Gambling has long been a fascination for creative minds – there's something about the willingness of the obsessed gambler to literally throw everything away for one final bet that has always (and continues) to be a darkly enticing aspect of human behaviour that everyone from novelists to filmmakers and artists want to explore and understand.
While we know today that gambling is a form of addiction and should always be entered into with caution and self-control, there's no denying that rags to riches (or vice versa) stories make for great reading – especially if they're set in the often seedy and crime-infested underbelly of Las Vegas or another gambling mecca. The art of gambling has long captivated people worldwide, but novels have had a similar impact. Here are some excellent works of fiction where gambling is central to the setting that are well worth reading, whether you're a punter yourself or just looking for a gripping book to get stuck into.
Fools Die by Mario Puzo
Written in 1978 by Mario Puzo, this book isn't as well known as his seminal Godfather trilogy perhaps, but its no less well written. The story follows a group of initially unrelated individuals that become entwined in each other's lives after gambling together in a Las Vegas hotel.
What follows is a tale of greed, corruption, hustling (and gambling of course) that ends in predictably unpleasant outcomes for all the main characters, especially the protagonist Merlyn – although he does at least manage to still be alive by the end of the book, unlike most of the others. It's ultimately just as stark and page turning as Puzo's Godfather.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
You've probably seen the film with Johnny Depp's now iconic performance as off-the-rails journalist Raoul Duke, as he and his attorney (Dr Gonzo) wreak havoc across the US in search of the American Dream. The book is not too dissimilar and was actually based on Hunter S. Thompson's trip to Las Vegas with activist and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta.
The two were working on a piece dealing with the killing of a Mexican American activist by a sheriff during anti-Vietnam protests and thought Vegas would be a safer climate to discuss their plans. How much of the drug-induced surreal insanity of book is actually based on their experiences is anyone's guess, but the book remains a highly original, entertaining and concise commentary on the realities (and otherwise) of the American Dream, to which Vegas is in many ways central.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Based on his first-hand passion for gambling, Dostoevsky's book recounts the experiences of a fictional Russian tutor named Alexei Ivanovich and his gradual obsession with the roulette table. Dostoevsky himself almost lost all the rights to his books as a result of his excessive gambling habits, so there are probably more than a few grains of truth weaved into this fictional story.
He gambled to the point of losing everything, which is when he agreed to a shady deal with F. T. Stellovsky. Luckily, he managed to keep the terms, but his experience is certainly something that stayed with him and provided the inspiration for the story of Ivanovich.
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
It's no secret that Mr Bond loves a bit of gambling and his incredible luck with women and escaping otherwise certain death situations seems to follow him to the tables too. While he's often not too far from a game of poker, the roulette table (or just the bar), Casino Royale is the real classic Bond and casino combo. It's seen a few incarnations in film form, but nothing really beats the original book.
It's Bond's very first outing and that makes it an iconic tale in itself. The book's story is also somewhat different to the films though and that's what makes it worth reading. Rather than Spectre, Bond is up against the somewhat less imposing sounding but just as dangerous SMERSH organisation, where he has to beat the villainous Le Chiffre at a game of high stakes baccarat. Suffice to say, there's intrigue and tension aplenty and it's refreshing to see Bond not simply ace every game he plays in the book (at least initially).
The above books are just the tip of the iceberg of course – there are dozens of great stories that feature the world of casinos and gambling. If you're after something even more gritty than fictional takes though, then some of the non-fiction accounts of real world events are a must. Casino: Love and Honour in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi is one example. It inspired the film Casino with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (in which Pesci famously discovers just how many everyday items can be used to assault people who look at him the wrong way) and offers a gripping and disturbing insight into the Mafia-controlled casinos of the late 70s and early 80s.