For the Love of Losing | Marina Benjamin | Granta

For the Love of Losing

Marina Benjamin

For two years in the mid-1990s, I worked on and off as a professional gambler, touring the world as the rookie member of a long-standing blackjack team. I had been casually recruited into the ‘Odds and Sods’, as they sometimes called themselves, by a colourful Peruvian woman with owlish grey eyes, who correctly pegged me for a drifter when we’d met over a platter of spicy prawns at the home of a mutual friend. Her husband, Ken, a former research chemist, was the blackjack pro. ‘But I pick all his assistants,’ she told me, pressing her business card into my palm before she left.

I remember the frisson of excitement I’d felt at her approach, at having been singled out, and the justification that swiftly followed. I told myself that it would be an adventure: something I could write about as I embarked on a career in journalism. But perhaps it was a measure of how little control I felt I could exert over things in my twenties that I didn’t so much jump at the opportunity as offer nothing in the way of resistance.

In the event, I wrote about those years once or twice in a splashy style that didn’t feel true to me, but after a while I stopped talking about falling into blackjack since it had a way of hijacking the conversation. I began to notice that each time I rolled out my tale I felt outside of it, almost as if in getting too close I feared tasting the bitter edge of my own desperation. Something in me shifted over time, allowing me to see the experience in more nuanced light. I began to wonder if running off with a blackjack team to spend long weeks holed up inside casinos wasn’t my way of throwing down the gauntlet to my father – a couturier in thrall to glamour, who had gambled all his life. Was I tempting fate to see if I wouldn’t make a better gambler than he was, by which I mean, not become an addict – as if my pro gambling was some kind of self-administered test.


The team I toured with roved across those US states where gambling was permitted and thrived, but it was decided my debut may as well be in Las Vegas so I could enjoy the full colour and drama of the pro experience. The trip had been pulled together by Ken – who knew the how-to blackjack literature inside out, and had devised a few tricks of his own besides – and a couple of Dutch entrepreneurs. Tomas was a computer nerd, a cowboy coder long before Silicon Valley made the designation cool. The other, Lenny, owned a string of bars in Amsterdam and had been up before the courts more than once, charged with running illegal gambling on his premises.

Tomas looked even more out of place in casino-land than I did. A doughy man with shoulder-length hair and thick-rimmed specs that he kept pushing up his nose, he insisted on wearing his rumpled grey suit when everyone else had changed into baseball caps and sweats so as to better blend in. But he was kind to me and openly acknowledged the time I’d be buying them at the tables as the team’s only woman – unlike Lenny, a flinty-looking character, who I barely exchanged two words with before he left us in a huff to play on his own, accusing us of cramping his style.

The first time I sat in a car with the three of them, driving to our low-rent apartment from the airport in Las Vegas in a hired convertible, the hot evening breeze caressing my skin, I was exhilarated beyond words. Fresh from having walked out on a PhD, and with a string of temping jobs behind me and a nagging sense that ahead of me time was simply lazily turning pirouettes, I had never embarked on anything so racy.


Las Vegas. City of myth and promise, of neon glory, fizz and glitz, the roads in and out of it lined with giant billboards promising riches beyond imagining – one of them, making a regular appearance, pictured a couple of golden chips under the word ‘Arrival’ and a glinting mountain of them under ‘Departure’. Everyone, a winner! My father would have given anything to have been in my shoes then. But the reality is so much more precarious: a desert city fighting for its life against the elements and, slowly but surely, losing.

On the outskirts of town, our apartment was part of a sprawling development of identikit houses arrayed around fractally repeating cul-de-sacs, all of them shaped like keyholes. I never saw anyone out and about in the streets. In fact, the streets themselves seemed to exist in a state of tension, with the desert continually trying to assert its primacy over the man-made. Sand kept drifting into roads, tennis courts and backyards, filling potholes and piling kerbside in gentle slopes. It blew in through our open windows, getting into everything. An omen of transience.

My first few days on the job left my head thudding. The noise on the casino floor was unbelievable, everything blinking, boinking and buzzing. We played Harrah’s, one of the older casinos on the Strip rumoured to have Mob connections, its riverboat design harking back to the old paddleboat casinos of the American South. I remember that it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the twilight inside. As we sat down at the blackjack tables for the first time, I could feel my heart pulsing in terror: all I could think of was whether I’d actually be capable of throwing away Ken’s money at speed. Among blackjack’s great appeal to gamblers, aside from its ease – is any card game simpler than twenty-one? – is the swiftness of play: there’s no time to fool around, only to bet and bet again. The first time the dealer swept the board clean, and my unlucky bet with it, my impulse was to snatch it back.

More troubling, in hindsight, is how quickly I grew accustomed to the casino’s artificial world. To the gaudy throb of flashing lights, the ceaseless din of the slot machines, the clatter of chips and coins. I stopped noticing the smell of stale food ground into the swirly-patterned carpets, the total absence of daylight or clocks, or the way the fishnet tights the cocktail waitresses wore were always torn. I began to focus small on the green baize in front of my nose, drifting towards a meditative space as I played like an automaton, on endless repeat, my emotions effectively cauterised.

Most days we’d be stationed at the tables for eight hours, ten if we were on a roll, my tired eyes swooning with images of hearts and spades and diamonds, and square-faced kings and queens. At night I dreamt of those cards, a chubby Michelangelo hand in the sky reaching down from a fluffy cloud to turn them face up on my box in slow motion.

Here was something I had not expected, a kind of self-intoxication I found relaxing, even if behind the scenes our play was anything but passive. It was minutely calibrated, moment by moment, the result of being grounded in Tomas’s customised mathematical modellings of the game, which used tens of thousands of computer dry runs to determine the probability of us making money over long stretches of time.

In his short story ‘Gambler’s Luck’, the German novelist E.T.A. Hoffmann distinguishes between two kinds of gambler: those, like my teammates, given to ‘cabalistic calculations’, and those whose wins and losses were governed by ‘a lucky star’. I had plenty of opportunity to observe this second group as we silently crunched numbers and perfected memory tricks – the better to mine the thin seam of advantage Tomas had squeezed from his models.

Superstitious creatures, one and all, the good-luck crew was given to mysterious rites and rituals meant to curry favour with capricious gods. They were easy to spot, too, by their hot-headed play and ‘notice me’ volubility; the way they kissed and coddled lucky charms; wore lucky caps and clothing; crossed fingers and curled toes. They bet on numbers that meant something to them personally – birthdays, anniversaries, customised red-letter days. ‘I know you’ve got an ace, honey,’ the Vegas hucksters crooned, tipping their cowboy hats at stone-faced female dealers who had heard it all before. Then they’d put $500 or $1,000 or $3,000 on their box in a tremble of anticipation. ‘Go on, hit me!’ they’d say, their faces shiny with sweat as they turned grinning towards the gathered company to make sure they were seen.

Most of the time they lost, as did we – just like our algorithms predicted. But when we wanted to bet big and profit from our ability to accurately track aces, we’d ape their neediness and their swagger. We’d high-five and holler, and do silly seat-dancing. So much of our gambling was performative. We were always trying our best to look like regular losers. I learned to see them coming. They’d join our table, hoisting one butt cheek onto the stool as if unsure whether to stay or go and chuck a desultory chip or two onto their box, emitting a sigh of defeat. ‘Go home!’ I wanted to tell them. ‘Do something nice for someone, for yourself, for your dog.’ But they’d lurk around, step away from the table and back again as though it were magnetised. After they lost a bit more, they’d shake their heads, saying, ‘I just don’t seem to have it today,’ before moving to another table in hopes of tapping better juju elsewhere. Other times I’d see people play with a kind of relentless doom, chasing their losses with ever greater stakes and ridding themselves of cash as fast as they could, their impatience palpable, any trace of humanity in their faces wiped out in their determination to punish themselves. It was difficult to watch, this public self-flagellation.

It was easier for us, and more enjoyable, to imitate the loud high-fivers. Ken would wear a white shell suit, I’d pull on baggy shorts and a fanny pack, and we’d leave our apartment in high spirits, wondering if we’d be taken for high rollers, or for the idiots we pretended to be. On the whole the tactic worked, until it didn’t, and then black-suited staff from the casino’s security team would appear at our sides, leaning in like heavies, and politely instruct us to leave: all casinos are private clubs, with punters admitted, or kicked out, at the discretion of the management. Although we never once made an illegal move at the tables, I was always embarrassed by the unwelcome spotlight of being singled out as a pro. We drew glowering looks from people. We were not good sports.

In time, blackjack became almost humdrum. I learned to count cards, assigning a positive or negative value to each one as they were dealt in real time and accruing a hair’s breadth advantage over the house. I timed the shuffle. Tracked aces one by one. I can’t say I relished the mental labour involved in having to make constant calculations over extended hours of play. But then, for me, blackjack was work, and of a kind I’m all too familiar with as a freelancer: one with no regular pay cheque.


I have always been terrible with money. It slithers from my grasp like some slippery sea animal, and on the rare occasions when I’ve come into it, the anxiety of having it and of not understanding how to husband it have led me to misspend. Caught up in the dot-com mania of the late 1990s, I invested small sums in a handful of start-ups whose stock values vacillated like crazy. Tracking their fortunes was a hobby I indulged with a writer friend, both of us equally in thrall to that tang of The Future, which the nascent tech industry seemed capable of bringing tantalisingly near. We’d call each other up all the time. ‘Do you fancy Webvan’s chances?’ I’d say, and he’d bounce back with ‘What about Napster?’ Neither company made it. We studied ‘form’, like racegoers diligently doing their homework on the horses, but the two of us were equally bad at spotting winners. He used to joke that we ought to set up a company ourselves and call it Bellwether Investments, its tag line being: ‘We fail, so that you don’t have to.’

Perhaps my experience of pro blackjack had softened me up for those dot-com wagers. Or perhaps not: a dedicated penny-pincher, bargain-buyer and saver, in the overheated climate of speculation around everything digital I somehow went rogue. Living in San Francisco at the time, I got caught up in a Bay Area-wide mania for what the financial journalist Michael Lewis famously called ‘the new, new thing’. It was a tangible excitement that charged the very air. You’d walk out of your apartment and people barely out of their teens were talking about money on the street, speculating, scheming, innovating. Punching the air with their optimism.

In my tentative forays at gaming the future alongside them, was I gambling? I’m still not entirely sure, because unlike its flow through stock markets, money is not money in a casino. In casinos money is soft currency – its power proxied by chips. There is no point-to-point relationship it maintains between cost and value. Nor is it indexically linked to anything real. In casinos money is more like social capital, even a psychological liability: with money in your pocket you are a victim merely posing as king. If you rid yourself of it, it is a perverse kind of triumph.

If I remain baffled by the way some people seem able to blithely chuck away something I find so difficult to retain, it is not because I do not understand the rules of capitalism so much as I marvel at the hidden workings of the human mind. With the life’s work I’ve chosen and settled comfortably into, the writing and editing that sits at the centre of my world, moneymaking is less an objective goal as it is a scarce by-product. It preciousness waxes in proportion to the difficulty of its extraction. But watching people gamble firsthand, their dedication to it, the hours they put in as they empty their wallets and take their chances, I can’t help feeling that they’re in it to lose.

I have seen men and women at the blackjack tables itching to leave, batting away the real-world commitments constantly tugging at their sleeves – removing their wristwatch and placing it in a pocket – and watched them ‘push’ whatever money they had left onto their box, piling it high, wanting to lose, despair gnawing at them as the cards were dealt, their defeat a blessed release when it finally came.

Up and down the slot machine alleys of American casinos, I witnessed people who were pinned uncomfortably to the spot on account of still having coins sloshing about in their giant plastic baby-cups, and who were desperate to empty them into the machines. People who could not dispense with their money fast enough. At Caesars Palace one time, I saw a middle-aged woman hit a jackpot, setting off a full-scale mechanical fanfare: lights blinked, artificial trumpets sounded and coins roared spewing from the machine. A small crowd gathered round her to drink in the win, but the woman herself appeared wholly impassive. I lingered a while longer, watching as she continued to stuff money into the slots even more energetically than before. It was as if winning had made her only more determined to lose. If anything, she now seemed irked, her features set against emotion.

Winning, it turns out, was the cracking whip that meant gamblers had to stay where they were until they lost their money all over again – occasionally even brazening out the shame of soiling themselves because they cannot bear to tear themselves away from the action. A win brought no joy, but instead a rare kind of punishment. It was a punishment that jolted players out of a self-induced anaesthesia – something they may well have come to the casino to seek out – a soothing hypnotic reverie that, even as it numbed the pain of everyday living, made them little more than button-pressing drones.

Slot machine players in particular seem to crave what the cultural critic Michael Crawford terms ‘automaticity’ – or a state of pure passivity in which they are at one with the machine, reactive, responsive, but no more than that; the whole of their sensorium shrunk down to a tiny forcefield. Press the button, or don’t. In such a state their gambling qualifies as ‘play’ only in a twisted fashion, in relying on an absorption born not of focus or concentration but its opposite: an alienation so profound they can no longer connect to the world. Once unplugged they empty themselves of everything.

They don’t care about the money any more. They know it’s hopeless.

I believe that losing, in this sense, triggers a kind of emetic impulse, a desire to vomit up one’s fears about the uncontrollable nature of the world and to purge oneself of deeply lodged hurts. In losing there can be tremendous relief, even rebirth, in that only once you have lost everything can you walk away and start over, or start again, living out the mundane reality of your life until the tension once more becomes unbearable. Winning is far more problematic, because there is responsibility in the win – what to do with all that money! It’s the opposite of release.

You want to lose. Out of what writers Frederick and Steve Barthelme, accounting for their own haemorrhaging losses at the tables, call a ‘unique despair’.

The thought is so powerful that it winds me. The gut punch comes from the way that gambling at full throttle turns losing into a species of self-harm. I think of my father and his roulette compulsion, and I wonder if behind his dapper and gregarious front he might have secretly reached the end of himself, too: the point at which however much luck he believed he owned, he had given up on hope. My mother tells of countless nights she spent alone, when I was small, consumed with worry as she waited for my father to return from God knows where. She’d hear the lock turn at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., and discover him on the stairs, polished shoes paired in one hand, tiptoeing his guilt, his dark suit glistening with London mizzle. When she demanded he hand over his cash, he’d turn out his pockets to prove he didn’t have a penny to his name. Next time, he promised, making a clown frown. Next time it would be different. But his routine was always the same, predictable as a vaudeville act.


In the minds of most gamblers, money barely matters. What matters is the play it buys and the existential drama of the self that unfolds within it. Joseph Mazur, a professor of mathematics in Vermont, who has long studied randomness and the illusions people entertain when they imbue it with meaning, argues that gamblers see luck as practically corporeal. They view it as something that may be captured, ensnared or pulled onside. It comes in strings or runs (until it runs out) and you can be in it, out of it or down on it. To the gambler, luck is constitutional rather than circumstantial: they can possess it and also be possessed by it. Mazur’s research has convinced him that this psychology is closely linked to an ‘optimistic bent’. A precise term in his lexicon, having an optimistic bent has nothing to do with a sunny disposition but rather a tendency to consistently overrate the likelihood of a favourable outcome. In effect, it’s a form of magical thinking that persistently confounds cause and effect.

Gamblers get into trouble, not least vortices of debt, because they cannot help pitting themselves against fate. They know that luck is capricious, evasive, flighty, which is part of its dangerous appeal; but they’re also convinced that they can somehow divine it. It’s why gamblers like my father – a man whose entire life floated on a cloud of magical thinking – are so easily intoxicated with a sense of their own agency. If they’re special or charmed, or ‘touched’ in some way, the odds of a given bet become far less important than whether or not it chimes with something meaningful to them: their children’s birthdays, the anniversary of their grandmother’s death, the day they proposed to their partner or acquired a new car.

When gamblers pay any attention to the odds at all, they prefer it when the odds are long – since when the odds are long, the stakes are greater, the wins higher and the thrill dearer. The rational alternative of betting cautiously on lengthy odds is a buzzkill; plodding probability so prosaic compared to luck’s fleet and tricksy ways. I had trudged through such play myself at the blackjack tables, noted the dreary nature of making finely tuned, though correct, calculations, time after time – especially the way it flattened me. In this emotionally weighted reckoning with fate, the one thing gamblers do get right is that luck is a pick-me-up. More: it is in play by definition when the odds are long, because in order to beat them and win you have to take your chances.

My father was a classic chancer. I’ve come to understand that, for him, roulette, more than any other game, modelled the randomness of the universe, mapped its chaotic swerves, its jumps and deviations, its endless surprising turns. It made sense of the inherent disorder of things. Chimed with his sense of being a creative soul who needed chaos in order to thrive.

For someone lacking in analytic skills, as he was, this understanding of how the world works is as good as any other. But my father’s story is also, in part, an immigrant’s story: if you are an outsider, you do not know how things work.

My father was skilled at grafting himself from place to place. Born to an Iraqi-Jewish family in what was then called British Rangoon, he’d fled to Palestine before the Japanese invaded, and then to France to study couture, arriving in England just as austerity was ending. He was a classic citizen of nowhere, happily residing in a place – working there, raising a family, finding friendship and purpose – but never belonging. England remained a mystery to my father for the duration of his adult life here, not because he didn’t try to blend in, but in great measure because so many doors were closed to him. For the most part, he didn’t even notice the doors.

It is true that he lacked a flair for business. That at the time his gambling took serious hold of his psyche (and his heart), he struggled to comprehend that his chosen trade, haute couture, was heading for extinction in a fast-changing climate now teeming with new evolutionary forms – all those prêt-à-porter upstarts like Biba and Mary Quant snapping at his heels like raptors, usurping old-fashioned glamour with laid-back boho chic.

However, at some level he didn’t care. In Joseph Mazur’s terms he was immune to cause and effect, and to a large extent he was happy in that ignorance. He enjoyed blowing money he didn’t have on expensive holidays and fancy furniture. Got a kick out of throwing it willy-nilly at shares issued by companies he simply liked the names of. It may not be an exaggeration to suppose that inside his head there sat a symbolic roulette wheel, whirling with outlandish possibilities that might, with a bit of luck, be realised.

As I push my thinking on this subject out to its furthest edges, I am reminded once again of my father’s desire to live eternally close to the brink, financially, emotionally and creatively. Even before prêt-à-porter altered the landscape of high fashion, his business was forever on the verge of going bust, his bank accounts miraculously running on empty, his prayers to Fortuna increasingly fierce and desperate. Here he was then, running out of hope. Which only made the thrills more urgent: every move he made was do or die, just like it was at the tables.

Unlikely as it may seem, gambling emboldened my father to navigate life’s essential unpredictability. Instead of making rational choices, he went where whim, instinct and appetite took him, his inner tuning fork sympathetically resonating to mysterious whispers from the far side. Losing at the tables may even have been the antidote to his losing in real life. A balm for someone who found it near impossible to make money or to compete in a cut-and-thrust world, and who was unable to benefit from the protection that patriarchy extends to men more comfortable with their masculinity than he was.

Perhaps this was his unique despair. The thing he could barely endure.


But if gambling offered my father a fantasy life in which he could finally feel some agency, just like one of life’s winners, what did it offer me?

I am no longer convinced that playing pro blackjack was my thinly disguised attempt to discover whether the apple had fallen far from or uncomfortably close to the paternal tree: to know if the addiction I so clearly disdained in my father lurked somewhere, latent, inside of me. I now think it more likely that I was toying with loss itself – as one might toy with fire! – trying to figure out at a time of profound change in my life, my entry into the adult world, just how much, and what kind of loss I could comfortably tolerate. I had lost my father as someone I could respect and count on. Lost my sense of belonging to a diaspora pinched uncomfortably between old and new, and, with that, my place in a cultural continuum that would have seen me lead a more cosseted life than I wanted. I had also lost my bearings in a grown-up world I felt ill-equipped to participate in. I was, in short, winging it, living precariously on my wits, and my bottle, and so gambling felt no riskier than any other undertaking.

Those who study the phenomenon of loss aversion point out that what someone is willing to lose is always related to a reference point, and usually that reference point is the status quo: most people will put up with some degree of loss if it doesn’t upset their world too much. But if the point of reference is less stable the logic shifts. If you believe, as my father did, that you were born to have riches beyond compare then you will risk much more to lessen the gap between reality and expectation. If like me, however, the bar of your expectations is set differently, calibrated for reality, then your approach to risk is more calculated.

I wish that I could go back and tell my younger self that the world is kinder than I knew, or believed it to be. That opportunity did sometimes come knocking out of the blue. That emotional precarity is a state that one might gird oneself to wait out instead of put to the test, while expecting to fail. But I guess there are always some things one needs to learn the hard way. That cannot be learned in any displaced arena, or field of play, or even a funhouse palace, however defanged or neutered to protect against real loss.


Photograph © Magnum Photos, Carl de Keyzer, Casino, Las Vegas, USA, 1993

Marina Benjamin

Marina Benjamin’s books include the memoirs The Middlepause and Insomnia. She has written for the Guardian, the Paris Review, the New York Times and Aeon where she works as a senior editor. Her latest memoir A Little Give is published in April, completing her midlife trilogy.

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