Games people play

"Double Down" authors Frederick and Steven Barthelme talk about family, gambling and their run-in with the legal system.

Published December 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

On Nov. 11, 1996, Frederick and Steven Barthelme -- brothers, authors, college professors -- were told to pick up their chips at the Grand Casino in Gulfport, Miss., and "Come with us." Despite substantial losses -- they'd lost $10,000 at the Grand's blackjack tables that night -- casino security suspected the pair were cheating. A year later, they found themselves under indictment for allegedly conspiring with a dealer, who, the theory went, had sent signals to the brothers about what cards she was holding.

Over three years, the brothers Barthelme dropped more than a quarter of a million dollars in the slot machines and on the blackjack tables along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. Most of that money came from an inheritance the two received after their mother and father passed away in quick succession less than a decade after the death of their eldest brother, experimental author Donald Barthelme. But if it was grief that led the brothers to high-stakes gambling, it was gambling that eventually brought them to grief with the legal system as widely publicized criminal charges loomed over them for nearly two years.

Frederick -- who heads the writing program at the University of Southern Mississippi, where Steven also teaches -- has written about the gambling life before, in his 1997 novel "Bob the Gambler," which tells the story of an average couple who fall under the casinos' spell. In their new memoir, "Double Down," the brothers tell their own story.

In person, Frederick, known as Rick to his friends, is every bit the jovial Texan, not at all like the stern figure who stares out from the dust jackets of his novels, while Steve carries himself with an air of quiet sarcasm. Together, as in the book's first-person-plural narration, the two complete each other's thoughts, each offering his own perspective on their common obsessions.

I met them at Burke's Book Store in Memphis, where they talked about the loss of their parents, the loss of $250,000 and their Kafkaesque run-in with the Mississippi Gaming Commission, which ended in August when prosecutors announced they had found no evidence of impropriety on the brothers' part.

Tell me about your first big win.

FB: That would be hard to remember. When you first start playing, often what happens is you win something relatively large or what seems relatively large. So I suppose when I first went down there, I may have put a dollar in a dollar slot and won $200 or $300, or $500 or something like that.

What happens is when you go home after that, you think, "Oh, this is easy. I'll come next week and do some more." And it turns out to be not quite so easy.

So the first big win isn't necessarily all that big?

FB: That's right. Or at least it wasn't for me.

SB: The scale gets larger and larger over time, and what seems like a big win originally, in retrospect, doesn't look big at all. It's a very standard sort of experience. I was reading this Dostoevski book the other night. He got off the train in Wiesbaden and he went into the casino and he won 10,000 francs and from that proceeded years of misery, to the point where he was hocking his wife's wedding dress to go gamble. The big win is only big in your imagination when it first happens.

Was there a particular time when the hook was set, so to speak?

FB: I don't know. In our case, there are about three threads that run through the book: One of them is the death of our parents; one of them is the gambling and the sort of compulsiveness; and the other is the legal problems, which developed later.

I think that the real serious gambling started after our mother died. Before that we'd sort of been gambling in a desultory way and it got more serious after that. Racheted up. So it wasn't so much exactly a hook being set as it was other events in our lives that made the gambling look more and more attractive to us as some sort of getaway.

And it continued to intensify after your father died, which also gave you more means?

FB: That's true. The absence of the family is integral to the process. The family vanishing.

You thought, "Why not?"

FB: There's a sense that that's how we felt about this money. There's a distinction made in the book where money that we earned at the university or had in our own bank accounts mostly did not get gambled. Only this money that had come to us. There was no reason to hold onto that particular money. We didn't need it in order to pay the rent and that sort of thing.

Was there something about being writers that drew you to the situation in the first place? Did the spectacle draw the storytellers in you?

SB: I suspect we were drawn by what draws millions of people to Las Vegas every year. And the big part of it is you go and you do win money and it's just amazing.

FB: It's unlike anything you experience. The closest thing to it is you walk across the parking lot in a grocery store and find a hundred-dollar bill. That's the closest thing to what actually happens when you first go to the casinos. You walk across the casino floor and you find $100 or you win $100 on a slot machine, and then from there it's, "Let's go back to that grocery store. Let's walk in that parking lot again."

SB: There's a something-for-nothing aspect to it. To me it resembles getting mail. I always like getting mail and I don't care what kind of mail it is. Junk mail? Doesn't matter. It's like something for free.

What do you think it is about gambling, which is basically just this brisk business transaction, that gives it its power?

FB: It's a sort of mystery religion, it seems to me. It's almost a religious service. If you're playing blackjack in particular, there's one kind. If you're playing slot machines it's another. There are all those surfaces of those things. In the slots you've got the buttons that you have to push, the counters for how many coins you've got available, how many you're betting, the reels as they run.

It's very funny. If you first go to a slot machine and run it, it comes up and pops into place real quick and you really can't tell any difference between when the first one and the last one hit. It seems almost like that. [Snaps fingers.]

But then after you play it for it a while you can actually keep track. Everything is moving in slow motion. You've got actual time to think between when the first and the second and the third come.

"I'm going to win. It's going in my direction. Look, there's a double-bar, there's another double-bar, now all I need is a third double-bar."

You've got time to think all this. And then, boom, it's not a double-bar, it falls in the middle.

In blackjack, it's the same way, because the cards are coming out one by one, and you're holding a certain number and here comes the card. It slows down hugely as you're playing. It really moves very rapidly. If you're not used to playing, it seems to go extraordinarily fast. If you're used to playing, it's much slower. It's some sort of celebration. Some sort of ceremony. Almost religious.

And all these ceremonies, and all this timing, are meticulously planned. There's a point in the book where you talk about the fact that even the inside of a slot machine was probably designed by someone.

SB: It wouldn't surprise me that some thought had been put into exactly how it's supposed to appear when it's opened and the player is waiting.

FB: If you look in a slot machine, you can look in the window where the reels come up and you can see these little counters there. And you think you can figure out what those digits mean. But what you also think is that they know that I'm looking through this window at this counter. They're one step ahead of us, always.

But no matter how much knowledge you accumulate, it doesn't break the spell, does it?

SB: Knowing you're being seduced doesn't really vitiate the effectiveness of the technique.

Policy debates about gambling always focus on the fact that it's exploiting people's monetary needs. Is gambling really about money?

FB: I think it is exploiting people. I think there's no question of that. What can I say? I'm not particularly a proponent of gambling.


FB: Yeah. The state is very high on gambling because they made a lot of money. A lot of people got jobs. A lot of taxes. Is it healthy for the state of Mississippi? I don't think so.

We're better situated than most people. We've got good jobs. We had some extra money. It was disposable income in some sort of almost cartoonish sense, and we disposed of it. Most people, I suspect, don't have that luxury. A lot of people, even if they lose a little money, probably could have put that money to use in their lives in a way their lives needed.

It really has changed Mississippi, hasn't it?

FB: Yes, it has. The coast used to be sort of this sleepy, decaying coastal town, which was quite charming. And now it's not at all charming. It's garish and gaudy. I like garish and gaudy, but still I'm able to recognize that's what it is. This bothered me for a while until I realized that eventually this too will decay and it will decay in an interesting way. Eventually, the barges will be taken away and we'll be left with these hotels.

In the book, you talk about the magical thinking that comes with gambling. Do you think it fulfills the need to believe in a world that has this mystical meaning?

FB: We don't follow quantum physics. We've read some about it. There's a lot of work done in that area and in other areas that suggests there are dimensions in our experience that we don't yet quite fathom. Part of that is understanding what you're doing, part of it is experiences you've had where you're playing with somebody and you get a 20. The dealer has got to hit on 16 and somehow you know it's a 5. Before it comes, you know it's a 5. Boom. She's 21 and you're out.

You play for a while, you've seen that happen hundreds of times. How did you know before the card turned that it was a 5?

So your conviction in this experience is real?

SB: I don't know that you would say we believe in it. I would say we don't disbelieve in it. There is, in the study of gambling, lots of magical thinking of various kinds. All gamblers have all kinds of superstitions and if you don't have any, you make them up on the spot. You know: Everything's gone sour since this guy came to the table.

When you were busted out of the Grand Casino, did you feel betrayed?

FB: In a sense. We went there, I don't know how many times -- two, three dozen times that year. Sometimes twice a week. Sometimes twice a month. We knew everybody. They have this thing in their manuals about how the dealers and the pit people and the floor people are supposed to make friends with the players, especially the regular players -- call them by their names, inquire into their health and how they did. It's all written down in their manuals. It's a strategy to make the player feel at home. Well, it works. We felt like we were at home. We felt like this was our casino, and we always went there. So when this happened it was like the world had been turned upside down. It was very strange.

SB: They had a good restaurant, too.

FB: They did have a very good restaurant.

It sounds as if the veil was lifted.

FB: That presumes that we were unaware of the puppeteer to start with. I don't think we were unaware.

When you go to the casinos, they try to make it a family entertainment. They try to make it nice and sweet, like going to a fair or something like that. You never see anything that looks particularly thuggish. This looked plenty thuggish plenty quick.

We were hauled out, not hauled, but we were walked out into a concrete room. A gray-concrete-walls, folding-chairs kind of thing. Two guys who ...

SB: I think they couldn't quite make it to the police force.

FB: ... and they start grilling and making accusations. At that point you think, well, what I'm going to do is mind my p's and q's and wait until these guys finish and then I'm getting out of here. And we did, and the rest of it happened some time later. It was a year later that they actually really started pursuing a legal case against us.

Your experience in the justice system sounds chilling. What was it like having criminal charges hanging over your head for two years?

SB: It's chilling because it's so nonsensical. Anything can happen at any time. We had sort of stayed away from the justice system altogether for our whole lives. It seems capricious, which is terrifying.

FB: In much more serious cases, you see things on television all the time that this guy's been in jail for 20 years and now they find out that he's innocent. And you think, well, this happened to us and we're relatively well-established, recognized members of the community. Now they're taking us to the Harrison County Jail to book us. You wonder if the jails aren't filled with people who got there by some caprice. It's unnerving to think that it works that way.

One of our lawyers said: "You know those scenes in 'Law & Order' where the D.A. sits and they talk about what they're going to do, what's the law and what's justice and so forth? It doesn't happen that way. Never happens that way. They're prosecutors. What they do is prosecute."

What was your reaction when you found out the charges had been dropped?

FB: I felt greatly relieved. Understand that this is two years before the mast. This is two years with this stuff every morning when you wake up. You wake up every morning and it's there. It's pervasive, like some sort of illness in the family. It's constantly on you. You wake up and for a moment you think, "Oh, I'm a regular guy having a regular life," and then you go "Oh, no no no, I'm under indictment for this thing." It's really horrifying. So when the release came, when the charges were dropped, when the D.A. said we weren't doing anything improper, one felt splendid and relieved.

Do you still gamble?

FB: Very little.

Didn't you lose something like $17,000 when a reporter came to interview you at the casinos?

FB: Daniel Max, the guy from the New York Times magazine, came and wanted to see us "in action." And we did fine as long as he was there, except he left at like 3 o'clock and by 5 I had lost a lot of money. That was the first time I'd been to the casino this year.

We don't go so much anymore. The bloom is off the rose.

By Jim Hanas

Jim Hanas is a staff writer for the alternative weekly "The Memphis Flyer."


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