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Erika Giroux: "Certainly, Mr. Big!" (From the section From Cornell to Caltech, with a Touch of Brazil)

Las Vegas, Nevada



For many years, Richard Feynman spent his summers road-tripping across the United States in an effort to reach the Pacific Coast. Most years, however, his intentions were diverted when he reached Vegas.


            Feynman’s adventures begin when he encounters a man who makes his living betting on horse races. The man tries to convince Feynman to lay down a bet on the races; if he wins, he’ll have to pay the man part of his winnings, but if he loses, the man will pay him back what he lost. Feynman calculates that if the man tries this trick with five people, he’ll earn twice as much as he loses. This man eventually leaves for San Francisco, but not before trying one last time to convince Feynman to place a bet.


                      One of Feynman’s favorite Vegas acquaintances is a showgirl from the Flamingo Hotel. She introduces him to a high-spending Texas gambler, who repeatedly tries to impress Feynman with his wealth. Feynman, forever unimpressed, eventually ignores the oilman in favor of two women from Los Angeles. They recognize him as a scientist from Time magazine and invite him to come with them to the El Rancho Casino.                                                                                                                 


             While at the El Rancho, the women gamble with Feynman, even allowing him to keep half of the winnings, until they discover another man of interest. Once they depart, two additional female companions almost immediately flock to Feynman’s side. One of them claims to be the wife of a famous celebrity “John Big,” whom she depicts as a compulsive gambler with a trust complex.  


The next night, Feynman and two of the dancers from the Flamingo catch the late show at the Silver Slipper, where Feynman encounters John Big. Hoping for an introduction to Feynman’s female friends, Mr. Big claims to have met him before at a different club in New York City.


            The following afternoon, Feynman discovers Mr. Big at the Flamingo, chatting about his cameras and taking pictures. After Feynman inserts himself into the situation as Mr. Big’s assistant, the two end up at the Last Frontier Casino, where Mr. Big has substantial success gambling. Insisting that they have an afternoon appointment, the two leave the Last Frontier and head to the El Rancho. In the car, Mr. Big informs Feynman that the woman he met the night before is not his wife, but simply a companion.


            At the El Rancho, the staff quickly clears a table in the front for Mr. Big and his guest. Coincidentally, seated at the next table are Mr. Big’s “wife” and her friend. The “wife” asks to speak with Mr. Big, and Feynman spends the conversation reminding the man why he is angry at his “wife.” They all then leave the casino in favor of a different bar, where Feynman is introduced to a high-powered Vegas lawyer.


             The high point of Feynman’s adventures in Vegas is his meeting with Nick the Greek, a professional gambler, who lets him in on his secret to success – he himself never gambles, but rather he knows the odds and makes individual bets against the other gamblers. Now that his reputation has grown, this process has become even easier. Feynman, ever a creature of logic, is both impressed by the man’s intelligence and thrilled to have found an explanation for his success.


   The life lesson Feynman learns while in Las Vegas involves appearance versus reality: there’s an explanation for everything, and people are not always what they seem. On the surface, it seems impossible for the horse racing gambler to make any money off the system he uses, yet simple mathematical odds explain his success. Nick the Greek appears to make a living by pure luck on casino games, yet he – like the horse racing gambler – uses statistics to bet against the other gamblers’ individually. The woman who claims to be married to John Big was never actually his wife, and the Texas oilman who appears wealthy and arrogant is actually looking for companionship.


            This discrepancy between appearance and reality must intrigue Feynman, for he repeatedly ends up back in Vegas over the years, associating with the various characters who pass through the city on their way through life.