February 15, 2012

Chances are

Last week, on a day that fails to distinguish itself significantly from any other day in my mind except for its unseasonable warmth (this was, after all, February, please note the proper pronunciation, and my jacket was feeling a bit much), I ran into an old friend while riding on a poignant iteration of our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.

“Old friend” is perhaps a little misleading; he was (is, actually) a friendly acquaintance, a friend of a friend, an apparently joyful fellow who is always ready to engage a conversation with an engaging smile. Ever the sucker for a friendly face, I gave him a high sign and we engaged in the social theater of discourse for the benefit of those other travelers around us.

A professional gambler (a fact of which I have long been aware), he reported that he would be flying out to Las Vegas that next morning, hoping to get into a big money tournament by winning the entry fee from unsuspecting tourists. The prospect seemed to heighten his ordinarily upbeat demeanor; he was beaming!

I know I shouldn’t second-guess such things, but I don’t trust happiness. Being happy can mess with my head. It’s a tricky balance between managing those endorphins and avoiding a crash. On the other hand, being low, I can tell myself it won’t last forever. There will be better days, right?

Anyway, as we were discussing my friend’s occupation, he mentioned how another friend of his assumed he had a gambling problem, an addiction, but, no, he says, poker is very mathematical. When you’re playing Texas Hold ’Em, you can weigh the odds pretty openly. “There’s only 52 cards, after all,” he says, and you can calculate how likely your opponent is to get the card (or cards) he (or she) might need to win a pot. Then, when you factor in various behavioral cues, it isn’t so terribly risky, unless you choose to double down against a likely outcome.

I like to point out that life is nothing more than navigating various risks. The idea that gambling is illegal is utterly absurd. Running a business is a gamble. The guys that book rock shows are the biggest gamblers I know. I dabbled in that world for a while in my 20s and found it very disquieting. Investing on the stock market is obviously a gamble and clearly quite risky, as we have seen in recent years.

My poker-playing friend agreed and took the metaphor even further, pointing out that driving a car is an extraordinarily dangerous activity, full of risk, but how many of us see it as a roll of the dice with no more than a very good chance that we will get where we’re going, without incident or bodily harm?

Not to change the subject, but there is a moment in the movie “RoboCop” that lodged itself in my memory the first time I saw it almost 25 years ago. Just as the police are voting to strike, there is a television newsbreak featuring comments by people on the street. One guy says the cops aren’t supposed to strike because they’re public servants, and then there’s a goofy, unemployed hippie who says, “It’s a free society, except there ain’t nothing free, because there’s no guarantees. You know? Heh heh. You’re on your own. The law of the jungle. Ho ho, ho ho ho.” The man’s laughter is hopeless, funny and chilling, suggesting the kind of freedom that comes from having nothing to lose. (You can find the clip on YouTube.)

Elsewhere in the same movie, Bob Morton (played by Miguel Ferrer) pitches the RoboCop project to “the Old Man” (played by Daniel O’Herlihy), apparently the C.E.O. of OCP, the corporation that runs everything in Detroit, advising that several police officers have been placed in key districts so that a viable candidate will be available to become RoboCop in the near future. Basically, he has put several unsuspecting officers in extraordinarily dangerous circumstances so that one might be killed in the line of duty and thus be made available to be transformed into the titular cyborg. This is an example of rigging the odds. Sure enough, Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is killed in the very next scene.

Maybe the corporate overlords aren’t playing us for puppets as clearly as that, but if you’re determined to play it safe, you’ve already lost.

Recommendation: Leonard Cohen is as frightening as ever on his latest album, Old Ways.