When you get past the absurdity of the euphemism “gaming,” you quickly accept that gambling is woven into the fabric of Las Vegas life. From grocery stores to the local bowling alley, gambling is omnipresent. Spend enough time living here, and you’ll meet someone with a gambling problem and/or you’ll see a friend develop one and change into an addict before your eyes.
Cover story: At first glance, the books already show their differences.
Yet, viewing Las Vegas as a tourist destination, a place where gambling is mixed with shows, shopping and dining, you can see how a few bets, hands or pulls on a slot are, in the true sense of the word, a game. And that gambling can also just be another form of entertainment, harmless fun that just happens to have a higher profit margin than other amusements.
Which, if either, of these views is the better perspective on gambling?
For all their differences, the female authors of two new accounts of life in gambling culture agree on one point: Ultimately to treat a game as more than recreation becomes emotionally, personally and often financially destructive. The two books—Beth Raymer’s Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling (Spiegel & Grau, $25) and Mary Sojourner’s She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press, $18)—otherwise share little in their approach to the gambling life. Raymer has written an adventure story documenting her time with sports bettors. And as the use of the word “addiction” suggests, Sojourner has written an activist’s memoir. After looking at how casinos bus seniors from retirement homes to slot machines where they lose “every penny of their Social Security checks,” she happily concedes: “If vengeance is possible for them, I hope this book is part of it.” She has an ax to grind.
Both Raymer and Sojourner found the same tremendous pitfalls (and rewards) that derive from making a game into a life. They both liked the adrenaline. They both used the world of gambling as a substitute for things lacking in their existence outside casinos.
Raymer, an aimless young person, winds up by chance the assistant to Dink, an expert sports bettor, one of the few areas a gambler with knowledge, betting savvy and hard work can gain a small chance of beating the house. Yet, Raymer learns ultimately that even when winning, the gambling life is a trap. And she watches her mentor get caught in the artificial glamour, which shows itself to be endless stress, and leaves him wishing his life had not been wasted in contemplating the next bet.
Sojourner’s story is more common if her focus on women players has been less explored by the genre of books about how gambling destroys lives. For her, playing slot machines became not a science of advantage but the addiction of the desperate. As opposed to Raymer’s world, Sojourner and the women she wrote about were not making professional decisions rendered only after a great deal of study. Rather, Sojourner’s story is familiar to all who’ve read a 12-step book: Ultimately, a women’s support group is formed, and they learn to help each other escape the abyss of their addiction.
Sojourner’s book is a testament to their efforts. The author desires to share her hard-learned knowledge with other women who may feel alone and trapped by their addiction. The opening sentence makes clear her intent: “If you have opened this book, chances are, you or someone you know may be a woman trapped in compulsive gambling.” That is an opening that also lets you know whom her book is less likely to interest: the rest of us.
On the other hand, Raymer sees gambling less as an addiction and more as an adventure. When Raymer’s mentor, Dink, drops in on a 12-step gambling meeting, his view of the proceedings is approvingly and succinctly summarized by Raymer: “All of these people thought that they were smart. Then they lost all of their money and decided they were sick. Dink wondered why they didn’t decide that they were just stupid.”
Not at all politically correct, Raymer has created a fast-paced read looking into a small subculture of elite gamblers. Sojourner’s book exists to refute that view by offering herself and her friends as not just suffering from a disease, but almost being victimized by the casinos. The title of one chapter: “Get Her to Sit Down: The Industry’s Strategies to Keep Women Playing.” These strategies are marketing and attempts to maximize profits and efficiency. In essence, casinos create an environment and incentives to encourage women to keep on gambling, knowing the longer women play the more they will lose. The problem is that casino marketing is not dissimilar from the way cars or movies are sold. Imagine a sports car commercial with a dorky guy who suddenly draws the attention of a hot chick with his new car. That is why they call it marketing. To Sojourner, the gambling industry understands how to manipulate women’s desire in such a way as to foster addiction. For example, she cites a direct mail advertisement with a picture to which women specifically would relate: A “sturdy older gal” waving “handfuls of hundred-dollar bills in the air.” The problem, as she notes, is that she would have been an addict anyway. Indeed, even romantic infatuation is on her list of things that women can become addicted to as readily as gambling. Her book leaves the impression that there are so many ways modern American women can be addicted it is amazing any manage to not need some group of fellow sufferers to keep them grounded. The addiction industry in America is huge. Some people have problems with compulsive gambling, others make poor choices. That casinos do their best to attract customers is what every business does. Sojourner has no smoking guns; the casinos run their business like any other.
Raymer sees those who bottom out, too. She notes that all the gamblers she knows go broke at least once. But rather than being reduced by their addiction, for Raymer, even her minor players become beloved eccentrics and, at times, even charming characters.
Sojourner ends her book with a pulling-the-car-over-to-the-side-of-the-road revelation, another cliché of the self-help genre—before thankfully heading on “toward home,” a metaphor for safety from her addiction. Raymer, on the other hand, ends her tale on a plane to Rio after liberating $21,000 in winnings from a totally unsympathetic client.
One book looks back at gambling with life-destroying regret and the other as a few exciting years of an adventurous childhood. Both are valid takes on the infinite nuance of the relationships we bring to games of chance. And both women needed, in the end, out of the world of gambling. They found their lives distorted by the ways that a game played in real money, a gamble, had become the joyless center to their lives.