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America is a Gambling Land
Americans lose between twenty and thirty billion dollars a year in bets, lotteries, and games of chance. We gamble for money, and we gamble for the hell of it. We roll dice for any and everything, including which of two heirs, as stipulated by a California will, shall inherit a valuable ring, or whether we or the bartender will pay for drinks. Coins are tossed to decide who is to risk his life or buy dinner. The biggest lottery in our history was operated by the government to determine in what order citizens soldiers were called to service in World War II.
Neither moral censure nor legislation has ever damped the American passion for gambling. Gambling has run through our history since the first settlers staked their claims in the New World and took the land away from the Indians, who were avid gamblers themselves.
We have financed our wars, supported local government, and underwritten our churches and universities by way of lotteries, speculated in land, gold, cotton, and wheat, and panics have been induced when gamblers cornered the market in stocks or commodities. The great depression of the thirties ended the biggest and most widespread gambling spree om historical record.
The story of many great fortunes in the U.S. is one of men who gambled high and won. Westward expansion, the gold rush, the Klondike are evidences of the vigor of the American get-richquick dream.
Gambling at games is a substitute for relaxing in this heady country of ours. It was not until recently that professional gambling became big business, run by syndicates with lines into politics and the underworld. Before the twentieth century the professional gambler was an individualist with nothing in common even with other gamblers except a heartfelt dread of honest toil. A unique breed of men and women, gaudy, bawdy, rambunctious and hell-bent for adventure, removed the cash from incorrigible amateur players on a scale that is legendary.
The Mississippi steamboat gambler was the most showily dressed man of his day, or, for that matter, of any other day in our history. His leather boots came from Paris and his fine broadcloth suits and coats were cut by tailors for gentlemen in New Orleans. A choking-sized diamond glittered on his shirt front, his nimble fingers were festooned with diamond rings, and a massive thousand dollar gold watch studded with gems hung from a thick gold chain across his vest. When he sauntered the streets of a river town, he was stared at with envy by men in less perilous professions and trailed by admiring boys who dreamed of growing up just like him.
Gambling was a way of life to these spectacular characters. They had to have irresistible personalities to attract men to play with them and to be as deft as magicians, whether they played honestly or cheated to limit their opponents luck.
The professional gamblers of the old West may not have been so splendid, though they often paid almost as much attention to fancy clothes as the riverboat sports did, but they had some more admirable qualities. Rough standards prevailed on the frontiers when death across a gambling table was common. A gambler's success depended partly on chance and partly skill, and his life depended on who drew and shot first.
These men were leading citizens in the frontier communities with a reputation for honesty and deadly trigger fingers. They often better educated than the men who clustered around their tables, and were excellent students of human nature. Their names and deeds live in the memories of the old-timers, their will endure. Half-dime thrillers of the 1870s and '80s glamorized these smooth, alert, picturesque, and closemouthed men, deadlier than the Mississippi rascals. Discontented young Easterns and Southerners growing up in the Reconstruction period were attracted by the stories of big poker pots and fabulous faro games in the mining camps and gold towns of the Far West, and tbey streamed out there, looking for adventure and easy wealth.
America thrust her boundaries across a continent by reason of the traditional restlessness of her people, and the most restless of all were the individuals whose gambling skills and maneuvers grew into legends. They have a special significance in the social and historical panorama and they came from all walks of life, reflecting in themselves the American traits of independence and to win.
These professionals who took the money from a nation of gamblers, like candy from babies, also were taken. Most of them could no more resist the other side of the table than could the suckers who came to them. What they won they dropped at another gambler's game. If a gambler didn't die young, he almost certainly died broke.
The free and foot-loose who picked up and went wherever luck beckoned or a seamy situation made it expedient or waves of reform chased them to more tolerant and likelier spots faded with the last frontiers. Since the organization of professional gambling as big business, whether legalized or strictly illegal, the colorful individual is largely lost in the gang. Now and then a sport like the late Arnold Rothstein or Nick the Greek crops up with card pots so steep and dice bets so high that a headline appears and iit' bms in the back rooms all over the country tip their hats to Lady Luck and trot out all the fine old gambling stories again.
Maybe we have become more sedate and organized. Social gambling seemed to be comparatively discreet in the prosperous 1950s, with pots no bigger than players could afford to lose. The professionals in the underworld saw to it that nobody won except their own. There was big talk of legalizing off-track betting while the posh clubs in Las Vegas operated under the beaming "eye of the state of Nevada. We thought the TV contestants were betting their brains and memories to win or lose fabulous stakes, but it turned out the whole thing was rigged. Maybe in the future men will gamble for astronomical sums while hurtling across billions of miles to the stars. Meantime it's still a pretty safe wager that if a bet is offered in the U.S.A., it will be taken-win, lose, or draw.