Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2021/Spring/105/Section 87/The Gambler

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The Gambler[edit | edit source]

Biography:[edit | edit source]

Early Life:[edit | edit source]

The Gambler, an unnamed white male, was born in Blank County, in a small North Carolina town, and was raised by a single mother, who always gave him lots of spending money, during the 1930s. His mother was gay and often brought women back home to stay the night with her, which the gambler was very ashamed of, and he often tried staying with other family members in town to avoid the shame. He would often skip school and go to poolrooms instead, and when his mom died when he was only 20, he was left to his own resources, and began hustling people in pool to make money.

Professional Life:[edit | edit source]

At 26, he rented a place above a store, bought a bed, a round table, and some chairs, and began inviting people up to play cards. He later expanded, buying three little bridge tables and more chairs, to try to achieve his goal of getting customers in his place and getting them in the habit of gambling. After just beginning his gambling house, the chief of police gave him a warrant, charging him for running a gambling house, and he was required to pay $50 a week to a lawyer to avoid appearing in front of a judge. After that, he bought a stud table, creating even bigger games. Every year he would make good money during tobacco season, but the money would get away from him during the dull season, and this went on for about 10 years. He began either drinking or gambling at all times, and would go to the city for big games, and lose around $300-$400, knowing he couldn’t and wasn’t going to win. He practiced new techniques and getting good at dealing and dealing faster and tricks to dealing. Rent and protection money came, and they were forced to cut the Saturday night games more and more deeper, and they finally were taking so much that no player could win.

Post Prime Professional Life:[edit | edit source]

He learned living life as a gambler, you cannot win. He mentioned being sick of gambling, being 40 years old, never married, no friends, just a gambler behind on rent. He began to read the bible, and began to realize his worthlessness, how he never did good to anyone. He felt ‘guilt rich’ for how he was obtaining money.

Social Context:[edit | edit source]

Gambling Laws During the Depression:[edit | edit source]

Gambling at the Orient Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona, c.1900. Photograph by C.S. Fly.

During the Great Depression, most forms of gambling were illegal. Legislation allowed “some forms of gambling such as bingo...but most gambling remained illegal” (“Gambling During the Great Depression”). Anyone involved in gambling, owning a gambling house was often cited, went to court, and even jail. Laws were passed “in the state legislature against any emerging gambling venue. Such laws were enforced in most of the small towns and rural areas, but not in New York's larger cities” (“Gambling During the Great Depression”). This allowed larger cities like New York and Las Vegas and other cities to grow their gambling businesses, because the “conflict was centered in the criminal underworld and was thus largely hidden from public view” (Vaz 2014). This inconsistency is the reason gambling continued to grow, and grow in secret in small towns and larger cities, even when there were laws in place against it. Owning a gambling house was “a misdemeanor, and gambling games [were] declared to be felonies by statute” (Drzaga 1952, 409).

Gambling Contributing to Debt During the Great Depression:[edit | edit source]

Money supply decreased significantly between Black Tuesday, October 24, 1929, and the Bank Holiday in March 1933 when there were massive bank runs across the United States.

As gambling continued to grow, the financial crisis continued to grow in the United States because with the financial stress of the great depression, many people looked for an outlet, a way to escape their reality, and this often lead to gambling or drinking. The desire and need for money drove people to develop a ““dual personality” as a justification of or explanation for their actions with gambling (Heiskanan 2017). This often lead to a loss of self-respect, and gamblers falling into a “hole,” and a continuous cycle of gambling and losing money. The longer gambling continued to be excessive and problematic, the worse financial losses and problems got. The less options or opportunities for money lead to an increase in involvement in gambling. Debts especially form a cycle in which new loans are taken in order to pay the interest on previous loans.

Controversy with Gambling Dealers:[edit | edit source]

Gambling was controversial behind the scenes because the house always won, but players were often tricked into having a false sense of hope. Dealers knew many tricks in order to create this false sense of hope, but made sure to always win in the end, so they were making a profit and continued to make money off their business. Dealers often “dice load to win or lose; the loads [were] placed near the edge in solid dice, and the spots through which the load is inserted are repainted. In transparent dice, the spots are drilled out and a tiny gold disc is inserted and painted over,” so it is not easily detected (Drzaga 1952, 405). This was sometimes called percentage dice because it can increase the user's take or profit. This was just one method of making the deal in favor of the house, but dealers often counted cards and marked cards and dice to make sure they had the best opportunity to have “luck” on their sides.

Gays During the Depression:[edit | edit source]

A same-sex female couple on the cover of a 1915 criminology text.

During the Great Depression and during the early 20th century, gay couples and individuals were often looked down upon because they were not ‘normal’ or did not fit the ideal standard American family image that everyone tried to show. During this troublesome time period, ”Americans worried that any deviation from "traditional norms could make the financial situation even worse than it was already” (Pretl-Drummond 2019). When individuals chose not to be married, or were gay, this was seen as troublesome, and many people saw this as one of the reasons they were in such a financial crisis. Anything outside of a traditional lifestyle was seen to worsen the financial, economic, social, and political struggles that were going on during the Great Depression.

Not only were gays and lesbians looked down on in society, but when the depression hit, they were a demographic that was hit particularly hard by the economic troubles of the time period. Women in general who worked during this time “were in particularly dire straits when the economy fell - doubly so if they were lesbians. Those who could not live openly or leave town often chose to live a heterosexual life for the sake of economic survival” (Pretl-Drummond 2019). A single lesbian women, often had the most struggles to support a family and themselves during this time period, due to inequality in gender and well as discrimination against lesbians and gays, on top of the economic crash and depression that the whole country was in.

References:[edit | edit source]

Drzaga, John.”Gambling and the Law- Dice.” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Northwestern Law, 1952. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=4040&context=jclc.

“Gambling During the Great Depression.” Brownbird, Weebly. Accessed March 17 2021. https://brownbird680.weebly.com/gambling-during-the-great-depression.html.

Heiskanen, Maria. ”Is it all about money? A qualitative analysis of problem gamblers’ conceptualisations of money.” Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Sage Journals, 21 Aug 2017. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1455072517718455.

Pretl-Drummond, Oliver. “In the 20s, Gay Self-Expression Was Common In The Urban US. Then The Great Depression Happened.” Ranker, Ranker, 27 Aug 2019. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://www.ranker.com/list/how-did-great-depression-impact-gay-identity-us/oliver-pretl-drummond.

Vaz, Matthew.“We Intend to Run It”: Racial Politics, Illegal Gambling, and the Rise of Government Lotteries in the United States, 1960–1985.” Oxford Academic, Journal of American History, 1 June 2014. Accessed March 17, 2021. https://academic.oup.com/jah/article/101/1/71/749284.

[The Gambler], in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.