It’s early evening and I’m playing blackjack inside a small casino off The Strip. I’m sitting at “first base” and the little old Chinese lady sitting next to me has been my good luck charm. When I’m not sure if I should hit or stand she usually tells me the right thing to do. If it wasn’t for her I’d've been knocked out of the game an hour ago.
“Maybe I should bet more,” I say, looking my small pile of chips.
“Bet more, bet more,” the old Chinese lady says. “More money mean more money.”
“You’ve been good luck so far,” I acknowledge.
“Bet more,” the Chinese lady says, egging me on. Easy for her to say. She’s got a thousand bucks in front of her.
I put twenty-five dollars in the betting box. The dealer hands me an ace.
“Blackjack!” the Chinese lady shouts. “Big money!”
Of course, my next card’s a two and the dealer’s got a ten showing.
“Crap,” the Chinese lady says.
“I never hit it,” I moan.
The dealer doles out the rest of the cards and gives herself a five.
“Double down!” the Chinese lady hisses, tapping my arm. “Double down.”
“Double down,” I say. “Are you kidding?”
“No kidding,” she replies. “Double down.”
“Okay,” I sigh. I lay up another twenty-five bucks and get dealt a three. Now I’ve got sixteen.
“Ugh,” I say.
“Dealer bust!” the Chinese lady shouts, refusing to hit on her twelve. “Dealer bust!”
Everyone else at the table ignores the Chinese lady’s premonition and hit on their lousy hands. The dealer busts everyone.
“Damn!” a player snorts. “The is one evil deck.”
“She’s gonna deal herself a seventeen,” another player, some guy my age wearing a John Deere cap, says, “Just you watch.”
My stomach tightens. The dealer hasn’t busted in ages. Even though I know what’s happening with the cards is governed by probability, the dealer has had an uncanny ability to transform her losing fourteens and fifteens into winning twenty-ones. I watch anxiously as she slides a card out of the shoe and turns it over.
It’s an eight. Hot damn.
“Dealer busts!” the Chinese lady yells, thumping my arm.
“Honey,” I say. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“I don’t believe it,” the guy in the John Deere hat sighs.
“Should’ve listened to my girl,” I say, winking at the Chinese lady. She winks back.
As I pull my winnings towards me I’m suffused with a warm glow. I’m having a good time. The last time I played blackjack in casino was in Atlantic City around 1993. I’ll never forget that game. My friend Al, who considers himself a real card sharp, spilled his beer all over the velvet table and delayed the game for fifteen minutes. As the dealer frantically tried sopping up the mess with a towel, we mercilessly teased Al about the impromptu arthroscopic surgery that awaited him in a back alley. I was no prize either. Intoxicated and not knowing how to play, I earned the wrath of some drunk guy dressed in a yacht captain’s uniform (Complete with brass buttons and white hat.) by hitting on seventeens and taking all the dealer’s bust cards.
“Fucking amateur,” the man grumbled as he walked away from the table, leaving a vapor trail of whisky floating in his wake.
I was drunk myself so I can’t quite remember my comeback. But I think it was along the lines of “Hey Admiral, give my regards to Gilligan when you see him.” Or I could’ve just belched. I was a bit crude back then. Man, so much has changed in the sixteen years since that game.
“Bet, sir?” the dealer says, poking me out of my reverie.
“Oh, sorry,” I say, sliding ten dollars into the betting box. “Lost track there.”
“No problem, sir.”
I take a dollar chip and place in front to my bet. “That’s for you,” I tell the dealer. “Let’s try and bribe ourselves a little karma.”
The dealer chuckles and deals out the cards. I get a four and dealer gets a ten. On the second pass the dealer hands me a queen. I’ve got myself a big fourteen. The book says I should hit it – but I’ve got a feeling. I signal I don’t want a card.
“Good!” the Chinese lady says, also taking a pass on her hand.
Suddenly, above the din of the casino, I hear loud and obnoxious ring tone. The man sitting to the left of the Chinese lady, the guy in the John Deere hat, whips out a cell phone and starts talking.
“Excuse me, sir,” the dealer says. “No cell phones at the table.”
“It’s okay,” the man says. “It’s just my wife.”
“I cannot deal while you’re on the phone, sir.”
“I’ll be just a minute.”
Then, out of nowhere, the pit boss shows up. “Sir, off the phone,” he says in a clipped voice.
The guy in the John Deere hat stares at him. I can tell he’s bristling at being told what to do. But something about the pit boss makes him close the phone immediately. I think I know what that something is. I had a pleasant conversation with the pit boss earlier and discovered he’s some kind of ex-special forces guy – with the challenge coins to prove it. A big strong man even in retirement, he could snap the lawn mower jockey’s neck like a chicken bone.
“Sorry, sir,” the man in the John Deere hat says.
“Thank you, sir,” the pit boss says, his voice becoming friendlier. “Sorry to be brusque, but the casino has rules.”
“No problem,” the man says sheepishly. “I’m just here to have a good time”
I smile to myself. It’s interesting how casinos have no problems enforcing cell phone rules while restaurant owners tend to be complete and utter pussies. Maybe it’s the impromptu arthroscopic surgery thing casinos have going for them. Drill bits and kneecaps do not mix.
The dealer pulls out a hard seventeen and I lose my hand. So much for bribing karma. The game seesaws back and forth for another hour. But when the little old Chinese lady leaves my luck turns bad and all my gains are wiped out. I’m almost down to my original hundred. Time to walk away.
I “color up” what I’ve got left in into a single black $100 chip. Before I leave, however, I lay a ten dollar cash bet for the dealer, Of course, she hits blackjack on it.
“Thank you, sir,” she says happily.
“You’re welcome,” I reply, trying to hide my pique. I didn’t hit blackjack in the three hours I sat at the table. I guess that’s why they call it gambling folks.