BOOK REVIEW / Deep play: dicing with death and pricking the cards: 'A Gambling Box' - Ed. Kate Pullinger: Redstone Press, 14.95 pounds

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The Independent Online
IS GAMBLING affecting your reputation, or do you often gamble until your last pound is gone? I answered all the questions for compulsive gamblers in A Gambling Box with an increasingly coy negative. The impossible romance of risking more than you have gains support in diverse places; from mythic outlaws always engaged in one last job, to the suggestive link behind the knowledge that great artists such as Lucian Freud gamble heavily.

Kate Pullinger has edited an anthology of international gambling to accompany games from Mexico and China in one of Redstone Press's unusual boxed books. She includes an excerpt from Dostoyevsky's novel The Gambler, set in the town of Roulettenburg and modelled on his own period of ruinous gambling. Freud's essay about the Russian writer follows, claiming that compulsive self-punishing took the form of gambling for the sake of it. Dostoyevsky stopped only when he had lost everything, but those repeated troughs encouraged his most productive writing.

Selecting from 'hundreds' of texts, Pullinger makes room for the gambler-as- romantic-hero, but her aim was to 'surprise' with a global eclecticism. She roams across Middle Eastern board games from 5,000BC, which used bones as dice, via the British betting shop to the US Immigration Lottery, which awarded residents' green cards to 40,000 aliens last year. Altogether it stretches to bursting her definition of gambling as 'playing or betting on games of skill and chance when money changes hands'.

The best thing in the box is a de luxe version of La Loteria, the Mexican alternative to bingo. A set of variable instructions suggests how to bet while trying to pair archetypal images of devils, Cupids and death. The 16th-century Italian game of Lotto was the source: monks would offer divine access to winning Lotto numbers. The box also contains a Chinese dream interpretation booklet based on the same principle, and describes a South African variant called Fah-Fee.

Leaping from Elmore Leonard on to illustrated cheating devices such as finger rings for pricking cards, Pullinger arrives at Meyer Lansky, the Mafia accountant behind the casino glitz of Las Vegas. Lansky's interest in winning contrasts with the female players that Pullinger finds in a Disneyfied Nineties Vegas, for whom gambling is the purest form of consumption. A wealthy Mexican woman whose family died in a car crash now lives in Las Vegas with a facelift and a husband she remarries annually. Pullinger quotes her saying: 'I lose my money but I don't lose my faith.'

Poker is a different proposition. The big casinos avoid tactical games played to win, preferring the slot machine's easy profits. Alongside video-poker players, Pullinger finally encounters the real thing: female professionals who live from gambling. If the gamble of poker represents American culture, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz gives cockfighting in Bali a similar significance. He argues that 'much of Bali surfaces in the cock ring', and that extremely high betting elevates it into 'deep play'.

This involves not just material stakes, but the whole experience of living in Balinese culture, with its 'status hierarchy' mapped on to the game.

The final question for the compulsive gambler is: 'Have you ever considered self-destruction as a result of your gambling?' Discovering 'deep play' and La Loteria among the delights of A Gambling Box refreshed a Nietzschean desire to gamble 'careless of life', which beats the compulsion of living to gamble every time.

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