What can advertising scams, dice systems, and topless dancers teach us about the nature of the universe?
“Read ‘God Doesn’t Shoot Craps’ and find out,” says Brian Rouff, author of “Dice Angel” and “Money Shot.” “A wildly entertaining yarn that will have you laughing out loud and pondering the eternal mysteries at the same time.”
In this novel, author Richard Armstrong asks: Can you take two losing outcomes and combine them into a winning system? That’s the theory behind Parrondo’s Paradox, an actual breakthrough in math and physics that just may hold the key to beating the casinos.
This hilarious and thoughtful novel follows Danny Pellegrino, a successful junk-mail con man content to scam the average Joe. That is, until he sells a “bogus” craps system through the mail—only to discover, too late, that it really works.
Soon, Danny Pellegrino is off to build a fortune without letting the world know about it. But when he discovers that his new formula holds the key to much more than gambling, all bets are off, and even the nature of existence is up for grabs.
How does Parrondo’s Paradox work, and how did Armstrong take the theory and turn it into a work of fiction?
Scroll down to read our Q&A with the author.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s start off with what inspired you to write, “God Doesn’t Shoot Craps.”
Richard Armstrong: An old friend of mine — well-known copywriter Bob Bly — sent me an article from a scientific magazine about a new development in the esoteric field of mathematics known as game theory. It was called Parrondo’s Paradox, and it described how two losing gambling games can be combined in such a way that they yield a winning result. Almost immediately, the idea for the story popped into my head, and I sat down to write it in about three weeks.
Be Inkandescent: Are you a gambler?
Richard Armstrong: I most definitely am a gambler. I enjoy craps, blackjack, and horse racing. I’m not a high roller by any means, because I don’t like to put too much money at risk. But I enjoy the culture of the casino. It’s a non-stop circus of interesting characters, success and failure, and many minor comedies and tragedies of one kind or another. So it’s the ideal setting for a novel.
Be Inkandescent: The other major inspiration for the book was Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” What do such epic ideas have to do with gambling?
Richard Armstrong: I saw the plot as the story of a middle-aged man, a man of questionable moral character, who goes on a kind of pilgrimage and manages to find spiritual redemption at the end. Along the way he meets a guru named Virgil who teaches him how the universe works and the true meaning of life. This is exactly the same story as the “Divine Comedy,” except that my book isn’t in Italian, and it doesn’t rhyme!
Be Inkandescent: Between the time you wrote the book in 2001, and when it was published in 2006, the ideas in the book gained popularity. Why?
Richard Armstrong: I’m not sure whether the ideas are gaining more popularity, or I was simply more inclined to notice them. It’s like when you learn a new word and suddenly you see that word showing up everywhere. But one of the theories I put forward in the book is that the universe is like a computer program, and the subatomic particles that make up the building blocks of our physical world are akin to the digital code of computer software. Since I began writing the book more than 10 years ago, I’ve seen this theory or something similar to it cropping up all over the place. I’m sure it’s not original with me. It’s just in the zeitgeist nowadays.
Be Inkandescent: We love that a good portion of the book deals with mastery. Tell us more about that theme.
Richard Armstrong: This is a subject that interests me a lot and that I struggle with personally. I struggle with it in my work as a copywriter and even in my recreational life as a golfer and a gambler. How do you achieve and maintain a high degree of skill in any endeavor? How do you continue to get better and better at something without hitting a plateau from which you never improve? The guru character in my book named Virgil talks about this topic at length. Some of it ties in with the ideas of Eastern philosophy like Zen Buddhism. Author Malcolm Gladwell had some interesting things to say about it in his 2008 book, “Outliers: The story of success.”
Be Inkandescent: You reference some exciting places around the world. Did you have first-person experiences in each of these spots, or are they the work of your healthy imagination? And which approach is more important to fiction authors—to visit the places they write about, or to dream them up and create spots as they wish they would be?
Richard Armstrong: I’ve been in all the major locations mentioned in the book: Atlantic City, Las Vegas, Washington, DC, and Venice, Italy. The town in Indiana where the main character crashes his airplane and accidentally stumbles upon an Indian casino is fictional. I’ve read two theories about dealing with location in fiction. Many novelists (James Michener is the prime example) believe so much in the importance of locale that they’ve been known to pack up and move to the city where their next book will be set. Other novelists say, however, that doing this has a tendency to mire you in trivial geographical and historical details. It’s better to learn a little about your location, check carefully to make sure you don’t say anything inaccurate, and let it go at that. I tend to come down in favor of the latter point of view. There is one location mentioned in my novel, however, that gives me the heebie-jeebies whenever I see it in real life. It’s the place where the white tigers are caged in the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Every time I visit that spot, I feel like I’ve seen a ghost.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us what are you working on now? Anything gambling-related?
Richard Armstrong: I wrote a second novel about a young actor who gets involved with a religious cult and suddenly starts to have the kind of success that had eluded in the past. I think it’s terrific. But so far I haven’t found any publishers or agents who agree! It is set largely in Atlantic City; however, gambling plays only a minor role in it.
Be Inkandescent: Were you happy with how the book turned out? Looking back seven years since it’s been published, is there anything you’d do differently?
Richard Armstrong: I’m afraid to go back and read it again—I’m sure there’s a lot I would do differently. Any writer will tell you it’s more enjoyable to “have written” something than to write it. Writing something is hard work. But having written it is fun. You get to do interviews like this one, readings at bookstores, radio shows, etc. Even though I’m under no illusion that it’s a great novel, I’m extremely proud of it.
More about Richard Armstrong
Richard Armstrong has written extensively on direct marketing, political fund raising, casino gambling, and the new electronic media. His articles have been published in National Review, Washingtonian, Advertising Age, and others.
His first book, “Leaving the Nest,” was published by William Morrow & Co., Inc. in 1986 and had five printings. His second book, “The Next Hurrah,” was published by Morrow in 1988. “God Doesn’t Shoot Craps” is his first novel.
An award-winning direct-mail copywriter, Richard Armstrong has written direct-mail letters for such well-known publications as Smithsonian, Prevention, Men’s Health, Kiplingers, The New Republic, The American Spectator, and National Review.
A 1974 graduate of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota (Art History), he lives in Washington, DC, with his wife Sharon and his dachshund, “Stardust.”
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