- Gambling Life: Dealing in Contingency in a Greek City
In Gambling Life, anthropologist Thomas Malaby provides an impressive ethnographic account of everyday gambling in a Modern Greek island community. This book is based on extensive and intensive fieldwork carried out by Malaby over a period of about 18 months between 1994 and 1996 in the Cretan city of Chania. Malaby's research was rendered somewhat problematic by the fact that the sort of gambling that interested him is illegal in Greece. Enforcement, however, is quite erratic and selective, thus making Malaby's task a bit easier than it might seem. Nevertheless, it is a tribute to Malaby's ethnographic and linguistic skills that he was able to penetrate as deeply as he did into the shady world of this taboo activity.
Malaby describes a variety of gaming activities in this book—dice, cards, and backgammon as well as state-sponsored betting and lotteries. More importantly, however, he formulates an analytic framework for understanding gambling behavior that represents a significant departure from conventional theories. In fact, he proposes a very credible paradigm shift for the whole study of risk and chance, subjects woefully neglected by anthropologists and other social scientists. Furthermore, although the context for Malaby's consideration of uncertainty is primarily gambling, he amply demonstrates that gambling is an "apt activity in which to explore how social actors confront the unpredictable in general." Thus, his findings have important implications for understanding human responses to other of life's uncertainties. He glosses this as the "politics of contingency" and points out that it includes confronting the uncertainty of such things as illness, mortality, business, and nation-state relations as well as the "uncertain realms of tourist entrepreneurship, courtship and kinship, criminality, and mortality," intimate concerns of the author's Chaniot subjects. [End Page 214]
In contradiction to most scholarly and other considerations of indeterminacy, Malaby argues that uncertainty should not automatically be perceived as dangerous, problematic or even as a source of anxiety. He questions the utility of conventional approaches based on probability theory and ideas of rationality, rejecting the universal validity of the economics-based Rational Choice Theory (RCT) and arguing instead that social performance must be taken into consideration when examining any risk-related behavior. For Malaby, risk and indeterminacy are things people confront and engage with. Such engagement is viewed as "a site where ideas about uncertainty are revealed and negotiated." This viewpoint represents a major departure from conventional approaches, and Malaby makes an excellent case for his revisionism.
Gambling Life, then, is an exploration of the myriad ways the people of Chania deal with uncertainty with a specific focus on gambling behavior. Employing some revealing anecdotal material, Malaby systematically describes a variety of games and venues and how players deal with the contingencies associated with games of chance, all the time alluding to the implications such behaviors have for dealing with the uncertainties of the larger world. Chapter 1 establishes the context of this study—the Cretan city of Chania, including the physical setting as well as what Malaby calls the "social landscape." Also included here is a description of the settings where the gambling activities take place—the cafes, clubs, tavernas, lottery shops, etc. The next three chapters are devoted to an in-depth consideration of particular forms of gambling. And, although he eschews the life history approach in this book, Malaby makes an exception in the last chapter for a profile of one of his closest friends and perhaps his most important informant. Nikos was a larger-than-life character who drank too much and gambled excessively. He died in a moped accident in 1996 shortly after Malaby had left the field. His story, as related in Chapter 6, is the application of Malaby's theories (formulated for uncertainty related to gambling behavior) to uncertainties connected with other areas of life, namely friendship and mortality. Nikos considered friendship the greatest risk in life and confronted his own mortality in ways that RCT would deem...