For two years in the mid-1990s, I worked on and off as a professional gambler, touring the world as the rookie member of a long-standing blackjack team. I had been casually recruited into the ‘Odds and Sods’, as they sometimes called themselves, by a colourful Peruvian woman with owlish grey eyes, who correctly pegged me for a drifter when we’d met over a platter of spicy prawns at the home of a mutual friend. Her husband, Ken, a former research chemist, was the blackjack pro. ‘But I pick all his assistants,’ she told me, pressing her business card into my palm before she left.
I remember the frisson of excitement I’d felt at her approach, at having been singled out, and the justification that swiftly followed. I told myself that it would be an adventure: something I could write about as I embarked on a career in journalism. But perhaps it was a measure of how little control I felt I could exert over things in my twenties that I didn’t so much jump at the opportunity as offer nothing in the way of resistance.
In the event, I wrote about those years once or twice in a splashy style that didn’t feel true to me, but after a while I stopped talking about falling into blackjack since it had a way of hijacking the conversation. I began to notice that each time I rolled out my tale I felt outside of it, almost as if in getting too close I feared tasting the bitter edge of my own desperation. Something in me shifted over time, allowing me to see the experience in more nuanced light. I began to wonder if running off with a blackjack team to spend long weeks holed up inside casinos wasn’t my way of throwing down the gauntlet to my father – a couturier in thrall to glamour, who had gambled all his life. Was I tempting fate to see if I wouldn’t make a better gambler than he was, by which I mean, not become an addict – as if my pro gambling was some kind of self-administered test.
The team I toured with roved across those US states where gambling was permitted and thrived, but it was decided my debut may as well be in Las Vegas so I could enjoy the full colour and drama of the pro experience. The trip had been pulled together by Ken – who knew the how-to blackjack literature inside out, and had devised a few tricks of his own besides – and a couple of Dutch entrepreneurs. Tomas was a computer nerd, a cowboy coder long before Silicon Valley made the designation cool. The other, Lenny, owned a string of bars in Amsterdam and had been up before the courts more than once, charged with running illegal gambling on his premises.
Tomas looked even more out of place in casino-land than I did. A doughy man with shoulder-length hair and thick-rimmed specs that he kept pushing up his nose, he insisted on wearing his rumpled grey suit when everyone else had changed into baseball caps and sweats so as to better blend in. But he was kind to me and openly acknowledged the time I’d be buying them at the tables as the team’s only woman – unlike Lenny, a flinty-looking character, who I barely exchanged two words with before he left us in a huff to play on his own, accusing us of cramping his style.
The first time I sat in a car with the three of them, driving to our low-rent apartment from the airport in Las Vegas in a hired convertible, the hot evening breeze caressing my skin, I was exhilarated beyond words. Fresh from having walked out on a PhD, and with a string of temping jobs behind me and a nagging sense that ahead of me time was simply lazily turning pirouettes, I had never embarked on anything so racy.
Las Vegas. City of myth and promise, of neon glory, fizz and glitz, the roads in and out of it lined with giant billboards promising riches beyond imagining – one of them, making a regular appearance, pictured a couple of golden chips under the word ‘Arrival’ and a glinting mountain of them under ‘Departure’. Everyone, a winner! My father would have given anything to have been in my shoes then. But the reality is so much more precarious: a desert city fighting for its life against the elements and, slowly but surely, losing.
On the outskirts of town, our apartment was part of a sprawling development of identikit houses arrayed around fractally repeating cul-de-sacs, all of them shaped like keyholes. I never saw anyone out and about in the streets. In fact, the streets themselves seemed to exist in a state of tension, with the desert continually trying to assert its primacy over the man-made. Sand kept drifting into roads, tennis courts and backyards, filling potholes and piling kerbside in gentle slopes. It blew in through our open windows, getting into everything. An omen of transience.
My first few days on the job left my head thudding. The noise on the casino floor was unbelievable, everything blinking, boinking and buzzing. We played Harrah’s, one of the older casinos on the Strip rumoured to have Mob connections, its riverboat design harking back to the old paddleboat casinos of the American South. I remember that it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the twilight inside. As we sat down at the blackjack tables for the first time, I could feel my heart pulsing in terror: all I could think of was whether I’d actually be capable of throwing away Ken’s money at speed. Among blackjack’s great appeal to gamblers, aside from its ease – is any card game simpler than twenty-one? – is the swiftness of play: there’s no time to fool around, only to bet and bet again. The first time the dealer swept the board clean, and my unlucky bet with it, my impulse was to snatch it back.
More troubling, in hindsight, is how quickly I grew accustomed to the casino’s artificial world. To the gaudy throb of flashing lights, the ceaseless din of the slot machines, the clatter of chips and coins. I stopped noticing the smell of stale food ground into the swirly-patterned carpets, the total absence of daylight or clocks, or the way the fishnet tights the cocktail waitresses wore were always torn. I began to focus small on the green baize in front of my nose, drifting towards a meditative space as I played like an automaton, on endless repeat, my emotions effectively cauterised.
Most days we’d be stationed at the tables for eight hours, ten if we were on a roll, my tired eyes swooning with images of hearts and spades and diamonds, and square-faced kings and queens. At night I dreamt of those cards, a chubby Michelangelo hand in the sky reaching down from a fluffy cloud to turn them face up on my box in slow motion.
Here was something I had not expected, a kind of self-intoxication I found relaxing, even if behind the scenes our play was anything but passive. It was minutely calibrated, moment by moment, the result of being grounded in Tomas’s customised mathematical modellings of the game, which used tens of thousands of computer dry runs to determine the probability of us making money over long stretches of time.
In his short story ‘Gambler’s Luck’, the German novelist E.T.A. Hoffmann distinguishes between two kinds of gambler: those, like my teammates, given to ‘cabalistic calculations’, and those whose wins and losses were governed by ‘a lucky star’. I had plenty of opportunity to observe this second group as we silently crunched numbers and perfected memory tricks – the better to mine the thin seam of advantage Tomas had squeezed from his models.
Superstitious creatures, one and all, the good-luck crew was given to mysterious rites and rituals meant to curry favour with capricious gods. They were easy to spot, too, by their hot-headed play and ‘notice me’ volubility; the way they kissed and coddled lucky charms; wore lucky caps and clothing; crossed fingers and curled toes. They bet on numbers that meant something to them personally – birthdays, anniversaries, customised red-letter days. ‘I know you’ve got an ace, honey,’ the Vegas hucksters crooned, tipping their cowboy hats at stone-faced female dealers who had heard it all before. Then they’d put $500 or $1,000 or $3,000 on their box in a tremble of anticipation. ‘Go on, hit me!’ they’d say, their faces shiny with sweat as they turned grinning towards the gathered company to make sure they were seen.
Most of the time they lost, as did we – just like our algorithms predicted. But when we wanted to bet big and profit from our ability to accurately track aces, we’d ape their neediness and their swagger. We’d high-five and holler, and do silly seat-dancing. So much of our gambling was performative. We were always trying our best to look like regular losers. I learned to see them coming. They’d join our table, hoisting one butt cheek onto the stool as if unsure whether to stay or go and chuck a desultory chip or two onto their box, emitting a sigh of defeat. ‘Go home!’ I wanted to tell them. ‘Do something nice for someone, for yourself, for your dog.’ But they’d lurk around, step away from the table and back again as though it were magnetised. After they lost a bit more, they’d shake their heads, saying, ‘I just don’t seem to have it today,’ before moving to another table in hopes of tapping better juju elsewhere. Other times I’d see people play with a kind of relentless doom, chasing their losses with ever greater stakes and ridding themselves of cash as fast as they could, their impatience palpable, any trace of humanity in their faces wiped out in their determination to punish themselves. It was difficult to watch, this public self-flagellation.
It was easier for us, and more enjoyable, to imitate the loud high-fivers. Ken would wear a white shell suit, I’d pull on baggy shorts and a fanny pack, and we’d leave our apartment in high spirits, wondering if we’d be taken for high rollers, or for the idiots we pretended to be. On the whole the tactic worked, until it didn’t, and then black-suited staff from the casino’s security team would appear at our sides, leaning in like heavies, and politely instruct us to leave: all casinos are private clubs, with punters admitted, or kicked out, at the discretion of the management. Although we never once made an illegal move at the tables, I was always embarrassed by the unwelcome spotlight of being singled out as a pro. We drew glowering looks from people. We were not good sports.
In time, blackjack became almost humdrum. I learned to count cards, assigning a positive or negative value to each one as they were dealt in real time and accruing a hair’s breadth advantage over the house. I timed the shuffle. Tracked aces one by one. I can’t say I relished the mental labour involved in having to make constant calculations over extended hours of play. But then, for me, blackjack was work, and of a kind I’m all too familiar with as a freelancer: one with no regular pay cheque.
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