THE DICE OF GOD
On a mid-July evening in 1836, three men are playing poker on a riverboat that’s headed
down the Mississippi. They are strangers to one another, as is customary with gamblers,
having disdained introductions and inquiries alike. Indeed, this pure professionalism, this
unmitigated pragmatism in their relations, possesses for them a charm, freeing them from
the density of quotidian concerns to float like insubstantial clouds above the sea of life,
borne on the inscrutable winds of chance.
One of these men is John James Audubon, naturalist, painter and explorer. Though down
on his fortune and as yet unknown, he will achieve international recognition, and history
will know him as the father of American ornithology.
Another of the gamblers is Percy Gottschalk, the Louisiana-born mulatto, a composer and
pianist freshly returned from a Parisian education, on the brink of international fame. He
will be remembered as the “American Liszt,” and as the first to bring to art music the
melodies of plantation slaves.
For both these men the memory of this night will remain untouched by any revelation:
neither will ever say of the other, “Why, that’s the gambler I met on a riverboat before he
was famous.” Each will recollect only how the water lapped gently against the hull of the
ship, or that the whiskey was cheap, or being menaced, in his sea-tossed dreams, by
The third card player is dark-complexioned and unusually tall. Despite the humidity of the
night, he has wound about his head a heavy turban, so that his features are difficult to
discern. History bears no record of his name or subsequent fortune.
Perhaps he is a runaway slave, hoping to win enough cash to purchase a ticket to Boston
and his freedom.
Or perhaps he is one of those oriental monarchs, stepped out from a fairy tale, sojourning
in humble disguise, to appease that appetite for adventure, that longing for anonymity, that
a sultan is ever denied.
Or perhaps his home lies farther away, and he will steal, in the hour before dawn, to a
waiting ship and comrades, cross the empty light years, and report, like Marco Polo to an
incredulous Venice, fantastic tales of exotic earth.
Or do all these opening gambits, each of these beginnings – none of which we will trace to
its completion – and more, have their places in that multi-verse where every possible hand
will be dealt? In that case the urge to gamble would be, in fact, a desire to transcend the
vicissitudes of chance, an insatiable yearning to embrace all permutations of an infinite
matrix, and gambling itself would be revealed as a sacred ritual expressing the wish to
merge with the cosmos, consecrated to the God whose dice have infinite sides.