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Gambling for Life

Happy New Year 2019

I don’t go to Reno anymore; I go to Zappos.

It’s a pass line bet, each time that I order any pair of shoes or boots from this e-tailer. I gamble with each purchase, even after scrupulously and intensely reading the reviews (some of which are hilarious), and analyzing to the nth degree the various viewing angles of the footwear. I have to say that I’m less lucky at Zappos than I was at the dice table and the blackjack table, but, admittedly I was a gifted player.

Unlucky in love, lucky in cards: such was I. In fact, I was miserably unlucky with the opposite sex and incredibly lucky at growing my $20 bet into some of the House Money.

Once I’d met the young man who would become my husband, I rarely ventured again to Reno or to Lake Tahoe (where the well-dressed, well-boot-heeled gamblers went). Why press my luck?

I learned many things about life from gambling. And I learned a lot about gambling from a former professional gambler, an old-timer who, in the 1950s, headed to Las Vegas from the hills of Pennsylvania. This old man always wore black. Much like a character by Chekhov, he was in mourning for his life. I’d like to think that I brightened his day, or at least his nights, most of which had been spent in casinos in Las Vegas, long before there really was a Strip.

He knew Las Vegas as Lost Wages. He knew the workings of the Mafia. He knew the reality of the Mob, the men who made it their business to present to America the image of this playground of the Rat Pack, this quiet seedy town in the desert, as a mecca for good clean, albeit risky, entertainment.

In some senses, the Mob was accurate. Las Vegas was a clean, wholesome destination for couples who wanted to marry in a hurry (Reno was the place to divorce in haste). And Vegas was a rigidly law-abiding town where crime did not publicly take place very often. The deserted streets were safe to walk at night. Those streets were deserted because nearly everyone was either in a casino or in a hotel. The crooks were the cheaters at the dice table, and they were given a free ride in a black limousine out to the desert, at night, especially in the winter.

Vegas, however, never became the family entertainment center that it was billed as during a decade or so ago. I laughed each time I saw the ads to bring the kiddies! The ad campaign for “Bring the Kids” was replaced by the highly successful “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” Even in Las Vegas, honesty works!

I first played blackjack and craps in Vegas as a very young woman, during the Carter recession when I took my first journey West to that coldly beautiful desert. It was there that I saw the human condition in its worst and its best forms. A couple of years later, I moved to California. To supplement my meager government paycheck (which was just enough to starve on), I would “earn” money on the weekends at Reno or, if I had a bit more money to wager ($40), at Lake Tahoe on its South Shore. I visited the Cal-Neva Lodge at the North Shore just to get a gander at the Rat Pack playhouse. Trust me, it wasn’t the swanky height of elegance.

Much of what I learned about life from gambling came from the losers at the blackjack table and the winners at the dice table. I occasionally played Keno (where the “runners” provided the main action in the dining room). I vigilantly stayed away from the whirling pickpocket, baccarat; and the one-armed bandit, the slot machine — although, one time, I did plunk a silver dollar in a slot machine in a diner on my way out of Las Vegas — and 60 silver dollars came gushing out of the thing! I took my money and left.

And that response is the smart one in gambling. You take what you were lucky enough to win and you leave the casino before the casino has to ask you to leave.

There are many types of people, but there are only a few types of gamblers. The worst is the “plunge bettor” - a term that has no equivalent in the French language. There are, however, many French terms that deal with plonger:

The stock market plunging, the plunge of prices, the plunge of a person into the ocean, an emotional plunge, a plunge commitment into a marriage, even the plunge-bra. You get my drift!

The French, nonetheless, have grasped, even mastered, the idea, even if there is no precisely worded equivalent for the plunge bettor:

The people who risk it all - the aging Boomers thinking they could get a lifetime’s worth of retirement, after a lifetime of partying, from 5 years in the U.S. stock market during the 2000s (and they lost their tie-dyed tee-shirts); the guy who goes all-out for a gal who uses him and then flat-out dumps him; the voters who place all of their delusions in a politician who fleeces them and then smiles with each lie that connives them to once again send in more money and votes - those individuals are plunge bettors.

They rarely win, and, privately, they rarely expect to. They have the loser mentality. Their game is the big score, after years, often many years, of minuses. To quote my old-gambler-teacher: “They lose the family jewels.”

Then there is the timid bettor, a person who ought not even be in the casino. This type of gambler ruins the chemistry at any blackjack table. He is the black hole of gambling karma. The energy gets sucked out of the air by his, or her, indecision and fear.

Gambling is based on intuition, counting smarts, luck, daring to beat the House at its own game and, for all I know, Divine Intervention. Any person who is willy-nilly with a 17 in his hands, who expects to get a pair of kings, or a jack and a queen with the next deal of the deck, he ought not be there at that risky adventure called Vingt-et-un by the French.

During the years when I played blackjack, there was only one deck being used by the dealer. When the Shoe showed up, I walked away from the blackjack table. Now I gamble with the shoes on Zappos!

In the olden days of blackjack, I got to see how the deck was rotated through shuffling; how that winning karma was broken by the pit boss bringing in a tray of new chips, to be counted by the dealer and stacked, and counted again and stacked, on the table; even how the seating of the players at the table was arranged to maximize the chances of the House not paying out the 2-1 odds that I usually managed to win.

Don’t ask me how I did it. I didn’t really know then; I don’t want to know now. I do know that I approached each wager, each hand, each draw of another card (by a slight scratch on the felt with your cards) with a carefree attitude that was intermixed with intense focus. And that attitude forms the third type of gambler: the patient player.

I wasn’t quite the Doc Holliday of Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Corral, but I can easily comprehend his philosophy to gambling and to life. Cards, or chips, were a means to an end. They allowed me to play the game a bit longer. Blackjack, and dice, were games I enjoyed. And while I enjoyed the game, I won! Even when I lost, I enjoyed the game. In fact, I enjoyed blackjack so much that when I considered going to dealer-school to train to become a dealer, I decided I didn’t want to be on the other side of the table, dealing cards for a living. I wanted to play - free of rules about how to force a loss and thwart a win or get them to stand pat.

This same spontaneous attitude of gratitude toward life makes for a lot of happy days and many blissful nights of sleep. Even in the midst of turmoil, you can offer a whisper of thanksgiving to your Maker that you’re here, alive, for another day on His beautiful earth.

I won at gambling because I could afford to lose. I didn’t wager more than I could lose. I wasn’t desperate. Thus, I was able to make rational but intuitive split-second decisions that might have bested the dealer at his own game. Life is very often the same match-up of your confidence versus the bluff of the other person. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you must always learn something from your win and you must always learn something from your loss. The objective is to learn how to play the game so that you can keep playing! Living life wisely and well entails pretty much the same rolls of those dice.

At the dice table, the Little Blonde Girl with the Luck always drew a crowd. Which the pit bosses liked, a lot. The “high-rollers” in the crowd were able to toss Big Money onto the table that I had “set up" with my $20 bet. And I’d often bet the Don’t Come. It’s the contrarian in me. As a bacherlorette, I enjoyed playing The Field. I was, however, quite stunned and disappointed to see those rich guys in their fancy three-piece suits walk off with their hundreds and hundreds of dollars — and not even tip the roller, the Little Blonde Girl with the Luck.

That behavior, I realized, is all too common in the game of life. Whenever I would encounter the same piggishness in my private life or at work, I’d think of those ungracious “high rollers” who were actually quite low. Money does not buy morals, class, or even smarts.

As for the roll-of-the-dice with shoes online, I’m percent-aging quite well. The last 3 pairs have been keepers and only 1 pair of boots had to go back. And I get to write reviews! Now there is something the Casino never let me do!


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