I went to Las Vegas for my MFA and ended up a gambler

The muse.
The muse.
Image: Reuters/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus
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The casino is the anti-writing space: a room designed to intoxicate, lull, distract from rather than encourage critical thought. When I left New York three years ago to pursue a master’s in creative writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, several friends advised that I avoid the so-called “green felt jungle.”

“Don’t blow your funding on a roulette spin!”

I heard a lot of jokes in that vein. My friends were being 100% facetious; I’d visited Atlantic City just once during eight years in New York. I was notoriously frugal, and didn’t even play fantasy football. I was not a gambler.

And I think about that now every time I lose at blackjack, or craps. When I’m taken for a fish at poker.

I think about it often.

The thing is, I’m not one of those writers who thrive in quiet solitude. Although I work fine at home during the day, by nightfall it’s the boisterous din of a bar or cafe that keeps my muse awake, and in Las Vegas, those outings often lead past blinking casino marquees, neon-lit gaming floors packed with seductively plinking slot machines and tuxedoed dealers doling out chips for groups of hooting patrons that, I figure, might as well include me.

There is a certain writerly allure to casino gambling that I find difficult to resist. Or perhaps I should call it a not writing allure. Having a crowd chant my name as I shoot dice is not something I’ll ever experience revising sentences in the UNLV library. The perfect supplement to the fragile joy of editing the nineteenth draft of a short story that really has potential this time is winning a hand of poker by going all in, taking another man’s stack while the competition looks on, envious and impressed.

I met my girlfriend in the MFA program and we developed a routine early on in our relationship. After a late writing session, I’d ask if she wanted to visit a casino “just to check out the tables,” as if a sign would be posted announcing that we’d surely, definitely, probably win. “Oh yeah. I mean, if you want to,” she’d say.

Next time it would be her turn to instigate, my night to acquiesce.

They say gambling is all about odds, but the only statistic we paid attention to was the 50% chance this routine allowed us to enter a casino in the passive role of a supportive boyfriend or girlfriend. Going bust always sucks, but it’s significantly less depressing to leave as an unlucky tag-along than as a shamed provocateur. That, fellow bettors, is a losing combo.

Thus we became regulars at the El Cortez—an old mobster casino now frequented by geriatrics, budget travelers, and locals like us who can’t afford the higher stakes action on the Strip. It smelled of expired perfume and decades of cigarette smoke, but I didn’t mind. Attuned instead to the buzz of risk in the air, I chased winning roulette numbers, made sloppy bets at blackjack and craps. Roaming under soft pink lights, I moved from one cold table to the next, begging croupiers to “go easy on me!” It’s standard practice to blame the dealer for a miserable run, and apparently against the rules for her to explain each game’s miserable odds.

Channeling the ghost of Dostoyevsky (the patron saint of writers who moonlight as problem gamblers) we started visiting a bigger, seamier resort that also offered sports betting and poker.

It was named Terrible’s Hotel & Casino, and that’s precisely how it went.

So why do it? As a graduate assistant I made a fraction of what I earned as a journalist in New York (and I felt poor there!). So what was I thinking? The short answer is: I don’t know. Whether gambling is physically or psychologically addictive is still subject to debate. Some blame the appeal on endorphins released during games of chance, while others say compulsive gambling results from a mental itch to repeat reward acts.

I won’t wade too far into that wonkiness except to say that while I can certainly attest to a physical rush (as anyone who’s ever played bingo can) for me it’s all about a want and need to socialize, to wind down.

In contrast to the cerebral work of crafting fiction or reading a dense novel, gambling is a mindless diversion. Forget that this is exactly how casinos want you to approach their games. Never mind that a professional card player demonstrates the sober, calculating adroitness of a mathematician when a new hand is dealt. I’m not him. I play for fun. Haruki Murakami runs marathons, the great Amy Hempel volunteers at animal shelters, and Flannery O’Connor had her Catholic faith. Me, I toss plastic chips onto green felt.

Part of gambling’s appeal is that a writing life requires so much waiting. You wait six months for a submission to be rejected, wait for that rare story that is accepted to finally come out, wait for agents to notice your “exciting new voice,” wait for another round of rejections, wait for readers to respond to your work, which is as tortuous as listening to Bob Marley’s “Waiting In Vain” while running on a treadmill.

Then take the long view. I’ll probably need ten years to recognize whether the MFA experience panned out. Not so with that 20 bucks on red or this double down on eleven.

“Bad beats”—those gambling losses that should have been wins—can always be written-off as research, anyway. Is there a more fitting metaphor for the American experience than the action playing out on a casino floor?

In poker rooms, people with little money are regularly bullied around by high rollers whose towers of chips clearly mean nothing to them.

Two of the business world’s most annoying clichés ring true in that corner of the casino: it takes money to make money, so the rich get richer.

I prefer craps, where players win or lose together, “hot dice” act as icebreakers, and people who’d never meet on the street forge unions that span age, race, and class on rare occasions when collective optimism seems finally enough to beat the dreaded house, that oligarchy upstairs.

In his novel The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes: “I had come [to the casino] not only to look at, but also to number myself sincerely and wholeheartedly with, the mob. As for my secret moral views, I had no room for them amongst my actual, practical opinions.”

He, too, used trips to smoky grottos like the El Cortez and Terrible’s as occasions to study politics and psychology. I should add, though, that Dostoyevsky was also a hopeless roulette addict who published The Gambler to pay back creditors who threatened to keep the rights to his literary output for nine years. While marketed as fiction, The Gambler is, in fact, a roman à clef about the author’s own tortured self-deception, the kind inherent in gambling addict platitudes like, “It’s okay. I don’t have a problem. I can win it back.”

He didn’t win it back. It merits repeating (at least for my own sake) that Dostoyevsky wrote his way out of that problem by delivering a book in thirty days, succeeding through work in lieu of luck.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Teaching on a campus where 75% of the student body grew up in Las Vegas is instructive, too. It’s not uncommon to receive an English 101 essay from someone whose father had a blackjack habit so crippling, his tearful mother gathered the kids and moved out.

A creative writing student once submitted a poem about children who rescue their mother from a castle that sounds an awful lot like The Excalibur Hotel & Casino, where she’s held captive by a monster that flashes and jingles, like a slot machine. 

Here’s the part of the essay where I admit that gambling is not always interesting, always novel. Broke and angry and ashamed is also no way to spend graduate school so I’ve cut back on trips to the green felt jungle. I prefer to explore weird Vegas as a journalist now, a role that begs a certain professional distance.

When I chose to move here, I did so partially inspired by Nevada’s vulgar brand of escapism, because there’s something oddly poetic in the concept of a Sin City in the desert. Its bright lights and dark alleys offer a striking and sometimes horrific tour of the American id. But I merely wanted to study these traits, not emulate them. Going up and then down, then down, and down again was not part of the plan. Yet the MFA program has allowed my Vegas bet to pay off, even when it hasn’t. The people I’ve come to consider friends and mentors consistently prove that one can succeed as a writer in Las Vegas without indulging on its buffet of vices. (Well, not overindulge anyway)

I will say this though: you learn to deal with rejection amidst the neon. Which is good. In writing as in gambling, when starting out you’ll probably lose more often than you’ll win. The key is to survive long enough to hit a win streak, and if that day comes with my fiction, I’ll increase the wager by putting in longer hours at my desk, I’ll decline drink offers. Submit more.

The hope is that I’m a better with words than I am with dice or cards. Otherwise that slogan about “what happens in Vegas” will apply to my writing as well.

Follow Daniel on Twitter at @danielgene. This post originally appeared on The Millions