The fantasy of someday winning the lottery is the ultimate populist pipe dream, but Money for Nothing is the sort of memoir that quells the impulse to engage in the racket. In the 1990s, author Edward Ugel logged two high-pressure stints as a salesman and sales manager for a lump-sum company that purchased annuities — for a substantial cut of the total grosses — from lottery winners who weren't content to receive their prizes in annual installments. Lucrative an enterprise as this was, most of Ugel's fat paychecks disappeared into video poker machines in plush casinos that fed his longtime gambling addiction. The irony isn't lost on Ugel, an unapologetic wiseass who's as willing to smirk at his personal failings today as he once was to capitalize on the recklessness of "lucky" customers who swiftly hemorrhaged newfound wealth on cars, homes, clothes and leeching relatives. His activities at "the Firm" (names, companies and sums have been altered) included cultivating personal relationships over weeks or months, then traveling, stack of contracts in hand, to obtain signatures and seal deals.
Money for Nothing devotes much of its space to slippery interpersonal dynamics, and its most soul-shattering passages are from Ugel's bartending days in Portland, Ore., where dives and clubs alike have video-poker machines, and a post-Firm gambling jaunt in Atlantic City. The latter delineates a white-knuckled whirl of risk, while the former conjures the image of lambs leading themselves to slaughter: "I was being paid to sit behind that bar and watch their losses pile up, watch their false sense of hope when they cashed a winning ticket, only to take everything I gave them and put it right back into the machine. They were hopeless. They were helpless. So was I. The lottery owned these people and, I imagine, it took most of their hope along with their cash."