I get nervous around gambling. I don't worry about losing money, I worry about looking like a jerk. I worry that if I ask how you play, all the players will boo. I worry that I'll jinx myself, like when I didn't tip the limousine driver when we pulled up in front of Resorts International.
I am standing at the top of some steps, overlooking the vast factory gloom of the Resorts casino. I have $250 smoldering like a dump fire in my pocket. I spent a lot of last night studying books about how to win. I've just jogged three miles on the Board-walk. I breakfasted on one glass of grapefruit juice. I want to be crisp, radically aggressive, running on pure adrenalin.
I skip through the casino crowd, dodging sides of beef disguised as leisure suits, middle-class desperadoes swaying like Carnivorous seaweed around the crap tables. I only have to wait an hour to get a seat at the $5-minimum blackjack table. (At the $2 tables, you need a blanket and a case of C-rations to wait out the crowd, at least until the expansion of the casino is opened.)
I buy $50 in five-dollar chips from a dealer given to baroque ironies: "Surely no one is unhappy with the dealer!" Like all the male dealers, he wears a black suit with a black bow tie. He snaps the cards out of the shoe with startling speed, paying off bets and making change with the ritual gestures of a magician.
"Place your bets, all bets placed, no more bets please."
Cards appear. Six and two.
"Hit me," I say.
"Sorry, sir, I can't accept anything but a hand signal."
"What's the hand signal?"
It seems you twitch a hand towards yourself for a card, shake it as if you're drying fingernail polish to show you'll stick with what you've got. I twitch, and draw a jack, for a total of 18, But the dealer has black-jack. I push another $5 into the little betting circle in front of me. We're off again. It's like riding a bus where you have to pay a fare after every stop.
This time I get blackjact, which pays $7.50 for my $5. The next hand, I bet the $7.50, and win when the dealer breaks, or goes over 21.
I like this. My heart pounds. My brain knots with concentration.I'm counting tens and fives. A lot of tens left in the deck favors the player while fives favor the dealer, according to computer research. I decide to double my bet, and chuck another chip into the circle. This time the dealer neglects to give me a card.
"Hey," says the guy to the left of me."You didn't deal to this guy."
"He didn't stack his chips."
"What the hell, so what, you coulda told him about it."
"My instructions are. . ."
"The hell with your instructions. You just gave me his cards."
Behind each row of tables are pit bosses, who supervise the action. Pit bosses have that bulky, wary, private look of cops, but cops for some other country, where the laws are very unfair. They're the cops of the law that says things like "you can't fight city hall" and "everybody dies sometime."
"If you don't like it," the pit boss says to the guy, "you can push back from the table."
"All I'm saying is that it's a bush league thing to . . ."
"If you don't like it, you can push back." Which the guy doesn't. I get the feeling he's hassled a lot of dealers in his time. he has little red eyes, like a hungover mongoose. During shuffles, he reads a racing form he holds on his lap.
After an hour. I'm up $15, plus one free drink it took the waitress half an hour to deliver. (Players drink for free). I tip her $1 anyway, to nurture my luck.
After two hours, I'm up $70, feeling very confident indeed. By now, the hungover mongoose has pushed back, a big winner, and a woman moves in. She has freckles, buck teeth and a Jersey accent she could remove warts with. I fall in love instantly.
She greets each hand with an anticipatory flinch. She says: "I just want to lose slow enough to stay at the table for a while."
Wit all the brio of a winning streak, I tell her: "When I think like that I get depressed - it's like saying I just want to be alive."
After three hours my profits are dwindling. I can't count one more card, the way you'd feel if you'd just driven straight through from Chicago in the rain. I'm up $28.50. I recall that when I got to the table, I was afraid of being nibbled to death by the house advantage, a death of a thousand cuts. Now, with $28.50 to show for three hours' work, I am living the life of a thousand cuts. With the rationalization of the truly greedy, I decide I'd rather win or lose more, faster. Go for all the gusto. I'm ready for the baccarat table.
Before I arrived, I had this vision of myself at the baccarat table, silky as hell in a tuxedo, smoking a cork-tipped Rothman's, a little bored as the chips pile up in front of me and the women line up in back. Neither matters, of course, when you're packing a Walther 9mm in your shoulder holster and a death warrant in your pocket.
The old James Bond fantasy.
The problem was that I didn't know how to play baccarat. Or craps. Or big money blackjack. And if there were fine points to roulette or the slot machines, I didn't know them either. (Also, I don't have a tuxedo. What I've got is a sort of tumble-dry look, like a fanatic prep-school teacher.)
Any thought that a kindly dealer or friendly player might teach me the tricks ended the second I saw the Resorts casino.
This casino does not look like the Monte Carlo casino you see in the movies, fretful debutantes biting their lips, men in dinner jackets gliding around.
This casino looks like a factory. . . huge . . . 6,000 people out there frowning over tables and machinery, making a racket that roars and chatters till you're numb from it, like an endless drum solo. The light cones down through the cigarette smoke, hundreds of little cones interspersed with one-way mirror spheres on the ceiling, where supervisors see everything, unseen, in this red and orange and green-felt gloom that never changes, 6 a.m. or noon or midnight, like the inside of a troop ship.
And the people: plastic shoes, Farrah Fawcett curls, medallions nestled in chest hair, no teeth, a drunk woman shouting into a pay phone, "Hey, hubby, this is the place!" A man with his hand over his eyes, saying to his wife, "Doris, every time I want to have fun . . ." This is Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch U.S.A., the same crowd you see at Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, sitting in their campers watching daytime TV.
I decide I want to know a lot more about two things: how the games are played, and my luck. I stride out of the hotel in search of Atlantic Avenue, where somebody says there's a bookstore. It's 5:30 on Friday, which should be some kind of rush hour.I've seen more people on the back of a motorcyle. No book store. I find a dime store that's still open, with an old-fashioned scale that gives you your weight and fortune.
I drop in a nickel, and push the Gemini lever. The machine ejects the nickel. Twice.
I hurry to the Boardwalk. A Salvation Army band is setting up on the beach, which explains the benchloads of old people huddled silently with their backs to the ocean, which is gray. At the Brothers From Italy pizzeria, the kid at the cash register studies the surf through a pair of binoculars. I walk a couple of blocks. No books. I hit Mme. Vivian and Mme. Elaine Phrenology Readings (Atlantic City is proud to be the phrenology capital of the world), but it's been changed into a place that makes a computer portrait of you and prints it on a T-shirt.
So, no books, no fortune. Maybe this is a good omen - I'm meant to play with beginner's luck. Then I see racks of paperbacks, nestled in that feast of inflatable animals, pictorial ashtrays, pork rolls, plastic back scratchers, saltwater taffy and Fonzie T-shirts that is Atlantic City. I walk in. The girl at the cash register stares through me, as if her major concern is whether or not one of her fillings just fell out.
"You got any books on gambling?"
"Sure," she says. "Whaddayawannaknow?"
"Baccarat," I say.
"No way, I shoot craps," she says, as if I'd just proposed some particularly arcane perversion.
"Okay, tell me about craps."
"You got your point, right? And you gotta make it, that's all."
"What's your point?"
"It doesn't matter."
"I'll look at the books," I say.
Up in my room, I look at one sentence on slot machines and stop: "How to win at the slot machines can be told in two words - get lucky." Slots are made for jerks like me, which is why I don't want to play them.
Or be seen playing them, especially the nickel machines out there on Bladder Alley, where bald-headed old ladies risk uremic poisioning rather than leave a machine they waited two ours to get to, casting ancient Italian curses on the people ahead of them. The slots, for both image and odds - a 14 percent advantage to the house - are among the worst bets in the house.
I check out roulette. But the pamphlet advises that your best bet still leaves the house with a 5.26 percent advantage. Roulette has that Monte Carlo panache about it, but I'm also looking to make some money. I move on to craps. I read that the house advantage gets as small as 1.4026 percent on the don't-pass line, but downstairs in the Resorts casino getting to the crap table is like getting into a Tokyo subway at rush hour.
Okay, baccarat. Baccarat has this mystique about it. At Resrots, they have little chandeliers over the baccarat tables, and they rope the crowds off at a respectful distance. Also, the house advantage, I read, gets as low as 1.17 percent. The rules are complicated, but it doesn't matter - the dealers handle all the cards, playing both sides, player vs. bank. All the bettors do is guess which side will win.
So I've found a game which is simple enough for me, and with good enough odds. The hitch is the $20 minimum. All the experts I've been reading say never risk more than one-fortieth to one-fiftieth of a stake on a single bet. I've only got $250. So I'll have to build up my stake.
Which leads me to blackjack. Blackjack, or Twenty-One, is the only game in which the player, through application of one of a number of systems devised with computers, can get an edge, albeit tiny, on the house. If you don't use a system, the house is said to have about a 5 to 6 percent advantage, depending on whom you read.
So I open Blackjack: A Winner's Handbook, by Jerry L. Patterson, and before long I'm trying to memorize the 14 rules of the Simplified Basic Strategy. This is hard. It is boring. All this intellectual effort I'm making is just an attempt to cut my losses.
My losses! Exactly! I've been thinking like a loser. There would be no sense in my being here if I didn't think that Lady Fortune would smile, and I'd hit a streak, grinning helpless with luck over my piles of money.
Best to stop studying, probing my luck, wondering whether I'm psychically gifted, or one of the bad-luck people whom experimenters describe as "psi-missing." What good will it do me?
I eat dinner high-roller style, in the red plush and mirrors of the hotel's Le Palais. The meal - oysters, lamb chops, raspberries, Pinot Chardonnay - is terrific, though the service is more colloquial than would be preferred by the first man to break the bank in Atlantic City.
It's 10:40 p.m. Saturday night, and somebody's hair is on fire. You can smell it through the sweat and perfume and cigar smoke, that dry, dirty smell. I'm sitting in the lounge, and everbody at my table winces and sniffs and looks around, looking for some Jersey blonde, say, who's got her hair bleached out so dry it goes up like Kleenex when a passing cigar hits it.
Is it winning that's soured me? Or is it that the singer in the lounge just sang "You Light Up My Life" again (or was it "Feelings"?), and when nobody applauded, said: "Whatsa matter, can't a nice Jewish girl make a living?" I began to have irrational anxieties that she'll sing "Happy Birthday," or maybe "The Star Spangled Banner."
Clearly, it's time for the icy suaveness of baccarat, the mano a mano with Lady Fortune.
I flick through my baccarat pamphlet once more. The only strategy is in the betting. I elect the "avant dernier" system, meaning that I place my bet on the position that won the time before last. (There are two positions - player or banker.) The point of avant-dernier strategy is to take advantage of streaks - say, five wins in a row by the banker - while minimizing losses if play gets choppy, with wins bouncing back and forth.
I shoot my cuffs, finish my, brandy, and glide into the baccarat pit.
If the people who play baccarat were cars, they would all be Buicks; if they were jewelry, they'd be pinky rings; if years, they'd all be 1953. They are betting huge amounts of money, one guy sitting in back of a stack of $1,000 chips.
Three dealers manage the chips and play the cards. At each end of the table two pit bosses survey the action from red-cushioned swivel chairs. They are like the guys in the Roman galleys, one with the whip, the other beating time with a mallet.
One of them even talks Italian: "Andiamo."
"Pronto," the player snarls, and tosses out a $500 chip.
I lose my first bet, win the next two, double up and lose the fourth, win the fifth, $20 a crack. You can get high on this - a fine, cool, racing sensation.
Play is very streaky, which suits my system. Four player wins, five bank wins, four player wins. I'm up $80 ready to double up. Bank hits four wins. I can't believe this can continue. I bail out of my system. Bank keeps winning. I drop $100. I vow to ignore hunches. Play turns choppy, but it turns choppy by twos - two bank wins, two player wins, two bank wins. Betting avant dernier, meaning I bet the winner-before-last, means that I lose every time. Panic flickers around the edges of my self-confidence.
I hate losing, I hate that gray smog I feel, like they just re-routed the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel through my abdomen. I feel jilted. I stalk out of the hotel, looking for a drink someplace quiet and dark, with no cards, no dice, no factory roar of slot machines. It's almost one o'clock in the morning, and it's raining, a South Jersey spit of a rain, and the crowds are standing in line on the Boardwalk waiting to gamble. They've spent their whole lives standing in line. I think to myself. They're good at it.
The next morning, I'm standing in line, waiting for the casino to open at 10 a.m., I have $50 left, and I'm willing to sprint to get a seat at a $5 blackjack table, with a red-headed female dealer and three japanese girls.
It takes an hour. I get $25 up, and then the great beast that is fortune starts gnawing away, $5 per bite. I make a vow to go out in style, if I have to go. I get down to my last $20. I put it all in the betting circle, one hand, do or die. The dealer and I tie, which in casino blackjack means my money stays out there. The next hand, I draw two jacks, for 20. The dealer shows a three. My heart starts its war-drum rataplan again. The dealer flips over her down card, a 10. Thirteen! Visions of baccarat, of a restoration of my lethally wry smile! The dealer draws an eight, for 21, my jacks and money vanish and I stroll away from the table, after tipping some small chips which total $4.
I feel curiously good. Almost relieved. Gambling, I decide, is like a love affair - it always ends badly, sooner or later. You just want to get out with some dignity. Even like life itself, I think, as I head for the raw bar to invest all of my love and hope in a platter of 12 Bluepoint oysters on the half shell, each one a fresh, cold, saltwatered, shimmering winner.