The Only Thing Worse Than Losing Is Not Playing

Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss by Frederick and Steven Barthelme

Two brothers, both professors of English at the University of Southern Mississippi, get in their car most nights and drive to Hattiesburg or Gulfport. The brothers grew up in an architecturally significant house on the plains of Texas filled with furniture designed by Eames and Aalto, but now they sit hour after hour amid the aggressive air conditioning and free Diet Cokes of a riverboat casino. Over the next year, they gamble almost every night and ultimately lose over a quarter million dollars.

In 1995, Frederick and Steven Barthelme (younger brothers to the late short story maestro Donald) entered a casino and played slots. They sometimes played roulette and they always played blackjack. Why two hyper-educated men – respected teachers and writers both – would let themselves be so duped is beside the point.

At first the seduction was real: both men walked into a casino and came out winners. Both men didn’t smoke and rarely drank; they taught classes and read papers. But after the first win, they talked about odds and maximizing them. “Something new had come into our otherwise quiet lives,” they write. “Neither of us had any idea how much those first jackpots would eventually cost.”

What happened to the Barthelmes happens to most every gambler – they lost.

When their parents died in the middle of the gambling year, they took their inheritance to the riverboats. They were horribly reckless, and more than once one of them blew a night’s winnings in a slot machine. Once they had changed their money into chips, they couldn’t resist spending it. They’d bet anywhere from five dollars to two thousand dollars on a single hand of blackjack. “It’s a terrible feeling to be so far ahead and then start losing in a way you just can’t stop – an ineluctable fall, like gravity,” they recall. “You don’t care about money anymore. You want to lose it.”

They read books on blackjack and understood it was a sucker’s game, but still they drove to the casinos and played for two days at a stretch. They were spending in weeks what their parents had spent a lifetime accumulating. And they were spending it so fast, perhaps, to exorcise the demons of a domineering father, a beloved older brother dying too young, years dutifully spent in classrooms. Nothing could be more rebellious than subverting family history by blowing it all on the blackjack table.

“It’s a terrible feeling to be so far ahead and then start losing in a way you just can’t stop – an ineluctable fall, like gravity. You don’t care about money anymore. You want to lose it.”

It’s pathetic how eagerly they take to the nightlife at the Grand Casino. Steve always heads to the ATM machines, Rick heads to the cashier. They take it as a good sign that the waitresses know them by name. Inevitably, this run toward bankruptcy had to stop in its tracks. Surprisingly, the wife and girlfriend don’t intervene, nor do the other Barthelme siblings. It’s the casino itself that stops them with a singularly bizarre accusation of colluding with a dealer. First the pit bosses accuse them of a sexual affair with the dealer, who they’d never seen in their year at the Grand. Worse, they were accused of cheating on the insurance, the stupidest possible bet to make at a blackjack table. After losing $250,000, what insurance could have helped them?

Reading over this book is frustrating for many reasons, but it’s not just that they lost so much money. They are such supremely bad gamblers -in their months of gambling, they never advance past slots and blackjack, they sometimes do take insurance, they become addicted and forget chips are money. About the only thing they do well is lose. For all their faults as gamblers, they are beautiful writers, and this account of their trials is riveting.

Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss by Frederick and Steven Barthelme (Mariner Books)

Rebecca Kurson

Rebecca Kurson writes about literature, pop culture, television, science fiction and music. Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Observer, The Federalist and Rodale's Organic Life.

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