I study gambling. From the earliest bone-rolling cavemen to today’s Internet poker millionaires, I look at the history of risk and the odds. In my job as Director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, I’m tasked with adding to the store of gambling materials—books dating to the 17th century, antiquated playing cards, a working video poker machine—to the university’s collection.

I’ve chosen to collect something completely whimsical, utterly valueless, and almost entirely devoid of intellectual heft: casino carpet. Or, more accurately, photos of casino carpet that I’ve taken myself.

My mission bubbled up around the time I started a website with the aim of hawking my books. I needed, I thought, a hook: something to give people who didn’t know me a reason to stop by, look around, and decide that, yes, their life was a little empty without an academically-reputable book on gambling history sitting on their shelf.

I grew up in Atlantic City, surrounded by casinos, and I’ve worked in some of them. I’d always joked about how monstrously awful casino carpets are. So when I was thinking about creating something that would draw people to the site, I got the idea of taking pictures of a few carpets around Las Vegas and posting them along with other miscellanea: clumsy shots of surveillance cameras, pooping white tigers, geometric high-rise hotel windows.

So I took a few shots of casinos around Las Vegas. Then, when I went out to Biloxi (pre-Katrina), I methodically captured every casino carpet in town. Since then, whenever I’ve visited a casino jurisdiction, I always take pictures of the carpet. The collection has grown to include about 220 images of carpet. That’s a lot of whole lot of flowers, swirls, and abstract party favors.

For me, the funniest part of the whole effort is that I meant it as a joke, and it’s turned out to be one at my expense. I thought that most of the people stopping by would, like me, be morbidly fascinated by the tacky aesthetics on display. They’d get a chuckle out of it and, maybe, if they were curious, they might click on my banner and take a gambol at my blogging or read about some of my actual work.

Even though I make it pretty clear that the galleries aren’t samples of carpet for sale, I got calls almost from the start, asking me for price lists and quotes. At first, I wondered why people were calling me and telling me the width and length of their basements and rec rooms, but it didn’t take me that long to make the connection. So I made sure to put up a large disclaimer: Dr. Schwartz DOES NOT sell casino carpet. If you want to redecorate your basement, check out this list of carpet sellers on Google.

Which slowed the calls, but it hasn’t stopped them. If you could hear the conversations I have… there’s something in the tone of voice, just after I’ve disavowed all attempts to sell carpet, that says “but I want to buy carpet from you! Please!” The whole experience has made one thing about human nature very clear to me: people will go to great lengths to continue to believe what they want.

You would have thought, studying gambling, I would have gained that insight a while ago. After all, we’re talking about millennia of people rolling dice, really believing that they can beat the odds.

Not that there’s anything wrong with hoping to get the best of it in the face of stiff odds. Maybe that’s what drives us all to create, assemble collections, and share our obsessions: the slim hope that somewhere, someone else will understand. ¤