Gambler’s Last Exit By Joe Kempkes

Tuesday December 27, 2005

The “aesthetic of shock” that Walter Benjamin describes in a memorable passage in his essay on Buadelaire puts Buadelaire together with stories on Poe, the paintings of James Ensor, and a striking statement by Valery about the savagery of isolation in the urban crowd.  

Benjamin, as noted by Robert Alter in his superb book Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, “draws on a celebrated essay by the early 20th-century sociologist Georg Simmel, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life.’ ” Simmel proposes that the psychology of the new urban person is predicated on “the intensification of nervousstimulation [he gives italic emphasis to this phrase] which results from the swift and uninterrupted change of outer and inner stimuli.” He goes on to suggest that, in contrast to a mind entertaining lasting impressions that “show regular and habitual contrasts” more consciousness is “used up” in the denizen of the metropolis by “the rapid crowd of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.” 

In his new book, Six to Five Against: A Gambler’s Odyssey, Berkeley-based investigative journalist Burt Dragin recounts his own Simmelian “intensification of nervous stimulation” with a concentrated superabundance of dizzying yet delightful images: 


I still remember my first walk through a Las Vegas casino. I’m enchanted by the clanging slot machines, the lush maroon carpets, the shiny silver dollars and the gamblers’ exuberance as they play dice. A pit boss jokes to me, “Get your bet down!” I’m eight years old, my head spinning with delight. Suddenly a slot machine explodes in bells and rains silver dollars into a bucket and onto the floor; the player, a huge woman with platinum hair, leaps up and down, elated, grabbing the silver. I stop wide-eyed and stare. My father takes in the fascination. Anything is OK,” he whispers, “in moderation.” I miss the point-and, of course, the irony. (p. 36)  


Dragin returned on frequent trips to Las Vegas and made countless trips to Santa Anita racetrack and other gambling venues as a teenager with fake ID. His most memorable day at Los Angeles’s Alexander Hamilton High School “was neither the senior prom nor homecoming (both of which I missed) but an off-campus escapade at Hollywood Park racetrack. Trapped in Mrs. Plummer’s American history class, I perused the Daily Racing Form. Plummer might wax eloquent on Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln but I was versed in Arcaro, Longdon and Shoemaker-the diminutive athletes who guided the 1,200 pound thoroughbreds around the track.” 

In the meantime, his father Phil, who fled an Odessa pogrom before the Soviet revolution, was on a rapid downward spiral of divorce, menial jobs and dead-end jobs caused by a gambling addiction. Burt once visited his dad while he was working at a greasy spoon in downtown L.A., “that could have been the locale in the film L.A. Confidential where the detectives wander in to discover carnage among the grime.”  

Parental discord was a recurring motif at home: “Once after a bitter parental battle over Topic A (dad’s gambling losses) there ensued a lengthy silence. My parents seemed to be doing some weird dance, as if they were sentenced to marriage and had to endure hard time.” 

While Dragin was attending college, he worked at an entry level job at an L.A. paper as an editorial trainee. Even while pursuing (and eventually receiving) a masters’ degree in journalism at USC he kept gambling... “the thrusts of gambling losses weren’t so painful. I could rationalize that I was on my way toward ‘a career.’ ” 

Sometimes Dragin comes across like a darkly comic character in an Elmore Leonard novel. At a casino after a Tahoe ski weekend, a woman friend made a comment that is etched in his brain: “ ‘You’ve already gambled $10,’ she said, ‘why do you need to gamble more?’ She stumped me (because I’m addicted?). I made a mental note to share her observation with my father. He loved it. Both of us knew blowing ten bucks was practically a win.” 

His staggering loses at Tahoe devoured his paychecks but the repeated blows to his ego were a different matter entirely. The narrow, icy roads on the drive back from Tahoe, “seemed wrong for someone in rank depression.” His solution was to gamble in Reno, which was “a straight shot up Highway 80.” After contemplating a “plunge into oblivion,” he finally faced the truth and went to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, albeit as a freelance journalist. His 1985 magazine article “Gamblers Anonymous: Last Exit on the Highway to Hell” opened with one man’s plight: 

“Norman R. was face down in a drunk tank when he had a revelation ‘Stop or die.’ He stopped. That was seven years ago. Norman keeps the gambling demons in check by telling his horror stories over and over at GA meetings.” 

By a curious concidence, Six to Five Against: A Gambler’s Odyssey arrived on bookstore shelves the same day that the Baseball Writers’ Hall of Fame Selection Committee decided not to enter gambling addict Pete Rose’s name on the ballot in his final year of eligibility. 

What are the odds on that?  


Joe Kempkes’ disaster travel story “Stabbed and Gouged” was published in the anthology I Should Have Gone Home: Tripping Up Around the World (2005).