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ACTION MAN

Lesson 3

I cannot resist quoting the immortal advice given to Sky by his father when he left his home town, which stood him in such good stead in his whole life:

            Son … no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get, always remember this:  some day, somewhere … a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear.  But, son… do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.

            What sky Master son wants is what we all want, action.  Where the action is – what a compelling phrase! It promises excitement, challenge, movement … a tautening of the nerves… a subliminal hint even of hand combat … Action! It expresses the whole gambling guide experience.  The  very sound of it is like cracking open the breech.

            To a gambler it’s irresistible, and not only to gamblers.  Where the action is implies life being lived in a higher register, in a faster and more intensified form.  The phrase where the action is was first used in this same Damon Runyon story (1947), according to the lexicographers at the Oxford English Dictionary - New Orleans, and Chicago, and Los Angeles, and wherever else there is any action in the way of card-playing, or crap-shooting, or horse-racing, or betting on the baseball games, for The Sky is always moving around the country following the action.’ In the mid 1960s the term action was taken up in chic magazines and caught on everywhere, especially in commercials and advertising.  It met the mood of the times.

            Action! But what is it, where is it?  ‘Wherever action is found, chance-taking is sure to be,’ as the late social psychologist Erwin Goff man, one of the sharpest observers of contemporary mores, has noted.  In everyday life the individual takes chances, in changing his job or moving house, or if you like, in taking a wife (marriage is a lottery, my boy), but the outcome of these kinds of life-decision usually takes years to resolve.  The distinctive property of games and contests is that once the bet has been made, outcome is determined and payoff awarded all in the same breath of poker experience.  A single sharp focus of awareness is sustained at high pitch during the full span of the play.


            One might start by asking: Where is the action not to be found?  Not, ordinarily, during the week-day routine at home or at work.  For here ‘chance-taking tend to be organized out’.  A person’s activities mesh with other people’s, in a regulated way – work goes on, life goes on, and one may never be aware of the risk and opportunity that in fact existed.  The choices may be ‘consequential’ – they may have an impact in due course – but not ‘problematic’ the decisions made are shared in a social framework.  Or take to make the point more clearly, the opposite situation of passing time for its own sake – man with say half an hour to spare before leaving home: he can read a magazine until it is time to go, watch TV, do a crossword: his choice of activity may be ‘problematic’ – he can choose one thing or another – but it is not ‘consequential’ to the main course of his life.  Action is both.
            Action is to be found wherever the individual knowingly takes consequential chances perceived as avoidable.  In his essay ‘Where The Action Is’ (interaction Ritual, 1967), Goff man suggested that action occurs in three places: first, in commercialized competitive sport; next, in non-spectator risky sports; and third, in commercialized places of action – a light degree of action in bowling alleys, pool halls, amusement parks and arcades, a heavier degree at race tracks and casinos

The point about these activities is that they are undertaken for their own sake, s distinct from a risky occupation like being a soldier or a fireman or, say, an oil-capper.  Commercialized sport is watched for fun, so it does not seem really serious, Goff man says (despite sport being a business venture), an impression reinforced by the fact that amateurs also do it, solely for the challenge.
            One other type of commercialized action involving direct participation is included in his list, the social whirl of conspicuous consumption, seeing and being seen (surely the sexual chase should be included, too, more of that in a moment), termed ‘fancy milling’.  Hotel casinos provide an extreme example:

           
            Not only are money gambles made available, this type of action is overlaid with the consumption kind.  A brief penetration into high living is laid on.  Attendant-parked limousines are cluttered at the entrance.  Beyond the entrance, the setting is luxurious.  Liquor is served at the tables, often at no cost to the consumer.  A qualify buffet may be provided, allowing for discriminative gorging.  A gratuity systems encouraged that elevates its users and provides scantily clad waitresses selected for their looks … Table contact is facilitated with the nationally known and with big spenders.  Proximity to what some might consider the gangster element is also provided.  Easy access to nationally famous entertainment is assured… In brief, the opportunity for ephemeral ennoblement abounds.

           Certainly this sort of scene corresponds with any one of half a dozen chromium palaces on the Las Vegas strip, though I would rate its social appeal fairly low down the scale.  The ‘fancy milling’ simply gives a shine to the action, like gloss paint.  The saturation of the senses by soft lighting, alcohol, music and noise, the absence of clocks or any link with reality outside, the sexual current pulsating round the edge, the glint of violence from armed guards, all serve to disinherit the casino gamblers and warp player’s judgment – what bets to take, how high to play, when to quit.  People will likewise gamble for high stakes in the sleaziest of dives.  In gaming, the less inhibition, the ,more action.

            The point which Goff man goes on to make is how efficient casinos are in facilitation's action: you need only walk through the doors – in fact there may not even be a door to the street – and put down your stake.  If the dealer is not already in play, he will immediately get moving.  Shills [house players] are on hand to make up a table if needed.  If you want to sit down without having to gamble, however, the only seats available (apart from in the washroom) are at the bar, where a toothsome keno [ a version of bingo ] girl will very likely waylay you.  Play is designed to provide action not only around the (imaginary) clock, not only at all levels of betting, but for all manner of people regardless of their social status, or state of decorum (dishabille, drunk, zonked out).
            All this free hospitality which gamblers receive – not just in Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or London or Monte Carlo, but wherever there is high action – is immensely seductive.  As all gamblers understand, there are two kinds of money – money for gambling, which is essential, and money for living, which is marginal, even niggling affair – bills, food, hire purchase repayments, family expenses.  So when the casino picks up the tab, for the hotel poker room, for meals, for drinks – what a joy!  None of your serious gambling money is going to be ‘wasted’ on real goods and services.  The collective extension of these acts of individual generosity is organized hospitality, known as junkets.  A junket is the most inveigling of all introductions to gambling:  it seems like something for nothing.  The reality is a whole heap of minuses for a very little plus.

            The idea started a few years back when a stockholder of the Flamingo hotel-casino flew a planeload of wealthy friends from Miami to Las Vegas to show off his hotel.  The hotel absorbed the cost of the round-trip character flight and RFB (complimentary room food and beverage, in the trade jargon).  While the party was staying at the hotel, the casino recorded its biggest ever drop (total money wagered).  After this experience the Flamingo, as an experiment, began inviting premium customers from a few major cities to take complimentary trips, all expenses paid.
            The experiment proved so successful (as reported in Casino Management by Bill Friedman, 1982) that the Flamingo expanded its program and other hotels on the strip started doing the same thing.  ‘The sole purpose of a junket is to generate casino business,’ as this manual correctly states.  Consequently ‘the customers’ gambling losses must be greater than the hotel’s expenses.’  Obvious enough, even to the junketeer: so why do they fall for it?

            Well, there is something extraordinarily gratifying about being the beneficiary of junket, beyond enjoying the freebies.  (I have benefited myself, not as a serious gambler, but as the friend of a genuine high  roller.)  The appeal lies in being treated as nobility in a dream world, a grown-ups’ candy store where everything is granted as soon as you point to it.  here’s small (if slightly disgraceful )example of what I mean, which occurred at Laughlin, the new Nevada resort on the Arizona border.  It’s Saturday night of Memorial weekend, the line waiting outside the gourmet restaurant is 150 people long, there’s no chance of a special odd table for a couple of hours, everyone is dying on their feet for a drink.  Enter the favoured high roller.  Allakazam! One whisper to the Maitred’ and the whole party is whisked over to a corner table and the cocktail waitress is preening her embonpoint at your side.  Choose any array of dishes, any vintage (I recall another sacrilegious moment, swigging down a bottle of Chateau Lafite ’59 with cop suey and chocolate cake), all you have to do is ask.

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