Place Your Bets: Six Stories About Gambling

Photo: fitzsean

We pulled into a gas station in rural North Carolina. My friend’s car took diesel; my boyfriend and I needed snacks. The man at the pump across from us looked toward the convenience store and shook his head. “Line’s an hour long,” he said. This was the evening the Powerball would be announced, and folks traveling from all over were lining up to buy last-minute tickets. During the six-hour car ride, we discussed what we’d do if we won. We weren’t going to win. But what if we did? My boyfriend said he’d give each of his coworkers a grand. I wanted to pay off my students’ loans and my parents’ mortgage, nary a dent in the hundreds of millions the Powerball promised after taxes. Wide-eyed, we three walked in. By the time I left the bathroom, the line had dwindled. We restocked on junk food. My boyfriend found a five-dollar bill in his jacket and bought two Powerball tickets. “Playing” the Powerball was passive. We exchanged money for goods; it didn’t feel like a game. But it did make us feel like a part of something bigger—until the winners were announced. I closed Twitter and sighed, and all we Powerballers went back to dreaming.

1. “Heartbreak and Joy in a ‘MasterChef Junior’ Betting Pool.” (Jaya Saxena, The Daily Dot, February 2015)

It’s all fun and games until—nah, it’s still fun and games. “MasterChef Junior” is earnest, heartwarming and suspenseful. It might be the best reality show on TV.

2. “Why We Keep Playing the Lottery.” (Adam Piore, Nautilus, August 2013)

When the odds are so small that they are difficult to conceptualize, the risk we perceive has less to do with outcomes than with how much fear or hope we are feeling when we make a decision, how we “frame” and organize sets of logical facts, and even how we perceive ourselves in relation to others…It’s a game where reason and logic are rendered obsolete, and hope and dreams are on sale.

3. “Racetrack Diary: On Luck.” (Elizabeth Minkel, The Millions, August 2013)

It is easy, after the fact, to draw neat lines between events, to look for cause and effect in random acts of chance…But then you spend a while sitting behind the betting windows, watching assholes blithely cashing huge tickets, or informing sweet old ladies that they’ve lost a week’s savings. I draw those same neat, fatalistic lines, and then I have to shake myself to erase them: this must all be chance, because it’s impossible to see much reason in any of it.

4. “A Rejected Artist in NYC: Who Really Wins Affordable Housing Lotteries?” (Andrew J. Padilla, Latino Rebels, February 2015)

A different kind of lottery: Artspace PS109 was supposed to revitalize East Harlem, but it seems its residents weren’t welcome. Here’s why one artist felt led-on and lied to, in pursuit of affordable housing and artistic integrity.

5. “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Woman: My March Madness.” (Sarah Miller, The Toast, April 2015)

“Sam told us that everyone in New Jersey had a bookie.” Here is a hilarious essay about betting on basketball when you don’t know a thing about sports.

6. “The Melancholy Hustle.” (Emily M. Keeler, Hazlitt, July 2014)

Colson Whitehead, acclaimed novelist and author of The Noble Hustle, settled in Las Vegas with $10,000 and an assignment: enter the World Series of Poker. Emily M. Keeler interviews the author, concluding “literature…relies on persuading someone to permit themselves to believe, even briefly, in the power of artifice to effect something real. The stakes with art are the same as with poker: will the artifice pay off?”