When a man died following a scuffle with security guards at Melbourne’s Crown Casino in 2011, Michaela McGuire was in Budapest, blowing a book advance and despairing of her muse. Scanning her home-town news online, she was struck by a police statement that, while Crown was not legally required to report such an incident to authorities, “they probably had a moral obligation”. Last Bets sets out to probe the gap between morality and legality – a gap, McGuire contends, that the gaming industry exploits.
Besides drawing on her own experience of waiting tables in the high-rollers’ room of a casino, McGuire talks to a gambling researcher, a problem gambler, Crown Casino’s in-house priest, and Australia’s “most interesting gambler”, David Walsh, who describes what he does as not gambling but “statistical arbitrage”. She covers in detail the legal proceedings against the security guards charged with the manslaughter of the dead man and assault of his two friends.
In more skilful hands, the premise of Last Bets may have borne fruit. But even by her own estimation, McGuire is not up to the task. She constantly disparages herself on the page and seems to lack agency in her own project. She never walks, but “drifts” and “wanders”. Her meaty encounter with David Walsh throws the book off balance, highlighting its lack of focus. Mid-interview with Walsh, a master of psychological ju-jitsu, McGuire berates herself: “I’m too surprised and confused to answer, too inarticulate to form a response.” “Maybe I’m just stupid,” she blubs to him. In court one day, she’s scrolling through Twitter when the tipstaff reprimands her for “texting”. Mortified at being accused of “such a juvenile pursuit” (“Texting! How little he must think of me”), she lurches into an epic sulk. “I have no idea if I’m interested anymore. I head home, curl up on my bed and sleep for a long time. I can’t bring myself to go to court the next day, or the one after that.” Good grief.
Regrettably, it reads as if McGuire’s publishers have released the book half-baked, leaving exposed her early-draft skittishness. And, undermining the whole enterprise, that incident at the casino turns out to have had little or nothing to do with gambling and much to do with security guards, and those who deploy them, acting as a law unto themselves. There’s a story in that, for certain; but it’s not the one McGuire thought she was telling. FL
MUP, 192pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Michaela McGuire, Last Bets". Subscribe here.