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The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture

Gerda Reith
Routledge: London
1999
0415179971 (hb)
55.00 (hb)

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The Age of Chance is a marvellous book, scholarly and at the same time compulsive reading. In it, Gerda Reith sets out to examine the constitution of chance and its experience though gambling. While Reith acknowledges the two traditions in gambling and its literature: license and condemnation, she is not seduced by the model of gambling as a disease of the will; rather she sets out to scrutinize gambling as part of the uncertainty of life itself. Her argument is that gambling today is part of an age of chance: we have moved from an age of reason to one where risk and uncertainty are paramount.

The first part of the book is an historical investigation of the role of gambling, mainly in the West and of its various modes of containment and censure. Reith tracks the ways in which the card games which mirrored the medieval chivalric tradition have been replaced by the transcendental signifier of the number in the various forms and sites of gambling at the end of the 20th century. She elucidates the democratisation of gambling over time, from a rigidly stratified mode of play whereby the aristocracy gambled in private while the masses were forced to illegal gambling dens and lotteries.

While arguing, in Part II of the book, that an enormous diversity of people now gamble, Reith does, however, acknowledge that there is a concentration of play amongst the poor. While, for instance, theirs is the major contribution to state lotteries the distribution of profits is weighted heavily in favour of the rich, or used as a way for governments to abdicate their responsibility for vital social services. However, a class analysis is not central to the book. I would have liked to read more about the (impossible) financial necessity for poorer citizens to gamble, what a colleague of mine calls "the desire for more than a marmite sandwich".

In Chapter 5 and 6 Reith examines the experience of gambling. These are the least successful chapters. In them the differences between gambling practices for instance the high of the roulette throw vs. the prosaic and mundane weekly ritual of lottery ticket purchase, are forgotten. The focus is on a separation of gambling from the everyday, with concomitant alterations in time and space. Here the players' experience of casino-type encounters is favoured. Reith argues that the chaos and irrationality of such an experience is held together only by rituals which give order to an anarchic playing world. This argument in many ways cuts across her earlier claim that the postmodern world itself is one of uncertainty and that everyday life is experienced as hazardous and risky.

What too are the differential experiences of those others who have only recently been admitted into the public experience of gambling? In my own country, housie (bingo) is played mostly by Pacific Islands women and is very much of the 'everyday' part of Pacific Islands social life in new Zealand. It is this mundanity of the gambling experience that seems left out of Reith's analysis.

Do not let these minor quibbles, however, put you off reading this book. It is beautifully and clearly written and has an argument, which if not altogether convincing, is an extremely well reasoned piece of scholarship.

Heather Worth
University of Auckland

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