Were the contemporary Paris audience of The Gambler to hear, as the curtain went down on Jean-François Regnard’s minor comic masterpiece of 1696, that the apparently chance sequences of dice values in a game of hazard like backgammon can be shown to obey certain mathematical laws, which are knowable, they would have laughed more heartily than they ever laughed at a rogue’s downfall.  And yet the play was being performed nearly 50 years after Pascal, in reply to a backgammon player’s query, had formulated the fundamentals of the theory of probability with an elegance still admired by Laplace in the 18th century, when the practical usefulness of this branch of mathematics was first appreciated.

Appreciated by some, yes; generally understood, no; part of the human psyche, not at all.  In the 19th century, in The Queen of Spades, Pushkin describes the game of pharaoh, in terms that are mystical and diabolical, embellishing his narrative with signs, omens, dreams, visions, and ghosts.  And I would guess that a U.S. Army officer in 1945, wishing for 21 in some subterranean hotspot of the gay Europe he thought he had liberated, would still regard his good fortune and probable misfortune with the same mumbo-jumbo apprehension.  Then, in 1962, came Ed Thorp.

I am not writing a history of gambling.  Suffice it to say that, with the publication of Thorp’s book, Beat the Dealer, and subsequent headline-grabbing exploits by other card-counters, such as the irrepressible Ken Uston, in the 1970’s, the idea that casino blackjack—when played, essentially, by mathematicians—is a rational, calculable, mathematically winnable game finally entered the public consciousness.  Now everybody knows that if you are something of a nerd, you can get yourself to Vegas and win all the money you want playing cards, except that they won’t let you, of course, because they’ll throw you out on your ear.

Roulette is different—which is why I play it, of course—yet the rational component at work in the physical apparatus of the wheel is so absurdly evident that, in 1966, it led the same Thorp, with the help of a team of enthusiasts calling them-selves Eudaemonic Enterprises, to design a “wearable computer” that would correctly predict the neighbors section of the wheel where the ball was likely to land on the basis of measurements of its initial speed.  So, if I were to tell you, and you were to believe, that I—like many others I know in London—have the nerdy talent for taking the measurements in question with the eye and the ear and then adjusting the vital prediction according to the spinning style of an individual croupier, roulette would be as thoroughly demystified in 2003 as cards were 40 years ago.  After all, a good tailor, a good painter, or a good tennis player may be said to do well without the computer what so many others do badly with it.  Why not a good gambler?

But let us not demystify the game too much, as I say, or else there is no joy playing it.  Rather, believe the poet in the player when I solemnly swear that, every time he spins the wheel, the professional croupier writes a line of rhyming verse.  When he is a relative neophyte, or exceptionally tired, or unusually distracted, its pattern may be very easy to follow, forming an uncomplicated quatrain like ABAB or even a sequence of AABB couplets, meaning that the ball will come down alternately on just one of two neighbors sections of the wheel, with five numbers in each.  Such a lapse into pastoral simplicity will give the player at worst a 3.5 to 1 and at best a sevenfold advantage over the house, something like shooting fish in a barrel.  But even a seasoned and attentive croupier, who may take the player into the maze of complexity that is an Italian sestina, a French roundel, or an English triolet, will invariably come up with a composition that, if not always memorable, is at least readable.  For nature abhors vers libre.

It is the search for symmetry in the apparent chaos of the roulette microcosm that is the intoxication of the game.  Its physicality—hence rationality, and there-fore predictability—enters the picture only insomuch as it mimics the phenomenal macrocosm in which the gambler lives.  Thus there is no denying, for example, that certain inherited genetic traits materially affect the way I think and act, yet the larger matter of why and where and how the genes in question entered what later became my person is a kind of genetic lottery.  There is no denying the material fact that one cannot play, and especially lose, at plush London casinos without having the money to do so, but the improbably tortuous path by which the money made its way to my pockets is a matter of sublime chance.  There is no denying that Emily Dickinson, like the world around her, was made up of some corporeal and tangible substance, yet it was in possibility that the poet dwelled.

For the poet player, the metaphysical dimension of roulette is a scale model of the everyman question of why God has unleashed the intractable spirit of chance above the apparently knowable physical world He created.  The poet player refers himself to the Word and reasons, more or less, as follows.

“We accept that the Christian objective of earthly life is to awaken one’s soul and, thereby, to enter into the kingdom of heaven.  But we are told that, ‘except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.’  The earthly life of the scribes and Pharisees is, of course, devoted to upholding the law of the world, which Christ did not ‘come to destroy, but to fulfill.’  Yet the fact remains that those who see the good law of the Lord as the be-all and end-all of their existence are doomed.

“The law is merely the rule book of the game, a legally binding contract, a bargain.  Fulfilling our part of the bargain, we count on the explicitly stipulated payoff.  How is that different from buying groceries, or drawing up a prenuptial agreement, or making a career in banking?  Surely the point He is making is obvious, for in the lethargic tranquility of a good, binding, enforceable contract a man’s soul is slated for eternal slumber.  And everything He said has been said with the aim of awakening the soul.

“‘For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?’ He asks, incredulous that such things are not obvious to all, ‘do not even the publicans the same?’  Indeed, the whole thrust of His argument is that, if they are to prove efficacious, soul-saving thoughts and deeds are to be conceived for their own sake and done on their own merits, rather than as the means to some contractually stipulated end, even—or especially—when that end is Heaven.  ‘Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets. . . . They have their reward.  But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.’

“Hence, chance has been brought into the world to smash the rationalist chain of the scribe and Pharisee (who is now, of course, as good and zealous and law-abiding a Christian as, two thousand years ago, he was a good and zealous and law-abiding Jew).  That is the causal nexus—myopically, arrogantly postulated and greedily, self-servingly interpolated—between man’s goal-oriented pursuit of salvation and salvation itself.  And chance is the proverbial slip twixt the cup and the lip.  Thank God it exists!”

So reasoning, the poet player piles up casino chips on the layout, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always cognizant that he is there to worship at the altar of chance, without which God’s design of the universe would be imperfect and Christian—or any other—salvation would be reduced to a book of ethical formulae, not unlike the almost idiotically straightforward rules of his perversely beloved, impossibly complicated, and maddening, maddening game.