Miscellany — From the December 2015 issue

Getting to the End

Gambling and suicide in Atlantic City

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For roughly a five-year stretch beginning in 1995, I worked in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a dealer in several casino resorts. It wasn’t that dealing had been a career ambition of mine. Instead, I had recognized that an affluent upbringing had insulated me from life as it was lived by most people in the world. I was a young man with a conscience — wealth guilt. I wanted to live in Atlantic City because its squalor felt honest. It was hubris to think that auto-exile into a tiny urban wasteland would provide whatever inspiration I thought I needed, but it took me a while to accept that — perhaps until 1999, when there came what local newspapers called a “spate” of suicides in Atlantic City.

Photographs from Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Robert Gumpert

Photographs from Atlantic City, New Jersey, by Robert Gumpert

By then I had concluded that casinos, like suicides, are really all about stories. That casino resorts offer a kind of virtual travel is an obvious facet of this theory, but all the glitzy bullshit — the gross architectural citation of other, actual places — is really just a lure for the virtual narrative of the gambling experience. The recent poker craze, for example, has less to do with money than with a kind of gunslinger romance: the lone traveler traipsing through a moral wilderness, confronting opponent after opponent with stoic poise. Other games feature class tropes — the conspicuous consumption of high-action baccarat, the cyclical routine of suburban blackjack, the get-rich-quick frenzy of blue-collar craps — and each offers a clear beginning, middle, and end. Real life, of course, lacks any such clarity or chronological neatness, and perhaps the best explanation for why people play games they know they will lose is that they hunger to become protagonists. It simply doesn’t matter that the story will more likely end in tragedy than in comedy.

What this meant for me, as a dealer, was that for five years I acted out bit parts in other people’s adventures. My own stories about that world are therefore clipped and incomplete. The need for stories, I want to say, is biological. I don’t care whether this is a divine imprint or the evolutionary side effect of an accidental consciousness; either way, when you serve primarily as a stock figure in other people’s stories, you begin to experience a mysterious physiological deficiency, a dreadful sense of not enough. Or at least I did. From there, it’s only a short step to wondering whether life — as William James once asked — is worth living at all.

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