Jim Smiley is an incorrigible gambler. Though he may like the money he wins, it is also clear that he just enjoys the thrill of competition. He frequently bets on the underdog or bets on really awkward and tactless things (such as whether the parson’s wife will recover from her illness or not). He also cultivates animals – a horse, a dog, then a frog – that he can use in his various competitions.
Although gambling is usually seen as an unwholesome pastime, Smiley adheres to a code of honor that elevates him above others in the story, including the narrator.
Although this story is full of themes about the differences between the West and the East, and about education, the main lesson is about the rules of fair play.