I had an inexplicable yen for General Tso’s chicken over the weekend, so we ordered take-out from Song, in New Buffalo. Among the plastic spoons and forks, paper napkins and packets of hot mustard, and the sweet and sour sauce accompanying our feast were fortune cookies — one apiece.

Though their exact origin is unclear, it seems fortune cookies were invented in California, during the late nineteenth century. Whether this took place in Los Angeles or San Francisco remains in dispute. Functioning less like a dessert than a slightly whimsical token of esteem, cracking open a fortune cookie is still a childishly pleasing if virtually flavor-free after-dinner ritual. 

Here is what my fortune said: “You will continue to find new solutions to your problems.” Not bad, I thought, could have been worse. This wisdom was followed by a random string of supposedly lucky numbers, helpfully offered should I experience brain freeze playing the lottery.

All this was par for the fortune cookie course. What surprised me was the message I found on the flip side of my fortune: “Those gambling losses are tax-deductible,” printed above a logo for an online tax filing business, with the motto, “File for less and get more.”

Not being much a gambler, the concept of gambling losses being tax-deductible was news to me. Like most things, this is not quite as simple as it sounds. For instance, what losses you deduct cannot exceed your winnings. And it appears there’s quite a bit of record-keeping involved.

But still. The idea that the IRS might lend a hand in helping people recoup losses incurred by playing games of chance tickled that part of my brain where the surreal and the American have become as congealed as turkey gravy the day after Thanksgiving. 

Gambling is big around here. I can think of at least four casinos that are less than an hour’s drive from my front door. The revenue derived from these businesses has become an integral part of local budgets. Prior to the pandemic, the Blue Chip casino was adding roughly $1 million per month to Michigan City’s coffers.

Sports betting is the latest sensation. What used to be the province of chain-smoking touts is now a regular topic of conversation on sports talk radio, where, not coincidentally, gambling apps are major advertisers. The combined message is that betting on games actually makes following sports more fun. Given how over-analyzed and technocratic these “games” have become, this may actually be true. Since last summer, fun-seekers in Illinois have lost over $101 million. March’s NCAA basketball tournament is expected to grow that number considerably.

This part of the country used to be known for making things. There were small to medium-size manufacturing plants producing everything from gloves to windshield wipers. A few of these are still in business; most are empty — the buildings lingering like jilted prom dates. Something was bound to fill this void. Fantasy, the notion that somebody, anybody, even you or me, might win a jackpot, has become our most important product. It’s like my fortune said: “You will continue to find new solutions to your problems.”  You can even write ‘em off.