Uncut Gems Gamblers

February 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

As I sat through the movie “Uncut Gems,” (see the previous post) I kept thinking of the compulsive gamblers I studied hung around with decades ago. I had gone to the movie thinking that it would provide an inside view of the 47th St. diamond district, a business world that is probably not much different from what it was a century ago.  It has not been taken over by  private equity and MBAs with spreadsheets. If you’re looking for modern, rationalized corporate structures and procedures, go elsewhere. Here, personal relationships count for much; deals are sealed with a handshake, not a contract

That was the movie I wanted to see. After all, the Safdie brothers, who made the film, had grown up hearing diamond district stories from their father, who worked there. But intead of showing us that world, the film focuses relentlessly on a single figure, Howard Ratner played by Adam Sandler. And although Ratner may not be typical of jewelry merchants, he is typical of gamblers, especially compulsive gamblers, though with Ratner the more appropriate adjective would be impulsive gambler..

Ratner and the gamblers I knew had two important things in common.. First, their lives are centered around the problem of getting money — a lot of it and quickly. And second, their relationships with family are thin and brittle. That’s not surprising. Since their money problems crowd out other matters, close relationships are at best a distraction or an interference, at worst a threat. And yet, Ratner, like many of the gamblers I knew, still thinks of himself as a good husband and father, and he remains blissfully unaware of how he is seen by the people whose needs he is slighting.

He even thinks that his wife, who is divorcing him, might reconsider.She clarifies her position (“If I  had my way, I would never see you again”), and Ratner still doesn’t get it.

(She actually does convincingly fake a punch, hence the noise and laughter in the final seconds of this clip.)

There’s an old gamblers’ joke, about the horseplayer who, like Sandler lives on Long Island. That’s great for horseplayers, because Aqueduct and Belmont are not far. But in August, New York racing moves up to Saratoga.

The horseplayer complains to a friend. “It’s terrible. I have to get up before six to get the train in to Grand Central, get over to Penn Station to get the bus by nine so I can get to the track in time for the daily double. The races end at 5:30 or 6, and then I gotta do the same thing in reverse. I don’t get back to the house around eleven and get right to bed so I can get up the next morning.”
“You know what you should do,” says the friend, “Rent a room in Saratoga Springs. You’ll be near the track, you can sleep late. . . .”

“What?” says the horseplayer, “And neglect my family??”

OK. Jokes are not evidence. But blogposts are not journal articles. And the joke does capture the gambler’s distorted picture of domestic tranquility.

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