She was what most people would call a middle-aged
woman, although that designation has always confused me. If the average life span hovers around seventy-five, then middle aged would be about thirty-eight. A braver man than me will call a thirty-eight year old woman "middle aged" to her face. This lady was fifty something, bumping up against sixty something and it was unlikely that she'd live to see her 120th birthday.
It seemed to me that by the time someone had bopped around the orb for a half a century or more he or she would have nailed down most of the variables. Life's frustrations would be predictable and manageable by then, I thought, or mechanisms for coping with the roller coaster would be firmly in place.
There were five of us around the blackjack table, including the dealer, an Asian couple and the nice middle aged lady. The other players were experiencing the steady bloodletting that is the casino's stock in trade but I was on a rampage. I couldn't lose.
The Asian pair seemed to be an old married couple with a well-practiced routine for when the luck went south. The casual observer could ascertain nothing from their stony expression but I watched them pass several hundred dollars across the felt in the wrong direction. They were obviously veteran gamblers so they were backing off their bets gradually in the face of a strong dealer and a bad run. They would survive the downturn through careful money management.
The nice middle-aged lady was taking a pounding with every accounting of the cards. When she doubled down her eleven she'd hit a three. If she held pat with her pair of face cards, the dealer would flip over a blackjack. She excused herself three times to hit the magic money machine and pleaded with the dealer each time to hold her decidedly unfortunate spot, in the nearly empty casino.
I was firmly in my happy place, zigging when I should zig, zagging when I should zag and getting paid on twelves and thirteens as often as twenty-ones.
Billy and I were there at the outset of casino gambling
. He'd drive down to the Indian Reservation
to play bingo and I'd tease him about buddying up with the blue-haired set. One night he came back with nine hundred dollars in cash and I was forced to reevaluate my definition of cool pastimes.
The Indian reservations are predominantly self-governing entities and are left to their own devices on everything from law enforcement to tax collection. When they discovered that the cash bingo game was drawing customers from off the rez, they wisely expanded their trade.
The expansion began in earnest, with something called a "Peg Wheel." It was a large "Wheel of Fortune" kind of thing with a leather strap that clipped across the pegs until it arrived at a number. The device was much simpler than a roulette wheel in that there weren't any colors or null spots for the house, simply odd and even numbers counting up to forty-two. The player layed down money on odd or even, they gave the wheel a spin and the house would pay even money for a lucky guess.
The peg wheel was a dream bet as far as serious gamblers are concerned and you'll never see anything like it in Vegas. It was absolutely even money, like the toss of a coin. There isn't a professional casino manager in his right mind that will offer you anything resembling an even money bet. To someone unaccustomed to the craft it might sound stupid to bet on the flip of a coin but it's a far better wager than any casino game that you will ever see.
We had an absolute gas while it lasted. Wads of twenty-dollar bills in each hand, betting up to eighty dollars at a whack and beating the ill-conceived game more often than not. We left with bulging pockets nearly every night until the reservation hired a gaming consultant from Nevada.
Billy and I were on our way through the back of the bingo hall one night, flush with folding money from our new hobby, when we stumbled over the future of casino gambling in Minnesota. The professional gaming consultant developed a new game, exactly like blackjack in every respect, save a slight difference in the appearance of the cards. Each deck was numbered normally but instead of pasty white royalty adorning the face cards, they had pictures of eagle feathers or buffalo.
The game was given a different name but the rules were identical to blackjack and a billion-dollar cash cow was born.
The gambling casinos sprouted like mushrooms, almost over night, on Indian reservations throughout our state and the rest of the country. At one point there were as many as seventeen such casinos in Minnesota alone, generating revenues estimated in the billions. Exact accounting would be a private matter, as the casinos operated on the soil of a sovereign nation and were not subjected to normal taxation.
The good old days of peg wheels and even money bets at the little teepee were gone forever; replaced by massive Las Vegas style casinos, ten thousand car parking lots and humorless pit bosses. The attraction of the game ebbed for me as the Native American's attention to the profit margin increased. It was becoming much harder to separate them from their wampum so my trips to the casino became increasingly rare.
I never thought worse of the noble tribes for cashing in on their sovereign status. Our father pummeled us, as children, with the truth of the atrocity the white man perpetrated on these serene people. "Don't criticize a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins." The success they were enjoying with the acceptance of the casinos was small compensation, I thought, sweet revenge. I became less willing to toss my own hard-earned bartender bucks into the pile but more power to 'em if they could harvest the rubes.
At some point a more aggressive gaming consultant was hired and it was decided that the profit margin for blackjack could be nearly doubled by changing one little rule. In traditional blackjack the dealer must hold on a "soft seventeen," that is an Ace and a six. The game would simply be altered to allow the dealer to take a hit on this particular combination of cards, presumably bettering his hand. The players would barely notice such a subtle change in the game but the accountants in the cash cage were soon up to their necks in filthy lucre.
I started to get a bad feeling about the Indian casinos. Before the dramatic rule change I could leave the teepee with my head held high on a losing night, confident that I had contributed to their survival as a race. When they changed the rules of a centuries old game to nearly double the house advantage with the stroke of a pen, I changed my opinion. It seemed that they had been successfully assimilated to the white man's ways of blind avarice and no longer required my sympathy.
Those infrequent trips to the teepee were now a purely adversarial endeavor.
My duties at the bar demanded a sort of super-human perkiness that didn't fade at last call. At the end of a busy shift I'd be wide-awake and looking for action. My wife would be asleep at that hour, as would most decent people, and nothing good could come of disturbing her. I started going back to the casino just for something to do in the middle of the night when there was nobody left to play with.
I had long since come to grips with the fact that the cards were stacked against me so I was stingy with the blood money from the bar. That night at work had been a grueling exercise in thankless beverage delivery and when I gave last call I had only fifty-seven dollars in my tip jar. Within a few minutes at the first blackjack table I had more than ten times that amount.
The sky's the limit when I'm playing with the casino's money so I upgraded to the exclusive use of the hundred-dollar black chips. I tipped the dealer with the twenty-five dollar green chips and the waitress with the red plastic fivers. I was absolutely on fire that night and at one point had twenty-five black chips in one pocket, in addition to my healthy table stakes.
I was so focused on my own thrill ride that I barely noticed my companions at the table. I knew that the Hmong couple was doing a steady bleed but they seemed to have no end of fresh blood. The husband was uniformly morose but the wife chirped a happy song, in a language I didn't know, every time she went back to the well. The cute little woman would set her enormous hand bag on the padded edge of the blackjack table, interrupting play, and fish around in it for reinforcements. She'd pull out a fistful of hundred dollar bills and slap them down on the felt with a broad smile.
The other lady at the table was breaking my heart. She was incapable of taking a hit without busting and the lines on her face and the mist in her eyes indicated that the well was running dry. She had excused herself three times, always in the middle of a hand, to negotiate with the instant cash machine. The game of blackjack often requires additional wagers for splitting Aces, or doubling down, so play would be halted while she retrieved the money. The magic money machine quit speaking to her by the fourth trip and she returned to the table empty handed. She hit the twin Aces because she couldn't pay to split them and watched what would have been her first two blackjacks of the night become a busted twenty-two.
She stayed and watched us play for fifteen minutes or more, openly sobbing, no money left to wager. The lady seemed in no hurry to leave the casino or even the table that had been her Waterloo. One got the impression that she was in much deeper than she could afford and that she might not have a happy home to return to. The dealer seemed sympathetic to her plight and since there was nobody clamoring for her unlucky chair she was allowed to sit and watch and weep.
By the time she left I was up about three grand and the nice Hmong couple were out at least that much. The husband who had been mostly silent throughout the evening spoke to the dealer in halting English.
"That lady was crying. Why that lady cry so much?"
The young dealer who had been largely sympathetic to the lady's plight was now concerning himself with the emptying casino and his own tip jar. He answered the Hmong man with an inattentive shrug and returned to shuffling the cards. The man's wife, who held the purse strings during their own plunge into the abyss, answered his question more succinctly.
"Look around dum-dum. You don't need a reason to cry."