Read an Excerpt
Introductory sample from Rick Whitaker's Essay "One More Last Chance"
In November 1999 a brief essay I wrote was printed in the last-page “Lives” column of the New York Times Magazine. The piece was headlined “One Last Chance” and the “pull-quote” beneath the headline had me proudly proclaiming that “Gambling away everything I hadand some things I didn’t havewas a quiet act of social rebellion.” The essay told of my introduction to poker at a casino in Santa Fe the summer of 1997; it described a neat arc of quick addiction to the game, the gradual realization that it was an addiction, and my having blithely put it behind me after a brief period of abstinence.
Shortly after the article appeared I received a handwritten note in the mail from a woman who worked as a counselor in an addiction treatment facility. She had written to warn me that, contrary to my cocksure claims in the essay, my addiction to poker was probably far from over. She advised me to treat the addiction seriously over the long term and not to assume it would be, or already had been, easy to kick. She was right. Now it’s 2006, and I’m still gambling. My addiction to poker has persisted for more time now than my hero Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous addiction to roulette, which began in 1863 and ended in 1871 after his wife cleverly encouraged him to play. She knew he would lose again and would then, as he had done before, re-devote himself to writing and break a long spell of literary silence (and poverty). Dostoevsky quit gambling and wrote The Adolescent and then The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps the greatest of all novels. It is not being overly dramatic to surmise that he would have written neither if he hadn’t stopped gambling.
I’ve been talking about my gambling addiction for a long time now. I see a psychoanalyst three times every week, and have been seeing him on this schedule for nearly five years (his monthly fee is more than my rent). I’ve put in time at Gamblers Anonymous meetings, where I met the type of guy who said he was a million dollars in debt and hiding in New York from his Chicago “bookies and shylocks,” and women who spent every penny of their disability checks playing bingo; my boyfriend even went to the “GamAnon” meetings with the gambler’s wives, where he was very popular. I consider my addiction to playing online poker to be my single seriously disturbing vice now, at age 37, and there have been long periods in my life when I juggled vices like a clown juggles torches. I’ve been addicted to a variety of drugs, sex, shame, cigarettes, vodka, and (when I was a teenager) pinball. I used to sleep all day and stay out all night, which I couldn’t do now if I tried to. To have just one problemor one obvious, unnecessary, eradicable problemfor me is an unusually fortuitous condition. I could say I’m almost afraid of giving up poker for fear of having no vice; but the truth is I want to be vice-free, and I would therefore like to give up poker. So far, however, I haven’t found a way to quit that sticks.
Going into a darkened room alone and playing poker on the Internet against other virtual beingsthat is, against presumably real people onlineis my most pleasurable and destructive activity. It’s akin to masturbation (which has the great advantage of being harmless); its aim, however, is not orgasm but perpetuationpoker lasts longer than sex, and for me the apparently chemical reaction it sets off inside of me feels better (in fact I recently looked at pornography while playing pokerI suspect I’m not the first ever to have thought of doing thisand the two went together very nicely). When I am anxious or angry, I can calm myself by thinking about playing poker and telling myself that soon enough I will again be alone with my computer winning and losing, singularly involved in the intricate game that somehow takes my whole emotional and psychic being on a kind of roller-coaster ride, my paltry (but sorely-needed) money the little red train that carries me up and flies down so precipitously along the rails. The allure of poker is the heady possibility of playing better than the other players and thereby taking all their money. There is no limit to the money one could win; it’s possible to get rich playing poker, even to get rich in one night of miraculous luck and skill. Very few other arenas in life offer that hope. I have turned $20 into more than $1,000 in a few thrilling hours on the Internet, and I’ve heard stories of college boys making $100,000 a month on a regular basis. People have won millions of dollars playing poker. All you have to do is beat the other players. Every time I play, my intention is to win some money, cash out, and go home. But the more I win, the more I can keep winning, until I lose.