The story of my book: Last Bets
I was overseas when I first read the news report, ‘Man dies in casino fray.’ I’d been scanning the newspapers for weeks out of homesickness and habit, but this headline caused my heart to stop beating as I waited for the story to load. A few weeks earlier, I’d had a huge fight with my boyfriend in a grand old casino in the Czech Republic. He wanted to gamble, and show off his Russian, and I wasn’t interested. I’ve always instinctively hated casinos, having worked as a waitress in a high rollers room when I was 20. My partner insisted that wasn’t a valid reason, I dug my heels in, and we walked back to our hotel in silence. As I trudged after him through Karlovy Vary’s picturebook streets, I realised he had a point. I couldn’t articulate why I hated gambling any better than a four-year-old can pinpoint why they hate broccoli. Instead of admitting as much, I thought about whether or not there might be a story in this.
Then I read that Anthony Dunning, a 40-year-old man had died in intensive care four days after being pinned to the floor of Melbourne’s Crown casino by a young bouncer. Incredibly, Crown hadn’t notified the police of the incident, and it wasn’t until Dunning’s two best friends who had been with him on the night, called the police that the homicide squad became involved. Addressing the media that week, Senior Sergeant Ron Iddles said, ‘I think they [Crown casino] probably had a moral obligation to contact the police.’ It’s a curious phrase, one that snagged instantly in my mind and didn’t budge. I decided that if I were going to research gambling, it was in this conveniently located gap between ethics and the law that my investigation would take place.
Despite being instantly fascinated by this story, it was one that I had to spend a lot of time talking myself into writing. My first book was a comic memoir, and while I was flitting around Europe with my boyfriend, my publishers thought I was researching a book on internet dating. I’d squandered my advance on plane tickets but couldn’t bring myself to write what I’m still certain would have been a horrible book. I think both sides are pretty glad I never got around to writing that.
Gambling wasn’t exactly a subject that I felt comfortable with, or one I thought I could do justice to. It took me a long time to find my feet and to feel comfortable writing, well, a grown up book, I guess. I felt acutely out of my depth nearly the whole time, and was embarrassed by how long it took me to feel that I had any understanding at all of the complexities, the psychology and the moral responsibilities around gambling. When I was pursuing David Walsh for an interview – and I did have to pursue him, I spent two hours following him around Hobart like a bad smell – he told me that he couldn’t understand why I’d even try to write a book about gambling. I nervously responded that perhaps I was just stupid, and that’s why I was trying. I think there’s a lot of truth in that anxious response.
It probably was stupid of me to take on such a complicated subject, but because I felt that so keenly, I asked a lot of dumb questions during my research. I think my best quality as an interviewer is that my subjects take pity on me and lower their guard more than they would with an accomplished journalist.
The other benefit of my naivety is that it was almost compulsory for me to seek out so many different interview subjects. When a problem gambling researcher couldn’t give me a full understanding of the issue, for example, I’d get frustrated and turn to a casino priest, and then I’d take my new questions to David Walsh, or a gambling addict, and so on. If my navigation of that gap between ethics and the law hadn’t been so ham-fisted and slow, I wouldn’t have needed to seek out such an array of interview subjects. I think that naivety gave me a fresh perspective.