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"Games of Chance" by Evan Gurney


What does one do after brain surgery? Back at home from hospital I couldn’t look at screens. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t walk more than thirty steps before spinning into nausea. So I did what many bored folks have done throughout the ages: I picked up some dice and rolled them. And rolled them again.


Before long I had settled into a solitary routine of playing Yahtzee for hours. I started out by prioritizing my upper section, reserving my chance box for a bad roll, the standard probabilistic wisdom of someone trying to win against a typical opponent. But I was playing against Dullness, not my mother-in-law, and scoring a reliable 250 points loses its thrill after the sixth or seventh time. Soon I began experimenting with tactical heresies among the Yahtzee faithful. Any time I rolled a single six or five, I went for more, even if I had two lower-scoring die. Or I’d aim for a Yahtzee even when the chances were low, because the payoff of scoring two or (sometimes) three Yahtzees was so high. I even conducted empirical trials of my dice-rolling technique. The subtle drop or the brassy flourish, shaking the die in my hand or rolling them one at a time. I must have played thousands of games of Yahtzee.


I just sat there rolling dice. And thinking. That’s about all I was good for, thinking, which seems odd given the serious trauma my head recently endured. Mostly I thought about chance. About the chances of getting this rare tumor. The chances of whether or not, in choosing surgical intervention, I’d done the right thing. About the chances it would continue to wreak havoc on my life. I thought too about chance itself. I thought about the wonderful justice of dice, with their equal odds for everybody, and the obscene horror of dice when they land on the wrong number.


On the Day of Atonement, Aaron casts two lots, like dice, one for the Lord and one for the scapegoat. Which am I, the holy sacrifice or the one sent to live in the wilderness? What is my lot in life? No one wants a brain tumor, with its host of complications that make life a misery. But I have won the brain tumor lottery, as my doctor friend tells me, this is the one you want. How do we weigh our life’s outcomes in a world where lots, where dice, where little wayward cells, bounce this way and that like lottery balls?


Here is what I know. The odds of a random Schwann cell on my eighth cranial nerve mutating into a tumor are around .00001 percent. The odds that I get that Yahtzee on a single roll are less than .08 percent. (Or one in 1,296 rolls; it happened thrice for me.) The odds that two fours will turn up on my third roll so I can nab my upper bonus are about 2.8 percent. And the odds this tumor will come back, according to my doctors, might be anywhere from 5-10 percent.


I have rolled my dice, but I don’t yet know my score.



Evan Gurney is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. His poems and essays have recently been published or are forthcoming in Appalachian Review, Contrary, Still: The Journal, storySouth, and elsewhere.

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