When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

24 January 2007

Pat Jordan: Looking for My Father in Las Vegas

I'm just now getting around to reading the Sunday New York Times, and writer Pat Jordan has a long, moving story about his father, the "degenerate gambler" (a phrase the old man used to describe himself) and the larger meaning and purpose of gambling for gamblers:

My father never worked a day in his life. He was a gambler and a con man and a grifter for all of the 65 years that I knew him. He gambled on pool, cards, dice, horses, sports events, two pigeons sitting on a fence, anything — as long as he could find an edge. Shaved dice. Marked cards. A drugged horse. And when he couldn’t find an edge, when the game was fixed against him, he gambled anyway, because, he told me, “it was the only game in town.” When he was 89, he gambled on a triple-bypass heart operation because he liked the odds. His doctor told him that if he survived the operation, he had a 60-40 chance of living six more years, and he did. He spent those last years in an assisted-living facility, where he booked bets on the pay phone in the lobby. I can imagine him now, in the midst of the playoffs, getting the line on the San Diego Chargers or the Philadelphia Eagles, scribbling it on a piece of paper he held against the wall, studying it, then placing his bet.

My father never knew his parents. He spent the first 15 years of his life in an orphanage, a good apprenticeship for a gambler and a swindler. He learned early how to con his custodians out of extra food and sometimes even affection. When he left the orphanage, he turned to gambling for his livelihood and his satisfactions. Gambling proved that he existed, that he was special, smarter than his marks, smarter even than God’s will.

Here’s what it was like to grow up a gambler’s son. I couldn’t listen to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio because my father had to listen to horse-racing results. I could never root for the Yankees and our heroes (DiMaggio, Berra, Raschi, Crosetti) when they played the Red Sox if Uncle Freddy was “down” on the Red Sox. Matchbooks were strewn everywhere throughout our house, yet my father didn’t smoke. When I was 7, I burned up a matchbook and was punished — not for almost starting a fire but for destroying my father’s betting line, which he always wrote on the inside covers of matchbooks...
Looking for My Father in Las Vegas (Pat Jordan, New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jan 21 2007)

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