wilder, more reckless, as though their grief put them beyond caring. Guilt and rage complicated their grief for their father and, to exorcise him, they set about throwing his money away.

In true Barthelme style, however, they had no intention of being outsmarted. They bought shelfloads of books on blackjack and slot machines, studied the strategies, the percentages, the arcane skills of money management and card-counting, then forgot all about them as soon as they sat down to play. Or rather, since haughtiness is also a family failing they admit to, they disdained to apply whatever gambling sense they had acquired:

The whole business of counting cards was the antithesis of our motive in playing blackjack. It just wasn’t much fun counting cards. It was hard work. You had to concentrate and watch everything with headachy eyes. It was impossible to count and still joke with the dealers and pit bosses, bet crazily, and generally have a high old time.

What they are talking about is style. Part of that style was their father’s “anarchic arrogance” and a “tenacity that boggles the mind,” and they applied it at the gaming tables: “Winning is better than losing, but neither one is the goal of gambling, which is playing. Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.” For them, unfortunately, quitting nearly always meant going broke, not quitting while they were ahead—one year, Steve won $132,000 on the slots, but still ended up a loser—so their doggedness was also a cover for a feverish, suicidal addiction. This is not a problem for them. The brothers are subtle, sophisticated men who have thought a lot about their addiction and its multiple causes. They have been to Gamblers Anonymous, read the literature, studied their own complex motives, and talk about them knowingly, almost affectionately, in much the same way as they talk about the pleasures of gambling. That, too, is part of the family style:

As card-carrying Barthelmes we believed two things, although neither provided adequate emotional cover: first, that we could “understand” things and thus tame them, and second, that words, adroitly deployed, were a bullfighter’s cape—they allowed you to step aside and avoid the horns of a threatening experience. It helped to have something smart to say, though that wasn’t essential, since it wasn’t the quality of the thought that was the key, just that the thought was always there, between you and it.

One of the its that thought and feigned indifference protected them from was their comfortable middle-class life as university teachers:

It was an aesthetic thing…. Everywhere around us were writers and artists and professors, hard at work at what Ishmael Reed describes as “all wearing the same funny hat.” …What we didn’t like about the academy was the falseness: conservative people presenting themselves in Che Guevara suits, digging hard for career advantage while settling hearty congratulations all around for assigning radical authors to their students to read, thus threatening the established order.

For many comfortably-off people, one of the lures of gambling is its seamy side: it is a way of rubbing shoulders with gangsters without getting hurt. Not so for the brothers. Gambling, they write, gave them “the opportunity to behave bizarrely, just like—we imagined—ordinary, everyday people. We didn’t think we were wild and crazy; we thought gambling made us regular guys.”

I suspect it also made them think (or remember) they were writers, rather than “two boys from a middle-class family with a work ethic and a belief in doing things well,” who had ended up more or less where they began—doing “awfully sweet work, in our awfully sweet lives.” For them as writers, being middle-class was a hindrance because it meant being able to “buy your way out of the threatening and the immediate,” which is the very stuff that the best writers deal with. Teaching was already a kind of betrayal: “As college professors we were automatically in an out-of-harm’s-way subculture.” Now their father’s money had ensured that they could leave their jobs, devote the rest of their lives to their art, yet still be out of harm’s way, untroubled by what C.K. Ogden famously called “Hand-to-Mouth Disease,” the occupational ailment of writers. Having been schooled in dissatisfaction and arrogance meant that there was only one way out of their quandary. Family honor, they make it clear, required that they should throw their inheritance away.

In the end, they came to see the advantages of a comfortable, settled life, and had learned a little humility:

Daily life, the whole sad self of it, now meant something to us…. Our perspectives changed. We cared more about things we used to make fun of; we had a greater distaste for the easy puffing of folks trying day after day to make themselves important, and at the same time we found them a bit more in our hearts.

Before this change could occur, they had first to see what “real” life, as they had imagined it, really looked like. That illumination came when they were banned from their favorite casino for cheating, booked, indicted, threatened with trial, and publicly humiliated. The case was eventually dropped—an article in The New York Times Magazine made it sound as if it had less to do with the Barthelmes than with a squabble between a dealer and a casino supervisor—but not before the brothers had been put through the wringer: first, interrogation in a concrete, windowless room hidden inside the casino parking garage, followed by hours in the belly of the police station with other felons, then months waiting to be brought to court and trying to talk common sense to lawyers. Their superego was no longer their pig-headed, hard-to-please father; it was a meat-faced thug in a uniform and he scared them out of their wits.

Although it was a harrowing experience, they describe it without ever losing their ironic, cooler-than-thou tone of voice. The whole book, in fact, is a wonderfully seductive performance—witty, self-aware, at once full of subtle feeling and implacably knowing—a triumph of style over temporary insanity. This stylishness, I suspect, is what confused the casino bosses and persuaded them to ban two high-rollers who were consistently hosing the establishment with money. To the men in Armani suits who ran the joint it seemed inconceivable that anyone could play so whimsically and incompetently for such high stakes. There had to be some ulterior motive, some arcane scam they were setting up in order to make a killing. The bosses didn’t understand that incompetence and whimsicality are sometimes part of the writer’s baggage, a professional deformation, more artistically interesting to those who suffer from it than the patience, dead reckoning, and discipline it takes to play properly. I once asked a poker professional called Eric Drache how he and his colleagues persuaded any amateurs, no matter how rich, to play cards with them when they knew they couldn’t win. He answered simply, “I try to make them feel it’s stylish to lose.” The Barthelme brothers turned stylish losing into an art. It cost them a small fortune, but at least they salvaged a stylish book from their disaster.

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