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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

With fondest regards

by Sagan, Francoise

on 10/06/2011

Price: £na

Published: Feb 1987

Format: paperback / hardback

No Pages: 176 pages


ISBN-13: 9780863791338

Category: Biographical

Francoise Sagan (1935 – 2004), ‘enfant terrible’ of French literature, was perhaps best known for her first novel ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ (Hello Sadness) but she was also renowned for her love of alcohol, fast cars and gambling. ‘With fondest regards’, written in 1984, is Sagan’s collection of her memoirs of people and things she loved including Tennessee Williams, Orson Welles, Billie Holiday, the theatre, speeding and gambling (‘Games of Chance’). The French title of the book ‘Avec mon meilleur souvenir’, literally translates as ‘my best memory’, which is a common ending to letters, as is ‘with fondest regards’ in English. The word ‘memory’ gives an important clue: this is a tribute, a eulogy, the best she remembers of people and places that have meant a lot to her in the past.

In the following account, I will limit myself to discussing the section on gambling from ‘With fondest regards’ - ‘Games of Chance’, a brutally honest and vivid portrayal of Sagan’s own addiction to gambling. Better than most, she provides a very intimate insight into the addictive nature of gambling. She describes her childlike delight in gambling and its ‘joys’, and refers to the excitement and insouciance involved. She sees it very much as a ‘game’. Although she must have been worried enough about her gambling to get herself voluntarily banned (‘self exclusion’ being the technical description in modern parlance) from the casino in Deauville for 5 years, she stresses the joys of gambling. In only a few pages, she brings to life with extraordinary skill the emotions of a happy gambler. She glosses over the negatives, merely mentioning in passing the debts and the re - mortgaging of her beloved house in the country. She offers a real insight into the guilty pleasures of gambling and particularly the relish of successfully chasing losses – ‘Gamblers do not like losing – but sometimes they consider themselves lucky to lose less at the end of a game than they were losing while it was in progress.’ It is also significant, in my view, that she stresses this piece is intended only for the eyes of gamblers: perhaps this reflects an awareness of a certain amount of guilt should anyone decide to try it out as a result of her words. Nevertheless, this account is a must read for anyone wanting to understand what goes on in the mind of a gambler. Given below are a few brief extracts from ‘Games of Chance’, highlighting some key features of gambling addiction:

She recollects her foray into gambling, on her 21st birthday, and where it led her later in her gambling career – ‘I first became acquainted with gambling one 21st June ----- on the evening of my 21st birthday. I entered the Palm Beach in Cannes with a godfather on either side of me, both of whom were amused to witness my debut on the green baize. They did indeed witness the start of my career, but they were not there to see where it led, for by then I had escaped their surveillance and was racing from casino to casino without them.’

Her tendency to take risks, seen in many gamblers, is best captured where she states – ‘I learned the rules of chemin de fer, learned that on a single hand of just two cards with a combined value of 8 or 9 one stood to win fifty million old francs --- more than the enormity of the sums involved, it was the speed with which they changed hands that fascinated me. I fancied myself gambling with my destiny, just like that, in two quick hands.’

Gambling addicts have various cognitive distortions such as illusions of control, overestimates of one’s chances of winning and of the skill involved, superstitious beliefs, selective memories, etc. Some of these are evident in this account – ‘I was amazed to discover that my favourite numbers were 3, 8 and 11 – a fact of which I had been totally unaware and which turned out to be unalterable. I discovered that I preferred black to red, odd numbers to even, low to high ----. Strangely enough, memories of winning are always more vivid. You only remember the good time.’

The intensely addictive nature and the grip gambling addiction can have on the person is exemplified here – ‘It is true that gambling is a profoundly absorbing pastime. It is true that you can keep the person you love most waiting for two hours if you are involved in a game that affords any relish. It is true that you can almost completely forget your debts, and the constraints and restrictions that bind you, in pursuit of the croupier’s shoe, only to come to an hour later and find your problems have increased ten fold. But what an hour! Your heart races, you lose all notion of time, forget the value of money, forget the tentacle-like shackles of society.’ Further, she talks about how while on holiday, instead of spending time on the beach as intended, she was at the casino most of the time – ‘The sea was always miles out, but the casino at Deauville was always open. Instead of days spent in the sunshine, there were nights without sleep. --- there was only the dawn and the night, with sometimes a glimpse of grass in between. The singing of birds was drowned by the click of chips, green baize took the place of green fields.’

It is this brilliant and insightful portrayal of gambling that makes this a useful read for psychiatrists with an interest in addictions. The cognitive distortions found in gamblers, gambling’s adverse consequences and its potential for dependence are all very realistically depicted. Furthermore, the lure of casinos and the ‘tasty’ and irresistible accompaniments are all portrayed realistically and with great finesse. British psychiatrists should note here that approximately 70% of Britons gamble recreationally and a small minority (around 0.9%) gamble at problematic or dependent levels. It is estimated that there are around 400,000 gambling addicts in Britain, and that a further 7.3% of the general population are at risk of developing a gambling problem in the future. Addiction to gambling negatively impacts on the individual, family and society. But regrettably gambling addiction often remains ‘hidden’ for reasons such as professionals’ lack of awareness and patients’ reluctance to seek help; conceptual and nosological ambiguity that shrouded excessive gambling did not help either. But now there is consensus that from an assessment and treatment point of view, it is akin to other substance addictions. It is also anticipated that with DSM - V almost certain to include gambling as an addiction rather than as an impulse control disorder, it will become more mainstream.  British psychiatrists should also note that the impending opening of several casinos across the country coupled with a rapidly growing online gambling industry, both set in the context of a liberal gambling legislation, are expected to further increase the prevalence of gambling and its associated problems.

Sanju George
Consultant and senior research fellow in addiction psychiatry

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