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Let It Ride

At the table or on the green, gamblers and golfers have more in common than the quest for that perfect roll

By: Tom Chiarella

Appeared in March 2006 LINKS

I once won $18,900 in less than two hours at a $10 craps table in the Venetian on a Wednesday night in February. It was 11:30 p.m. and I was alone, killing time before meeting my friend for drinks. When I stepped to the table, I thought: I know what might happen.

I started with $600 and began with my standard pass line bet, with full odds, buying just the outside numbers, four and 10. There was a kid from Denver there who rolled the dice for approximately 27 minutes against a point of nine. With each roll I picked up steam—laying more bets, doubling up on the ones already out, pressing the hard ways, throwing down horn bets with gusto.

He hit his point, then rolled for 20 more minutes on some other number. In the final moments before he rolled a seven, I had 26 separate bets on the table, with more than $6,000 hanging on each roll. When the run ended, as they always do, I was glad. It was late, I was rich, my voice was hoarse and I had a golf game in the morning.

Late the next day, I stood over a six-foot par putt. The wind had picked up, snarling off the desert, and I had punched a 5-iron from a fairway bunker to this fairly miraculous spot. We’d started out with our standard $3 Nassau, with a menagerie of side and junk bets. With each hole the whole thing gathered momentum to this point: 27 different Nassaus, presses and pieces of junk riding on this putt. My partner squatted to get out of the wind. I was six feet from glory.

“This is just like last night,” I shouted into the teeth of the wind.

“What?” he asked.

“Like the last roll,” I replied. “Last night.”

He couldn’t hear me. He squinted at the line and shrugged. “I think it’s pretty straight. I don’t think it moves right.”

“No, man,” I yelled. “I’m saying there’s a lot of action. It’s like last night, in the casino. There’s a lot of action.”

He smiled and gestured out toward the course and the casinos beyond. “It’s Vegas. It’s a golf course. What do you expect?”

I nodded. Once again, I knew what might happen.

Let’s face it: Gambling is an underpinning of the structure of golf. You gamble with the clubs you choose, you gamble on the outcome of your play and afterward, if you’re close enough to a casino, you just plain gamble. On the course, weighing a measure of risk (3-wood over a lake) against a truckload of reward (potential eagle putt) is part and parcel of every round. Every club has at least one foursome known as “the money guys,” the ones who play numerous bets for absurd amounts of cash.

And while purists may object, golf could be argued as the last refuge of the honorable bet. Consider the weekly two-ball with drinks on the line, the $10 skins game in the failing light of an autumn afternoon, even the guys who play for pennies. Gambling pushes and pulls many golfers through their rounds, to the clubhouse and beyond.

Is that why these days, in the great landscape of American culture and commerce, an exceptional golf course is de rigueur for new gaming destinations from California to Connecticut? What is it about the storied game of golf and the legendary earning power of casinos that make such a powerful alliance? The answer lies in the similarities between this sport and these games, in the irrepressible human need to gather and in the thrill that always accompanies risk.

Golf and gambling are at some level activities that take up the middle ground between sport and game. They ask for some element of costume, for a decision to commit time, energy and money.

They also require travel. Seen from above, it must look like a sort of migration—by car, plane, bus—headed in their inevitable formations to the course and to the adjacent casino. We’re talking about journeys, and upon arriving, you want to stay. Both gambling and golf favor those who dwell in their events.

Consider then the golfer, surrounded by a foursome yet isolating himself, undertaking his game with the knowledge provided by myriad books, magazines and self-help guides. The gambler does the same, taking a seat in a casino ringed in by friends, but solely focusing hard on what he knows from studying “the book,” along with various tipsters and know-it-alls.

In golf, the isolation is physical—the distance between tee and flag, between the players. With gambling, the isolation is more in the mind. Sitting in a casino in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip, you aren’t alone by any means, but you certainly are far away.

So people travel, isolate themselves and set themselves in competition against the house. But they also gather. Between the periods of isolation, golf and gambling are notoriously social events. A craps game is a talker’s paradise, as is a foursome of college buddies.

Sure, as there is always the singleton clip-clopping along the fairway, there are those solo gamblers who sit quietly, trying to master on their own the subtleties of letting it ride.

Similarities aside, in some ways the game and the sport are deep opposites. Golf was cultivated for centuries. The Rules of Golf dictate every aspect of its play. Courses are built within the constraints of the game. Gambling has thrived for far longer, in a world largely void of rules and immune to attempts at uniformity. Casinos rose up because the games were so popular, so wild, so unconstrained.

Still, gambling is a game of certainty. A casino can be beautiful, opulent even, but it was constructed within the mechanics of the game. The deep interiority of the space—no windows, no clocks, the relative stillness, the dearth of reminders of the outside world—contrasts strongly with the physicality of golf and its persistent ties to the tangible aspects of reality.

Wind, sun, earth—these things matter in a world constructed with an aesthetic mind, a world of laws suggested not by mathematic probabilities, but by the true vagaries of chance and the assertion of skills. Skill, dare I say it, matters on the course. In a casino, skill is a more like a trick of the mind.

The gambler goes to the casino to put himself up against the certainties of the place, the absolute thrill of risks inherent in the turn of a card, the roll of a die, the spin of a wheel. He tests himself in a game that is, for the most part, already decided.

Golf, however, is a game of wide-open possibility that a course provides—a view, a challenge, a career shot. The risk is in the shot, in the moment, in the simple

interchange of swing, ball and distance. It too is a testing ground: you against the best the course can offer.

It is a fine test indeed. It is a measure of what we want from life itself. No wonder you want more when you walk off the course, and no wonder too that casinos know to keep the next test close by—well appointed, inviting and ever at the ready.

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