John Carlson: Me Gamble? Not a Chance

Can money, cards and poker chips spell trouble for some? You bet. Photo by Nancy Carlson.Can money, cards and poker chips spell trouble for some? You bet. Photo by Nancy Carlson.

By John Carlson—

I take great pride in the fact I don’t gamble.

In noting this, I’m not setting myself up as “holier-than-thou.”

Throughout my life, I have spent considerable time, effort and money in the dogged pursuit of questionable behavior. It’s just that, as far as I can remember, gambling is the only vice I haven’t wholeheartedly embraced at one time or another, and I’m pretty happy about that.

Everybody should have at least one vice they don’t adore, right?

This adverse reaction to gambling came to me honestly. My Dad only gambled once. That was the first time his old Navy outfit chose Las Vegas as the site of its annual reunion. Following the advice of friends who were gamblers, he set aside an amount of money he was willing to lose, agreeing that when it was gone he would quit, and that’s just what he did.

His limit?

Five bucks.

In Las Vegas.

Let’s just say the leggy, busty, doe-eyed cocktail waitresses didn’t work up much of a sweat comping “Mister Big Spender” his favorite drinks, which were Perfect Rob Roys on the rocks with a twist.

By the way, a few years later Dad’s Navy outfit returned to Sin City. Was he going to try gambling  again? Heck no, he said. Last time he’d totally blown five bucks and didn’t have a frickin’ nickel to show for it.

All of this leads to the observation that gambling is what some might call disturbingly popular these days. Maybe it harkens back to the popularity and general acceptance of state lotteries. Whatever sparked it, though, when it comes to vices, all are not created equal. Out-of-control gambling may be some folks’ notion of a “fresh hell,” the term coined years and years ago by literary wit Dorothy Parker. Still, you have to think a gambling addiction is preferable to one for heroin, crack or riding barrels over Niagara Falls.

But the television ad images of today’s hip young winners, rollicking as their money piles up, conspicuously lack one thing. That’s follow-up video of the hip young losers bumming two bucks to buy a takeout taco for the car ride home. Even more striking to me was one ad with stirring music and dramatic narration praising some guy who turned out to be a big-time bookie, as if he were a beloved cultural icon.

You’d have thought he was Captain Kangaroo.

I had never seen the potentially seedy underside of gambling before an old buddy and I rode our Harley-Davidsons out to Atlantic City years ago. Wandering agape through a casino decorated with all the understated charm of a Nevada cathouse, I grew even more agape at the sight of a doorway through which you could trade your car’s pink slip for more poker chips. You had to wonder how many poor chumps had driven to the casino in comfort, only to thumb their way back home.

For comic relief, there was also my late buddy, Joe. Not much of a gambler, he did occasionally play the ponies, an activity for which he had devised a “system.” Here’s how it worked: At the track, he would grab a racing form and study it to determine where each horse came from. Then, if it was a place he had actually visited, he’d bet on that horse to win.

Simple? Sure!

Stupid? Absolutely!

The good thing was, this system saved him the hassle of studying the horses’ won-loss records, their strengths or weaknesses under various track conditions and such. His system also saved him the hassle of running up to the pay-out teller to collect his winnings all the time, because it never worked.


What’s scary is, faced with nothing less than today’s advertising blitzkriegs, the insidious curse of gambling can sneak up on even the most stout-hearted of us opponents. To make certain it doesn’t sneak up on me, Nancy has devised a system herself, one that’s based on the principles of Pavlovian conditioned responses.

Say I am watching a sporting event on television when some hoity-toity actor comes on, telling me I must be a boring loser if I don’t “put some skin in the game,” which is gambling talk for betting some money. And, hey, this actor is right! I am a boring loser! But then, even though I am a boring loser, I sit there watching, thinking, and eventually contemplating my chances of someday becoming an interesting winner! Then, almost unconsciously, I begin mumbling to myself, “Skin in the game … skin in the game … skin in …”

As soon as Nancy hears this, she grabs me by my ears and spends the next two minutes violently shaking my head around on its axis while hissing, “And you’re not gonna put any skin in the game, are you, buster?”

That is her system.

Later, though my neck, head and ears are aching, I clearly recall how much I hate gambling.

Now, I have an admission to make. It’s possible that in celebrating my blessed freedom from gambling, I slightly embellished the part about Nancy roughly grabbing my ears. But aware of my addictive personality, if I do mention “skin in the game,” she verbally harangues me, maintaining the sun’s gonna rise in the West, it’ll be a cold day in hell, and pigs are going to fly before I lose a dime to one of those on-line bookie services.

So here’s a safe bet.

I’m not gambling, long as Nancy’s around, anyway.


John’s weekly columns are sponsored by Beasley & Gilkison, Muncie’s trusted attorneys for over 120 years.

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A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on every Friday.