Stretch demanded to see the casino floor as soon as we dropped off our things in the hotel room. His breath quickened as he said this, and he brushed his glossy brown hair back from his forehead in that characteristic way he affected when excited, exposing thick eyebrows that looked like overgrown hedgerows. Having never tamed his inner gambler, he behaves like a young dog, ready to soil himself and roll in the glossy rectangles of the cards.
He says playing cards soothes the beast in him, makes him tractable, but I think it has the opposite effect. Seeing Stretch like this brought to mind the words of Dostoevsky in The Gambler, “Even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured out on the table, I almost go into convulsions.” For Dostoevsky, it was never something he could get a grip on. He had to crank out The Gambler and rush the ending of Crime and Punishment to pay off gambling debts.
I’ve seen Stretch in action, and know from experience that usually he can’t have just one bite; he has to eat the whole thing, and like Dostoevsky, he’s had to borrow money to keep in the game. So you can imagine my horror when it turned out we were headed down the elevator to find the poker tables; this was not part of the original plan. I might have objected, but then I thought, give him some slack. He’s been good for the past year maybe he’s gained more control. Before online poker was outlawed in Washington State, he used to play online poker daily; losing more than he was winning, frantically finishing apps he’d been coding to have the money to pay debtors. I’ve seen Stretch in action, and know from experience that like Dostoevsky, he’s borrowed money to keep in the game.
The rare wins just served to kept him hooked, saying things like, “I’m due to win,” and “shouldn’t be long now,” and “I’ve got the math all figured out.”
He loves the Venetian in Vegas and plays the nosebleed deepstack poker series but only because it’s two hours away from Seattle where we live, adding that he wanted to be like Tom Dwan, master of the bluff. In the next breath he admits that he can’t hide what he’s feeling which is like a death warrant in poker. He is terrible at reading people’s ‘tells,’ (as they are called in poker lingo), the hints that players try to hide their hidden thoughts: indications of mood in the eyes and mouth, the lack or profusion of hand gestures, the changes in the pulse visible in the throat. He said he often forgets to check these indicators. Sometimes they’re blinking neon signs.
He’s tried downplaying the merit of his cards by looking bored, although he’s never sure if his face reflects what he wants to project. A lot of times other players at his table to his puzzlement immediately fold when he gets a winning hand. When that happens, sometimes his vision clouds and he doesn’t know what comes out of his mouth. A few times he had to be escorted out by security, he couldn’t say why. He’s felled by an all-in, and only sometimes has the ability to climb out of a short stack. Somehow Stretch was able to stop himself before the roof caved in.
During the worst of it, he neglected family. Many times his daughter begged him to watch her perform on her debate team. The few times he did show up, he was on the phone talking about playing, disrupting the audience. Other times he’d promise to go, and then at the last minute, he’d book poker tournaments instead. He said that playing cards soothed the beast in him, and made him tractable, but to me, his daughter, and his ex-wife, it had the opposite effect. The losses kept mounting, and we took out a helec.
But the turnaround came when Stretch realized how much he hurt his daughter. He experienced the profound despair that this sort of addiction engenders, and started thinking suicide. He purchased a gun, and had plans in place. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that one in five gambling addicts attempt suicide—the highest rate among addicts of any kind. There are plenty of anecdotes: the police officer who shot himself in the head at a Detroit casino; the accountant who jumped to his death from a London skyscraper; the student who killed himself in Las Vegas after losing all his financial-aid money to gambling. In Europe, for centuries publications were full of breathless reports of people ending their lives at Monte Carlo Casino, at the tables, in the garden, in the hotel rooms. According to Cassell’s Magazine, no other gaming tables in the world can be said to be responsible for as many suicides, one table alone was said to have claimed 113 lives in a ten-year span between 1890 and 1900. Though Historian Mark Braude, author of Making Monte Carlo: A History of Speculation and Spectacle, says there’s no evidence that suicides along the Cote de Azure are any higher than at other famous casinos.
I don’t know how I prevented him from pulling the trigger; I like to think it was me sticking by him and pointing him in a direction. The clincher might have been enrolling him in golf lessons. Everyone needs a consuming passion.
“I realize now that nothing will totally satisfy my craving for big windfalls or attention,” he said, “especially not gambling.” Now he’s modeling himself on Rory Mcilroy, one of the best drivers of the golf ball, and practices his swing daily.
Golf made it possible for him to religiously hold to his spending limits, so his shortcomings don’t deter him. He tells me this, and his breath quickens while driving by a casino near the Canadian border brushing his big hair waving like a peacock’s tail back from his forehead in that characteristic way he does when excited, exposing thick eyebrows looking like overgrown hedgerows.
He first developed the love of cards watching his mother and grandmother play at their home, and seeing their excitement, started to host impromptu games with his friends. As a young boy he played stickball with his siblings against a casino wall in a San Francisco suburb parking lot while waiting for his grandmother and mother to emerge; they still don’t allow young children to hang around the slots. His mother played in the hopes they would get a windfall, although they lost more than they won. Stretch lived for the wild tales they shared on their return, their wins and losses part of the fantastical journey.
Then in deep winter we decided to fly to Tahoe from Seattle to meet my son living in the Bay Area to take advantage of the record snowfall at Tahoe resorts, over four times the average. We got a chance to ski a few days before the resorts closed in the aftermath of 80 mph winds tearing over the pass nixing our skiing plans for the foreseeable future. The winds were expected to die down for a few hours, and then resume again with greater intensity. Early that morning, my son took the bus for the Reno airport, an hour drive east in treacherous conditions so he could make it back in time to show up for work in San Jose. A few hours later we took the same bus, to catch a flight to Seattle. The snow started up harder, and winds ripping though the naked, exposed hills. The whiteout was surreal, like a dream.
At the airport, we heard that the winds had gotten worse, canceling all air travel. Stretch talked me into one of the many casino hotels in downtown Reno, saying the food would be better there. For the past few years Stretch hasn’t gambled, mainly because I found watching him play poker boring, and we knew we might not recover from the ozone-sized hole in our savings, and I hated what it did for his disposition.
The bus took us past some of the city’s more cautionary tales: boarded-up motels, pawnshops, and failed theme casinos that reminded me of old Vegas, presenting herself like a whore, legs spread, bad teeth visible in the toothy leer and surrounded by vast stretches of empty parking lot covered in snow, fronting strings of rundown honkytonk bars and lonely motels that looked right out of the Deep South. Not much traffic, only the most desperate of gamblers in their rentals with the windows blacked out, the wheels making the chinka chinka sound of money rolling, coming for the impossibly low buy-ins. Someone sitting next to us on the bus said, “Don’t think they’re pushovers in Reno,” and cautioned that Stretch would lose everything when they’re dealing out of shoes at the Silver Legacy or Peppermill on busy weekends. Stretch thanked the man for the tip.
We entered the thriving middle where the larger casinos are located—looking right out of a Disney theme park that wishes it were Vegas but falling far short, looking more like a group of suburban Indian casinos attached to each other with plenty of tiers, like any of the newer malls, each tier set back from the one below. There’s a look of excitement on Stretch’s face. He tells me he wants to play the two-dollar tables at the Sands or maybe the Eldorado. Immediately I’m hit by a shortness of breath filled with foreboding. Out on the street, the winds tore at us, making each step a battle. We went inside thankful that the buildings were connected and strolled through the Silver Legacy, Circus Circus, and Harrah’s, all looking the same with the same array of dizzy colors and lights, and then we hit the Club Cal Nev, where there’s been no attempt to modernize, everything dark and claustrophobic, low ceilings throughout, and the dealers sporting bikinis or leathers. But Stretch didn’t like the dark, saying he couldn’t see anything, and wanted us to break out.
In the plush lobby of the Silver Legacy, he acknowledged he has this problem, saying “yes, yes,” but then brushed it aside with a wave of his hand as if he’s removing invisible cobwebs from the air. Imagine my horror when he wanted to find the poker tables; this was not part of the original plan. But then I thought, give him some slack. Maybe he’s gained more control. He knows the reason he sustained these long periods of losses isn’t a matter of intelligence, or understanding, but due to his pernicious inability to hide what he feels at exactly the moment he needs to bury his emotions. His acting ability is nil, he’s what people call an open book, displaying too much intellectual ferment to be a good poker player. His anticipation is palpable; the not knowing delights him. Having only recently tamed his inner gambler, he behaves like a young dog, ready to soil himself and roll in the glossy rectangles of the cards.
“Maybe blackjack might be a better game for you,” I said, trying for diplomacy. “No psychology needed.”
We toured the cavernous casino floor of the Eldorado. Disorientating, psychedelic carpets lay underfoot, with its sensibility born of voodoo and the occult. The architecture gently curves in, moving us towards machines that radiate hypnotic rainbows of blinking lights. My mind melts. I gaze at the dayglow beauty on the screen directly in front of me and I’m miles away, dreaming of sugary beaches to the sounds of heels muffled in the carpeting that pass me by, reminding me of the sucking sounds of whirlpools. I can’t tear my eyes away, even when sounds of winning could be heard—the bling bling bling of sirens and the clang of jackpot bells announcing that someone hit a jackpot.
He never misses a credit card payment or his mortgage, which I’m thankful for, proving he can control his impulses as long as he stays out of the casinos, his trouble reining it occurs when he lets himself do even a little bit, it’s the bipolar kicking in. I know this about him: he’s impulsive, triggered by obscure forces leading to frantic emotional upheaval. But now that we’re in the casino, can he master his gambler’s itch?
In Infinite Jest Hal comes to realize that, “we are all dying to give our lives away to something,” paralleling what Marathe tells Steeply about choosing one’s idols. By giving himself over to addiction, Hal knows he’s avoiding some question or realization, and by invoking Hamlet, the narrator suggests that addiction is an attempt to evade suffering, leading to questions about the purpose of life: “… the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws.” The bird-like imagery alludes to the image of the shadow that Kate Gompert uses to describe her depression. Which begs the question: Is addiction the best defense against depression and insanity? Against failure?
Stretch makes a lot of money as a software developer, having graduated from a prestigious university and now working for a highflying company, and it wasn’t like he was financially bankrupt, not even close, but like a Monet, from a distance everything looked beautiful and vibrant, but when you got up close the real picture was a cloudy mess. I was especially attuned to this tendency as I had just come out of a period when my first husband’s neglect of me made me think my love of art and fashion would fill the lonely spaces, the more expensive the better, which led to him asking for a divorce, shocking me into questioning everything about myself.
Post-divorce, I avoided shopping it was something toxic, and worked at developing myself apart from my wardrobe. I ran marathons and took up endurance cycling, and gradually liberated myself from the self-doubt and pity that colored my life.
Cycle to seven years later, and Stretch and I found that we understood each other’s addictive personalities and how to help each other stand firm against our worst instincts. From that basis we worked to form a relationship. But it took the assistance of a therapist to let the other have the breathing room to develop our separate selves, and let loose the dependencies that didn’t serve us. At one time a semi-professional surfer, and now as a bodybuilder and golfer, Stretch continues to utilize the singular focus and ability to forget losses and play through pain. It’s the same focus whatever he does, applying the work ethic he learned as a youth. Stretch hasn’t played poker in a long time, and knows when to walk away. What the pros say: The work ethic can turn malignant. It’s hard to distinguish between person who has a hobby they love and an unhealthy problem. The hobbyist who maintains outside interests and takes part in activities outside of their game usually doesn’t have a problem. But even as he says he can handle it, I feel a painful twinge when right off he wants to visit the poker room.
When I ask Stretch, he says he’d convinced there’s a fine line between what constitutes obsession and addiction. He’s more interested in another question, perhaps related, the one thing that both repels and excites him: the inherently unfair and amoral position of preying on the weak. The thought of this basic unfairness makes him bridle. But he quickly adds that he enjoys bluffing, enjoys pretending he has something he doesn’t have; wishes he was better at it, and realizes he may never be good enough. He wants to do it for the enjoyment, he says.
“I have these seemingly contradictory beliefs,” he said.
Personally, I dislike casinos, but I hold my counsel, realizing that dabbling occasionally in personal vices—as debased and sordid as they might appear to be to someone who doesn’t share them—won’t harm him, though I hoped that I could come up with a reason he shouldn’t play. But it would be a fight I couldn’t win, and I might alienate my man in the process. And what’s the harm if he adheres to his limits.
“I have to keep telling myself that I’m not entitled to win the money just because I was dealt Aces,” he said.
We found the corner of the vast casino floor where a few lonesome poker tables stood looking forlorn. As my head filled with notes of caution, remembering how easily we can talk ourselves into bad spaces, noting the care that went into the construction of this room velvet walls, soft carpeting, tables made of exotic woods. The management put a lot of effort into making the place attractive. Someone with a problem gets so caught up playing that they miss their daughter’s field hockey game—at least they’re trapped in a beautiful environment. But without anyone there, it felt like a red light district with no patrons. Stretch said he had been on the fence about playing poker anyway, that he’d rather try blackjack having studied the charts, claiming that’s what he was doing on the bus ride into Reno. Now he knows when to stand, ask for a hit and when to double down or split. He reminded me that his engineering background provided the perfect training.
“Did I tell you that some of the top money managers on Wall Street started out playing blackjack?” Stretch said. “You’ve heard of Ed Thorp? He developed the first scientific system ever devised for a major casino gambling game, revolutionized blackjack strategies.” The impact on Wall Street was huge. Thorp’s Beat the Market (coauthored with S.T. Kassouf) helped launch the derivatives revolution that transformed world securities markets. Using formulas similar to blackjack math, Thorp and Jay Regan launched the first neutral hedge fund in 1969, maintaining its profitability for over forty years.
“Well if you can do that,” I said.
“I’ve learned restraint,” he said, “and now I know basic strategy.”
I encouraged him to follow his whim, thinking why not? “Keep in mind the odds are against you,” I said.
“Who knows, I might actually have an edge if I play correctly.”
I asked him why he liked playing casinos.
“I love the atmosphere,” he said.
“I can see your point,” I said, eying a waitress in a push up bra showing too much cleavage, her narrow hips doing a little dance, her feet shaking in skyscraper stilettos. She was chanting an unending refrain: drinks, drinks, drinks, what can I do you for?
“Cards are as addictive as playing slots but with cards,” he said, “you have some control over what you’re doing. And unlike bingo or horse-racing, it’s the perfect mix of gambling and skill: the better you are, the more skill there is and the less gambling.”
I hoped in the thick of battle he would remember his words, and clamp down on his emotions. They seemed to run away to run away from him overmuch. We went into the Eldorado. I breathed in the filtered air, relishing the sounds of a beat-driven music, a rhapsody making my blood thump merging nicely with the tantalizing ripple of cards being shuffled, and the slip-slip-slip as they are dealt over the sounds of laughing card players and the occasional drunken yell. Sopranos! Altos! Tenors! Bass! Baritones! The chorus never seemed to slow down long enough to inhale.
The click-click-click-click-click of chips dancing across green felt seemed to dance in synchrony with the flickering lights in a smoky synchronized show. I understood why casinos appealed to him. My spirits bordered on ecstasy. “Every time I walk into these places I feel a rush like I just snorted cocaine,” he said, mirroring my thoughts.
Stretch found a table, and we slid into the remaining two chairs. Stretch whispered that a table full of people is good for a player; it allows him time to think. I remembered something else Stretch told me early on: Proficiency in math is important, but even more so, to make a great player, one also needs to project a certain image: other players should think he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and the act must be convincing. I noticed that the other players were dressed in tee shirts and jeans, and looked like truck drivers, many sporting pot bellies. Stretch was lean and muscular, and looked like an executive in his golf clothes.
I wished he blended in more, and I thought that I was being too paranoid; maybe how he dressed didn’t matter as much as I thought. Perhaps this is why people love the game so much. It’s only in part a desire to get rich; it’s also bound in the struggle to find the core of one’s essential self, to reach deep inside and to act on one’s beliefs. To appear to make a stand, the truth less important, or maybe it’s that illusions are as important as the reality, maybe even more so.
Card games encourage the erecting of temporary walls and the mounting of a defense and like real life, rewards lies and deceit. Stretch knows to hold his cards face down like secrets that aren’t revealed until he’s forced to divulge them. But really when it came down to it, he’s not comfortable in the lie.
A ball skipped along the roulette wheel in hypnotic tympani.
A round-faced Asian woman in a glittery costume with a high neck dealt the cards. She had a fancy way of moving her hands. I couldn’t focus on the cards, I found myself drawn to her magician’s hands, and couldn’t help noticing the meticulous grooming of her gaudy paste-ons in an overlay of electric colors, the way they flipped and scrolled through the air mesmerized me.
Stretch drew a ten on the ten he had already—making a twenty, beating both the dealer’s hands. This happened several times, with different amounts, plenty of them doubles. Then he drew two fives in quick succession. Each time said he wanted to double down. And every time he drew cards, he checked the blackjack chart that he had left open on his phone before making his move. The dealer frowned at him, but didn’t say anything. Stretch put his phone on his lap under the rim of table and kept on playing.
The dealer glanced at the pit boss standing next to her. The suit looked visibly disturbed. He stared hard at Stretch, as if his glance was heat-seeking missiles designed to light Stretch on fire. Stretch had at least seven hundred dollars’ worth of chips stacked in front of him, four times what he initially put in. With trembling hands, the dealer started dealing the cards faster, making it hard for Stretch to play along, but he kept winning.
There was a change of dealers. And the new dealer, a man, his attitude as serious and dedicated as any junior executive on the make, was not one for small talk. His eyes bored holes into Stretch as he pulled out a new deck of cards and his mouth formed a thin red line like the police line that says do not cross.
Gambling can be found in almost every aspect of social life, from personal relationships to international politics, and has been a factor in our lives since the dawn of time. In some ancient societies, gambling was part of religious or communal exercises, and the outcome was thought to signify the blessing of the gods—underscoring that the most important aspect of life has always been about luck. But people have always known there’s a darker side to gambling. The Rig Veda, a collection of Hindu religious hymns more than 3,000 years old contains a section known as the Gambler’s Hymn laments: “Without any fault of hers I have driven my devoted wife away because of a die exceeding by one [an unsuccessful bet]. My mother-in-law hates me; my wife pushes me away. In his defeat the gambler finds none to pity him. No one has use for a gambler, like an aged horse put up for sale.”
But what has always been true: Humans create elaborate structures of self-deception and gambling ties in nicely into the fantasy, offering hope where there otherwise is none. Blaming a bad result to an offended spirit or a good result to divine favor is far more comforting than accepting the cold indifference of chance, that fickle imposter, randomly flipping things this way and that way. And rather than admit there’s very little we can do about heading off calamity that’s outside our control, like hurricanes and tsunamis, we invoke the power of magic and the occult to manage our terror. Similarly, for a gambler like Stretch, the search for a lucky break provides meaning in a meaningless universe.
The dealer kept hitting face cards, it didn’t seem natural and Stretch kept losing, in a stunning reversal.
“I should have left the table the minute I saw that happening,” Stretch said. “But I couldn’t believe a dealer would be that brazen.”
“Me, too, I couldn’t believe it either, not until it all your chips were gone, and then it sunk in.”
Every game is an attempt to disrupt the odds, but it’s difficult to prevail when the casino can basically jimmy the game in their favor, and do it blatantly, like a banana republic, trampling on individual players’ constitutional rights—that is, if you were on public property treating people like that would be illegal. I wondered what would happen if enough people complained or even boycotted the casinos until they amended their rules. What would have happen if everyone simply said no?
By invoking his intuition at the gaming tables, for a time he gets out of having to obey all the myriad rules that govern our lives. But if governments across Asia, Europe and the Americas tried to tamp out gambling, would society as we know it cease to function?
That’s the question I asked Stretch.
He shrugged, and said he didn’t care. He just wanted his money back.
“Fat chance of that,” I said.
“You’re right,” he said. “The chance of that is exactly less than zero. That’s pretty fat.”
I found it exceedingly curious, my muscles froze, and I couldn’t say anything. I could only soak in the sounds and lights as if paralyzed though I remembered to click the video feature of my phone and surreptitiously recorded. Someone told me that they had played two-deck games in Vegas and no aces came out and that this someone asked the pit boss if he could check the cut-away cards. All eight of them were behind the cut card. I wanted to say something to Stretch but I struggled to speak and no words issued forth, not a sound.
A man sitting a few chairs away whom we had spoken to a few times looking meaningfully at Stretch, said, “It seems like a good time to step away from this table.” He hadn’t lost much, not like Stretch.
Stretch couldn’t move. It was if as he saw the guillotine aimed high in the air above his exposed neck, and still couldn’t move. I imagined his body throttled in death throes, covered in a sticky substance stronger than glue. The man stood up and clamped his cowboy hat down on his head, hitched his jeans past his hips, and came up behind Stretch jingling his coins in his front pocket. He paused for a few minutes, but didn’t say anything. Then, slowly shaking his head, still not speaking, departed.
The cocktail waitress came by again asked pointedly if he wanted anything, forcing Stretch to look away from the dealer to address the waitress. This happened whenever the dealer was handing out cards. It seemed too much of a coincidence, but I didn’t think about it at the time, but it registered with me all the same and gave me an unsettled feeling.
Stretch pulled out of his reverie. All his chips were gone. He was down a thousand. He got up, on shaky legs, his eyes glazed and mouth crumbled. Right off, he stumbled against the chair he had been sitting on, looking like he had been punched in the gut. The smirk on the dealer’s face deepened, his mouth puckered like he was trying to stifle a grin.
We left the table and went into the lounge.
“How do you think they get the cash to build these palaces with,” I said and suggested we go to the management to register a complaint.
“Yeah but we have zero evidence,” he said. “They’ll laugh at me.”
“Look, here’s a video on YouTube of a dealer doing in slow motion exactly what happened to me.” Stretch said, his voice shaking with anger. “But he doesn’t say if he was able to get justice served. And here’s a story about a lawyer represents gamblers, Bob Nersesian, won seventy cases similar to mine and returned millions of dollars to gamblers. Nersesian was interviewed in the New York Post in 2016 about it. But in the cases Nersesian won, the management clearly overstepped and violated peoples’ rights.”
Stretch read outload several of the stories from the newspaper account, most of them fairly recent. A few years ago, a professional Atlantic City gambler who games under the name Keith Burks was playing blackjack when a floor supervisor came over and grabbed his cards. Burks tried to get his hand back and ended up being tackled me and handcuffed. Burks sued and Nersesian won the case. In another case, a card counter playing blackjack at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Vegas—the same place that Ben Affleck was kicked out of a few years ago for card counting—won nearly $6,000 his first two days in Vegas, and was actually losing on his third day, when a Hard Rock employee stopped him. “Cash in your chips,” the casino suit said. “You’re done.” This card counter, name of Tomm Kho, refused to show his ID, because he’d already given it to the dealer earlier. He was handcuffed and bullied into a back room. A guard rifled through his cargo-short pockets and removed his wallet, cellphone, $3,625 in Hard Rock chips and an envelope containing nearly $30,000. An hour or so later, Kho was released and given his possessions back, but the casino wouldn’t let him cash out the chips. Kho sued the casino and won.
Stretch read more from the article: Nersesian said that it’s always illegal for the casino to refuse not to redeem chips that have been legally won or to physically attack a patron unless it’s in the name of defense.
“It sounds like the law is clear only in that area.”
“If they offer a game to the community—and it’s their odds, equipment and rules—how can they exclude smart people from participating?” Stretch said.
“This is how,” I said.
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