Gambling and moral issues: Three examples
Gambling and moral issues
“Bet: risk a sum of money or valued item against someone else’s on the basis of the outcome of an unpredictable event such as a race or game”1
Simple, so it seems.
Indeed, what can be simpler, more naïve than the desire to guess things correctly?
To win a lottery’s ticket even once in a while?
To challenge a friend in a friendly game of cards?
What is so wrong with gambling, anyway? Is it the frequency or the money at stake. A “little” gambling is “o.k.” but “heavy” gambling is off limits? And who is to decide how “little” can a “little” gambling be, before crossing the line into “too much”?
Maybe it’s a different thing altogether – not the gambling itself, but the desire to win that is so unseemly and inappropriate?
Were we wrongly conditioned to consider a bet as an immoral deed, with hazardous outcomes?
What is it about gambling that makes it so appealing and so indecent at the same time?
The cinema is very often a mirror for human ordeals and tribulations. Therefore, movies that deal with gambling tend to formulate a negative and condemning image, designed to alienate the viewers from the decadent world. A good example of this outlook is the movie Two for the Money2 that tells the (true) story of two heavy gamblers in the sports world. Walter Abrams, a manager of one of the biggest companies for sport gambling in USA, discovers Brandon Lang, a former football star with an unusual talent to predict games results. Walter hires Brandon to work for him and turns him into a superstar. Their business relationship quickly turns into a warm, father and son relationship. All looks promising until the immoderate betting, for all its false promises of glamour and fortune, turns out to be a two edged sword.
Brandon, the promising young man, starts to lose his charm. The unstable circumstances of his profession make it difficult for him to create a normal and steady life for himself. He begins to jeopardize all. He tries desperately to save all he had worked so hard for – not just in the present, but through his entire career: in vain. Simultaneously, cracks begin to emerge in the rock-solid persona of his mentor. Brandon finds it difficult to lose, but Walter finds it even more difficult to win: this destructive obsession to fail overpowers him again and again, tearing down his life, his business, his relationship with his (third) wife and his connection to Brandon.
The conclusion of the movie is that this madness needs to be stopped. Gambling, especially when serious and even more so when compulsive, is testament to a deficiency in the gambler’s psyche. When it turns into a regular way of life, it will cause inevitable destruction, very much like disease or drug addiction.
This approach is also well exhibited with Mike McDermott’s character in the movie Rounders3. Mike is a law student, an intelligent and talented young man, with great personal charm and a history of a poker gambling. Mike is a gambler who risks everything – and loses. This failure scorches him so badly that Mike swears he will never play again. He manages to keep this promise until his best friend is released from prison and drags him into the dubious world of gambling.
The bet in the scenario transcends the desire to guess correctly. It is an entrance to a world, which exists in basements, at the ends of long corridors and behind locked doors, the underworld of drugs, deceit, violence and cruelty. Mike is pulled into it, unwillingly, due to his desire to win and to be the best, again.
Mike fails and rises again. In spite of everything, Mike’s greatest victory is embodied in the fact that the gambling did not corrupt his honorable soul. His perseverance, as well as his intellect, shaped him into an admirable figure. Gambling is considered to be a curse of some kind, an uncontrollable impulse that must be restrained completely4.
On the other hand, it is very much understood that gambling is not always represented as despicable and dishonorable. Casino Royale5 portrays it as a sophisticated mental battle and fascinating challenge between the victorious good and the defeated evil. 216, which – like Two for the Money –is inspired by a true story, is another example for the way in which the ability to deceive others is a testimony to intellectual supremacy and unquestionable power.
Ben Campbell, a brilliant student from M.I.T, becomes the king of the gambling halls in Las Vegas when he joins a con team that swindles the card game of 21. The success – failure – soberness – revenge – reformation stretch a direct line between the mistake and atonement: Gambling – no. Steady, quiet life – yes. But a more meaningful observation will show that gambling in this film is perceived as negative act only because Ben lost control and gambled too much. By doing this, he removed the bet from the enjoyable limits of the con game. It had become personal and therefore changed the personality of the shy student. Ben remodeled himself as a glamorous champion and increased the stakes until he lost touch with reality.
Ben’s initial purpose – to pay his academic tuition – is considered a valuable goal. No doubt that his work as a shop assistant in a men’s clothing store could not have funded his high ambitions. Not even his underprivileged mother could have helped him. This fundamental fact, together with joining the con team, had enormously improved Ben’s social status and presented gambling as a righteous and justified action, unblemished by its illegal nature. “If only he had stopped on time” – that is the dominant feeling in face of Campbell’s inevitable fall. Campbell could not stop: the illusion of wealth and success had imprisoned him. Likely, his gambling losses brought about an end to his delusions.
Ben Campbell was and remains a moral character throughout the entire movie, despite his immoral deeds. A mythical genius who lost track for a moment but came back to his sense. His phenomenal success provokes sympathy and imitation. Ben Campbell maintains his positivity throughout the movie, regardless of everything that happens.
Gambling does not have to be extreme. In It could happen to you7, the story of Charlie Lang, a good hearted police officer who, one day, wins a lottery ticket of four million dollars. A day before Charlie had promise a coffee waitress to share his winning with her, as a substitute compensation for the tip he wasn’t able to pay. Charlie made his promise without faith in the chance of winning, but due to his kind and good nature, he holds to his promise. This decision will result in endless struggles and conflict with Charlie’s wife, Muriel, who is completely taken up by the new situation and everything it has to offer.
In spite of the comedy, the movie illustrates dramatic clashes between the desire to gamble, and commendable qualities. It shows the tension between wealth and the will to lead a more modest life: Charlie’s pure soul cannot be corrupted, neither by gambling nor by his unexpected success, but Muriel’s soul is an entirely different story.
The thought that a successful, onetime bet can change the course of a life, cause a subjugation of a whole life to that “onetime” bet. Apart from the money, the winning inspires a momentarily delusion of status, triumph and accomplishment. But winning a bet is not an achievement. It’s one victory in one game, and nothing more.
Anton Chekhov’s story – The Bet deals with a simple wager between a banker and an attorney. A venture, which was born out of pure foolishness, and ends up in pointless tragedy.
15 years prior to when the story takes place, a banker throws a party that “had been many clever men… and… interesting conversations. Among other things they had talked of capital punishment. The majority of the guests, journalists and intellectuals, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.”8
The banker thinks that the death penalty is the preferable alternative, both morally and personally, due to the fact that it is carried out in one moment, unlike long imprisonment, which sentences a man to a life time of slow extinction. An attorney of 25 argues passionately the opposite: “The death sentence and the life sentence are equally immoral, but if I had to choose between the death penalty and imprisonment for life, I would certainly choose the second. To live anyhow is better than not at all.”9
The philosophical debate, which began as a theoretical and intellectual amusement, had quickly turned into a heated discussion.
“The banker… was suddenly carried away by excitement; he struck the table with his fist and shouted at the young man: “It’s not true! I’ll bet you two million you wouldn’t stay in solitary confinement for five years.”
“If you mean that in earnest,” said the young man, “I’ll take the bet, but I would stay not five but fifteen years.”
“Fifteen? Done!” cried the banker. “Gentlemen, I stake two million!”
“Agreed! You stake your millions and I stake my freedom!” said the young man.
And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet.”10
What caused the thoughtless wager that even the narrator thought was harmful and irresponsible? How could such an impulsive, capricious action take place, without any logic or sense to it? What will their righteousness or wrongness prove, and to whom? Does it have any meaningful implication that can support or refute the weight of the death penalty versa life sentence? Is renouncing on two millions or 15 years imprisonment will help either them establish the initial idea from which the bet had original sprout from?
The irrational emotions of the banker, the financier, and the attorney, the legal representative, might be forgiven due to their aggravated nature: people tend to be irrational when they are fuming with rage. But “many clever men” were there at the party, people who were not emotionally involved in the passionate argument. Was not one of them clever enough to stop this “wild, senseless bet”? Was the bet alluring to them as well?
The young lawyer begins to fulfill his part in the bargain: locked in a special cottage, single roomed, in the banker’s back yard. According to their agreement, the young attorney cannot leave his room, read newspapers or receive correspondence or have any visitors. Books, music, smoking tobacco and drinking wine – these were permitted without restraint. Their unlimited supply was enabled through a narrow window at room’s door, once a day.
The first year was horrible: the attorney’s short notes testified that boredom and loneliness had caused him great suffering. During the entire year he didn’t stop playing the piano and reading light novels. The second year he spent reading the classical. During the fifth year he resumed his playing and wine drinking. At the midst of his sixth year he showed craving for knowledge and devoted himself to the study of languages, philosophy and history, reading over 600 books up to his tenth year. Then he sat at his desk and, motionless and began reading the gospel and books about the faith and religion. In his last two years he had read everything.
Finally, the last night had arrived. The next day the attorney was supposed to be released from his imprisonment and return to Civilization. His argument, if there was any point to it, was proven. Two million are waiting for him at the banker.
Only, the banker doesn’t have two millions ruble to give the attorney. If he stood up to his obligation now and played his part in the stupid bet, he would lose all his property and have to declare himself bankrupt.
The idea frightens him to death.
After much deliberation, the banker decides to murder the attorney and excuse himself from his obligation.
He considers it his only option.
Evidently, gambling can also turn a man into a murder.
The banker sneaks into the attorney’s cabin, takes off the seals on the door were had not been removed for fifteen years and enters the room. The attorney was seated at the desk, “man unlike ordinary people… He was a skeleton with the skin drawn tight over his bones, with long curls like a woman’s and a shaggy beard. His face was yellow with an earthy tint in it, his cheeks were hollow, his back long and narrow, and the hand on which his shaggy head was propped was so thin and delicate that it was dreadful to look at it. His hair was already streaked with silver, and seeing his emaciated, aged-looking face, no one would have believed that he was only forty.”11
This was the price of victory.
This was the sight of a gambler who survived the bet.
The attorney’s looks arouse pity and compassion in the banker’s heart, but out of a rational consideration he suddenly realizes that the killing he came in to do had just become much easier: what would be simpler than to throw that weightless body on the bed and stifle him to death with a pillow?
It’s just that… there was a letter on the desk.
The banker became inquisitive. He looked over the attorney’s shoulder and began reading; soon he will find out that this letter will turn his world upside down.
In the letter the attorney puts down his doctrine, which he had manifested during the fifteen years of his imprisonment. He describes his feelings and impressions, the places he had visited, the world he saw, the people he had met – “All that the unresting thought of man has created in the ages is compressed into a small compass in my brain. I know that I am wiser than all of you. And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage… You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth… To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. To deprive myself of the right to the money I shall go out from here five hours before the time fixed, and so break the compact…” When the banker had read this he laid the page on the table, kissed the strange man on the head, and went out of the lodge, weeping. At no other time, even when he had lost heavily on the Stock Exchange, had he felt so great a contempt for himself. When he got home he lay on his bed, but his tears and emotion kept him from sleeping for hours.”12
Some stir of conscience moved the banker. It was more pungent than any defeat he had ever experienced and hit him with a sense of disillusionment.
He kept his money, but in return lost something far more substantial: his dignity in life.
Overall, a bet is just a bet. An act of enthusiasm or temporary lack in judgment, it is not a way to demonstrate wisdom or strength.
The young attorney entered the bet in order to walk out of it a rich man. Two million easily earned, without the effort of actual labor. Only, the young attorney didn’t imagine the gravity of his commitment or the ramifications of his hasty gambling.
He was not the only one.
When gambling, one always thinks about the winning, never about the possibility of failure, although statistics teaches us otherwise.
The bet between the banker and the attorney was foolish. It could not contribute anything to anyone. The disappointment it caused touched a great lesson and showed that gambling always ends badly. Even when one wins– one always loses.
There are many reasons why not to gamble.
But people are people.
We do not always understand what is best for us.
We do not always want to do what is right.
If we are wise, we will realize this.
As we are human, it might take some time.