“I can stop whenever I please but is it worthwhile to give up that which I would purchase with the joys of paradise?”
The sentence, the answer to angry father inquiring about the sensation of gambling, belongs to the inventor of alternating current (AC) induction motor, a scientist who solved the utmost problem in electrical engineering of his time, one of the most progressive technological minds in history — the unit of magnetic induction in the International System of Units bears his name — and a pioneer in radio waves transmission and wireless distribution of data and electric power.
The sentence belongs to Nikola Tesla.
It offers a glimpse into the part of the life he indulged in gambling during studies at the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz, and shortly afterward.
The episode will have seen him losing allowance and tuition money while playing card games, developing “gambling addiction”, winning back his initial losses, returning the balance to his family, and conquering his challenge…
Providing for yet another declaration of the extraordinary willpower and self-control he possessed.
The gambling excursion of Tesla is also the reason why he quit school, left Graz without a degree, and might provide for an explanation of why he subsequently cut ties with his family.
Nikola Tesla was a very private, reclusive person, and a loner. The eccentricities and oddities of his personality, as well as the enigmatic nature of his intimate life — obscure to outsiders and almost devoid of friends — pose “severe analytical obstacles to his biographers.”
It is, therefore, rather difficult to find precise and detailed information about his gaming activities.
A few historical crumbles left here and there were, however, enough to start while the history and bit of deduction sufficed for the rest.
A Man In Front of His Time
Of course, the scientific achievements of Nikola Tesla are known all too well.
Words of Bernhard Arthur Behrend, the senior Westinghouse engineer who nominated him for the Edison Medal — the highest honor of the American Institute of Electrical Engineering bestowed to Tesla in 1916 — probably sum up his legacy in the best possible way.
“Were we to seize and to eliminate from our industrial world the results of [his] work, the wheels of industry would cease to turn, our electric trains and cars would stop, our towns would be dark, our mills would be dead and idle.”
What separates Tesla clearly from the rest of the pack and puts him in a selected category of very few is — the idealistic approach to invention.
As Bernard Carlson explains in book Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, his “style as an inventor can be described as tension and battle between ideal and illusion”.
Borrowing the expression from the allegory of the cave in The Republic by Plato — illustrating the difference between ignorance and enlightenment, between limited and absolute understanding of the truth — Carlson elaborates underlying ideal and ensuing illusions of Tesla, both of which have something to do with gambling.
(The term illusion denotes two aspects. One, it does not imply that Tesla manipulated his audience in terms of the deceit or hoax; to the contrary, he was a rather honorable man. Second, it connotes his misapprehensions about the society he was part of.)
Raised in a religious family and inspired by Sir Isaac Newton, Tesla was very much like Michael Faraday and Alexander Graham Bell.
In his work, he responded to ideas within not as a response to the outside world or market needs but to conform his intrinsic values. Today, we recognize this as subjective rationality often exercised by entrepreneurs and inventors introducing seminal innovations worldwide.
On the other side of the spectrum is objective rationality, present with corporate managers and engineers who incrementally invent by assessing current market requirements, tuning their worldview and creative methods to reflect social hopes and wishes, enabling them, in turn, to better transfer resources, investments, fame, and revenues to their patents and inventions.
Tesla’s idealistic approach meant he strived to encourage people to see his work as a whole new possibility for society and to involve investors in the new technology that can change the world.
When people failed to get engaged or realize the depth of significance and potentials of his technological breakthroughs, Tesla struggled. Lacking a contemporary set of social skills needed to practice objective rationality, Tesla “concentrated more on creating illusions than converting his ideal into working machines.”
In the end, he just couldn’t translate the indisputable visionary talent into wherewithal and means to make a living.
The whole life of Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was spent on the borderline between intrinsic greatness and social frictions to have his work recognized and to be accepted into society, ultimately resulting in “dramatic rise and fall” of this brilliant scientist we owe so much today.
(The life of Thomas Edison, contemporaneous with Tesla, offers ample illustrations of the opposite, including ensuing history treatment.)
The Entrance of the Gambling World
As the events of his college years tell the story, gambling was perhaps the first realm to witness the struggle between his ideal and illusion, greatness and friction.
In 1875, as a nineteen-year-old, Tesla enrolled at Joanneum Polytechnic School in Graz, Austria, one of only four schools offering engineering degrees, along with institutes in Vienna, Prague, and Brno.
Attending studies on a military scholarship, Tesla initially chose mathematics and physics. His intention was to become a professor like his uncle and please father Milutin. However, driven by an innate proclivity for inventions, Tesla switched to engineering curriculum in his second year.
Up to this moment, he excelled in studies, being a diligent student with flattering exam certificates. He would wake up at 3am and work until 11pm. In his own words…
“As most of my fellow students took things easily, naturally enough I eclipsed all records. In the course of that year, I passed thru nine exams and the professors thought I deserved more than the highest qualifications.”
Looking forward to making his parents proud of his accomplishments during summer vacation, Tesla was instead heavily criticized and chastised by his father for overexertion. Milutin showed letters from professors advising him to take away Tesla from studies or he will be “killed through overwork”.
The underlying motives for Milutin’s reaction are understandable. He lost his other son, Tesla’s older brother, to accident years ago; the remaining children were three daughters. What could be considered as parental love and worry, even fear, was surely expressed way too harshly.
The whole episode reflected heavily on Nikola Tesla.
He began questioning “emotional reward and that perhaps there was more to life than schoolwork”. Towards the second year of studies, he went through a dramatic change in attitude.
According to his biographers, it was triggered by jealousy of fellow student at the German cultural club. Approaching Tesla, student tapped him on the shoulder with his cane and commented: “why waste time here; better go home and ‘warm the chair,’ so that professors can praise you even more”.
Being ridiculed for his endearment with the faculty and solitary habits since the beginning of his studies, Tesla decided to respond to this challenge.
He started hanging out with other students, carousing, smoking, and drinking coffee excessively. He learned to play dominoes and chess and became an excellent billiard player. But most of all…
Tesla developed a serious passion for playing cards and gambling.
Describing his feelings, he wrote that “to sit down to a game of cards was for me the quintessence of pleasure.”
Through Paradise to Redemption
It is unknown what card games he played. Neither Carlson nor Margaret Chaney in her Man Out Of Time biography of Tesla mention any. Additional research resulted in the same outcome.
It is also unknown where did he played but most likely he gambled privately in carpet joints.
There was no casino operating in Graz or Austria at the time. Closest ones to visit was in Baden-Baden and Monte Carlo, San Remo was not yet opened. It’s difficult to envision him taking such a long trip without any records.
During 1877, he began to gamble heavily. In the third year of studies, he stopped attending lectures. University records show he was not registered for the next spring.
To no surprise, the newfound pastime resulted in the cancellation of his scholarship although, at this point, biographers slightly differ — the other version is that Tesla gambled away his allowance and tuition money.
The exact reason might help us determine the financial volume and betting frequency of his gambling.
Lacking substantial information, we can guestimate using historical data for the annual cost of studies at Harvard University. Tuition was $150 while allowances were close to $600 which would make it bit more than $18,000 today. Of course, amounts in Europe might differ, but at least we get some sort of preliminary projection.
One way or the other, fact remains Tesla was without means to continue studies due to gambling.
In September 1878, he contacted pro-Serbian newspaper in Novi Sad, the Queen Bee, looking to secure another grant to proceed with engineering studies, this time in Vienna or Brno.
The correspondence with the newspaper shows he attributed his predicament to illness. The publishing group turned down his request.
There, he started to work as a draftsman and an engineer while gambling at large.
A family friend, passing through Maribor in January 1879, found Tesla sitting in the local pub “playing cards for money.” Upon friend’s inquiry, he coolly declined to return to studies. Continuing his trip, a friend left Tesla there but informed the family about his whereabouts.
Two months later, Milutin arrived to plead with his son to come back to university and suggested Tesla might resume at Prague. Father was particularly angry about gambling, deeming it as a “senseless waste of time and money.” It was during one of their confrontations that Tesla answered…
“I can stop whenever I please but is it worthwhile to give up that which I would purchase with the joys of paradise?”
Defying father, who returned to home dejected and fell seriously ill, Tesla remained in Maribor.
A few weeks later, he was arrested as a vagrant and deported to Gospic. To see his son brought back by the police was way too much for his father; heartbroken, Milutin passed away in April 1879.
Not knowing what to do, Tesla remained with his family and continued to gamble.
His widowed mother took a different approach to address his gaming habit. Knowing that “one’s salvation could only be brought about through his own efforts,” one afternoon after Tesla lost all his money but still craved the game, she gave him a roll of bills and said…
“Go and enjoy yourself. The sooner you lose all we possess the better it will be. I know that you will get over it.”
Facing unconditional love, Tesla faced himself. Remembering the sequence later in his life, he wrote…
“I conquered my passion then and there and only regretted that I had not been a hundred times stronger than my passion. I not only vanquished but tore it from my heart so as not to leave even a trace of desire. Since that time I have been indifferent to any form of gambling.”
Personal Gambling Legacy
He decided to honor Milutin’s wish and went on to continue studies in Prague, but not before he won back his losses and returned balance to the family.
He secured initial college backing of his maternal uncles but two years later funding stopped.
Nikola Tesla never got to finish university studies.
Speaking fluently also English, German, French, Italian, Czech, Hungarian, and Latin, his life path will take him further to Budapest, Strasbourg, to the organization of Thomas Edison in Paris, and eventually to emigration to the United States in 1884.
Margaret Chaney notes that Tesla “probably continued gambling in an effort to keep in funds, but by this time he was well free of any danger of becoming an addict.”
She further references that in the 1900s, as many others took his ideas and applied them practically through their own patents, he began to “play his cards so much closer to his chest.”
Wrapping up reflections on gamble excursion of Nikola Tesla, it is worth mentioning that his biographers’ definition of “gambling addiction” probably is not correct.
Courtesy of Dr. Robert Custer and his classification of gambling personality types, nowadays we know Tesla was an escape gambler, with certain symptoms of the personality gambler.
Also, he might have felt ashamed of practicing gambling. Back in those times, gamblers were frowned on, looked upon with disdain. This might explain his considerations to reallocate to Vienna or Brno, and his father might have been well aware of this too, suggesting Prague instead.
The notion of embarrassment for not living up to his own expectations might have contributed to decision to cut off entire family later in his life though he might as well hold grudges for not supporting him all the way during studies in Prague.
That’s the thing with Tesla, his personality and private life — we know little about him.
And yet again, so much about his work that provides us with the energy to run our gaming devices and operate gambling halls around the world.
Through four years of heavy gambling he gave us a personal legacy of meaningless games, depression, and despair, something gambling should never be about.
He provided us with an inspirational story of inner strength, driven by unconditional and unlimited love, to overcome weakness, which gambling should not ever become.
He reminded us of the importance of a realistic and responsible approach to gambling within the limits of available budget, which gambling should be all about.
For such a personal and rewarding story — Nikola Tesla, thank you.