The other day I was teaching my students about cultural codes, how they make sense to insiders but can be unintelligible to someone who is unable to interpret them. As an example, I cited the movie they showed us on the flight to the United States when we first immigrated in 1970: all I can recall of it was two men (cowboys? The Western was the only recognizable genre in which I could place it) hiding out in some building, a couple of love scenes, a lot of shooting, and a big musical number. I soon recognized the song on the radio—Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head was at the top of the charts when we arrived—and some time later, identified the two men as Robert Redford and Paul Newman (although they possessed an American brand of boyish good looks that I couldn’t appreciate). The film turned out to be the highly acclaimed Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which received seven Oscar nominations and four Academy Awards and earned a place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” But I couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal. I didn’t know then that it drew on the popular U.S. figure of Outlaw-as-Good-Guy. Unlike Robin Hood, he doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor; he steals from the rich for the hell of it and women fall for him right and left.
A few years later, another blockbuster featuring the same duo swept the Academy Awards—The Sting (1973). By now I could appreciate its lead actors as handsome (in an American sort of way, though they weren’t my type) and classify it as a movie about con men—again, beloved figures in American popular culture. I still didn’t really understand or enjoy the film, and to this day I don’t think I’ve watched it all the way through, remembering only Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano and a lot of cheating at cards. But at least I was beginning to recognize the cultural codes embedded in it.
Why is the card-shark such a quintessentially American figure? Because he gets rich by stacking the deck and beating the odds. Why is he such a beloved figure, whom people root for despite his being on the wrong side of the law? Is it precisely because Americans know that they are not striving for success on a level playing field? Perhaps, since the deck is stacked against the little guy, only a trickster can come out on top. But in fact, many of these tricksters have been big-time con men, not little guys at all.
One of my favorite card games, taught to me by my father-in-law, was developed by one such big-time con man, Richard A. Canfield (1855-1914), who ran a lucrative illegal gambling operation throughout the northeastern United States and was responsible for developing the resort casino. Canfield gave his name to a version of Solitaire (a card game I knew as Patience, growing up) with such a low probability of winning that in England it is simply known as Demon. Apparently Canfield sold gamblers a pack of cards for $50, which they could then win back at $5 per card for every card they could place in the “foundations”—that is, for every card they could stack in four piles starting with the ace of each suit. It looked easy, but the odds of winning are 1-30, and many a hopeful must have lost his shirt. All I lose is time—lots of it. I play and replay it addictively at home, and keep telling myself, “just one more game,” just until I beat Canfield.
Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book Outliers that the secret of success in any endeavor is to work at it for 10,000 hours. If the 10,000-hour rule applied to playing Canfield I should have my own casino empire by now. But when the odds are against you, you can’t win unless you either out-shark the shark or play a different game. Which, by the way, is what both Paul Newman and Robert Redford did with Newman’s Own Foundation and the Sundance Institute, each brilliant examples of taking on the big guys and playing a different—and better—game.
(And okay, I admit it: those guys are good-looking.)