Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Dostoevsky is Not Considered Summer Reading (Pt. III)

The Gambler by Fyodor DostoevskyA second phenomena explored by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler concerns the way the game -- be it roulette, poker, or any other contest that involves gambling -- has the potential to consume us, causing us to forget about everything else. What I’m suggesting is that when we play poker, the past and future tend to mean less to us. The present is all.

In The Gambler, whenever Alexey Ivanovitch goes to the casino to gamble he tends to experience a kind of “transcendence” while playing -- a sort of euphoria, actually, that causes him not simply to lose track of time, but to lose his sense of self. Toward the novel’s conclusion, Alexey has trouble recounting the details of one frenzied session of play: “I don’t remember my winnings after, nor what I staked on. I only remember as though in a dream that I won . . . but I scarcely felt anything as I did so; I simply waited [for the next turn of the wheel] in a mechanical, senseless way . . . .” When Alexey plays, it is as though nothing else exists for him. Everything -- the past, the future, all of his relationships with others -- falls away as he waits “mechanically” to see where the ball will land.

In fact, during this particular session he has entirely forgotten his reason for having come to the casino in the first place -- to win enough to pay off the debts of a woman, Polina, with whom he is obsessed. While leaving the casino with his winnings he realizes “I hardly remembered what she [Polina] had said to me earlier, and why I had gone.” Later on another character, an Englishman named Mr. Astley, has to tell Alexey that Polina was in love with him all along, yet his having become consumed with gambling caused him not to recognize this fact. Mr. Astley accuses Alexey of having relinquished everything to the perpetual present of roulette: “You have not only given up life, all your interests, private and public, the duties of a man and a citizen, your friends (and you really had friends) -- you have not only given up your objects, such as they were, all but gambling -- you have even given up your memories.” Alexey’s reply is rich with irony: “Enough . . . please don’t remind me.” He doesn’t want to be reminded about his past -- even that he has a past. Rather, the game is all.

Of course, not everyone who plays poker is as troubled as Alexey. Most of us don’t allow the game to consume our lives as thoroughly as he does. I would suggest, however, that all of us experience this sort of “transcendence” at times when playing, those moments when we find ourselves simply waiting in a “mechanical, senseless way” for the next card to come. These moments come most frequently during the latter stages of particuarly lengthy sessions, I’d venture, although they can come at other times, too (such as during a wild “rush” of cards or a sequence of large pots in which one is frequently involved). As happens with Alexey, our minds momentarily trick us into forgetting all else and giving ourselves over to the here and now.

The fact is, when it comes to poker, thinking primarily of the present moment is not entirely a bad thing. As was pointed out in the previous post, each hand exists as an independent event and thus must be regarded as such. Also, within each hand come moments that exist independent of each other, decision points when we have to evaluate our situation right here and right now. Dan Harrington makes this argument repeatedly in Harrington on Hold ‘em when taking us through the sample hands. Just because we made a mistake preflop, we cannot allow that blunder to affect our next decision. “Once you’re in a hand,” says Harrington, “every subsequent decision has to be determined by your hand, the pot odds, and the total table situation. Every betting decision is a new problem. Don’t forget that.”

That may well be one of the greatest appeals of poker, the way it continually provides us new problems to try to solve. (If one views these poker problems as eclipsing in importance other “problems” in our lives -- as happens with Alexey -- then one has a much greater problem, of course.) In any event, this momentary “forgetting” of ourselves relates to a couple of other issues that come up in The Gambler that I’ll discuss in my last post on the novel, namely, how poker strangely satisfies contradictory desires to control one’s life while at the same time relinquish responsibility over it.

Image: Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler (1866), Amazon.

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