Family Romance at the Casino – Barthelme Brothers Lose Big

Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss , by Frederick and Steven Barthelme. Houghton Mifflin Company, 198 pages, $24.

“Double down” is what you do when you’re tired and desperate, in a casino, have got $3,000 on the next card and life is so absurd you double it to $6,000. Thus you lose the lot, cosmic joke on cosmic joke, and ought to go home. But over there by the slots your brother seems to be on a winning streak so you stay on and lose some more, and only when he’s finally down as well do the two of you drive home together to your patient wives, through the Mississippi dawn. Thus, doubling down, and down, you throw away a tainted, confusing inheritance.

This is a book about gambling, written in tandem by the Barthelme brothers, Frederick and Steven, academics and writers, telling of actual events. It also, on the way, talks perceptively and sometimes brilliantly of life, death, family, hope and despair, and money as an expression of these things. It is extremely melancholy and very, very disturbing. What the Barthelme brothers do in excess, in casinos, we all do a little in our daily lives, testing fate, pushing luck: falling in love with the wrong person, walking out of a job, in denial of reality. Bound to lose, but what the hell? And all somehow linked to the necessary defiance of death. “In the first few years after the boats came to the coast … we gambled when we could. It was entertainment. We’d go in, wander round, play the slot machines, play video poker, tell jokes, go home.… Then, in 1995, after our mother died, the gambling got meaner.” And after their father dies, a year later, meaner and more obsessive still.

First person singular, “I” narratives are common enough; first person plural “we” rather rare and rather wonderful. Writer and reader feel safe in the knowledge that an expert has been consulted. “Growing up, we were trained in restlessness and doubt.” That doubled up, magical “we”! You feel the pair of them beavering away, searching through language for truth, arriving at a joint sentence, exulting in its exactitude, yet still as puzzled as we are. Why, why? When you have so much, why throw it away? But oh, oh, the relief of addiction.

Double Down in its punning way–they love words, these two–is what happens when the pair of you are cast down, you and your brother are indicted for fraud, for violating state gambling laws, by the very people you have bound so tightly into your joint lives. And you have been so trusting. “We started playing bigger money, harder money, and making friends at the casino. The hosts would greet us when we walked in; the dealers would stop what they were doing to say hello as we passed their tables.” But those you love betray you. Not only have your parents been reduced to “ashes in two encyclopedia-size boxes sunk in a low artificial ridge just off the Dallas Freeway. “Now this! You’d assumed that because the casino masters were so close and in control, like family, they’d be on your side. But they’re not. You love them, but all they want is to punish you. It’s childhood all over again. You, once so rich in family, have not even illusion left.

The New York Times gets hold of the story–the reporter, like so many others, betrays you, offering a mean and condemning account of your predicament–and, before you know it, your disgrace is making headlines worldwide. Teachers of English literature, in the “awfully sweet” world of the Southern campus–as the brothers describe it–are not meant to frequent casinos, let alone get hauled up for fraud. The charges, filed in September 1997 just as Rick’s novel Bob the Gambler was about to be published, are only dropped two years later, in August 1999. The Harrison County, Miss., District Attorney said publicly there was no evidence of impropriety on the brothers’ part. Nor was there.

But why did the casino react like this? Weren’t the brothers good customers? Didn’t they turn up almost nightly to throw their dollars away? $250,000 worth? Yet here they suddenly were, on a night when they’d lost $10,000, charged with being in cahoots with a young woman blackjack dealer, carted off by the security guards, handed over to the police and thrown, shockingly and appallingly, into jail.

The allegation? That the dealer would let them see the card she was about to show so they could offer “insurance” on it–a move which, as they vainly pointed out, would never allow the gambler to win, only on occasion (28 percent of the time) not to lose. It is the opposite of doubling down. You only do this, the brothers explain, if you’ve been beaten badly already and are feeling especially doomed, or conversely, the dealer’s been on a lucky run of dealing blackjack, and you think it might happen again. Either way, you’re using instinct, not judgment. “We weren’t pros, and we were subject to all the emotional pressures that prey on blackjack players, so we did the stupid thing and tried to protect our bets, telling ourselves that we were just reducing our bets by half, giving away odds.” The problem was that the police, the District Attorney’s office and even the casino management (who surely ought to know their clients better than this) can really only comprehend single-minded self-interest, the desire to acquire money, not the compulsion to throw it away. “It is as good to lose as to win,” write the brothers. “Losing never feels like the worst part of gambling. Quitting often does.”

The brothers are at a loss to understand why the casino would fail to offer, as they tactfully put it, “a full and unbiased report” to the Gaming Commission. The reason to me is fairly obvious. The Barthelme brothers just got up the casino’s nose. “At the table, losing our money, we were all smiles, as if it were nothing. In fact, it felt like nothing … it was a family thing.” Class snobbery is a two-way street. The brothers had got out of line. Gambling, along with eating hamburgers, getting fat, smoking, watching TV, going on The Jerry Springer Show , is a blue-collar occupation. Those Barthelme collars were whiter than white, intellectual, literary. Jesus, they were college professors. They had no business using the casino to throw away money and then acting as if it didn’t matter. The blow falls just as Frederick’s Bob the Gambler is being published. Of course it does. Resentment grows to the breaking point. The casino is being used. The brothers are not liked, though they believe they are. Let them enter the true lower depths, the cinder-block holding cells: “The room crawled with cops, popping out of their uniforms, buttons bursting, seams swollen. “The noises are infernal: “‘Get back there, nigger,’ the blond cop shouted.” Let them see what it’s really like. That’ll soon wipe the smile from their faces. It did.

Perhaps Rick and Steve–who, now it’s all over, gamble not habitually but on occasion–should go north to Connecticut and the Foxwoods Casino, run by the Mashantucket Pequot Indians on reservation land. Gambling tax is not paid, so the return to the customer is among the highest in the land. It is a calm and respectable place, more blue-haired than blue-collar, less fantastical than Atlantic City or Las Vegas, not so steamy or vengeful as the Southern riverboats seem to be, and with an excellent English department, surely, in neighboring University of Connecticut at Storrs, where I dare say jobs can be found. The parental ashes, in their encyclopedia-size boxes, responsible for so much, can come, too. Family can continue.