Beat the Devil

Memoir of a Gambler.
by Jack Richardson.
Simon & Schuster. 255 pp. $9.95.

When Jack Richardson’s first play, The Prodigal, was produced in 1960, he was hailed as one of the most promising young playwrights of his generation. Three more plays followed, but then the author, unable to take himself seriously as, a dramatist, left the theater. A cultural and literary intellectual of enormous charm and discernment, Richardson went on to publish essays and reviews in most of the major magazines and to serve as theater critic for COMMENTARY. Now he has given us Memoir of a Gambler, a brilliant and unsettling account of an existential quest.

Somewhere around the age of thirty, as Richardson recounts it, having wrecked his marriage and allowed himself to sink into “malaise,” he began a serious career as a gambler. Through autobiographical anecdotes and reflections, dramatic vignettes, and high philosophical speculation, Richardson recreates in this book his extended joust with the gambling worlds of Las Vegas, California, and Hong Kong. The journey he relates is an unlikely journey into the interior, in search of meaning and spiritual salvation. But where once such a journey would be set, perhaps, against a knightly background, with high-born ladies to be won in battle against satanic forces, and a grail as the object of the quest and a final confirming sign of divine favor, here the knightly hero is a neurasthenic belletrist, the ladies are ladies of the night, and the grail is a big win at the tables. That Richardson is nevertheless able to invest this seedy and unpromising mise-en-scène with intense metaphoric significance is a tribute to his powers as a literary artist.

Richardson’s immersion in gambling begins in chic private “clubs” in Manhattan but only truly commences in Las Vegas. Armed with about $17,000, he descends on that city’s plush and relatively genteel casinos and promptly hits a three or four-day losing streak that leaves him emotionally distraught and financially endangered. Determined to recoup, he moves on to the rougher, downtown hotels, where lodging is cheaper and no effort is made to dissemble the raw and brutal urgencies of hard-core gambling.

Unbathed and unshaven, with food stains on his clothing and foreboding in his heart, his run of pitiless bad luck unbroken, Richardson next seeks “a place of spiritual and financial discipline” in Gardena, California, a city near San Diego where legalized gambling, in the form of draw poker, has spawned a local industry. In the town’s poker palaces, filled with grim retirees who ante up their social-security checks, the dream of “great sums and pure chance” gives way to the “soft, steady drone of ritualized card playing.” Here, determined through plodding diligence to win enough money for “a first-class passage to anywhere far from this place,” the author accumulates a hoard while indulging simultaneously in an obsessive love affair with Daisy, a brilliant, slightly crazy poker player whom he describes as “a concentration of cold purity . . . an avernal queen.”

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Finally breaking his sexual “enchainment,” Richardson buys a one-way ticket to Hong Kong, where, with the $20,000 or so he has won in Gardena, he intends to lay one last siege to fortune. In Hong Kong his adventures take on their most exotic coloration. He is shown the degenerate side of the city by a young guide who claims to have been “lost” years ago in a poker game by his compulsive gambler of a father; bets on things like “lizards, beetles, frogs, and worms of hideous aspect and great length competing against their kind across courses marked by strings and bottles on a sandy floor”; and falls in for a time with two post-adolescent prostitutes being held in virtual slavery by gamblers who have taken them at cards.

In Hong Kong, too, the humiliations of Las Vegas and Gardena are swept away by a winning streak that he calls supernal; even in the face of the most audacious risks, he cannot lose. Yet one night, sitting at a roulette table, he knows a moment of unextenuated existential dread.

I understood that, if I lost, I would be utterly alone, deserted even by my own imagination. . . . In the middle of success and singular adventure, I had suddenly lost both the imagination and the heart to gamble.

Although he has often told himself that “anything is supportable if it is the result of . . . having gambled on an extraordinary life,” he finds he can no longer risk the trauma of a definitive loss. He decides to return to everyday certainties, to “unfinished work, letters, love, and all the other projects suitable to a modest talent for living.”

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Motivated precisely by a horror of the mediocre and the commonplace, mostly by the taint of it in himself, Richardson had staked on his gambling exploits his hopes for discovering a grand design for living. To be sure, he gambled for money—for, in the first place, money as a means of avoiding the “small strategies” through which the run of men assures its daily bread; for money as a tangible proof of worldly success; and for money as it assures first-class settings against which the imaginative dramas of life can be played out. But gambling was to do more than win material success. It was to confirm the justice of his hope of having been marked out for a superior fate. During his extraordinary run of luck in Hong Kong, Richardson feels “without vanity, that this was the way [he] was meant to exist”—that is, like a blessed child of fortune.

But as he learns to his pain, the transcendent mastery and happiness he knows at moments when his luck runs high, and when he believes himself to be “at the heart of things that matter,” are finally and inevitably blasted by the laws of probability. Since he has set out to discover whether he is a winner or a loser, choosing to test himself in one of the most brutal arenas imaginable, with every throw of the dice his entire being is placed at stake, and the several runs of bad luck he describes leave him utterly negated. From being everything, he becomes a nullity.

Of course, merely to conceive of gambling in such large terms requires a sustained act of the imagination, and the author of this book, observing himself in the grip of compulsion, lucidly connects it with the sort of compulsion that kept “a Humboldt in search of another specimen, a Goethe another line, a Caesar another province.” Gambling thus becomes a metaphor for the heroic struggle of the artist to create a sphere of meaning out of his own passionate desire and will. As in gambling, so in art, the effort involves taking risks of essential consequence, and it also involves a belief, at bottom religious, that such a sphere of ultimate meaning exists and that it conforms to an intelligible pattern. Richardson, in short, is a man in quest of a theologically coherent universe.

As he embarks for Las Vegas, Richardson wonders sardonically if he is to have any grace in this life. As it turns out, the answer is for the most part no. Depairing of a revelation, in the end he reflects that he will settle for some sign of life from the Devil. “Let good be myriad, elusive, and unattainable, if only evil could be shaped for an honest encounter.” So, in a fantasized showdown that closes the book, the Devil puts in an appearance—dressed in a leisure suit and enjoining the author to dispense with his moral theatrics. He warns:

These are difficult times and the infinite and absolute belong now to mathematics, not to the likes of you and me.

You flinch at this? You want infernal pacts and pleasures, a hell incurred and a heaven lost? If things were only still so simple, bliss and punishment so precise. Then I might have my horns and pedal deformity, you your dice and cards, and good wagers could be made between us. But now there’s nothing of high value you could lose.

Thus is the author urged back to the realm of compromise and contingency, the world of the everyday. His gambling has been a playing at games in more ways than one. He will abandon it, having learned that “life is a serious and dangerous business,” not to be wasted in a futile search for high meanings and purpose. “Learn to enjoy,” the Devil tells him, “the imprecision of things that have no number or color to them. Learn to dream and love in universals. Acquire a taste for paradox and resignation.”

That Jack Richardson has acquired a taste for paradox and resignation, Memoir of a Gambler impressively demonstrates. More than that, the book is itself a kind of solution to the spiritual dilemma it describes, for in it, Richardson not only imposes his supple imagination, Napoleon-like, on the intractable materials of his life, but achieves a level of artistic grace that was clearly never his even in the illuminated blaze of his biggest win at the tables. A writer of almost ominous sophistication, Richardson in telling his moral fable strikes a remarkable and altogether moving balance between his ironic and often grimly funny sense of his own ineluctable morality and his still passionate attachment to longings that made a mockery of any notion of human limits. In that balance one might almost say that he has found a combination to beat the Devil.

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