Andrew W.K. on Gambling
Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine for VICE
In the early 2000s, I found myself on a US tour with my band and a bus driver who loved casinos. He'd stop every time he saw one. It was easy to see why. They specifically cater to people on the road: truck and bus drivers and anyone on long hauls or road trips. They offer exceptionally nice bathrooms, better-than-average restaurants of either quality or value, and a stimulating change of atmosphere from the long stretches of highway. You can hang out there, reset, catch a buzz. Maybe win a little.
Since we were stopping at casinos so frequently, my guitar player and I decided we should make the most of it and get into gambling. We started with roulette. Soon, we'd developed what we thought was our own special betting system. I later discovered it was just a variation of the old and relativity disproven Martingale System, which teaches you to make the same small bet each time you win, but to double your bet each time you lose. It's not a great or foolproof system, and as we realized soon enough, you could very quickly find yourself deep in a betting hole after losing and doubling your bet just a few times in a row.
We first tested the system during long drives on the bus by recreating the roulette wheel with a pack of playing cards, which we figured was a pretty good simulation of the odds. We kept a notebook with our total of imaginary wins and losses, and would play before every concert as practice for the time we'd actually find ourselves in a real casino, playing for real money. After everything was tallied up after a month and a half, we figured we had accumulated almost $50 million. We were ready.
So when we found ourselves in Reno, Nevada, on an off day after what seemed like an eternity of card practice, we took $1,500 out of the ATM to play roulette. Within a few hours, we'd lost it all. Soon we had a decision to make: Walk away or go deeper in and try to win our money back. With the sort of blind carelessness that gives a person chills and a lump in the throat, we decided to try and earn it all back. We took out more money and lost it, too.
Casinos exist to wow outsiders. But it's quietly understood that they're there to gently destroy us.
Down $3,000, we had to decide again whether to swallow our losses or keep going. My guitarist said we should quit. I said we should keep going, and somehow presented this as the only "real" option in a way that was both highly illogical and powerfully undeniable. We took more money out.
By this point, we were floating in a psychosis of neurotic and compulsive rushes, all our movements coming in a sort of disconnected, robotic manner. I was exhausted from the constant adrenalin surges, and from the stress of winning a little and then losing it all over and over again. We'd been at the roulette table for more than five hours.
We finally went on a winning streak, and somehow, by a miraculous kiss of Lady Luck, managed to win back all our losses after another four grueling hours. With an extraordinarily deep and alien fatigue, blended with an extreme sense of humiliation, and a pitiful type of relief, we stopped after a long day of over ten hours of nerve-racking gambling. I realized it was never really "fun." Just intense and dizzying. I've never played roulette again, and have rarely gambled since.
But I certainly understand the appeal. Being there in the moment, swinging back-and-forth between painful losses and delirious wins, manic highs and depressive lows, the entire world had really seemed to melt away. The idea of a reality outside the casino had become a distant and vague memory. It seemed like we could stay tucked away by that roulette wheel forever. The casino had everything we could ever need, and it could take everything we'd ever get. This was deeply comforting and also quite horrifying. For those ten-plus hours, I had developed a kind of tunnel vision I'd not experienced before or since, an unparalleled focus. Each spin was infused with an unmistakable spike of feeling—a sensation both full of nervous excitement that was also bland and hollow. Time had both slowed down and sped up. It seemed to move in a spiral, in tandem with the roulette wheel.
Some of mankind's most advanced and calculated manipulations go on within the walls of a casino. People are lured into an agreement of willful illusion by over-the-top bright lights, shiny surfaces, whirring sounds, violent splashes of patterned floors, and impossibly massive architecture. Casinos exist to wow outsiders. But it's quietly understood that they're there to gently destroy us, and we solemnly trade our damage and loss for the spectacle, and this precarious possibility of beating the odds.
Much of life seems to be a gamble, or at least about weighing risk and reward. I learned at the roulette table that some gambles and risks are just not worth the cost. To me, the unbridled joy of winning $10,000 comes nowhere near the devastation of losing $10,000. Especially considering the odds are more in favor of the latter.
As I've grown older, I've begun to view life as a miraculous occurrence that I feel less and less comfortable taking gambles with. The idea of jumping out of a plane, for instance, holds almost no appeal to me, just as winning money is not worth the possibility of losing it. The opportunity to exist is the greatest opportunity of all. And although I understand the impulse to squeeze excitement out of this chance to live, there's no new experience that can come close to the thrill I've had of simply being alive.
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