cards.jpgRUIDOSO, N.M. -- There is a difference between gambling and real life. If you've ever gambled, you've probably noticed.

When you gamble and play a particular game, the odds are known. They may be against you, but they are known.

Real life isn't like that. The odds change all the time. You never really know them. That may be why some people like gambling: In a peculiar way, it's more secure than real life.

And some games have better odds than others.

Here at the Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort and Casino, as with virtually all casinos, the blackjack tables have the best odds; the slots have the worst. Play disciplined basic blackjack and you'll still face Gambler's Ruin, an unrecoverable loss. But you'll stay in the game longer than at the slots.

So what's a personal finance columnist doing at a casino? Simple: My wife and I are here to gambol for the weekend, not gamble. We're here for the resort part, in celebration of my 66th birthday.

Today, the odds favor my having many more.

I learned this from the United States Life Tables for 2003, published by the National Center for Health Statistics. It tells the story of what might be called Nature's Ruin -- the rounds we all play in the game of life. We still face ruin in this game, but the odds improve every year.

For all the daily news of misery, angst and death, this document tells us something different. It tells us that the odds in the Casino of Life are getting better. We can play more rounds before being overtaken by Nature's Ruin. And unlike wealth or poker winnings, a longer life is widely and democratically distributed.

If you don't think this is grand today, trust me, you will when you are 66.

Of course, the improvement is glacially slow by videogame standards.

But it's real. And it is measured in what truly counts: years of life.

In 1940, the year I was born, the life expectancy of a white male was 62.1 years. That's nearly four years less than I have already been alive. A white male born in 2003 had a life expectancy of 75.3 years. That's an improvement of 13.2 years. It happened in what is now less than a lifetime. Expectancy improved about two years for every decade.

A black man born in 1940 had a life expectancy of only 51.5 years -- a full decade less than a white man. He could expect to pay the employment tax every year of his working life. But he could also expect to die more than a decade before he was eligible to collect his Social Security benefits. (Readers who've opined that a national sales tax was unfair and regressive should ponder this odd little wrinkle in our current tax system.)

A black male born in 2003 can expect to live 69 years, an improvement of 18.5 years, about three years for each decade.

Things look pretty good going forward, too.

The life expectancy for a white male at age 65 is now 16.9 years. The life expectancy for a black male at 65 is 14.9 years. Black men, who have survived the greater hazards of life to age 65, now have a gap of only two years.

As everyone knows, women of both races live longer. But the improvement for black women has been spectacular -- a gain of 21.2 years in expectancy from 54.9 at birth in 1940 to 76.1 in 2003.

This is the main event. Everything else is a side show.

Live long and prosper.

ON THE WEB

National Vital Statistics Reports, United States Life Tables, 2003