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Gambling and poetry

Poetry has been associated with gambling for as long as literary art has existed. From the earliest days of Homer to modern-day Hollywood, poets and writers have sought inspiration in card games, cockfights and gaming houses.

The connection between gambling and poetry can be traced back to the earliest days of poetry, with many classical authors citing gambling as an inspiration for their work. This is not surprising considering that both are inherently risky endeavours. Gambling is highly dependent on chance, and the odds of winning are generally slim.

On the other hand, Poets are by nature risk-takers; and their status is often dependent on widespread acclaim. They have always lived dangerously—witness Lord Byron’s affair with his half-sister or Chaucer’s raucous lifestyle. To compound matters, poets tend to live not only precariously but also strangely.

Poets are constantly seeking inspiration; they turn to their emotional world just as gamblers turn to chance. In gambling, one may win a large sum of money by sheer luck; in poetry, something similar can happen—one’s poems can be met with great acclaim and bring the poet wealth and social status. Both require risk-taking and a knack for guessing correctly, much in the same way that both poetry and gambling have their set of rules that are misunderstood by many.

Many poets and writers have turned to gamble as a mode of escape from the harsh reality surrounding them. Inspiration comes as the second most popular motivation for gambling. The chance of winning money most times takes the last place.

A significant percentage of both classic and modern authors have referenced gambling in their literature. Although it is difficult to attribute any one piece of work wholly to a gambling inspiration, several well-known pieces of writing are directly linked to gambling. Read further to discover examples of gambling and poetry coming together.

Gambling and Homer's “Iliad”

Ancient Greek poet Homer is said to have been greatly influenced by an early form of a dice game played in his era called “Alea”. This game involved rolling five six-sided stones, and those who threw a certain number were rewarded with large sums of money.

The Iliad was based on the events surrounding the Trojan War, which was said to have been sparked by the abduction of Helen, a Spartan queen.

William Shakespeare and "All's Well That Ends Well"

In 1602 William Shakespeare released “All’s Well That Ends Well”, which many critics consider one of his finest works. The play itself is based around gambling, with a character called Parolles describing himself as a “gambler” throughout the play.

Although Act II of William Shakespeare’s play is dedicated to gambling, Parolles describing himself as a “gambler”, many other references within his dissertations on poetry indicate his great love of gambling.

Many writers have since criticised the inclusion of gambling as a strong theme within Shakespeare’s works, claiming that his writings were little more than thinly-veiled literature based on real events. Although many people denied Shakespeare’s work at the time, an increasing number believe he indeed was a writer who was heavily influenced by his gambling experiences.

Rudyard Kipling and The “Ballad of East & West”

Rudyard Kipling is regarded as one of the most famous names when it comes to poetry. He was also a renowned author with several works under his belt, but he is perhaps best known for his poem “The Ballad of East & West”.

This poem reflects the author’s strong feelings towards gambling and betting, with Kipling urging all to eschew the evils of gambling in favour of a life devoted to religion. The piece was written in 1889 during an era when much criticism was directed at the bookmakers who operated on British racecourses and cricket grounds; the 1889 season saw the closure of many racecourses for this reason.

This poem is considered to be a work that truly captures the feeling of being involved in gambling. It is almost as though Kipling was able to reach into his soul and use his poetry as a way of unloading all of his emotions, which most certainly had some connection with gambling.

Oscar Wilde's “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of literature that came about as a result of an experience with gambling is Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad Of Reading Gaol”. This poem was first published in 1898, and it continues to be recognised as one of the world’s most famous pieces of prison literature.
This piece of poetry is linked to gambling because Wilde was initially under investigation for cheating at gambling. However, he was eventually charged with a much more severe crime.

Oscar Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labour. He then spent time in prison before being released on medical grounds. It has been suggested that the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was actually written to help people understand what the prison experience would be like for those who were unlucky enough to find themselves imprisoned in an environment such as this.

Wilde had a more than passing interest in gambling, and it has been suggested that his trial was perhaps related to his love of gaming. The author was a regular visitor to casinos and betting stables throughout his life, particularly during his time in Paris. But he was also an avid gambler in the more traditional sense of the word; it is believed that Wilde loved to gamble on horse racing and cricket matches with some of his closest friends.

James Joyce “The Dead”

Poets like James Joyce, who was also a strong gambler, have turned to gamble as inspiration for their writings.

In his short story “The Dead”, there is a scene in which Gabriel Conroy and the other guests at the party are attempting to play cards with Mr Browne when suddenly he throws all his money on the table. Joyce used his gambling experiences to write most of the scenes in “The Dead”.

Charles Bukowski and "The Bookworm"

A poem which didn’t make it into the collection “Crucifix in a Deathhand: Poems 1987-1990” but is quoted here from the “Notes for Future Works”, collected in 1993.

The poem starts with an epigraph by Wild Bill Hickok – who was shot dead after a game of poker – and then examines what it means to be a poet, especially one who writes poetry dedicated to gambling.

Charles Baudelaire's “Flowers of Evil”

Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil has been referred to as “the most immoral book ever published”.

One of its most famous lines comes from a poem dedicated to gambling, Le Jeu (The Game). This poem is full of references to gambling, and it paints a picture of life as a game played by the devil.

It also pays tribute to the fact that gambling has always been one of man’s greatest and most closely-held pleasures.

Final words

Throughout the history of literature, gambling has proven to be a significant influence. It seems that great writers are drawn to it like moths to a flame; gambling is such a beguiling and fascinating subject that it often inspires truly thought-provoking pieces of writing.

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