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You Bet Your Life

You Bet Your Life: The Burdens of Gambling

Neil D. Isaacs
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    You Bet Your Life
    Book Description:

    We are a nation of gamblers: pari-mutuel wagering at horse tracks; blackjack in Las Vegas; the NCAA basketball office pool; even day trading on the internet. Gambling is both our national pastime and our predominant cultural metaphor -- play the field; beat the odds; take a chance on love. Yet gambling poses serious risks to individuals and to society as a whole.

    Neil Isaacs -- sports historian, licensed clinical social worker, English professor, and a gambler himself for more than fifty years -- seeks to shatter the myths interfering with our understanding of gambling addiction, its causes, and its treatment. He begins by systematically debunking several commonly held beliefs, demonstrating that there is no such thing as the law of averages, that gambling is not inherently sinful, immoral, or criminal, and that money is not always the prime motivator for gamblers.

    Isaacs shows how habitual gambling can lead to compulsive gambling, but avoids oversimplifying this condition. Arguing against a undifferentiated interpretation of pathological gambling as a simple impulse control disorder, he draws examples from fiction, film, and his own practice to demonstrate additional ways gambling can be abused. A radical departure from established views, You Bet Your Life identifies the costs -- in dollars, people, families, and credit ratings -- of society's failure to address adequately the burdens of gambling.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5777-1
    Subjects: Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: A Roadmap Through a Minefield
    (pp. 1-10)

    You don’t have to be a sophisticated analyst to recognize how extensively Americans are involved in gambling. Not when weekly news magazines run cover stories calling the United States a “gambling nation” or gambling the “new national pastime.” If you travel a 500-mile stretch of 1-64 between Charleston, West Virginia, and St. Louis (arguably a representative segment of mid-America), billboards and road-side signs inform you of opportunities and urge you to take your chances at video slots (West Virginia), a dog track (West Virginia), three horse tracks (West Virginia and Kentucky), riverboat casinos (Kentucky and Missouri), the Kentucky “Lotto” (with...

  5. 1. Seven Other Myths about Gambling
    (pp. 11-36)

    Let me be clear about what I mean by myth. For the purposes of this discussion I do not mean a story or fabulous legend that serves to explain the otherwise inexplicable. Nor do I mean, in the colloquial usage, simply a lie. I am using the word in the sense of a commonly accepted misconception, a piece of misleading “conventional wisdom” or “common knowledge.” In this sense, the myth that is a main target of this iconoclastic exercise could be called a well-intentioned fallacy rather than a myth, at least in the mental health professions; but it functions as...

  6. 2. Gambling and the Irrational
    (pp. 37-52)

    Gambling, which by definition depends on risk and uncertainty, necessarily involves the irrational. Chance, luck, random occurrence—these are not the stuff of reason. Nor, for the purposes of the distinctions I am making here, is belief in some unknowable system of fate or preordained pattern or predestination. Clearly, belief in any of the myths enumerated in the first chapter is itself a matter of irrational faith. Probability, on the other hand, is another matter entirely: “the house” (the proprietors or purveyors or operators of any gambling activity, with the odds on their side) is a rational entrepreneurial entity, not...

  7. 3. The High-Profile Profile
    (pp. 53-74)

    When I met Corky Devlin in 1993, he could have posed as the middle-aged poster boy for the prevailing myth of compulsive gambling. His personality profile matched the one described by Robert Custer, Henry Lesieur, and others; the story of his life followed the standard scenario; his symptoms met the DSM criteria; and he had even been treated by Custer himself. In conversations over a period of several months, he told me his story in some detail, and we discussed the possibility of working together to put that story into book form. At the time, Corky was working for a...

  8. 4. The Compulsion to Lose
    (pp. 75-86)

    The myth of the pathological gambler as a compulsive loser was given authoritative support with the publication of Edmund Bergler’sThe Psychology of Gamblingin 1957. His psychoanalytical approach, based on scores of cases from his own practice but rooted in Freudian theory, posited a model of orally fixated neurosis. Pathological gamblers are compelled to lose because the punishment of defeat and humiliation is more tolerable (or masochistically satisfying) than guilt-ridden suffering inflicted by unconscious conscience. The pathological gambler’s experience, then, resembles—or substitutes for—a cycle of masturbation and remorse.

    Bergler’s view found some support in the apparent validity...

  9. 5. Gambling and Anxiety
    (pp. 87-98)

    Anxious affect often is apparently present in gamblers, but this is no more than would be expected in a highly energized, excitement-filled, tension-charged activity and atmosphere. That does not necessarily mean that gambling produces, characterizes, or expresses symptoms of anxiety disorders, nor does it mean necessarily that the observable signs of various anxiety disorders in common gambling behaviors are typically masking, or serving as acceptable self-explanations of, underlying disorders. Yet certain particular cases suggest that that may be exactly what is happening on some rare occasions.

    Jerome L., a thirty-six-year-old psychologist, had made a substantial success in his hometown. His...

  10. 6. Gambling and Depression
    (pp. 99-116)

    Bill Barich’sLaughing in the Hillsis the memoir of a major depressive episode masquerading as reportage of a romantic adventure into the subculture of horse racing. Unlike William Styron’sDarkness Visibleor Kay Redfield Jamison’sAn Unquiet Mind,which delve deeply and affectingly into the turmoil of manic-depressive illness, Barich’s book projects his anguish outward onto the externalized experience. The inner state, which he barely suggests, is instead masked, deflected, diffused, and distracted by his immersion in the racetrack scene.

    The impetus for Barich’s depressed (and depressing) idyll along the back-stretch was his mother’s cancer. It came with sudden...

  11. 7. Gambling and Psychosis
    (pp. 117-132)

    Before the Olympian troika of Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky towered over Russian letters, the preceding generation had its own mighty threesome of Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov. Necessarily beginning his writing career in their shadow, Dostoevsky had at least two influential models for treatments of gamblers. Gogol’s contribution in his playGamblerswas a treatment of the familiar character type of the sharpster, the cheater, the amoral outsider or trickster. Examples of this tradition are to be found in Abbé Prévost’s Manon Lescaut, Melville’s The Confidence Man, and Poe’s “William Wilson,” as well as in the stereotypical denizen of the saloon...

  12. 8. Filling the Void
    (pp. 133-150)

    The epigraph above is a variation of the universal tribute to “action.” It is what makes a gambler feel truly alive. When the poker-playing hero of Rounders, trying to explain his return to action after months of abstention, tells his girlfriend, “I felt truly alive for the first time in . . . ,” she knows their relationship is doomed.¹ It is useful—perhaps necessary—to be philosophical about such perceptions, however limited their approach to understanding or wisdom. The same William Murray, in Tip on a Dead Crab, says, “Trying to pick winners is an act of faith in...

  13. 9. Gambling and the Brothers Barthelme
    (pp. 151-164)

    For ray kaiser, the narrator/protagonist of Frederick Barthelme’s novelBob the Gambler,the void is externalized, rendered in a landscape of objects: “What I’d always liked about Biloxi was the decay, the things falling apart, the crap along the beach, the skeletons of abandoned hotels, the trashy warehouses and the rundown piers jutting out into the dirty water” (1).

    As an architect, Ray is particularly sensitive to the structures of emptiness among which he lives, and as he details the civilization’s detritus within which the action takes place he presents a substantive portrait of empty lives, dead-ended jobs, meaningless behaviors,...

  14. 10. Gambling and Personality Disorders
    (pp. 165-194)

    All that we know of “CJ” comes from “Total Loss Weekend” by Don DeLillo, which appeared inSports Illustratedin 1972. I don’t know whether to call it reportage, short story, memoir, character sketch, or cautionary tale—perhaps it is all of these, and more. Regardless of genre, it provides ample testimony to the acuity of DeLillo’s observation, the artfulness of his selection and arrangement of material, and the intelligence with which his nuanced language captures and enacts the marginal crannies of contemporary American culture. Moreover, it gives us (marginally) enough material on which to base (tentatively) a diagnosis of...

  15. 11. Gambling and Addiction
    (pp. 195-212)

    Normally, when Todd Winograd left his office in Cohasset after his last appointment of the day, he would pause for a proud glance at what he had built in a few short years. A large and growing family practice in a cutting-edge facility, maybe the best on the whole South Shore. His first practice had been as a junior partner in a large Weymouth clinic, but it took only two years among the established practitioners there, with their traditional ways and willingness to carry considerable dead weight on their staff, for him to know that he needed independence. When he...

  16. 12. Dilemmas of Diagnosis and Treatment
    (pp. 213-231)

    The long-running series of Shifty Lou Anderson novels has elevated William Murray to a place of special distinction among writers of fiction involving gambling. Murray not only writes very well (as a longtime contributor to the New Yorker he has written the periodic column “Letter from Italy”), but he is exceptionably knowledgeable about many forms of gambling and brings a nonjudgmental attitude (amused, appreciative, even indulgent) to the subject. Anderson himself, the narrator/protagonist of these novels, is a close-up magician by trade and a horse racing devotee by choice, but his skill with cards and his keen awareness of probabilities...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 232-256)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-267)
  19. Index
    (pp. 268-276)