An Obie-award-winning playwright, novelist, memoirist, critic, and magazine feature writer, Jack Richardson was what the English call a man of letters, a pro who can handle the job at hand, whatever it is. Americans seem to prefer a little more specialization in their scribes, which perhaps explains why Richardson was not better known in his lifetime (1934-2012). Certainly if talent had had any say in the matter, he would have been one of the best known authors of our time.
Richardson wrote beautiful, silken sentences, one dazzler after another, and his cadence was perfect (as a kid he aspired to be a tap dancer, and it’s a dancer’s rhythm, precise, propulsive, that makes his sentences go). But the beauty was never flashy. Everything he wrote served his subject, because if ever there was a writer whose goal was to make you understand, to make you see, it was Richardson. Not that he didn’t have a little show off in him—a writer that good can’t help throwing in some gratuitous dazzle now and then. He just never let it get the upper hand.
Sometime in the ’70s, he petitioned Simon & Schuster to bankroll a gambling trip around the world (and if freelance writers everywhere do not build a shrine to the man for this coup alone, there truly is no honor in the writer’s trade). Simon & Schuster did put up the money, Richardson took the journey, and the result was Memoir of a Gambler, which is sometimes classified as fact and sometimes as fiction (there is a dialogue with Satan at one point, but who knows?). Don’t get hung up on the labeling. Just know that this is one of the best books ever written about gambling, and so elegantly told that you can love it without knowing an ace from a deuce. (And speaking of justice, will some enlightened publisher please get the damned thing back into print!)
“My Trip to Las Vegas,” originally published in The New York Review of Books (8/12/1971), was later incorporated into Memoir of a Gambler; and appears here with permission.
Morning makes a timid entrance into Las Vegas, insinuating itself with silver modesty among the thousand-watt spires, signs, and billboards, waiting until the master switches of the hotels are thrown, until the neon blinks off and natural daylight is officially allowed back into town. This twice-daily electric convulsion is the only concession to the normal marks of time made by the casino owners, powers who forbid clocks or windows in their gambling rooms so that day and night pass by uncharted by anything more precise than vague degrees of desperation or euphoria, and time becomes something privately carried in the mind of each gambler, a quiet or needling companion creating its own idiosyncratic clock.
During my first night in Las Vegas, time had been subdued. It was now morning and I had not slept, had not even felt the slightest pull of drowsiness. Everything—my arrival, my baccarat victory, my memories, my golden whore—coexisted in a sharp, exhilarating present that refreshed itself over and over again. Everything in the room, from the artificially vermiculated furniture with ancien régime pretensions to my own abused but satisfied body, became joyful and vital presences that produced in me the sensation to which the subtlest saints and most cloddish heroes have testified: namely, the feeling of pure being and total pleasure.
It seemed I had finally managed a weaving of thought and action that left no room in the soul’s fabric for irony, self-parody, or any of the other impish, civilized reflections by which mortal life is divided, weakened, and kept in its place. It mattered not at all that what I had won was no fortune, or that what I had tupped was an infantile whore: I felt I had, at the beginning of my voyage, gambled and won a moment for myself in which I could, if need be, live forever without complaint. And this allowed me to sit quietly through the Las Vegas sunrise and feel, with atavistic exultation, that everything it revealed complemented me.
Still, I made myself grow sober. I had, after all, promised that I would not be a fundamentalist about gambling, that I would respect all of its formal intricacies. To win finally and decisively, of course, would mean a moment of uncalculated insight, an unexpected tolle et lude at a craps or card table. But even the most ardent rebel against analysis, which I am not, needs some form in which to put his spiritual explosions, some steps of humility whose order provides an outline for the spirit to follow, as rational progression comforts the mind in logical reflection.
I had chosen a rigid system of accounting as one of my spiritual disciplines, partly because I enjoyed setting down the equivalence in numbers of all the complex twists in a night of gambling, and partly because a plain record of arithmetical truths keeps one from rounding off wins and losses, from slipping into imagined sums that exist only in the conditional modes of recollection. I took out my notebook and carefully began doing my sums.
Initial viaticum: $17,480.00
a) Tips for dealers $150
b) Tips for eaitresses $4
Marginal estimated benefits
a) free cigarettes $.50
b) free drinks at the baccarat table $5.00
Miscellaneous expenses ordinary
a) hotel: $35
b) taxi: $2
Miscellaneous expenses extraordinary
a) one bottle Justerini & Brooks $8
b) three bottles club soda $1
c) one Oklahoma whore (bis) $200
GROSS PROFITS: $3,005.50
NET PROFITS: $2,605.50
Setting down these numbers slowly, checking and rechecking their accuracy, made me feel limp and warm. Over and over again, I repeated the figures until they became an incantatory drone inside my head, a caressing swash of sound which I took to bed with me and which hummed me finally to sleep.
Tipur Sahib, The Tiger of Mysore, fat, swarthy, with a greased, popinjay’s moustache, sits across the table from me. He has modernized himself: his suit is silk, blue, and double-breasted; his tie a polka-dot disease of red and gold; his tiny hands democratically denuded of all jewels except a large, gold class ring from Harvard. Flanking him are enormous guards and vapid odalisques who bend over his shoulder as he sets out the cards between us. He says nothing, but I understand what the stakes are: his million against my left hand. A guard draws a long gleaming scimitar from inside his coat and holds it a foot above the table, and I place the wagered part, palm downward, fingers splayed, upon the green velvet cover. The game is Five-Card Stud; the style, showdown. All cards are turned up, and whoever has the highest hand after ten are dealt wins. There is no sound as he begins with an ace for me and a ten for himself.
I look at Tipur Sahib, at his opaque brownness and ophidian eyes, at his smooth, cared-for body which has experienced every pleasurable twitch a dark imagination could devise for it and which has long ago stopped responding to any but the most baroque sensual vibrations. I recognize him as the one who, 100 years ago, gave the order to his English prisoners that they, with rough pieces of glass furnished for the task, amputate and swallow their prepuces. Then, of course, he had worn gold, pearls, and a fist-sized ruby in the center of a turban spiced at its crown with peacock feathers. His lips had been colored with a wine-red dye, and they had parted with a hint of agitated wonder as he watched the blood and banquet of foreskins from a throne of scented pillows. I had stood, a sliver of glass in my hand, waiting for years to be called before him until, hearing of my gambling, he decided to play poker for my body.
Tipur gives me a second ace and himself another ten, but he doesn’t look at the cards. It seems that his eyes, while not blind, have grown tired of receiving the sights of the world. Nothing can light up the dark pupils, nothing can get through their thick, ceramic glaze. From those eyes, my reflection comes back blankly at me, and I recognize how alone I am, how mad I have been to make this bet against someone so indifferent to striving, someone who knew all the corners of his fate at birth.
At this moment I know he has too great an advantage over me and, as two more cards are put down, I feel the beginning of a cry to stop, to call off the bet while I am still winning by the cards already dealt. But—God! I want his millions, and so two more cards fall in silence and I rise a bit now to wait for the last pair. I have two aces, a four, and a seven; Tipur Sahib has two tens, a Jack, and a nine. Only eight cards can help him now, only eight out of forty-four left.
Forty-three after mine is delivered, a meaningless three of clubs. Tipur Sahib doesn’t pause; his third ten comes down as silently and ugly as an erupting boil. I know what it means, but I try to hold back the knowledge. I look puzzledly at the ten red hearts as though their meaning were ambiguous, as though they were not an explicit end to the game we are playing.
Tipur, however, is not perplexed. He turns and rises gracefully from the table, and though I try, I cannot move my hand back from beneath the scimitar. Again, I cry. Another hand! I’ll bet another hand! Tipur keeps rising and turning from the table, giving no indication from his padded shoulders that he has any interest in a second part of me. His women move in to watch the amputation. The air is now swollen with their erotic scent and there is a frenzied clacking of jewelry as bracelets and necklaces pendulate in the air. I can no longer see Tipur, but I must reach him and somehow force him to realize that I am still a diverting adversary.
With a tearing effort in my throat I shout: My life! My life against another million! And now there is silence. The ladies step back and a corridor is made for Tipur to return to the table. He does so with the air of someone who has forgotten a trifle. For an instant I am caught in his eyes, but my reflection is again flashed back undigested by Tipur’s brain. He picks up the cards, deals an ace to himself and a jack of diamonds to me, and I know, from the way all promise and expectation flush out of my pores, that I am going to die when all the cards are dealt. I sink back into my chair, taking great gulps of the perfumed air. I breathe deeper and deeper until the sweetness puts a thick cover over my eyes and I slip away toward darkness cursing my fatal greed and stupidity.
I came back to consciousness in Las Vegas screaming the same curses. Tipur! He has been grimly pursuing me since, at the age of ten, I read about his circumcision party. For a long time he disappeared, but once I sailed forth to gamble, at least twice a week he materialized for this game of poker, dressed like a Westerner but with the sealed, brown mien of ancient, Asiatic power. He always beat me in these dreams, but so far I had managed to wake up before he could collect even a finger of his winnings, and so we remained at a standoff. But to know that he was still there, in his wasp-waisted suit, waiting just beneath the level of my Las Vegas triumph, made me clearheaded and anxious. Several hours earlier I had felt free of all danger, as though last night’s victory could never be stripped from me. As old and tired a dream as Tipur was, he was a chastening warning. I still had a long vulnerable course to follow and there were hard work and spiritual maintenance to attend to.
First, then, to the bank. I had always enjoyed using these institutions as safe, respectable rest centers for my finances after a heavy campaign of gambling. With their loans, savings plans, Christmas clubs, stock counseling, credit services, and other categories of adult, mercantile responsibility, they made me feel substantial whenever I used their strict but amiable world for my money. At the Las Vegas Bank of Commerce I stood, a patient, business-transacting citizen, in line at the window for traveler’s checks. I was too much in transit to think of using one of their vaults, but I did want to convert $2,500 in cash into the more permanent appearance of property that bore my name.
In gambling, money goes through many stages of dress that affect its value. It can be no more substantial than a figure scribbled on a book-maker’s game sheet or a series of cabalistic sounds on a telephone wire; it can be a gaudy stack of pastel-colored chips—cash at a camp costume ball where its behavior will be frivolous and unpredictable; it can be as ragged and hopeless as a year-old marker patiently waiting in the folds of one’s wallet and subsisting on dreams of redemption; it can have the genteel, indeterminate status of a swaggeringly signed personal check; or finally, it can be its essential self, slips of numbered paper bearing the heavy countenances of statesmen.
It is in this last condition that money is palpably the bones and arteries of a gambler. It is in this state, too, that money exudes a dangerous sense of fugaciousness, for one knows that there is nothing more that it can evolve into, nothing of lesser consequence that it can pretend to be if suddenly dragged away to the opposite side of the table.
For this reason, during cool interludes, I like to see my resources transferred into something that at least has a façade once or twice removed from obliteration. And so I bought twenty-five one-hundred-dollar traveler’s checks, signed my name across each one carefully, and placed them in my hotel safety deposit box where, left unmolested in the dark, they could ripen into a permanence that I would never attribute to hard cash.
It was one o’clock, the restaurants and snack bars were stuffed with sunburned, gabbling people, broken away from the pools and golf courses and planning over barbecued burgers which singer or spectacle they would take in that evening. I had not eaten for nearly twenty-four hours, so I ordered mounds of Western cooking and two Coca-Colas and settled into the happy, ravenous mood of those Sunday gamblers around me who had come to Las Vegas to play innocently, to lose the sums they had decided on at a vacation conference at home, and then, with perhaps a one-dollar chip as a souvenir, to depart unmarked by the world I had taken for my high seriousness.
One man I watched especially, a hulk of exuberance and thumping laughter. He wore a pale straw hat with miniature golf clubs tucked into its chartreuse band, salmon trousers, and a white, mesh see-through sports shirt. He looked about fifty, but there was still a good store of strength in the chest he held in an arc and in the thick, knotty arms he had spread around two laughing women. He had six coevals around him at this table, dressed in American tribal colors, friends and wives, all smiles with feigned gestures of exasperation as their leader hugged the ladies and, in a robust Sprachstimme, let loose a song rich in guileless obscenities. Ah, ils sont dans le vrai? Is it all that simple? Well, I thought, he might have a nightmare or two himself, and if he should meet his own Tipur, let us say to arm wrestle, he might, in his dark dream, see his white, muscled limb going down beneath Tipur’s cocoa-hued pressure and hear the emasculating titter of the jeweled concubines.
He might have such a dream, and, if the old egalitarian novelists were right, he might, too, know a despair so suffocating that a bullet somewhere beneath his green hatband would seem the only solution. But, as he sang on, I doubted this democratic ontology, not so much out of a wish for any general contentment in life as, rather, from a conviction that there is, finally, an aristocracy of sensibility, a system of divine right when it comes to appropriating the deepest agonies. One is born with this the way one is born with patterned birthmarks or a Hapsburg chin, and one lives, finally, in a tight fraternity of one’s kind, pardoning and understanding all, but raging grimly in one’s most lucid moments. No, if this expansive singer should blow his brains out, it would be because of some personal injustice—some terminal disease, some irremediable miscalculation in business. It would never be because of love or logic—the pure and genuine reasons for self-annihilation.
And yet, he sang on, booming forth good times and affirmation. At least, I thought, if I ever come to sing to my family it will be a saga in bel canto, something elegant and boastful, something carefully wrought and decorated with well-modulated adventures. But scraping at the remains of my banana split, I admitted that I hadn’t yet, after so many years, come upon a full, round voice for my aria; and, more, I had no one who wished to gather about hearths or restaurant tables to listen to me. This would always be the victory of the vieux chapeau de golf; for all my nobility and knowledge, he could still make me feel like a self-pitying belletrist who envies the healthy ambiance of a middle-class meal.
“But,” I thought, “you are not on your way around the world, ready to try alien games and casinos, because you want to be loved. You’ve had the requisite mother, wife, child, lovers, and have been dismal with them. Remember you have made an honest choice in taking this journey alone, so keep your pains in perspective. Or, even, be excessive: brood over the Rhineland of a roulette table, become enamored of whorish angels, challenge and rechallenge the infidel Tipur until you are down to your last limb and then pompously sanctify your mutilations. But love? Love as family rhythms and household affection? Love in terms of compatible senses of humor and the slow revelation of secrets? Love, then, in a Cape Cod beach house with a boyish, dungareed wife who, each summer, rereads Melville and works out her yearnings ringed in by the sodden shorewear of our children?
“No, better finally to end alone in a furnished room with a demijohn of muscatel. And this is not a monstrous indulgence, for the love you want and may have to give depends on an effusion so spectacular, so intense that it is something that can be remembered or hoped for, but never lived with hour by hour. Accumulations, structures, comforts—everything that serves to build an edifice of affection only made you feel entombed, made you feel that time was encrusting you with layers of empty experience. Now, with a day’s gambling in front of you, don’t begin to waffle and whine about your solitude. You are more in the world at this moment than you have ever been before.”
I paid and left the restaurant feeling that I had won the argument. I was tired of spiritual orphanage, tired of feeling that no matter how carefully I balanced my accounts or how minutely I could examine the tissue of life or how certain I was that in a Las Vegas restaurant only my mind was capable of encompassing itself and everything about it, I was not the presence, the fierce phenomenon that the singer a table away from me had been. I saw no longer any charm in being a poor Berkeleian object on which the whole world had turned its back and which has no vivacious eye of God to sustain it. I may have been alone, but I believed enough in the vitality of gambling so that weight, color, fever, extension, and all the other properties about which the imagination builds a persona were self-evidently mine. I was going to begin gambling that day in a solid frame of mind, certain that I was a very substantial occupant of my particular space and time.