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Approximately 30 years ago, as a gullible boy of ten, I was introduced to a favorite Chanukah pastime and tradition – a tradition somehow sanctioned by parents and Rabbeim alike. With the years, this “hallowed” tradition manifested itself into an unfortunate compulsion – which took tremendous self-restraint to bring under control. I refer to the card game known the world over as “Kvitlech,” the game of “21.” The dynamics and the excitement of the game, the suspense, and oh, yes! the possibility of winning (and losing – but who focused on that) large amounts of money surely intrigued this naive boy of ten.
As the years went by, Chanukah and “Kvitlech” became synonymous. And of course the level of play also accelerated – bigger wagers and private backroom games with my friends. Although as a yeshiva boy I knew gambling to be forbidden, I figured there was a special dispensation for Chanukah that permitted this type of activity once a year. (Nobody told me differently.)
All that changed when, as a young man of 19, I was introduced to Atlantic City! The world of casino gambling – previously thousands of miles away – was now opening for business right at my doorstep 24/7! My first trip to Atlantic City began innocently enough, and I was mesmerized. Within a short time, I had graduated to the world of blackjack, roulette, etc., and “Kvitlech” became a childish game of the past. What followed was 10 years of heavy duty gambling. I turned into a high roller, and the casinos were all too happy to lay out the red carpet. Free limousines, free luxury suites, free room service, and the action was wild, with big wins, equally big losses, and then some. I had the cash to blow and blow it I did!
Initially, the commute time was a problem, but then (Donald) Trump introduced helicopter service that cut the travel time down to 45 minutes. I could put in a half day at work, a half a day at the casino and still be home for dinner. With one phone call all was set – I didn’t even need to have any money on me. I was a rated player and my credit was good. My signature at the tables was enough.
I could go on, Rachel, but I am not writing to revel in my past pathetic follies. Nor do I seek your advice on how to beat this compulsion, for I am proud to say that in the past 16 years, with one exception, I have not set foot in a casino.
Rachel, I write you today as a father, Baruch Hashem, of a large family. For obvious reasons, I cannot explain to my wife and children why the game of “kvitlech” is not only inappropriate but also a dangerous entry point into the world of gambling, which allowed me to have a smooth transition into a world that I would otherwise never have known – and I don’t want my kids falling into the same trap. As a voice of reason to thousands the world over, perhaps you can persuade your readers why this pastime should be banned.
In closing, I quote from a recent headline that appeared in a local New York paper. “LOTTERY ENCOURAGES CHILDREN TO GAMBLE, LEGISLATORS SAY.” Rachel, if the secular world is worried about the effect of lottery tickets on our youth, shouldn’t we – who set a much higher moral standard – be concerned with outright gambling and its deleterious effects?
An Avid Advocator for Quitting Kvitlech
Dear Avid Quitter,
Once upon a time, kvitlech was known to be a game of lofty origin and purpose. To begin with, the name of the game comes from the word kvitel. Anyone who has ever been to a rebbe for a bracha is familiar with the term – which stands for the piece of paper inscribed with a personal entreaty, concealed from all except the one to proffer the blessing. On Chanukah, a visit to one’s rebbe would involve submitting a kvitel with a personal request for a bracha, and the rebbe would in turn receive a stipend for his favor. “Visitors” were then enjoined to sit down to a game of kvitlech, played for money – the winnings ultimately distributed by the rebbe as tzedaka for the needy. Thereby it is easy to understand how the game was reveled in and would generate excitement as a sought after Chanukah pastime. Another reason for the popularity of kvitlech on Chanukah is the holiday’s exalted extension of the High Holy days. As such, we seek G-d’s mercy and beseech Him to bless us with a “good kvitel.”
Like alcohol, and even food, so-called gambling can be wallowed in to the point of overindulgence. A toast or a glass of wine to warm the heart at a festive occasion or holiday enhances one’s mood and lifts the spirits. Yet one can get carried away and imbibe to the detriment of one’s being. The question is, what are the chances of a game of kvitlech resulting in pathological gambling?
Some past research carried out in this area suggests that compulsive gamblers share a gene that predisposes them to addictive behavior. The good news is that according to the Council on Compulsive Gambling, 70 to 75 percent play games of chance to a normal degree, 15 to 20 percent go beyond, and only 5 to 8 percent become compulsive gamblers. Obviously, environmental and psychological factors will figure into the bottom line.
From your standpoint, your apprehension and concern is understandable. To my knowledge, some rebbes are known to veto the activity. Perhaps the best to realistically hope and appeal for is the undertaking of strict adult monitoring in yeshiva and private home circles – as well as mandatory teaching of halachic guidelines/injunctions of gambling, which should be in place in every yeshiva.
Thank you for caring and… baring your soul.