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Philosopher Horseplayer Teacher Saint

Nov. 20, 1961
Nov. 20, 1961

Table of Contents
Nov. 20, 1961

Boyne Mountain
Right To Be First
Giant Trader
College Football
Horse Shows
Pro Basketball
Dr. Hammond
Acknowledgments
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

Philosopher Horseplayer Teacher Saint

In such terms as these, his students at Johns Hopkins are hailing Dr. Albert Hammond for his wise and informed words on gambling, odds, poker, bridge, the beauty of horse racing and the place of luck in the universe. Eloquent and independent, he once stopped teaching for nine years to test his views by becoming a full-time gambler

Why not suppose the world purposely purposeless?

This is an article from the Nov. 20, 1961 issue Original Layout

Any good gambling house is. And its purpose (too?) is to separate the winners and the losers.

Do we want to go to a gambling house or a racetrack where we are metaphysically guaranteed all bets made will win?

I have twice gone more than 70 races bet without a winner.

The above are characteristically arresting passages from Proprieties and Vagaries by Dr. Albert Lanphier Hammond (The Johns Hopkins Press, $5.50), a newly published work dealing with science, sexual customs, religion, politics and horse racing. For upwards of 40 years Dr. Hammond has been teaching philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and betting on the horses at tracks from New Orleans to Toronto. He once picked up $4,000 at a meeting at Pimlico and another time made his way back to the college from the Fair Grounds in New Orleans with nothing to eat on his journey except 10¢ worth of cashew nuts.

Dr. Hammond's career as a teacher and a serious gambler began at about the same time. In 1919 he was a graduate student in philosophy and an instructor at Hopkins, working on his doctor's thesis (Anti-intellectualism in Present Philosophy). Another graduate student persuaded him to take a day off and visit the track. Although he was born and raised in Baltimore, a horse racing town, Dr. Hammond had never been to a race, let alone bet on one.

"I remember my first winner," said Dr. Hammond last week, "a 2-year-old named The Cook." A gleam of reminiscent satisfaction appeared briefly behind his silver-rimmed spectacles at the thought of The Cook's victory and his own happy initiation into the sport. "Well, I went back the next day," Dr. Hammond went on, "and then as often as possible, usually two or three times a week. Finally, in 1926 or 1927, I gave up teaching, and for nine years I followed the horses as a full-time bettor."

Except for Florida, which he somehow missed, Dr. Hammond regularly attended almost all eastern tracks in these years, following a circuit from New Orleans to Louisville, on to Canada and back again.

"There was a pretty little track up at Ottawa," he said. "My, they had a hard time getting people to bet there in those days. They would hold up the start of a race for five minutes, begging someone to come and put down a bet so they could start. Finally someone would go to the window and bet $2 on a horse and away they'd go. Connaught—that was the name of the track."

Dr. Hammond is 69 years old, an alert, erect, carefully groomed individual who is austere and dignified, as befits a professor of philosophy, and yet with a certain jauntiness, a trace of the man about town in his manner. He could easily pass for the cashier of a rich and old-fashioned bank, but he might also be mistaken for an experienced dealer in a first-rate gambling house.

Proprieties and Vagaries is his first book. His total previous literary output consisted of just 15 essays—contributions to professional philosophical journals, several unfinished papers that he read to university gatherings (filling in the missing parts as he went along) and "A Defense of Horse Racing," published in a middlebrow monthly magazine in 1929, which is the only one in any sense qualifying as popular literature.

In his office in Gilman Hall on the Hopkins campus in Baltimore, Dr. Hammond now gives the impression of enjoying to the utmost his first winner in the field of literature—his book is a resounding critical success. He has been photographed and interviewed, quoted in newsmagazines, praised in personal letters to the author, honored at testimonial dinners by his colleagues, saluted in a long blank-verse poem by a graduate student in philosophy, and The Johns Hopkins Philosophical Association has been renamed The Hammond Society in his honor. The success of Proprieties, and Vagaries hasn't left Dr. Hammond blinking uncertainly in the unaccustomed spotlight, but along with his calm professorial air there is at the moment a certain gambler's gratification at having a winner, coupled, perhaps, with some regret that he hadn't latched onto it before.

The book that is making the stir is a small, 264-page volume in a yellow binding, consisting of nine essays. Most of the essays are on technical philosophical matters, such as thinking about thinking, or the paradoxes that are involved in conventional ways of thinking about the speed of light and the motion of the earth. They're difficult, if rewarding, reading. Among them, however—in addition to a remarkable moral defense of horse racing—is an essay on bridge, which Dr. Hammond concludes is a positive social good though a lousy game. Scattered throughout all the essays, amid words like ostensive, cognitive, assertoric and the like, are shrewd and informed comments on the logic and ethics of gambling, unfamiliar bits of racing lore, items of practical advice to beginners, notes of encouragement to frequent losers, personal recollections of extended losing and winning streaks, discussions of the metaphysics of luck, the logical problems involved in fixing a horse race ("It is simpler to keep some one horse from winning than to make some one horse win"), as well as notations on the philosophical significance of roulette, chess and poker and the difference between gambling in the stock market and betting on a horse race.

"It is my contention," says Dr. Hammond, in his characteristic phraseology, "that the life of an actual man in this world is frequently, not always, better if it includes playing the races."

Now, a bald summary of his argument on this point alone would misrepresent Proprieties and Vagaries. It is a serious work, in no sense frivolous or facetious, though often funny, and Dr. Hammond is in earnest about the value of horse racing, which he holds is a most important and honorable pursuit and doubtless agreeable to the Deity. To see the matter in perspective it is necessary to look at Dr. Hammond's view of the world in general. In discussing the question of the purpose or the purposelessness of life he says, "The world of physical events I am willing to leave to matter moving by impact and chance, and I think there may be, and is, a purpose in this as there is in an honest gambling house, where all the dice and roulette balls and cards move by indifferent mechanics and chance. Some players go home winners, some losers; some of each party go home better than they came, some worse. The house will give you a ride back to town and, if a good house, will give you a five dollar bill if you went broke...."

But is our own gambling house a dishonest one? Disillusioned young people often conclude that the game is fixed, the cards stacked, or that, while the mechanics of our house are honest, the attendants are not. Dr. Hammond's answer is that it is honest, a world of matter with the potentiality of law and beauty, but within it the old temptations that win man to evil infringe on his ability to see beauty, to know wonder, to learn, to understand, to choose rightly, as much now as in the first days of creation. "So the world is a waste which never quite succeeds in not conserving and growing," he says, in a rare and eloquent passage, "a folly which never shakes off insight and the getting of wisdom; cupidity that finds itself generous; cruelty making for mercy; cowardice turning up heroes; lust that cannot forget love; and decay that becomes glory."

The arguments for horse racing that Dr. Hammond sets against these thoughts are of the same texture. His defense is on esthetic and social grounds; he approves of racing as a game. In all his writing he tends to support in philosophical language the popular interests of the common man, and to oppose the tendency of intellectuals to detach themselves from him. In a review of a book by Gilbert Highet he wrote: "If one were ungraciously to find a fault...it might be to wish for more humor and a little less superiority toward sport." Of Socrates he wrote that Socrates was called too soaring an idealist, "but he was notoriously fond of the gymnasium, of the drinking bout, and of what some of his nicer hearers felt were vulgar illustrations." Intellectuals commonly assume that "an interest in fugues is better than an interest in batting averages [but] its actual instance is not always wiser, or its devotees more mindful." One great value of racing is in its social communication: "At the track I can always feel at home, never intruding, never intruded upon.... And when I am most disgustful of company and resentful of lonesomeness I can find at the track a populous solitude which is neither alienly engrossed like that of Broadway nor personally exacting like that of society."

Then there is the sense of drama in the occasion: "Before and after and between races there is the air and the spectacle, the faces and colors of the jockey-house, the paddock and the variously individual horses there, the smells and the sounds, the consultations in the stalls, the saddling, the instructions to the riders, the paddock call and the call to the post; and always the crowd with its types and peculiars, touts and come-ons, veterans and new enthusiasts and casuals, handicappers and system players and followers of 'information,' the crowd with its wisdom and its superstition and its veering fashions in opinions, its amazing shrewdness and amazing human sheepishness."

And finally there is the race, involving relief from self and the joy of the spectacle, "endeavor made objective; catharsis by fear and pity." In general, Dr. Hammond is against defenses of horse racing that are made on utilitarian grounds—he thinks it is most valuable because it is practically useless—but he makes an exception in favor of the old argument that racing improves the breed. The improvement, however, is not that horses become better farm animals "but simply because the Thoroughbred is one of the most effective and beautiful things in the world.... He adds to that value in the race. For this came he into the world; for this his breed has been improved, and here he finds and shows the Aristotelian virtue, the worthy performance of one's own activity, the function of one's essence. And in his virtue is his joy and a joy of the beholder."

Gambling is merely an added element. Gambling heightens the color and excitement of any sort of contest which we happen to be involved in, "heightens its color and intensity as present experience," Dr. Hammond says. And the racetrack is the finest of all gambles. It is true that racetrack gambling is intoxicating. But this is a merit rather than otherwise; compared to other intoxicants, racing is superior. It is also true that playing the races is nonproductive, but Dr. Hammond holds that gambling, "considered just quantitatively and despite the violent superstition to the contrary," is nevertheless the cheapest of all the world's amusements. The newspapers frequently report absconding bank cashiers who lost thousands at the races, but Dr. Hammond holds that racing cannot be blamed; indeed, he wonders about cashiers who picked so appallingly many losers. Doubtless, much time is spent over form sheets and before mutuel windows that might be better spent, but the same is true of sleeping, eating and listening to lectures. Even the full-time professional gambler should not be judged too harshly, "since no one knows how bad a preacher or lawyer is spared the world in his being a gambler."

Dr. Hammond in his early years decided to become a full-time gambler after long and careful study of the subject, but with a general lack of anything of the sort in his background. He was born into an old Maryland family that dated from before the Revolution on his father's side and from old Virginia stock in his mother's family. The family home was located in the comfortable outskirts of Baltimore, about in the middle of what was then the Goucher College campus. Hammond's father was a Methodist minister. After an illness that affected his throat he gave up the ministry and made a new career, first as a salesman and later as an executive of the Whitman candy company. Hammond, in any event, had a pretty thorough religious training, and in addition he spent each summer, until he was 21, at a Methodist camp meeting in central Maryland. Even now, he says, he reacts a bit if he hears someone use the term camp meeting in a derogatory sense. It was a lovely place. "There may have been objectionable features at some," he now says, "but not at my camp meeting."

His sports in college did not give him much preparation for a career in horse racing or gambling. He played chess at Johns Hopkins, and captained the team, but chess was the opposite of a money game. "Stakes are quite impertinent to chess," he has written in Proprieties and Vagaries, "and it is indeed better played with none; the game is all. And the game is rather too much, except for those born to it; too hard for mind and also for nerve. I have sounded ridiculous to many a college athlete, full of glory and cheering-sections, by saying that chess is the most exciting of all games; but I am persuaded it is true. I have come out of chess matches limper than any dishrag and gone home to a sleep tormented by unceasing chess situations (which, I believe, I have often handled better, piecemeal fashion, in my sleep than awake)."

His other sport was tennis; again he was captain. "We had a good team in those years," he said, a brief gleam of retrospective satisfaction appearing again behind his glasses, "because the eligibility rules then permitted medical students to play, and we had some good players who were students at the medical school. We had Syd Morgan, who came to us from Stanford; where he was No. 1; he was second at Hopkins to Lindley Murray, who became national champion. I was only No. 4, in spite of the fact that I was captain, and my one triumph was beating Bill Tilden, who was then at Pennsylvania. He was famous for his ability to do things and for his bad temper. It was a dark day, things went badly, he blew up and we beat him."

Tennis in those days was scarcely better preparation for a gambling career than chess. After his first visit to the track and his first winner with The Cook, Hammond quickly branched out to poker and to gambling at Jimmy Fontaine's famous house on the line between Maryland and the District of Columbia. The place was a big, old-fashioned country estate, and the line went through the landscaped grounds, a feature that was somehow supposed to confer an advantage in dealing with the police. There were wheels, games, everything from chuck-a-luck to draw poker, and Fontaine carried all the track odds—a big operation.

"Of all games which combine luck and skill," Dr. Hammond has written of that time, "draw poker is incontestably king. The luck is raw and strong and rapid in its repetitious decisiveness, with just enough interval between threat and catastrophe. The powerfulness of luck is nicely met by equal vigor in the factor of skill. The player considers a complexity—of card values, of probabilities of the draw, of position play, of ratios with the pot, of capital, of psychological habits and twists, of surface indications—which all the more restricted intricacy of bridge can match only in intricacy. And he must often do it in the lifting of an eye.... One of the most wearying of games, it is, beyond all rival, the hardest game to stop. I have played it 40 hours at one session and been willing for more. It has intoxicated me often, bridge never.... Beside it, bridge seems a languid thing. Yet I scarcely ever play poker; I often play bridge. And when I play poker it is apt to degenerate after awhile to stud, to seven-card stud, to wild cards, to dealer's choice, to all manner of more pure and puerile gambles. Poker is just too good. I no longer care to work so hard as good poker requires."

At 27 he was more than willing to work at it. There were a number of gambling houses in Baltimore besides Fontaine's, and since he was living at home and had no expenses and had his salary as a college instructor to experiment with, he usually invested his entire income on his hunches. But the regular poker game was in his old fraternity house, the players consisting of undergraduates, graduate students and an occasional professor. "I doubt if it is revealing any secrets to say there was gambling in fraternity houses in 1919," he says mildly. As for his motive in deciding to follow the races professionally, "I suppose it was the thought of making money at something I enjoyed doing."

When he decided to leave teaching for the tracks he was 34 and he had acquired a good deal of information as well as experience. He had become a systematic bettor, mastering volumes of statistics. He felt that he possessed the essential requirements for his new career. He had a feeling for horses, a natural instinct in judging them from such considerations as their appearance in the paddock, which he could relate to his statistical knowledge of their racing record and breeding. As a logician, he reasoned there was a factor in betting on a horse race that could theoretically be exploited. Whereas in a mechanical operation like roulette the odds are always the same, in a horse race the bettors make the odds, and as their impulses intervened to affect the odds pattern, it followed that there were always going to be some horses that were overpriced, that is, that they would be held at higher and more attractive odds than they should have been. There would be times when the bettors were systematically wrong, situations in which it would be possible to take advantage of the erroneous odds they had created. Human bettors would not act like the impersonal roulette wheel with its constant odds of 35 to 1; human bettors might make odds that were roughly comparable to a roulette wheel that came up at a 20-to-1 ratio but paid off at 35 to 1. And the problem was to find the 20-to-1 shots that were paying 35 to 1 and thus gain a clear advantage. "I didn't make big bets," Dr. Hammond explained, "but I bet small amounts on several races." He was asked what he meant by small amounts—$2 bets? "I have made $2 bets," he said politely, looking a little pained. "But I usually bet $10 or $20 on each race. I was making my living at it. I say that I never won a big bet, and I never won on a sure thing. Once I bet on the sure thing in five races on one day, $100 on each race, with the odds never more than 7 to 5, and they all lost. But there were a number of weeks in which I had three winners with $100 on each. The most I won on a single race was $1,500."

Twice Dr. Hammond had more than 70 races bet without a winner. During one streak, when his losses had reached the 60s, he went to Toronto and tried to change his luck. It was the last race on a cloudy day at Thorncliffe. One horse seemed easily the best, and another the only one that seemed to belong. He bet $2 on each, knowing that he could at best hope to win a dollar but trying hard to break his losing streak. In the stretch the favorite led by two lengths over the second choice, with the rest of the field back struggling around the stretch turn. The favorite stepped in a hole. The second choice fell over him, and Dr. Hammond returned to his hotel with one more failure.

Both long losing streaks occurred near the middle of his nine-year experiment as a professional follower of the races. When he was asked if they didn't test his philosophy to the utmost, he said, "The best thing to do is to quit for awhile. Bad luck is sustained by bad selections."

"But if you had had 77 consecutive winners wouldn't it have changed your views?"

"That would have been even more extraordinary, because of the odds. Much of the time I was playing long shots."

Some of the views he acquired in this period are incorporated into Proprieties and Vagaries. After too long a losing streak he wrote, "One is beyond talk of a purposeless world." In such dark periods there appears to be a malignant anti-purpose at work. But in the same vale of despond Dr. Hammond formed a high opinion of horseplayers. One objection that his friends brought against his way of life was that one met terrible people at the tracks. "I have been in academic seminaries and faculty clubs," he wrote in reply, "student organizations, gatherings of the socially proper, of artists, chess players, athletes, and of business and professional men, even of newspapermen and columnists. And from time to time I have been tempted to feel that each was of 'terrible people.' But far less often, I think, at the racetrack than elsewhere."

In more fortunate periods he lived in places like the St. Charles in New Orleans, his favorite of all hotels, where the professional horseplayers gathered. "We made up a small group," he said, "and we saw each other at all the tracks, but it all tended to be a lone wolf affair. We kept pretty much to ourselves."

In 1937 Dr. Hammond gave up this odd, nomadic and secretive life and returned to the Johns Hopkins department of philosophy. He married, fathered a son and a daughter and settled down to the teaching of his specialty, the philosophy of the scientific method. In 1942 he again left to start a new career, this one at the age of 50, when he took a job on the copy desk of the Baltimore Sun. "I don't know," said the editor who hired him, "I never hired a college professor before. But you at least ought to know where the commas go."

Each afternoon at 4 Hammond took his place at the bend of the horseshoe-shaped copy desk. He achieved renown as the slowest man on the desk, but the most accurate. At 12:30 each morning he left, often with a collection of prime examples of illogic or bad English culled from the press. After a year the Hopkins philosophy department called him back, and he has since divided his time between the newspaper and the college, currently working five nights a week on the Sun and teaching two classes in philosophy at Johns Hopkins.

When he reached retirement age last summer his position was something of a problem, for while he had been connected with the philosophy department since 1914 the quixotic nature of his work had left him with the rank of only associate professor. The trustees accordingly named him associate professor emeritus, the first ever selected for that honor outside the medical school. At an impressive testimonial gathering of his former students and colleagues he was hailed as a man who had restored something that a scientific age had forgotten: "due respect for luck and chance." The last lines of a student's poem in his honor were:

Complete the artist's portrait, see the man:

Philosopher, horse-player, teacher, saint.

His own statement of his credo was a little less emotional, a little more characteristic of a man who made playing the races an integral part of his philosopher's career. "What I'd like to do," he said, "is write about 10 more books." His ambition suggested pretty clearly what had happened when he won with The Cook on his first day at the races.

Most of us, when we accept any Providence," he has written, "are apt to read our own good into that good end, and to interpret that good of ours in terms of our present purposes. There was and is always the unwarranted hope that in this gambling house the wheels and dice shall be a little but helpfully crooked to favor me or at least the right people. Well, the right people are safe; but not in the world of events. Three things are among those I think one can be quite sure of. The good man is better off than the bad. If you are 'good' in order to get this reward of being better off, you are not good and will not get it. The rain, desired and undesired, falls on the just and unjust alike."

PHOTOROBERT PHILLIPSPHOTOAt the track Dr. Hammond finds drama and the intoxication of picking winners.PHOTOAs a teacher of philosophy, Dr. Hammond likens the world to an honest gambling house.