To explore one side to Monte Carlo My Travels and Hollywood. To explore another, let look at the gambling. We’re talking addictions – a sadly topical topic as the New York Times article attests: America’s 8-Step Program for Opioid Addiction.
Part of the fun of a casino is scoping out one’s fellow gamblers. In the famous Monte Carlo casino my attention was quickly drawn to two people in particular, a man and a woman. They were both playing black jack, and they were at different tables. I identified them as hardened gamesters not only because they were playing alone but also because they were playing multiple hands at once. The other more casual gamblers, such as myself, were clearly tourists, were accompanied by friends and/or family, and were playing one hand each.
The two hardened types also kept at it longer than anyone else.
I first noticed the man playing four hands at a table where he was the only player. At some point I left the room to have dinner. When I came back he was at the same table, only now there were three other players, and he was playing only two hands. He was still there when I left the casino.
I was able to observe the woman gamester more closely because I sat down at her table. She was attractive and nicely dressed. Her hair was perfect, her jewelry lovely. She was playing two hands.
I didn’t last long. I found the whole thing boring and just wanted to get back to the bar. (Point: I’m in no position to judge gamblers.) At the same time I thought it worth a try to understand what the attraction for a gambler might be. So I hung around.
The woman at my table had no glass of alcohol at her side. She did not seem to be in a fever of play. Nor did she seem to be in a trance. But she was getting pleasure somewhere – otherwise she wouldn’t have been there.
The dealer stands behind the table with twenty stacks of different colored chips lying horizontally in a till in front of him. The sorter, with its six decks of cards, stands on his left. The table itself is shaped like an open fan. It’s made of hard wood, brilliantly lacquered, and is covered in green felt.
The play is whisper smooth. The dealer whisks the cards out of the sorter, spreads them in front of the players then deftly deals his own hand. Tap your fingertips on the felt for another hit. Shake your wrist to stay. If you lose, your chips are scooped off the table. If you win, chips are dispersed from the till. Then the cards are swept away, and the dealing begins anew.
There’s never a hitch in the dealer’s movements, never a moment without subtle sensory input. A card is flicked. Fingertips tap felt. A wrist shakes, a bracelet jangles. Chips clack against one another. They feel good in your palm and as you run them between your fingers. Stacks of them rise and fall. The rhythm of the game is unhurried – and yet each hand is over in a few seconds.
ASMR – autonomous sensory meridian response – refers to the pleasurable tingling of the scalp or back or other regions on the body in response to the sounds of whispering, crinkling, and/or light scratching. ASMR remains an anecdotal phenomenon, not a scientific one. I was put in mind of it as I watched the play. I guessed that one part of the attraction of black jack is the pleasurable state its sounds and rhythms induce in some people’s bodies. A spinning roulette wheel might produce similar effects in other people.
Surely there are other dimensions to the attractions of gambling such as the dopamine hits the brain gets upon winning or the surge of the feeling that, if one’s luck is down, it’s going to change on the next turn of the cards. I have no difficulty understanding how when one thing feels good – this is a nice glass of wine – it’s easy to do it again – hey, let’s have another!
The problem is to identify when the feel-good things become addictions. My Duke University colleague and philosophy professor Owen Flanagan defines addictions as: “A failure of normal rational agency or self-control with respect to the substance; and shame at both this failure, and the failure to live up to the standards for a good life that the addict himself acknowledges and aspires to.”
Flanagan’s definition of addictions is remarkable for including the dimension of shame. How do you know when you’ve had too much of a good thing? When you’re hiding it or lying about it. When you feel ashamed about it.
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See also: How To help the addiction pandemic
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen