I have, for the better part of my 56 years, examined two allied facets of life—games and gambling—with considerable care, and I am at last prepared to set forth Morley's Three Laws:
1) The ball is man's most disastrous invention, not excluding the wheel.
2) There is only one kind of game worthy of human time, thought and esteem, and that is a game of chance.
3) Morley's First Law is to be ignored in the case of roulette bal s.
April 25, 1965
This strikes me as a basic credo straightforwardly put, but do not be deceived by its simplicity, for it is the distillation of a great deal of experience and consideration, as you shall see.
Take the sinister matter of the ball. Essentially, I am against the wheel, too, but the wheel does occasionally get man moving. The ball holds him remorselessly in thrall. Many people, and I am in the forefront of their ranks, teach that life is far too short to spend time on sport or exercise. When sport and exercise are indulged in simultaneously, during a game of golf, for instance, a man is not only wasting precious hours of his life span and hustling himself into the grave, he is becoming noticeably more foolish. All sport eventually damages the brain. Statistics prove that boxers and fox hunters show the most rapid deterioration and, after them, polo players—both mounted and afloat. The fact that polo, which is a game played by only four on a side, should figure so high on the list does, unfortunately, cast some question on the theory of one of my favorite scientists, Dr. Mandlekopt, that, while all games frustrate, the ratio of frustration is governed directly by the ratio of players to ball. Thus cricket, employing 22 to a ball, was considered by Mandlekopt more likely to damage the brain than, say, golf, where the ratio is normally one player to a ball. In Mandlekopt's experiments with rats, and later with professional tennis players, he was able to show that habitual doubles players are a good deal less stable mentally than habitual singles players. But tennis, as Mandlekopt himself pointed out, is by no means the ideal experimental field, and it is to be regretted that the attempts by this brilliant theoretician to train rats to play baseball proved unsuccessful. We might have learnt a great deal.
I was fortunate in that my understanding of the dangerous ball-vs.-human relationship came to me early. I was unique as a child, not only because I never wished to strike, kick, carry or throw a ball, but because, despite all the efforts made by adults and other children to corrupt me, I steadfastly refused to do so. Having read that in cricket a player was out if he knocked down his own stumps, I invariably proceeded to do so to mine as soon as the ball left the bowler's hand. I was on my way back to the comparative peace and quiet of the pavilion long before the keeper had reset the wicket. However often I was punished, the score in any cricket match in which I took part read, "Morley hit wicket 0." Where other games are concerned, in which there was no provision made in the rules for absenting myself, I took care to keep as far away from the ball and any action as possible. I would infuriate my comrades when cast as goalkeeper by politely stepping aside and inviting the ball to enter the net, although I remember an occasion when my conduct drew a round of applause from the opposing side. It was with mutual relief that I withdrew entirely from school and playing fields at the age of 16. Since then I have never played any games, except those of chance.
It is not just that I enjoy gambling. I am happier indoors than out and happiest of all in a casino. It was from my father that I inherited my taste for chandeliers and green baize. He was a dedicated gambler who on his wedding morning solemnly promised his bride he would never again touch a card or bet on a horse, and then carried her off to Monte Carlo for the honeymoon. He was as incapable of not gambling as my mother was of understanding him. In the summer father used to take us to Dieppe or Boulogne, and in the afternoons he would disappear into The Rooms as soon as they opened, leaving us to amuse ourselves after arranging for us to meet him for ices on the casino terrace on our way home. Sometimes he would not turn up, and we would have to pay for our own refreshment and go soberly home, but there were wonderful evenings when father would be waiting for us, the table loaded with extravagant treats and a large casino plaque on each of our plates. Take them, he would tell us, before the rats get them. And take them we did, and we never lingered when father had gone back to the tables lest, as happened on occasions, he should emerge once more to ask for them back.
That was something else my father taught me. When you've got the money, spend it; it's of very little use in banks. How he hated banks. He was outraged by their ostentation. Banks, he affirmed, should be hidden up alleyways like brothels. Theirs was a disreputable trade, borrowing money and lending it out again at vastly increased rates of interest. Of course they make money, he would tell me. Any fool could make money doing what they do. But what really infuriated him about banks was their reluctance to advance him money on his father's estate. He had what was called in those days—and, for all I know, still is—reversionary interest. This meant he was not encouraged to touch the capital. He spent much of his time, when he was not doping the form sheets, working out ways of breaking his father's will and getting his hands on what he affectionately referred to as "the ready."
His efforts were only partly successful, and toward the end of his life he lived in a state of perpetual financial crisis. When all else failed he would retire to bed with a revolver under his pillow and, summoning one of his family, would invite him or her to shoot him out of hand. When the offer was declined father would hold the revolver to his temple and beg to be left alone so he could pull the trigger. "No need for you to stay, it will only upset you," he would say. Of course, we always did stay, and father never shot himself, but the strain eventually became too much for my mother and toward the end of their lives my parents separated. They never met again but each spoke of the other often.
My mother was wont to harp a good deal upon her cabinet of silver articles. She had been accustomed to a silver cabinet all her life, and it was a rude shock to her to return home one afternoon comparatively early in marriage to find that my father had carried it off lock, stock and sugar caster to the pawnbroker, from whom he never managed to reclaim it. She missed my father I think, but she talked more about missing the cabinet.
Life was a good deal quieter after he had left home, but I continued to see him, and he remained, although beset by disappointments, extraordinarily cheerful. Most gamblers are optimists; it is in the nature of their calling. They are always on the brink of making a fortune, whereas rich men are usually worrying lest they lose one. My father was the best loser I ever knew. Mother said it was because he had so much practice. The only time he ever appeared anxious or preoccupied was during one of his infrequent winning streaks. Most times he would return from the track whistling cheerfully and swinging his race glasses. If he came back silently and apprehensive we knew he was in the money and fearful lest if his luck continued he might really have enough to stop. Gamblers are not interested in how much they win or lose; all they care about is being allowed to go on gambling.
As it was with my father, so it is with me, and I am never really happy in a country where gambling is outlawed. In America, although I am often lucky enough to be able to combine my professional activities with visits to the races or even to Las Vegas, I do resent not being able to place a bet away from the track. I am not so innocent as not to know that this can be done if you know the ropes, but betting off the course in America is not made attractive to the visitor. In England, with a betting shop round most corners, life is a good deal pleasanter. It is not nearly so difficult to get through a working day if at the back of your mind is the knowledge that by 6 o'clock in the evening you may be worth a fortune. As I sit here writing these words I am conscious that if I have correctly foretold the winners of two big horse races this week I may never have to finish this article and you may not have to bother to read it. But if at this moment you are reading it, gentle reader, you will know that I have been proved wrong on this as on previous occasions and have already earmarked a proportion of the fee I shall receive for another small flutter. It is the flutter that keeps most people sane in Britain, keeps them turning lathes and shaving customers and pounding typewriters.
I have discovered, to my personal chagrin, that the man accustomed to unrestricted gambling faces other pitfalls in America. I remember a visit to Santa Anita not too long ago when I put a seemingly ordinary question to one of the uniformed guards. I asked him where I might find a telephone.
"You want to make a phone call!" he said, and he looked at me in amazement. "Your best bet would be to walk along Highway 66 for about half a mile until you get to a drugstore."
"Surely I can telephone from here?" The guard continued to stare at me unbelievingly, but he said nothing further. I was to take it that the conversation was at an end.
A man operating an elevator laughed when I asked him. "That's a tough one," he said. "They cut the phones off an hour before post time."
"But there must be some lines open. There might be an earthquake or a fire?" He thought about this. "In an earthquake," he opined, "the lines would probably be cut anyway." Then he added that I might try Betty.
Betty, when I eventually found her, was sitting behind a desk marked Clubhouse Reservations. I explained all I wanted to do was to ring the studio, that I got away from the set only by promising I would call them as soon as I arrived at the track. The director might be ready to shoot one of my scenes later this afternoon and I would have to go back. I said I was making the film with James Stewart. Betty looked at me thoughtfully. And Sandra Dee, I added. That did it. Betty handed me the phone. "If you mention racing I shall cut you off," she warned. I was not needed back at the studio, but I had made the gesture. There are something like 75 consecutive days of racing at Santa Anita. I did not want to miss more of them than I could help.
It is extraordinary, considering how much better racing is run in America than in Britain, that it is not more enjoyable. For one thing, one misses the bookmakers. There is no hurly-burly. One can sometimes get the better of a bookmaker, but it is not easy to get the better of a totalizator. In America there is a lag in the status rating of bookmakers. Like nurses, they are not as highly thought of as in England. Bookmaking is, of course, generally illegal. Nursing is still permitted, although very few people in America can afford to be nursed.
Once, long ago, there was a gambling club out at Palm Springs. The only time I walked in there I realized I had come too early. There are few more expensive predicaments than being first in a casino. Too many croupiers chasing too few counters. I was out again almost at once, having lost three hours' spending money in 10 minutes. When you are the only player at the roulette table, the wheel has a feeling of personal animosity toward you. If I am to make my fortune gambling, I shall have to manage it in England.
There have been times when, besides dreaming of making my fortune on the racetrack, I have taken more positive action and actually invested in bloodstock, or, to put it more simply, bought one of the creatures and raced it myself. Not that an owner has much say after he has signed the purchase check. It is the trainer who decides policy, where the horse shall run and in what company. The horses I have owned were never quite in the top class and were usually entered to race at small and remote tracks, so that on occasions I had the greatest difficulty in seeing them run and getting back in time to play in the theatre. Moreover, they always seemed to run quite late in the afternoon, and it often happened that I got more excitement during the race back to London than I did watching my horse come in unostentatiously at the rear of his field. Not that I did not have an occasional winner, once or twice enjoying that marvelous feeling of pride as you stand in the winner's enclosure trying not to look too pleased with yourself and wondering how much to give the jockey.
But for me the joy of owning a horse is the anticipation. I usually buy them as yearlings, selecting them myself on the spur of the moment and by some quirk of fancy and bidding against the professionals at the Newmarket Sales. Needless to say, if I do secure the one I am after, there is usually some flaw in its conformation or pedigree of which I am, and remain, profoundly unaware. The next thing is to find someone willing to train it, and here I have always been fortunate. Except for the fact that no trainer of racehorses understands about matinees and that I do not want my horses to run on Wednesday or Saturday afternoons, there has never been a cross word between us. Some English trainers are absurdly autocratic and behave to their patrons like schoolmasters to parents—but not the ones I have had.
I usually buy my champion in October, and afterward I visit him as often as possible for the next six months, noting with delight his progress, admiring the way he stands in his box and sharing with the boy who looks after him the conviction that at last I have the Horse of the Year.
Early spring is the time when optimism is at its peak. "I will tell you one thing about that little horse of yours," my trainer will say. "He's the best mover I have in the yard." In the yard? I inquire cautiously if he has been tried on the training grounds. "No," replies the trainer. "But he'll go all right. He'll win you a race or two, you can depend on that. But we mustn't hurry him."
No, we certainly mustn't hurry him, and hurry him is the last thing we do. While other 2-year-olds are out winning races in March, mine have usually not seen a racecourse until midsummer. But then one day the trainer will ring me up: "That horse of yours. He's still a bit backward, but I thought perhaps we might give him a run next week. I've entered him on Saturday."
"Saturday won't do," I tell him. "You know I can't get to the races on Saturday. I'm working."
"Are you now? Well, that's a shame. Couldn't you just forget about the theatre for once? I think your horse would enjoy a bit of a gallop."
"Will he win?" For a moment I dream of a coup made all the more profitable by the absence of the owner and the consequent lulling of the bookmakers into a false sense of security.
"Will he win? No, I can't say he's likely to win, but the track will suit him. Mind you, he's entered next week, but there are one or two useful animals in that race. Of course, it's on a Tuesday, which might suit you better."
We decide to run him in the race with the useful ones. There was a time when I thought the trainer believed my horse to be useful, but his optimism seems to have diminished. Mine, for some reason, has increased enormously. I am practically the first person at the track on Tuesday, certainly the first owner to pin his complimentary badge into his buttonhole and make for the bar to be served his complimentary drink. I am too excited, however, to eat my complimentary luncheon. My trainer, when at last he shows up, does hot seem excited at all. "We shall have to wait and see which of the other horses are fancied," he says.
The waiting is pleasurable; by now I have decided we shall win. I know from experience the caution of trainers. That he expects my horse to run a good race can only mean he is confident at least of getting into the money. I do not see my trainer again until just before post time, when the horses are saddled and I am introduced to the jockey. By now I have made, for me, a large bet on my horse to win and an even larger one that he will be in the first three. I think it as well to apprise the jockey and my trainer that I am financially involved.
"I have had a small bet," I announce cheerfully.
The jockey looks startled. "What on?" he inquires.
The jockey looks at the trainer as if in search of guidance. "He'll run a good race. Just keep him up there with the others and let him go if he wants to. Don't hit him," says my trainer. He helps the jockey into the saddle, and we hurry to the rails to watch as my champion canters to the post. He moves with wonderful style, ears pricked, hoofs drumming. I decide to increase my bet, and having done so climb to the top of the stands to the enclosure marked "Owners." From there I watch the race, in which, more often than not, my horse does what is expected of him. But not by me, of course. He comes in neither first nor last but somewhere in between. There may or may not have been a moment when he was momentarily leading the field, a moment perhaps when he was tailing it. His performance is in every way unremarkable, but none of us is entirely dissatisfied. The jockey dismounts, and I thank him politely.
"He'll win a race," he tells me. "He's still a bit green."
My trainer is equally encouraging. "A very fair effort. He was running on at the end nicely. We'll rest him for a bit and run him again. He's still growing."
Yet next time he runs I am just as confident, just as hopeful. I still believe that my horse is going to surprise them all. However many times he has performed already on the racetrack and however much he may have disappointed, I am more convinced than ever that he has latent powers unsuspected by all but myself and that this time he is not only going to win but to break the track record.
I haven't got a horse at the moment, but next October, perhaps, all being well, I shall buy a little chestnut yearling whom no one else seems very keen about and I shall put him in training in the spring, when he will be the best mover in the yard, and quite soon after that he will start to win races and he will go on winning them with impossible weights under impossible conditions until, crowned with glory and loaded with honor, he will retire to the stud to beget other champions, though none quite as great as himself. And I? I shall retire, too. Rich, of course, but, what is even more important, famous as the owner of the greatest racehorse of all time, a man who started from quite humble beginnings in the theatre.