I have a problem with gambling. I don’t have a lot of risk in my real life, so I court simulated danger across the green felt of a blackjack or poker table. All that’s at risk is money, and I acknowledge that I’m lucky enough that if fortune smiles upon me I get to feel good and I get to make some money. If my horizons are darkened by clouds, however, I can still go home to a warm bed and know where my next meal is coming from. As my shrink described to me, gambling is where I get my juice because I have repressed all the rest of the more normal outlets in my life.
I say that I currently have a problem in the 12 Step sense of that I will always have this problem. It is currently very well managed. I have constructed rules for constraining this behavior, including rules on what to remind myself of when I find myself breaking a rule. That fail-safe snaps me into a state of mind where I deal with the problem and get back on with my life.
The reason that I set up these rules goes back to an incident from back in my college days. I was taking classes at the University of Arizona in Tucson and working as a programmer at a local real estate development company. One little trick that I played a couple times was to be working late one evening and call my then fiancé to let her know I would be working for quite a while. Then I would drive down to the airport and catch an 8 or 9 p.m. flight to Las Vegas to play a little blackjack. The plan would be to fly back on the 7 or 8 a.m. flight and ‘awaken’ at my desk, having fallen asleep at my keyboard. I would then go straight to classes and most likely sleep there part of the day, and resume my regular schedule late that afternoon.
During one of these trips, I had managed to go through the $200 I had brought in fairly short order. This is not easy to do betting $5 per hand of blackjack, but is well within the realm of possibility. I then proceeded to get $300 from the ATM out of my checking account, which was the daily limit. Unfortunately, that also disappeared around 2:30 or 3. Fortunately (kind of) it was the next day as far as the ATM was concerned, so I managed to get another $200 out of the machine, which was all I had left in the checking account, barring what I needed for rent, etc.
5 a.m. rolls around, and I’m once again functionally broke. It has been a very unusually bad trip, but once again, not unheard of playing $5 blackjack. I kept $20 aside for getting my car out of the parking lot and getting back to the Las Vegas airport, but I had no money left to gamble. I go for a walk out on the strip. I leave where I had been playing, which was the Flamingo Hilton, and as I step out onto Las Vegas Boulevard South, the pink fingers of a desert false dawn are rising from the east. I believe it was a Wednesday morning. The Strip was absolutely deserted with the exception of myself, a jogger on the opposite side of the street in front of Caesar’s Palace and two or three other tired looking people with that thousand-yard stare of the economically shell-shocked.
I step out into the street, into the non-existent traffic. I crossed the median and approached the driveway to Caesar’s Palace. Before me were the fountains that Evil Kineivel jumped across time and again. The sun was starting to peek over the mountains east of town and illuminated the mountains west of town. The sky lightened considerably and the hotel towers and the Fuller dome of the OmniMax theater loomed above me in silhouette as I walked up the driveway.
Ahead of me was an ornate shrine featuring a white elephant. I stop to consider what Eastern religion this might be a symbol of good luck for. It was hard to say as the sign on the front had many languages on it, and none were English. It was done up in an appropriately tacky Las Vegas fashion, however. The entire elephant was covered in various colors of mirrored tile and was dramatically uplit by hidden lights of various colors and several white spotlights. There were coins all around the base of the elephant and a railing with a sign in all languages warning that the railing was alarmed and that the shrine was monitored on video. I remember laughing at the prospect of only in Las Vegas would security be needed at a wishing well.
Even though I don’t believe in lucky elephants, I took this burst of humor for a sign of my luck changing. In that instant I decided that I would either come home a really big winner or a really big loser. $700 was actually the biggest loss that I had ever sustained in Las Vegas, but I was past the threshold of pain. I decided that I would take my credit card and charge another $700 on it, and I would play at the $25 minimum tables.
Once I have determined my course, my step lightened. My eyes cleared and my blood once again began to flow. I was back in action. Just the decision to start on this path was enough to lift my spirits. I quickly made my way to the Comcheck machine and ran my card through with aplomb. I punched in a request for $700 and strutted up to the cashier’s cage as if I owned the place. I received my seven one-hundred dollar bills and advanced on the casino floor.
I spied my victim. A $25 table right near the main entrance. It was a 6 deck shoe with four players already on it. After all, if I wanted to stage a big comeback, I certainly would want an audience. The poor dealer and pit bosses wouldn’t know what hit them.
I sit down and spread those seven insignificant pieces of paper across the felt and watched the dealer push me a stack of even less significant green $25 chips towards me. My destiny hung from those 28 clay discs. I see visions of them turning into black $100 chips or even purple $500 chips.
At the time, I played a simple winning progression. I would always start betting one unit, in this case one green chip. If I won the hand, I would let it ride and wager two chips on the next hand. If I won my second hand, I would then wager three chips. If I continued to win, I would wager five chips, then five chips again, followed by seven chips and then ten chips after the sixth win. Starting with the seventh hand, I would treat ten chips like one chip but I would repeat the ten, so the wagering would go ten chips, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty, fifty, seventy and one hundred chips. Then in the incredibly unlikely circumstance of getting that far, the series repeats itself, treating 100 chips like 1 chip.
I played for a while, never varying too far from either side of even, when it happened. I hit a losing streak that would not snap. I was down about two chips at the time, but my stack started to dwindle. I got down to twelve chips, then eleven, then ten. When I lost the next hand and I now only had a single digits worth of chips in front of me, I began to seriously question my earlier optimism.
It was now about 6:15 and I had to leave for the airport at 7. I was resigned to play out this particular scene, when finally I won a hand. Suddenly I could do no wrong. The next hand, I bet my two chips and won. Then, with three chips wagered, I got a natural blackjack. Because naturals pay 3:2, in addition to the four green chips I received two red $5 chips, two silver dollars and a fifty cent piece. I put this “odd money” out for the dealer as a tip on the next hand where I had five green chips wagered, and won again. I repeated my five chip bet and won. Now I placed seven chips in the circle and got an 11 where the dealer had a 6 up. I placed my recently won profits in the circle beside my bet and doubled down, receiving a single face-down card. The dealer turns over a 4 followed by a face card from the shoe and the whole table slumps in disappointment at the dealer’s 20. I haven’t looked, but I just know that I have a ten underneath, and the dealer reveals my card to have a lovely face. He restacks my fourteen chips in three piles of four and the remaining pile of two. He places a black chip in front of each of the three piles then places a fourth black chip in front of the pile of two green ones and picks up the two green ones in change.
I take back these four black chips and four of the green ones leaving a ten chip bet out for my next hand. I win that one and the dealer pays me with two black chips and two green. I leave out ten chips and win that hand as well. The dealer now gives me three black chips and takes back two greens in change. I stack up all the chips in the circle to make a pile of three black chips and eight green chips.
I won the next hand as well and the dealer paid me with five black chips. Now my progression called for thirty green chips. I began fumbling with the green chips in my stack and adding them to the stack in the circle when the dealer said to me, “Hey buddy, slow down, the casino will still be here tomorrow.”
I actually snapped back, “Thanks for the advice, but I know what I’m doing,” as I added the green chips to the top of the stack. The dealer looked at me. I honestly do not remember if it was with anger or with pity.
I won that hand as well.
Now my hands were visibly shaking.
I had won ten hands in a row. As the dealer paid me with a purple chip, two black chips and two greens, he called out to the pit boss, “Purple out.”
The pit boss looked over and then slowly walked over as he said, “Ok.”
My next bet was fifty green chips. I added the purple chip to the bottom of the pile as the dealer got ready to deal the next hand. The rest of the table was quiet. I won.
The whole table cheered. Well, maybe they didn’t cheer, but they did make a set of noises that could be interpreted as well wishing.
As the dealer set out one yellow chip, two black chips and two green chips, I realized two things. First, that I had risen out of my seat, and second, that this yellow chip was worth $1,000. I had just been paid one thousand, two hundred and fifty dollars. This was just a bit more than I and my two roommates were paying for rent. Combined. For two months. While I recognized that fact, I was past caring. I realize now that there is a threshold of pain in both directions. There is a certain amount of money that once you win it, you are indifferent to any more.
Mechanically, I put out the $1,750 required by the progression for the next bet. I lost. I once again began shaking. I said to the dealer, “I think I’m ready to go now, please.”
The pit boss said, “Son, I think that would be a good idea.” Thinking back, I don’t believe I’m imagining the look of concern on his face. I also don’t believe that he was concerned about losing a couple thousand dollars on his shift. All told, that run of cards had left me with $2,250 on the table. I had made back my $700 cash advance, I had made back my earlier losses of $700 and I had come out to the good by $850. I gave the dealer a $25 chip as I departed and thanked him.
As I looked from him to the other players at the table I was leaving I saw something that scared me. I saw three aging people, smoking, drinking and hunched over in their chairs. They were immersed in their own world and my passing through was a momentary breeze, quickly forgotten. In seeing them, I imagined someone like me, years down the road, having an experience like I just had, and seeing me as one of these caricatures through their young eyes. That is the image that I remember whenever I find myself getting carried away by my addiction.
 I must credit Mike “Mad Genius” Caro with the genesis of this phrase. It refers to the state where you’ve lost an amount of money that has numbed you to any further pain of any additional losses. It doesn’t hurt any more to lose another $1, so losing it becomes very easy.