Walk Away With the Money You’ve Won Or Keep Going?

There are plenty of ways to explain my psychological problems with money, but let’s begin with autobiography. My father was a physicist who, upon relocating to the Pacific Northwest, taught himself to be a mechanical engineer and who, until the final decade of his career, insisted on running his own small firm. Practically, this meant that he paid several engineers regular salaries while he took home whatever was left, a sum that was sometimes considerably less than what he could have made if he had been willing to let someone else be his boss. It wasn’t that my father was irresponsible about money, only that it didn’t rank especially high on his list of priorities, and, anyway, he was sure he could get enough of it if he ever really needed to.

As a young man, I made similar assumptions about my own life. I graduated from college, spent a year in Africa on a fellowship, then came back to New York City to make my life in writing, which is to say that I did other, entirely unrelated things to make ends meet while I waited for my literary stardom to take hold. First, I was a bartender, and then later I was a tutor to wealthy high-school students. In my early twenties, I took up poker, and while there were some months where I scratched out my rent in home games and underground clubs, I wouldn’t want to calculate what tiny sum I might have been making as an hourly wage from playing cards. Somewhere down the line, my thinking went, there would be a huge book advance or a MacArthur “genius” grant to make up for all those years of paltry income. “Irrational optimism,” I believe, is economists’ term for this approach to financial matters.

This New Yorker essay by Keith Romer is about the time he was a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” but it is also so much more than that. Save it for the weekend, or for tonight if you’re skipping all the singing contest shows.

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