Whether it's a roll of the dice, flip of a coin or an ace on the river, the concept of "Chance" is more central to the "Future" than any other. In Greek mythology, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon divided the Universe with a roll of the dice. Religions focus on the role an individual plays in determining his fate; so much so that the word "divine" can either refer to holiness or an ability to predict the future. In some ways, you could argue that chance, whether referred to in literate as Fate or Luck or in philosopy as Free Will or Determinism, is THE central concern of modern society. And why not? What could be more important or as interesting as understanding what will happen next?
I've touched on a breadth of large subjects in this series but none of them has proven to be as large, difficult or interesting as Chance. For this reason, I've decided that it deserves more than a single post. How many, I don't quite know -- if you have yet realized, I have only a vague roadmap on this trip and when I reach areas requiring more time than my midnight oil will afford, I might as well just extend them. So strap in for an extended, potentially meandering journey. I've also figured out that these posts are more fun to write when they stem from personal stories. I hope the same is true for you, the readers .
In 2003, I had recently moved from New York to California and gotten married. My business partners were back East and after a few months of trying to make a startup work remotely I received a stern talking to from my wife. I needed a job. My network in San Francisco was fairly lean and as I began to look around, my sister-in-law mentioned that she had a friend who needed someone to build a website for his project. She put me in touch with her former colleague, Andrew Pascal who had recently been lured back to Las Vegas to help his uncle launch an ambitious new casino on Las Vegas Boulevard. His uncle's name was Steve Wynn.
I had been to Vegas only once but I still knew about Steve Wynn. Growing up in New Jersey, his ads for the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City were the stuff of legend; I remember him vividly as an impressario hamming it up with Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. He was the stuff of American legend and in the two or three days before flying to Las Vegas, I read everything I could about Las Vegas. History, architecture, fiction - it was thrilling stuff. When they offered my a chance to help them build the website for the new resort, I figured I would never have a chance like this again. Over the next year, I drank from the firehose of Vegas-ology. It is, for better or worse, the most American of cities.
I wasn't sure what to expect; on the one hand he was king of a town known for sin and more powerful than the second biggest player in town than anyone in any other city in America. (by a large margin). On the other hand, he collected Rembrandts and Picassos, had studies literature and the University of Pennsylvania and kept company with movie stars, kings, queens and heads of state.
I was greeted by someone very memorable - flanked by two German shepherds, he was charismatic, thoughtful and articulate. I liked him instantly. Over the course of the year, we met several more times, each time with a large coterie of his handlers and each a story for a different time. By and large he was by turns inspiring and terrifying. His entire life was devoted to creating temples to possibility, pushing the limits of artististry and illusion to allow people to disappear into reverie and fantastical dreams.
Towards the end of the year, I was made an offer to move my family to Vegas and accept a permanent position. The decision was tough - my son had just been born and moving our young family to the desert was troublesome. I remember making the case to my wife, explaining how this would be for 2 years, we would by a house in a great neighborhood and move home before Theo entered school. We made our offer on the Saturday before I began work. On Sunday, I met with Wynn to review the site. He had demanded a website to rival a Hollywood motion picture - calling Steven Spielberg for advice during one of our design meetings. That Sunday, just as we sat down, he mentioned that he had seen the Dalai Lama the day before, who had told him he needed to work on his temper. Following that spiritual insight, Wynn bought this painting by Jean Michel Basquiat.
Let's say that the soul of Basquiat defeated the spirit of the Dalai Lama that day. When I presented our proof of concept (which pushed the limits of Flash and streaming video), Steve arose enraged in a way that rarely occurs outside silverback gorilla troups. He bellowed, "Do you think this is acceptable?" At that point, I realized I was over. If I answered "Yes', then I had no taste; if I said "No" then I had delivered sub-standard work. I took a quick look at the hideous Basquiat oil painting of primal rage and said, "Yes, I'm fine with it." He then exploded, kicked my computer off the table and stormed out.
I took a deep breath and listened to him ranting several room down as the coterie calmed him. Then I walked out into the 110 degree heat and called my wife. "I good news and bad news - which would like to hear first?" Hilary prefers the good first. "We don't need to move to Vegas", I said. And I knew than (and have many times since) that I had married the right woman. She answered, " Thank God. When will you be home.?
My journey ended there. A coin was flipped and came up tails. Fate had spoken. I also know, all rational thought aside, that Fate has a powerful way of placing people in your life who should be there (and removing one who shouldn't ). I ended up on a plane, having a drink and landing where I belonged.
Tomorrow I've delve into some meatier subjects. but today I'm going to wind down by turning the lens away from the opulent palaces of the Bellagio and the Wynn where the lucky the fabulously rich and obese are dine on poached quail eggs, and unicorn steaks and whatever else excess and lucre can command.
That day, I walked across town to check out of the hotel and catch my final flight out of Vegas, my senses awoke and I had one of those odd moments I'll remember forever. It wasn't kaleidoscopic collage of thousands of pictures of call-giles on cards, wedged in fences. It wasn't the contrast of Maybachs rolling beside homeless people and their shopping carts.
It was something more basic, in some ways more depressing and in some ways, more hopeful. I walked in the heat and watched as another sea of tourists poured in. They walked in knee high socks and wheeled suitcases past the Bellagio looking up enviously at the palace of capitalist refinement and taste . Yet all they wanted was to wheel their suitcase to their off strip hotel and order a Hurricane long enough to touch the ground and then figure out the easy way of losing all their money without ending up in jail.
My explanation is simplistic. We live in a simple and unfair world. In so many ways, the die have been cast before we are even born. From then on, each second, a choice occurs. Some are good, some bad. When we take stock, count chips, get a sense of where we stand. On balance, most Americans want for little when it comes to our needs. Yet they are starving for something. Vegas has it. They have the purest form, pharmaceutical grade American Dream.
That dream is that you can stumble off the Southwest flight from Tulsa with your two best friends. You're all over forty and have partially given up. You're wearing jeans short from Sam's Club, a fanny pack and wrap around plastic sandals but for the next 3 days, you can punish your brain, liver and intestines, risking money you can't afford in a game that you know is rigged.
And some time during a visitor's 3 days of stumbling, it becomes clear that each wheel spin is a chance, a shot that might shatter the glass ceiling of your life and alter your fate. And then the penny drops for me (millions of them actually). This town was designed to manufacture dreams and lust for all things sexual, rich and desirable. Some people win a hand or two. People have fun at the clubs. But in the final tally, the only winner is Steve Wynn. That's the beauty of being the house.
Vegas offers a wonderful vignette for us to mull. This unlikely town in the desert was selected as a good location, close enough to LA to visit but far enough to be out of sight. The money funding it went from Mobsters, to Mormons, to Teamsters to Wall Street. Our country, literally underwritten with lotteries in England, has woven chance into the fabric of our lives. From the stock market to insurance, we've controlled Chance in some cases, banned it in others and in still others glorified it.
I could explore what a would without gambling might look like but it's that's a little preachy for me.. I'd rather dive deep into what make chance, fate, uncertainly so beautiful. For me, it's always the idea that a person lurching half drunk down Las Vagas Boulevard could be a roll of the dice away from rich for life. Crass though it sounds, it's a democratizing notion of great power. There's always a chance. That's the American Dream.
There's an old saying that says that "If you don't know who the sucker at the table is, it's probably you." Tomorrow I'll explore how Chance has been embedded in our daily lives and how we might use it for more than amusement, to improve our actual futures.
Until then, Enjoy these epic clips of gambling scenes from films.