"The urge to gamble," Heywood Broun once said, "is so universal and its practice so pleasurable that I assume it must be evil."
Broun's tongue, of course, had long since paid the mortgage on his cheek. Amazing, though, how many people took him seriously. And still do.
Baudelaire didn't care. Predating Broun, as ringleader of the 19th-Century "decadents," the Paris poet declared, "Life has only one great charm--gambling." Died ill and broke, did Baudelaire. Sick transit.
And then there was the sage counsel of Julian the Jake, known to his awestruck contemporaries as The Worst Gambler in the Western World. "To wager is human," Jake would say, after borrowing 20 'til payday; "to win, divine."
An informal poll on the eve of Thursday's initial Great California Lottery reveals an underlying sympathy with the philosophy of the semimortal Jake. By extension, there is overwhelming approval of the lottery itself, for a variety of reasons.
Of 25 questionnaires distributed, 16 of them hither and nine yon, 21 were returned, not counting the one that was red-penciled "Folded, muted and spindilated." The responder--single, mordant and dyslexic--was vehement in his/her (he/she didn't say) condemnation of the lottery, on the grounds that it is a "fraud, scam, snare and delusion."
Of the 21 unspindilated replies, however, only four were against the lottery; 17 in favor.
How scientific was the poll, Johnny? Perhaps not a true cross section of the community. Very few, in fact, were angry, or even annoyed. On the other hand, most were reluctant to use their names. (Many gamble; curiously, most are reluctant to admit it publicly.)
The questionnaires, then, asked only sex and age ("over and under," in keeping with a gambling ploy popular over the last 20 years). Twelve were over 40, nine under. No pushes.
As for "sex," 11 respondents admitted to being male, nine female, one "not sure" and one "frequently."
Eat your heart out, George Gallup.
To authenticate the whole tsimmes, three prominent L.A. psychologists were polled by phone, of whom 2 1/2 were in favor of the lottery.
While we had them on the line for free, the psychologists were asked why people gamble in the first place. Respondents also were gently prodded as to when, where, how and why.
Conclusion: The seeds of the California Lottery were sown long, long ago in a place far, far away.
On the morning after the first snowfall in a village on the Hudson, a dozen young boys would assemble on a vacant, weedy plateau known only as "The Fields." No one called for them or telephoned. They knew.
A line was scuffed across the virgin snow, across which one dared not tread. The boys smacked their mittens, both for circulation and to make sure that the pennies were still in them. (There were no pockets in the "snowsuits" of the era.)
A penny was the world in those days, good for a footlong licorice strip studded with little candy dots.
After ritual argument over a complicated handicap system, the small boys would pack snowballs, take their places on the line and heave their hungry guts out.
Winner--usually a red-haired endomorph named Harry--would mitten all the pennies and lead the pack to Honig's candy store. Sometimes he'd even share.
Thirty miles to the south, recalled a second respondent, another gang would gather in an alley off Morris Avenue in the Bronx to pitch pennies--closest to the wall took the lot.
A boy called Freddy would cry when he lost, which was more than somewhat, and would get most of his coins back. Freddy is now senior vice president of a toothpaste company. (Not yet, ninny. The moral always comes at the end.)
A thousand miles to the west, yet another band of youngsters shot marbles on a frozen lawn in suburban Illinois. "Hitsies"--plinking one marble with another--would amass all the aggies. "Spansies"--plopping one marble within a hand-span of another--would win the opponent's prized shooter.
"Biggest paws would prevail," said a pollee. "A girl named Nancy, who looked like she was born in a tree, would pick us off every year. Great future as a pianist, but she broke her thumb pole-vaulting. Can't even hitchhike now."
Out in Arizona, a toddler learned the rudiments of poker by watching the odometer of her father's car. "Like, 22737 was two pair, etc. Straights, sure, but no flushes, so we made up a flush substitute called the 'pal,' for palindrome (34943). The trick was to get the highest hand before we got home.
"I still play it on the way to work, in my own car, and I get an unreasonable charge when the odometer comes up, say, 44444. Nobody wants to car pool with me."
On the West Coast, affluent California kids played Monopoly in the sun, kicking in $2 or $3 apiece, all won by whoever wiped out the rest. A copy runner at The Times compared the habitual winners with his own lot and sighed. "My Armageddon," he said, "was Marvin Gardens."