Something happens in that split second where my hand touches the chips for the first time. Something perceptively changes in the world around me. I stop noticing the sickly sweet smell that is trying to cover up the metallic stale cigarette smoke. I'm not hearing the subliminal angelic din of the slot machines churning in every direction. I'm not even thinking about how the chips feel in my hand right then, nearly gummy around the edges and heavier than they should feel.
Instead, I feel my body start to go vaso-vagal because it knows that I shouldn't be standing there. That's the reason that I never bet on the first roll at the craps table: metaphysically, I'm not there. I'm leaning on the rail waiting for my brain to swim back up to the surface, barely aware that the dice were even thrown.
At first, I thought that other people at the table must notice this happening to me, the now even paler white guy awkwardly crammed into some dealer corner. It wasn't until the third time at the table that I realized that most of them were living in the four feet of felt right in front of their faces, and my arrival wasn't even worth noticing. Since I wasn't a pair of dice skittering down the table, then my health or mental state was none of their concern.
Even when I manage to settle back into reality, I never reach a place where I am fully comfortable. Nothing about gambling is comfortable for me, because I know it is one of the stupidest things I could possibly do. I know the game is rigged. Logic and strategy are just shells of ideas that will not actually defend me. Those little trinkets of plastic and metal represent actual hard-earned cash that I could use to feed and clothe myself or others. But there I am at the table, waiting for the second come out so I can start plunking chips down onto the little boxes. This is a terrible idea from the very beginning, and comfort is simply not available.
When I walk in, I've got the $60 that I'm going to play, my ID so they will let me in the door, and my cell phone. Everything else is either a distraction or an opportunity to lose the plot financially. If I'm hungry, I had better make sure I leave before I go bust otherwise it is going to be a long drive home. Bringing an ATM card in there is basically asking for bad things to happen, so that doesn't even make it into the car when I leave the house.
I created this policy before I even started playing, because I know that my brain is a machine made to rationalize my decisions. I did the same kind of obtuse rationalization when I was a smoker, or when I was whoring around in my early twenties. My brain has an uncanny ability to grasp what it is I want to do, and build a shell of bullshit justification around it, and then use it to talk myself into incredibly stupid things. The more I limit my options, the happier I will be once I come back to my senses.
I play a lot of line bets, which is the most basic and boring kind of bet one can make at a craps table. I also play the field, which is a one-roll one-to-one bet, and I'm usually the only one playing that box for some reason. I've actually had some people ask me what the hell I was betting on when it hit for the seventh or eighth time in a row. Every once in a while I will place a bet on a specific roll, but these end up falling flat for me most of the time. When I'm feeling really adventurous, I'll lay down a two-for-one so that the dealers don't think that I'm a total shit. But by that time I'm usually thumbing my car keys because it is about time to me to leave.
The goal is to double my money. If I double, I'm getting in the car and going home, no excuses. Of course, I'm not actually expecting that to happen. I know that I'm probably going to walk out of there empty handed, having watched the number of chips in my hand go up and down for a few hours. But I feel it is important to define that upper limit, instead of trying to figure that out when I am actually winning. I feel like this will save me somehow.
The craps table is recessed to keep the dice from flying all over the place, but it is also the perfect shape for containing the steaming pile of superstition and logical fallacy that each and every player brings with them. In this way, craps is closer to a codified religion than a dice game. There are events occurring on the table that do not conveniently fit into a knowable order, so the mind makes up stories to compensate. The mind invents rituals to try and control the outcome. I need to hold the dice a certain way, or be in a certain mindset when I throw them down to the far end. Every poor outcome is absurdly reexamined for personal faults. If none is found, others at the table are blamed, or the dice themselves are blamed, or the dealers are blamed. Bets are placed based on suspicion or worse. Systems are created and destroyed over and over in an attempt to master the unmasterable.
I noticed this right from the the first time I stood at a table watching people play. That first night, I saw a woman walk away from the table because she didn't like the way the shooter was throwing the dice. "He's shooting angry" she said with complete seriousness, scooping up her chips and heading for some other table. I saw a man drop the dice in front of him until they came up red before he shot them for real, sometimes taking nearly a minute before getting them set "right". I saw a guy move from one end of the table to the other, so that he was always on the side of the table where the dice would land. All of these little idiosyncrasies were all linked to a desire to be on the winning side, and avoid was would be certain doom if not followed.
I've made a conscious effort to be a craps atheist. I know that each dice roll is independent, completely disconnected from previous and subsequent events. I know that it doesn't matter how I throw the dice, or how I put my chips on the table. I love it when I am standing alone at a "cold" table. These are the moments when I actually feel like I am winning at life, and reminds me that I have my head on straight.
And yet, every once in a while, I find myself falling into these traps. I find myself placing a yo bet after seeing three in a row. I get upset when someone tries to take my field bet spot. I curse someone for "letting me down" by chucking a three on a come out. And then I feel like shit for letting myself do stupid reactionary betting, and try and recenter.
Sometimes I feel that it should be easy to overcome all of these little actions. I feel like I'm failing myself because I fall into these traps. But these traps are set by people much smarter than me. These traps are set by people who are trying to take my money. And these traps don't just live in that space at the casino; they also live in advertising and fashion and self-help books.
But I still go and stand on the rail and throw chips around, so what does that really say about me?
I don't know what I'm looking for when I walk in there. There is no validation hiding somewhere at that table. Nothing I do there will mean anything once I have made my way back home, regardless if I walk out winning. The dangers are always there, teeth showing. There is no realistic goal for me to strive toward in that room.
I've seen the compulsive gamblers, sticking twenty dollar bills into the slot machines and slapping at the button until it stops working again. I see the folks that are out for a classy night, blowing large amounts of money that could have gone to a better use than sinking into the lock box under the table. I've seen drunk staggering folks, flailing their cigars around and laughing their way through the noise. I've seen the hardcore kids, silent and concentrating. I try to tell myself that I don't belong there in that world, but I stand there all the same.
Maybe there is something innate that makes us play these silly games. Maybe the thrill is so real that we all reach out toward it while it smiles back at us with a mouth full of razors. Perhaps it taps into that part of the brain that is looking for god, and tests to see if it is hiding in the dice somewhere. I'll probably never figure it out.
But I'll stand there and shoot and bet, and see what happens.