The Core of the Gambler
“Gambling,” said Meyer Lansky—and the old racketeer knew a thing or two about the subject—“pulls at the core of a man.”
If the explosion of legal online sports betting in New York State is any indicator, millions of men are being pulled at their core; millions of women, too. The spendthrift lust of public officials remains unslaked by their take from off-track betting and state lotteries; their move into online betting—a casino and sports book in the palm of your hand—is another ethically bankrupt tax grab. But give them some credit. The law that went live in mid-January, in concert with a dozen betting apps, recognizes that people are going to gamble no matter what. If that’s the case, then the state might as well be in on the action. If you can’t beat ’em, take your cut.
An enormous gambling event looms on February 13: the Super Bowl. It’s impossible to divine the total handle, or the final sum at risk on the contest. Although estimates for previous games hover around the 4.5-billion-dollar mark, factoring in the aforementioned virtual gambling dens promises to attract hundreds of millions more, and that’s not counting bets between friends, office pools, and wagering opportunities operated out of every barroom from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.
I have had enough experience with gambling pulling at my own core. I don’t frequent casinos, and I stopped betting on football games long ago—my bookie, named “Jerry,” was hard to give the slip, especially after I lost—but by my lights, there is no more sublime destination than the Saratoga Race Course in August. As the great Red Smith pointed out, Saratoga has always been more concerned with entertainment than gambling, less preoccupied with winning and losing. Horsemen and horseplayers will tell you the same thing. Anyway, it’s really tough to win up there. But thoroughbred racing is concerned with dominion and animal husbandry, with history and culture. Ancient, cultish, dying, and difficult—that’s the nature of my game.
And every Pavia is a gambler (https://humanlifereview.com/heritage-and-culture/). The story is told about old Pietro’s son, my grandfather Jerome—called Jerry—who won the money for my grandmother’s wedding dress (or was it her wedding or engagement ring?) in a craps game. If you knew the man, you’d have no trouble believing the tale. You’d want it to be true. One of his sons took a series of pinches for bookmaking, and my own dad, may he rest in peace, took a brief sidestep into the ranks of professional gambler, cards mostly, but horses and football, too. My aversion to tater tots and frozen meat pies can be dated to his prolonged losing streak.
Perhaps we all should have prayed for the intercession of St. Gaetano, propped up in many quarters as the patron saint of gamblers. Known also as Cajetan, or in Spanish, Cayetano, he came into this world in 1480 at Vicenza, in the Veneto region of northern Italy. Of noble parentage, he attended the University of Padua, where his endless hours of devotion, according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints, did nothing to interfere with his studies; rather they “[enabled] him to better judge of the truth.” He worked under the papacy of Julius II, as a “protonotary”— we can only assume some kind of paper-shuffling bureaucrat—was ordained a priest in 1516, and went home to Vicenza two years later. His work was only just beginning.
In 1524, some fourteen years before the Society of Jesus received their charter, Gaetano, along with Peter Carafa (the future Pope Paul IV), founded the Theatine Order. Like the Jesuits, the Theatines were critical figures in the Counter Reformation. Disgusted with clerics sunk in fecklessness and corruption, they sought to bring theological rigor to their faith and discipline to their lives. “Through their good example,” the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “clergy and laity were induced to better living.”
Research turns up no official designation—and this is disappointing—regarding Gaetano as the patron saint of gamblers. Perhaps, like grandpa’s victorious roll of the dice, this legend has been enhanced in the mists of apocrypha. However, while still a young man in Rome, Gaetano did reinstitute a dormant confraternity of the Divine Love, a society, not an order, whose members, according to Butler, came only “from the lowest stations of life, giving great offense to [Gaetano’s] friends, who thought it a reflection on the honor of his family.” Surely, one or two of these lowlifes had busted out gambling, mocked, despised, shunned by polite society—and now won for the Lord.
In his later years, Gaetano established benevolent pawnshops that aided the destitute with funds to satisfy rapacious loan sharks, then as now, impossible to get out from under—no doubt many of those loans were taken to cover crushing gambling debts. Gaetano is also the patron saint of the unemployed and of those seeking work. One researcher surmises that these associations probably stem from the fact that he got people to pray more, and to incline their lives anew to moral and financial rectitude.
Many consider gambling to be a sin, and it’s true that it has few rivals in its potential for personal and family destruction. But looking to the example of this great saint—and reformer—we might bear in mind that God is often pulling at our core, revealing a virtue we may be unaware that we possess, and turning our sin into grace. So before you commit to any Super Bowl wagers, keep them light, and say a prayer to St. Gaetano. Not for a winner, because that wouldn’t be right, but for prudence—the boss of all virtues—and discernment. As Meyer Lansky might say, it couldn’t hurt.