The Gambler

“You’ve got to know when to hold, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run…” – Kenny Rogers, The Gambler 

I am dodging flying poker chips at the Blackjack table in the Portofino Casino in Medellin.
I’m caught in the crossfire between two gamblers who, up until that second, had about as much mutual dialogue as the characters in a Squint Eastwood spaghetti western, but then, in a sudden burst of temper indicative, perhaps, of other shortcomings in his life, the guy on my right explodes into a rage and begins hurling chips across the table like he’s Pedro Martinez and it’s two out in the ninth.  My main concern, as always, is that I preserve the glass of free Chardonnay balancing precariously on the edge of the table (because everyone knows you can calculate the odds much more quickly, if not accurately, with a full belly of cheap vino), and am just barely able to consume its entire contents in one gulp when Pedro (let’s call my “leetle friend” that, OK?) lunges across the velvet and makes a grab for the player to the left of me (Manuel), and it is that unfortunate action which makes it impossible for me to plead later that I had more chips than the house counted, because all of my winnings now lay on the floor, comingled with the accounts of the dueling amigos, who are wrestling with each other in some kind of bizarre Colombian Death Dance, while the dealer and other patrons recoil in dismay.

So I back away from the table and am groveling on the carpet for my filthy unearned lucre when the guards arrive.  Now these two guys would crap their drawers if Barney Fife challenged them to a manly bare-knuckled high-five demonstration, so I’m a little surprised when they manage to separate the two combatants in short order, but am even more amazed that before Pedro is even escorted off the premises, everything has returned to normal, and the bets are being laid as if this was a bar fight in a Wild West Saloon and the piano resumes playing just seconds after the dead cowboy hits the floor.

I decide it’s a good time to leave the table, since it doesn’t seem like my chips or my life are in good hands, but, after a while, like a dog returning to his vomit, I’m playing badly once again, only this time without any luck at all, and am in danger of losing my stake, when Pedro returns, like some kind of B-movie zombie that can’t or won’t die, staggering toward our table and looking for blood, or at least another beer, but, before he can say anything, he is grabbed from behind by the guards, who are a little too rough with him.  I can tell this because he begins to violently, yet voluminously, vomit: not only on my own shoes but those of Manuel’s wife as well, and then, just for fun, manages to fire a veritable fountain of colorful spew across the table.  It traces a graceful arc through the air before landing on the cards.  If projectile vomiting was an Olympic sport, this guy would be a gold medalist.

Now, I’m a little concerned about how this might turn out, even though Medellin’s murder rate is only about twice as high as the Motor City, so I finally get a clue and cash out for a small profit while the cuffs are being applied to Pedro, and am pretty happy I won’t have to read about myself in the newspaper as a kind of out-of-body experience where the headline says “Gringo killed in La Strada-Police are rounding up the usual suspects”.

Now, there’s a lot I don’t understand about gambling, and one of them is how you can be upset when you lose money doing it…after all, when you go to the craps table, do you really think you can duplicate your last lucky day over and over like some kind of ersatz career?  It’s like hoping for teenage civility, a break on a speeding ticket, or good rap music.  It could happen, but the odds are against it.  So it’s when I win money that I’m surprised.  Losing, I expect.  But not for the Pedros of the world, who come in all shapes, nationalities, colors, and genders, and who seem to think winning is a God-given right, like Labor Day or free government condoms.

I’ve seen this phenomenon all over, though not to this extreme.  After all, Latinos aren’t exactly known for their reserved behavior for a reason.  But whether it’s a little old lady cursing the gods while pulling the handle on a one-armed bandit at the Mandarin in Vegas, a businessman giving his savings a funeral at sea on a Caribbean cruise, or a high rolling Russian losing his ass at Baccarat in Campione d’Italia, they all have one thing in common: they believe in miracles.  They believe that, once again, Lady Luck will spread her legs and they’ll beat the house, even when the odds are against them…and when it doesn’t happen, there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth on a Biblical scale.

That’s why, in general, the happiest people I’ve seen gambling are women, who gravitate to the slot machines, and are ecstatic when they get a bucketful of nickels, while men playing Texas Hold ‘Em look like they’re having about as much fun as the last time they got cup checked by the TSA, even when they’re winning thousands.  Ever watch poker championships on TV?  Good, I have a life also, but on the few occasions I channel-surfed by and glanced at it, the participants were all men who looked like a bunch of still-life stiffs who were sitting on nails just to see if they could keep their game face on, and the machismo was so thick you could cut it with a machete.  The slot machine requires no poker face or big investment, and no skill or brains of any kind whatsoever, which made it a perfect game for my ex-wife, who once played for two hours at a small casino in Martinique a lifetime ago and can still tell you how she won $37 as if it were a life-changing event. You can play a long, long time for very little dough on the slots and still get the same thrill of illicit gains as the big boys do in the elephant rooms without giving up your nest egg in the process, plus you can add years to your life by not stressing over a $100,000 hand.

And, as an additional bonus, when you play the slots, you don’t have to put up with the stupidity and cupidity of your fellow gamblers, any one of who can shit in your mess kit while you’re in the middle of an incredible roll just by sitting down next to you and destroying your karma.  You see, some people not only play by their own rules, which means in their heads they’re calculating to a third order of deviation what the odds are that their next deal will be a face card, they’re also expecting you to do the same, and when you don’t, they get incredibly pissed.  And if you’re smiling, even a little, or, worse yet, actually having some fun, it sends them into a rage worthy of OJ Simpson, only without the knife play.  I once had a man (I think his name was Douchebag) at the Orleans Casino leave my table in disgust muttering, “I can’t play like this” because I split tens with the dealer showing a five.  Well, excuse me…I thought I could play however I wanted, but some people just can’t take it when you color outside the lines.  On one level, I just say, screw ‘em, let ‘em die of a heart attack, face first, eating green velvet in some dumpy gaming room on the outskirts of Reno-but, on another level, I hate to admit that their sour dispositions get to me.

That’s why I like to gamble with just one or two other people, usually Blackjack, and know they’re not pros.  Because you know what?  The pros lose too, and they don’t have as much fun doing it as I do!  And I want people around me who enjoy the game.

But I love roulette as well, because in general there’s not as many unspoken rules, so you can play the game however you like, and, for you gluttons for punishment out there, lose just as much in the process (maybe even more).  And your odds at this game are simple: they’re bad for everyone, no matter how you bet, just like a slot machine.  So don’t worry, be happy, and just go with the flow.  No stern grimaces from others at your table when you place the “wrong” bet, and no fisticuffs spoiling a good losing streak.

Last, don’t be a fool like me and drink too much.  There’s a reason that casino booze is free, and once I was even too late to take the bus back to Lugano because I’d overstayed my junket to a casino in the lakes region of Italy and had to cab it home.  The Swiss don’t work cheap: $115 for a 20-minute taxi ride taught me a lesson…that is, I can’t play with the big boys, and should get drunk in cheaper countries.  So that’s what I do.  But I must say the fireworks bursting over that high alpine lake made that whole trip worthwhile.

Or maybe a better idea is to simply go in with an amount you’re OK with losing-say, $300, and just sticking with the plan.  After all, if you’re in Vegas, there’s plenty of other things to do.  This is a tried-and-true approach, and it works for everyone.

I could sum up this way: don’t go gambling because you want to win money.  Go because you want to have fun, and then play those games you enjoy the most.  Pick a location you like best.  I’m not a huge fan of the glitz and bling of Vegas, but I DO like the reserved hush at the casinos in western Europe, where I can always imagine myself as James Bond, and the dealer is saying “banco” to gasps of awe as I rake in my winnings, even though I don’t know what that term means.  Of course, 007 also had gorgeous women named Pussy Galore and Holly Goodhead draped on his arm (as well as tailor-made tuxedos and a refined Scottish accent), while I am gambling alone in my stylish Sam’s Club apparel, but the point is, when you lay down your cards, you can FEEL like you’re a secret agent, if only for a moment, and that’s part of the charm of the game.  It’s the unreality of it all that makes it so fascinating.  So go ahead, have a fling!  Just remember: it’s supposed to be fun!

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