Gambling Man

I just went to the Carleton to see the true-life story of a compulsive gambler turned bank thief in the movie “Owning Mahowny”. It was like watching a train wreck on ultra-slow-motion replay.

I spent the first few minutes feeling awful that I had dragged Ed along with me on the grounds that at least we could enjoy the air conditioning for a few hours, knowing full well that he hates Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Then I spent another half hour feeling sorry for yet empathizing with and also being disgusted at Minnie Driver’s character for putting up with her boyfriend’s insane gambling addiction. Unable to restrain myself when she offers to sell her RRSPs to pay off his debts, I turned to Darren and whispered angrily “my gender is a doormat!” It didn’t make sense, grammatically or intellectually, but I felt better for having said something to express my disgust. She didn’t even have the consolation that the women in ‘Catch Me If You Can’ had, where at least their con man had personality, good looks and youthful vigor going for him.

Women were not given a very positive portrayal or a large role in the movie, and I wasn’t sure whether to feel good or bad about that. Even knowing that they were trying to achieve a retro mood for the oh-so-unenlightened early eighties, the female element was rather limited. All of the women were just props for the male lead: understanding lover, seductive whore, curious casino girl. Drives me batty. I am not a prop.

I spent the rest of the movie just feeling queasy. Many of my negative feelings spring from the fact that I watched a much, much, much better film about gambling last week with Alastair, called “Intacto.” It’s about people who beat the odds of life and can steal other people’s luck by touch. There is a whole underground gambling circuit, a cut above the average casino, in which these chosen few participate, competing in high-stakes games of pure, undiluted chance. Great film, if you can handle the occasional subtitle.

Also, my father was a gambler in his heyday. Many of my favorite childhood memories with him involve the soft vocal stylings of Kenny Rogers. I used to ride on his shoulders, while he held up the binoculars for me so that I could see the horses circle the paddock at the track. He taught me how to read the racing form and place bets, and I would touch every bill before he pushed it over the counter for luck.

My grandfathers on both sides liked to wager, too. I have few memories of my mother’s father, but the ones I do all feature the smoke-dulled clink clink of dominoes being shuffled and drawn and pint glasses raised and lowered to the table.

My other Grandad liked to watch and bet on boxing matches, having been a man of the ring once himself. He taught me how to play cards, and by catching him at it, I learned how to cheat. Cribbage, poker, blackjack. We’d bet with anything — pennies, gumballs, carrot slices, band aids. When his vision started to go, I bought him oversized cards and we would play child’s games like fish and hearts.

I never understood the urge to gamble, myself. Every week my grandparents bought lottery tickets, hoping to win big and achieve all of their frivolous dreams of buying fast cars and echoing empty houses and racehorses. But how can that be a compelling reason? The entire point of gambling is that you never win. My mother sometimes says she spends the money as an investment in dreaming. ‘Just imagine’ has been the motto of Lotto 6-49 ever since I can recall. And that’s the point, I guess.

The odds speak for themselves. But I suppose it’s ingrained in us. I found it interesting that one of the quirks they played up in the lead character was that he never cheated on his girlfriend, never shopped for new clothes, never traded in his car for a newer model. He wasn’t a gambler in any other sense than the purest. Never acting on his impulse to see if the grass was greener on the other side, just perpetually needing the strain of striving to get there.

I prefer, in the words of Tom Green, to use my OWN brains, and my OWN imagination. I don’t need a lottery ticket in my pocket to grease the wheels of fancy. I’ve never liked speculating what I would do differently with one million dollars. Rather, it’s easier to change my way of thinking to embrace happiness with what I have right now. Doesn’t this make sense to anyone?

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