More than 30 million people gambled at Las Vegas casinos last year, trying their luck at cards, dice, slots and wheels on average for three hours a day. That's a staggering number. Why travel to a casino with so many forms of betting easily found online? Why gamble at all when there are so many new ways to be entertained? Casinos are throwbacks: noisy, smoky, windowless and wasteful.
So why do the wheels keep spinning?
One doesn't visit a casino to win; anyone who can count knows that is impossible, in the end. Sigmund Freud posited that we go to lose, that gambling is another way people try to annihilate themselves. That doesn't ring true either. Rather, the enduring popularity of casinos has nothing to do with the outcome of winning or losing — but how and where it's done.
To while away a night at the tables is, on an unspoken level, to make sense of one's place in a world fueled by desires but governed by chance. Gathered around the green felt, we take pleasure in watching one another try to upend mathematical truths. Most important, we engage in this quixotic dance with fortune as part of a community, however fleetingly formed.
Cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz called this "deep" play — a game-ritual that helps people make meaning of their everyday life while momentarily transcending it. In his landmark essay on the cultural significance of cockfighting in Bali, Geertz saw in the blood and gore and wild gambling a story the Balinese "tell themselves about themselves." So might a night in Las Vegas or Atlantic City play a similar narrative function here.
Historians of gambling, notably Ann Fabian and Jackson Lears, have similarly studied the significance of play. They show how in the American context, games of chance allow us to reflect on a fundamental paradox of living in a capitalist democracy: economically, we are pitted against one another in fierce competition, yet politically we must foster communal bonds with our fellow citizens. Casino gambling is one of the ways we symbolically try to untangle this Gordian knot.
Seen this way, casino gambling — played in public, together (mostly) against the house — makes sense as an American ritual. In assembling as a group to do something so fundamentally irrational, America's gamblers rework the centuries-old practices of European nobility, whose high-stakes wagering at thermal resorts lay the foundations for the casino as we know it. The point for aristocratic gamblers was to publicly show how little interest they had in material wealth. Whether winning or losing huge amounts, they had to, above all, look cool and unperturbed while chance had its way with them.
Today's casinos preserve some facets of gambling as performance. The dramas that unfold nightly at the tables, however, reflect our own contemporary relationship to money. We're no longer pretending money doesn't matter, but looking to make sense of how deeply it does. Yet we do this counter-intuitively, by staking our labor on the turn of a card, showing each other how easily all of our hard work can be reduced into a game.
I've witnessed no greater joy at a casino than when the blackjack dealer is the only one to bust and the whole table wins. Together, our little group beat the system. Money feels light as air and we are reminded that, despite guiding so much of our lives, it's just an abstraction.
Yet the thrill of winning is coupled with a deeper and stranger pleasure: the knowledge that we'll all eventually come back down to earth. We might for an instant rise or be brought low, but we'll never escape the perpetual cycle of gain and loss. The truly wealthy can never share in this pleasure. With nothing left to dream about, they can't enter the magic circle — which is why the rich tend to gamble privately and offstage. When you do spot them you see that their play is joyless and neurotic.
While researching the history of Monte Carlo I spent hours betting the minimum on red at roulette, so that I could hang around and soak up the casino atmosphere. One day an orange man wearing a salmon shirt with a white cashmere sweater draped over his shoulders sidled up next to me and casually put a 5,000-euro bet next to my own 10-euro chip. He lost, shrugged, and went off to his next sad diversion like an aristocrat of old, but his indifference evinced not a noble bearing, but only apathy and alienation.
The rest of us keep merrily rolling the dice alongside our fellow suckers, reenacting the mad, magical thinking that drives the whole empty show of capitalism in the first place. We come to casinos not to win or to lose but to collectively break even. We find a certain solace in that. Casinos are spaces that remind us that, for better or worse, we're in this together.
Mark Braude, author of "Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle," teaches history at Stanford.