Book Review: Six to Five Against

Burt Dragin. Six to Five Against: A Gambler’s Odyssey. Berkeley: RDR Books, 2005.

Six to Five Against is a refreshing, sometimes wincingly honest look at one man’s gambling. Drawing chiefly on his own experiences but supported by Dragin’s investigations into the thrall that gambling holds for many, this is an open, honest, and readable story that will appeal to anyone who gambles or wants to better understand gamblers.

Dragin opens the book with an interesting thought: he’s got a lot in common with Steve Wynn. They were both born in the same year to gambling fathers, and both have had lifelong relationships with gambling, though Dragin admits that the billionaire casino owner has gotten rich from gambling, while he hasn’t. Along the way, Dragin luckily transformed his obsession with gambling into an obsession with gamblers and research into gambling, and the result is this memoir/problem gambling overview.

The short book is divided into four parts. The First, My Role Model, hinges on Dragin’s father Phil, a lifelong gambler. In the second part, Gambling Demons, the focus shifts to the author’s gambling travails. The third part, Profiles, is a series of quick (6 pages or so) sketches of several problem gamblers Dragin interviewed. Part four, The Last Act, is a coda of sorts, describing Phil Dragin’s last years and the author’s final acceptance of his problem gambling.

Six to Five Against works because Dragin is able to coolly, almost dispassionately analyze himself as well as his subjects. His honesty about his gambling is refreshing, and it puts him in a league with Dostoyevsky as a writer who can bring his own gambling to bear on his writing–in Dostoyevsky’s case fiction, in Dragin’s memoir/creative non-fiction–and produce something both eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Dragin’s father’s life parallels that of many men who ended up in Las Vegas one both sides of the table. Growing up in an immigrant, Yiddish and Russian-speaking household in Cleveland, he spurned hard work and sober devotion for the gambling underworld, which included Moe Dalitz’s Harvard Club and an entire stratum of pool rooms, racetracks, touts, and bustouts. Calling it Runyonesque is almost an understatement. Indeed, Dragin pays homage to Damon Runyon in the book’s opening pages, embracing him as a kindred spirit (his title is taken from a particularly pithy gem from Runyon’s “A Nice Price”), and its easy to see how he made a strong emotional connection between his father’s war stories of Cleveland’s gambling scene and Runyon’s memorable characters.

Moving to Los Angeles, Dragin’s father enjoys a bit of good luck, followed by years of hard work, frustration, and disappointment, including more than one arrest for gambling. Dragin follows in his father’s footsteps, trying to balance the demands of adulthood with an unstoppable need to gamble. In the end, father and son seem to reach a rapprochement with their “gambling demon” that contains, but doesn’t entirely banish, it. As a simple family story, Six to Five Against is not only touching, but transforming–the reader is challenged to consider how gambling both tied together and tore apart the Dragins.

As remarkable a document the Dragin story would be as a simple memoir, it’s much more. Throughout, Dragin interweaves personal experience, interviews, and historical research quite effectively. As a historian, I’ve got to concede that the historical background isn’t as well-plumbed as it might have been, which in a few cases hinders Dragin. For example, Dragin just repeats the description of the Flamingo as “the first ornate palace” in the Nevada desert, completely ignoring the earlier El Rancho Vegas and Last Frontier. Worse yet, he doesn’t even mention Billy Wilkerson, whose story would have lent considerable weight to the narrative. Wilkerson, after all, was the brilliant promoter and compulsive gambler who first conceived of the Flamingo, and whose inabilities to control his gambling (combined with Siegel’s predatory avarice) forced him to lose the casino shortly before it opened. There’s also a bit of editorial sloppiness as Giralomo Cardano’s name changes to “Cordano” and back a few times on the same page. But these miscues don’t mar what is a powerful and convincing book.

Dragin is unflinchingly honest, talking candidly of his own struggles with gambling while admitting that no one held a gun to his head and forced him to gamble. Not willing to call himself a victim, he still grapples with an obsession so powerful that it must be biological. He includes many details that a less honest and courageous writer might not have–particularly a heart-breaking exchange between him and his father towards the end of the book–and our understanding of gambling is richer for his risk-taking.

I strongly recommend Six to Five Against for those who want to learn more about the gambler’s psyche, particularly because Dragin is adept at blending the psychological literature with interviews and biographical sketches. Necessarily anecdotal, the book provides rare insights and a highly personal account of one gambler’s journey. It’s a must for any gambling researcher’s bookshelf.

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