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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Taking the intoxication out: late capitalism, what a drag


Walter Benjamin was convinced that gambling – and the gambler – was the temporal coordinate of the stroll, and the flaneur.  The gambler was an intrusion, he thought, into the bourgeois sphere of a custom determined, originally, by the economic conditions of feudalism.  This was in keeping with the Marxist nearsightedness about the function of credit and finance in high capitalism. But within those myopic limits, Benjamin’s theory of the “intoxication” of gambling is interesting.

“With the briefness of the game it [the time factor]  has in fact its own condition. The briefer the play, the rawer emerges the  element of chance, the smaller or the briefer the suite of combinations, that in the course of the party are brought out. In other words: the greater the component of chance in a game, the quicker it happens.   This circumstance becomes decisive when it comes to determining what, exactly, constitutes the intoxication of the gambler. It rests on the property of the game of chance, to provoke the intellectual actuality that brings the constellations forward in quick succession, which – each one quite independently from the others – calls on a completely new, original reaction of the player.”

Benjamin’s model for gambling was cards, and the casino. The very depressing article in Bloomberg about the gambler, Bill Benter, who “cracked” the horseracing code is about taking the joy, the intoxication,  out of addiction – a very 21st century approach to the problem of killing time. Horse racing was, in the 19th and 20th century, presented as the relic of feudal times – the province of aristocrats and Bourbon kings from Kentucky. Bill Benter, as it were, stormed the Bastille with his computer, and has made, according to the article, billions from his algorithmically massaged bets. Never has money seemed a bigger drag.

My first encounter with gambling was at the horse track in Bossier City, to which I was taken by my boss, H. At that time, I was going to college and working part time at a hardware store in Shreveport. H. was the assistant manager of the store, and he wanted to teach me how to bet on a sure thing. The sure things had four legs and jockeys on top of them.  As it turned out, they were not so sure – which H., to his sorrow, discovered. H. covered his debts by “borrowing” from the store, and so the downward spiral goes.


My own young self thought gambling, as well as drugs and the rock n roll lifestyle, was romantic. My older self thinks the ultimate gambler was the shooter in Las Vegas, taking a private bet with himself that he could take out x number of lives in a certain time frame and even get away with it. From killing time to killing – freedom’s just another word for nothing much to lose.

As Ferenzi and Turner (2012) point out, problem gambling was late to be medicalized. About the time my friend H. was quietly cleaning out the till and spending it on what he hoped would be a winning trifecta, the DSM-III was putting this kind of gambling on its list of addictions, along with alcohol and other ingested stuff.  There is a lot of  controversy about the addiction model for “deviant” behavior – and this controversy definitely reflects a class bias. A winner – whether a wall street firm making money on derivatives and currency trading or a man who uses algorithms to win horse races – is considered less a deviant than a genius. A loser – my friend H., or my roommate in New Orleans, later on, who lost everything at the horse races including the rent money – is not given such a friendly lens.  H.’s gains were, on the addictive model, pathological. Benter’s gains, on the other hand, are “returns”.


“Their returns kept growing. Woods made $10 million in the 1994-95 season and bought a Rolls-Royce that he never drove. Benter purchased a stake in a French vineyard. It was impossible to keep their success secret, and they both attracted employees and hangers-on, some of whom switched back and forth between the Benter and Woods teams. One was Bob Moore, a manic New Zealander whose passions were cocaine and video analysis. He’d watch footage of past races to identify horses that should have won but were bumped or blocked and prevented from doing so. It worked as a kind of bad-luck adjuster and made the algorithms more effective.

As we all know, chaos is a kind of determinate dynamical system. There are rules here, dude. But why, oh why, does it have to be so fucking joyless?

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