Category: NV

Oh happy gambling films, where art thou?

The schedule for the Portland International Film Festival was recently announced. It’s an annual event to which Portlandia cineastes look forward with great anticipation. This year’s PIFF looks to be another winner; the team that puts this event together does a wonderful job of cherry-picking the most intriguing obscure pictures from all over the world.

One particular film fits within the central topic of this blog. It’s called “The Gambler,” and here is how it’s described in the PIFF schedule:

“A celebrated paramedic, Vincentas, has a dangerous addiction: gambling. Desperate to hit it big and pay off his mounting debts, he’s quick to place a bet on just about anything. In over his head, he ups the ante by betting on the odds of his own patients’ survival. This twisted game, played with his fellow paramedics, soon becomes a major enterprise after the hospital’s doctors and nurses want in on the action, and Vincentas finds himself becoming a big-time bookie. Jonynas’ gimlet-eyed black comedy is this year’s Lithuanian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “

A Lithuanian dark comedy? About a gambling paramedic? Betting on the survival of patients? YES! Can’t wait. Not kidding.

The synopsis of this movie brings up an interesting question: Why are gambling films, generally speaking, so damn grim? As a case in point, take a look at “Hard Eight,” the first full-length film from Paul Thomas Anderson, a terrific director who went on to make “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights, “There Must Be Blood,” “The Master,” and the current “Inherent Vice.”

Many directors cut their teeth on low-budget horror films; Anderson chose a different kind of horror, the kind where your immortal soul has been replaced by the voracious desire to earn casino comps.

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Mr. Reilly Goes To Reno” aka “Hard Eight”
The cast of this movie, released in 1996, is stacked with A-caliber talent just waiting for their trip to the big leagues.

John C. Reilly plays John, a broke, down-on-his-luck, kinda dimwitted neophyte gambler who, by the time the movie begins, has lost all his money. Philip Baker Hall is Sydney, a seasoned pro who, for a reason not revealed until the third act, takes John under his wing and shows him how to play the house for freebies.

Gwyneth Paltrow appears as a prostitute who hooks up with John. Samuel L. Jackson plays a vicious baddie who meets with a sad end. And there’s unintended poignancy when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up in a cameo role as a craps player.

It’s all about The Education of a Gambler until about halfway through, when the film takes a hard right and turns into a crime drama. And not the “Oceans Eleven” kind of crime drama. Despite justice prevailing and the bad getting their due (more or less) no one in “Hard Eight” is very happy.

If you took a swig of Early Times every time someone in this film cracks a smile, you’d be stone-cold sober by the time the final credits roll.

BTW, IMDB has a list called “100 Best Gambling and Poker Movies” which is a nice resource, although I’d quibble with some of the inclusions. “The Sting”? “Cool Hand Luke”? “Atlantic City”?

 

Casino Buffet

Grinding it out

Keep your eyes peeled for a serious new gambling film, “Mississippi Grind,” which made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn star, with Mendelsohn giving what’s being described by critics as a breakthrough performance.

"Ben Mendelsohn (8019231435)" by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia - Ben MendelsohnUploaded by russavia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ben_Mendelsohn_(8019231435).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ben_Mendelsohn_(8019231435).jpg
Mendelsohn in “Mississippi”: His breakout role?

Here’s the plot summary as it appears on IMDB and Metacritic:

“Down on his luck and facing financial hardship, Gerry teams up with younger charismatic poker player, Curtis, in an attempt to change his luck. The two set off on a road trip through the South with visions of winning back what’s been lost.”

Well, at least they’re not betting on the survivability of EMT patients, so perhaps this one has an uplifting, inspirational ending, like “Rocky.” But in a card room.

 

Christmas in May

And June. And July.

Yes, poker mavens, the World Series of Poker has announced its upcoming schedule. It seems that the tournament director(s) and marketing department have not been slumbering since the Main Event wound up in November.

They’re launching a bunch of changes—such as giving players more bang for their buck in the form of larger starting stacks—and some new events, the most staggering of which would seem to be a tournament the WSOP is calling “The Colossus”: a buy-in of $565 and a prize pool of $5,000,000!

 

Chaos at Full Tilt

Many players were burned when Full Tilt was hammered by the Feds in 2011. In the months following, details emerged about the operation’s unsavory financial practices. And now this: Unsavory and stupid.

"Erick Lindgren 2007" by Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com - http://www.lasvegasvegas.com/pokerblog/archives/006040.php. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erick_Lindgren_2007.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Erick_Lindgren_2007.jpg
Recipient of an cool extra $2,000,000

In April 2011, Full Tilt agreed to lend poker star Erick Lindgren $2,000,000. So they deposited the money into Lindgren’s account…TWICE! Lindgren kept the extra $2million—a questionable decision—and now the current owners of Full Tilt are suing him to get it back.

Kind of hard to pick a dog in this fight, wouldn’t you say?

 

 

 

Business as (un)usual in the poker room

The 3 Commandments

Life in the poker room is a pretty placid affair. Low-level chatter punctuated by laughs or the occasional cheer. The shuffle of cards. Pop music—Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Beatles—on low volume.

“Raise.”
“Call.”
“Fold.”

Occasionally you’ll also hear “Shit,” “Dammit,” and the stray “Fuck,” but the unspoken ethos and the printed rules that hang on the wall discourage profanity.

A sense of calm celebration prevails. And when it doesn’t, when the calm is shattered, alcoholic beverages or controlled substances are usually involved. Outbursts or fisticuffs are extremely infrequent, so that when they do occur, the effect is jolting.

Recently at an area poker room, for instance, a guy juiced up on booze and Adderall loudly and profanely questioned his bar tab. The bartender—a professional and cool-headed young lady—sought to placate him by refunding, out of her tip jar, the amount in question. No dice. His rant continued unabated and before long, security ejected him.

But the show was just beginning. Out on the street he started throwing punches and soon the security guy and two poker players were—with great difficulty—wrestling this bantamweight drunkard to the ground, not before he smashed a window and started yelling for his mom. Police arrived. Next stop: the drunk tank.

To be clear: These things rarely happen, but when they do, they live on for days in poker room discussions, providing a nice break from the run-of-the-mill, that-guy-called-my-pocket-kings-with-ace-three-off-and-sucked-out-on-the-river conversations.

The saphead has been banned from the club and condemned for breaking a cardinal rule of the poker room: Thou shalt not abuse the female bartender.

Also, thou shalt not imbibe Adderall and Hennessy then attempt to play Texas Hold’em.

Also, thou shalt not be a jackass.

I’ll drink to that

We enjoy drinking for a variety of reasons: to loosen up, to commiserate, to take a little vacation from the here-and-now. Sometimes, of course, the alcohol will prompt philosophizing.

Here’s an actual conversation that took place in the bar at the Encore Club in Portland some months ago.

The characters: A 40-ish player who, while not given to moping or self pity, has just busted out of a Texas Hold’em tournament and is not feeling too good about it; and Encore’s off-duty cook, a bald-headed, tattooed guy also in his 40s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a sour, studious demeanor—in a prison film, he’d be the lifer hitting the law books in hopes of winning exoneration.

They’ve both had a few drinks…
Player (re: poker): Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth the time and effort.
Cook: Isn’t that the big question?
Player: I guess…
Cook: I ask myself, is it all futile? Aeschylus talks about that in “The Libation Bearers.” Have you read it?
Customer: Well, I’ve read my Aeschylus, but I’m unfamiliar with that one.

(https://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/5710524254) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aeschylus is probably wondering how the hell he got dragged into a gambling blog…
Hold on: “The Libation Bearers”?? And at least three people in a bar in a poker room who’d actually read Aeschylus?? Had I slipped into an alternate universe where the denizens of poker rooms read Greek playwrights in their spare moments? Or is the moral of the story that you’ve got to give credit to people for being a lot smarter than you might think?

In a matter of weeks, the cook had moved on to a different job, no doubt spreading his joyful message of futility and Aeschylus to the unsuspecting clientele of another barroom.

Casino Buffet #1

At the casino buffet, you plunk down a modest amount of cash, in exchange for which you can sample a smorgasbord of dishes from near and far. Hey, that guy in the white hat is carving a hot turkey! The other guy in the other white hat is making crepes and omelets! And that other guy… shouldn’t he be wearing a hairnet or something?

In the spirit of the casino buffet, here are some tasty news tidbits from casinos near and far. And don’t worry, I’m wearing a hairnet.

There’s an acronym for that

I recently discussed that awful blackjack rule in Britain wherein the dealer takes his second card after all the players have acted. In a few short yet brilliant paragraphs, I illustrated how lousy this rule is and just how it might play out using as an example a hand in which you’re dealt two eights.

Turns out that there’s an actual acronym for this rule: ENHC, which stands for (drum roll, please…) European No Hole Card. You can find out more about this rule as well as a basic strategy chart that’s been adjusted for ENHC at Golden Touch Craps. Interestingly, the author, Dan Pronovost, uses virtually the same situation as I did to demonstrate the considerable downside of ENHC.

Eldorado killing

Awhile ago I wrote about an incident at the Eldorado in Reno in which a patron reportedly met his death during a scuffle with the hotel-casino’s security detail. Thankfully, justice is being served: one of the security guards has been charged with murder. Here’s a news article about it: “Security guard charged in man’s death.”

Whitehead’s WSOP

Colson Whitehead is a writer who’s earned a reputation as a “serious” novelist. Apparently he’s loosened up a bit. A novice poker player, Colson has written a new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. It’s a first-person account of his experiences training for the World Series of Poker, then playing in it. Reviews have been mixed, but the New York Times seemed to like it. (Read the review here.)

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Colson Whitehead, author of “The Noble Hustle,” a reviewer’s copy of which is on its way to my mailbox… right, Doubleday?
This kind of book has been done before, somewhat recently—and very successfully—by James McManus. His Positively Fifth Street is brilliant and became an instant classic when it was published in 2003. Don’t know if Whitehead’s book reaches the stratospheric heights of “Fifth Street,” but I’d sure like to read it and judge for myself. (Ahem, Doubleday: Where’s my reviewer’s copy? Huh?)

A tale for the telling

Speaking of classics, Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells has pretty much become required reading for those interested in this topic.

Now the Zelwood Empire has expanded with the publication of his new book, Verbal Poker Tells, and a series of seminars he’s giving in Las Vegas during this year’s WSOP. Recently I was Zach’s guinea pig in a test run-through of this seminar and was impressed with his mastery of this complicated topic. You’ll find out more about his books and his seminars at ReadingPokerTells.com.

It’s Always Sunny in the State of Nevada

Or, “Crime and No Punishment”

Several weeks ago, I began to solicit stories from entertainment-industry professionals about their experiences working in casino productions, either in front of the curtain or behind. In response to one of these requests, I ended up on the phone in a scary phone conversation with a seasoned show-biz performer. He requested anonymity—you’ll see why in a few paragraphs—so we’ll call him Ishmael. No, that won’t work. How about Gary?

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gary had the good fortune to land a series of gigs as a singer/dancer in Las Vegas musicals and revues. The incident he shares with us went down in the late 1970s in the showroom of a ritzy Strip hotel-casino, long since demolished.

By Joe Gauder [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Vegas Vic. Might he be related to our old pal, Wendover Will?
The Mob pretty much ran Vegas in those days, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the “Artistic Director” of this particular production had a cozy relationship with criminal elements. Let’s call this fellow Zeke. According to Gary, Zeke was pretty much regarded as an awful human being. In fact, Gary calls him the scummiest person he’s ever had the displeasure of meeting.

Zeke had, as they say, an eye for the ladies, which was bad news for the female dancers in this particular musical revue. You see, there was a clear expectation that these young women would, upon request, have drinks and/or dinner with Zeke or one his pals. Gary was clear that sexual favors were not part of this unspoken arrangement. Nevertheless, it put these gals in an uncomfortable situation: Lucrative employment in a glitzy Vegas show in exchange for a date, when “requested,” by a Mob associate.

Then came the day when a close female friend of Gary’s was thrust into that awful position. She was distraught, Gary was incensed. Then show time came and with it a dance number featuring Gary. As he looked into the audience, there was Zeke, who was a frequent attendee.

Gary spotted Zeke and—no mistake, no hiding his rage—he glared hatefully right at him. (Gary admitted, by the way, that his behavior was highly unprofessional. But I’d say, if it were a contest of unprofessionalism, Zeke was the winner, hands-down.)

The dance number ended and Gary exited the stage. Waiting for him were three men: two security guards and a menacing guy who was known to be a Mob hitman.

Hitman to Gary: “You’ve got ten minutes to pack your stuff and get out of here.”

Gary took this in. That meant ten minutes to go up to his dressing room, get out of costume and make-up, then gather and pack up all his belongings.

Gary to Hitman: “What if I can’t make it out in exactly ten minutes?”

Hitman: “I’ll break your fuckin’ head, that’s what.”

Ten minutes later, Gary was gone. Back at his apartment, he locked the door and drew the shades. Within days he had found work far from Vegas, and he didn’t feel safe returning until more than a year had passed.

The Taste of Blood at Eldorado

In a recent post, I wrote about getting the boot from the blackjack tables at the Eldorado in Reno. It shook me up at the time, but in retrospect perhaps they were treating me with kid gloves.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuOver at the bj21.com message boards, reader Harold Harvey warned me about going back to test the waters at the Eldorado, calling my attention to a recent news item: “The Reno Police are still investigating the death of a patron forcibly ejected by Eldorado security personnel a few months ago.“

“They are certainly not always as pleasant as they were to you,” wrote another bj21 denizen, LVBear584.

Here’s what they’re talking about.

On December 15, 2013, a 23-year-old guy named Victor Victoria-Acevedo was out drinking with a couple of buddies, when they approached the entrance of the BuBinga lounge at the Eldorado. They were carded by security at the door and turned away.

Things quickly turned ugly. Evidently, the security guards mistook Victoria-Acevedo for his brother, who’d been in an altercation with BuBinga security the week prior.

As they made their way to the casino exit, the trio was followed, then confronted by six security guards. An account of the incident in the Reno Gazette-Journal quoted one member of the trio, Carlos Robles, as saying “They were picking (Victoria-Acevedo) up and slamming him on the ground.”

The guards handcuffed Victoria-Acevedo and Robles, then led them to the security room. “He wasn’t acting right,” Robles told television channel KTVN. “He was mumbling. He was bleeding from the mouth.”

Reno police arrived on the scene, took a look at Victoria-Acevedo and thought maybe he was drunk or on drugs. They delivered him to a local hospital. A short time later he was dead.

Not exactly a publicity coup for the Eldorado, you might think. And you’d be right. But get this: Victor Victoria-Acevedo died in December. No charges have been filed against the Eldorado guards and the story has conveniently disappeared from news coverage.

The Reno Shuffle, part two

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You’re a man. And sometimes a man needs to smell. Really smell. And nothing else smells like Blackjack pour Hommes.

A happy idiot

One of the cleverest marketing tools employed by casinos is the “player’s card.” Boiled down to its basics: You spend a lot of time at the casino and in turn they toss you a bone in the form of a free or discounted meal or hotel room.

The casinos assume, of course, that the more time you spend on the casino floor, the more money you’ll lose. Everyone who’s a member of one of these “clubs” understands this, and understands that each of the so-called rewards extended to you is really just a ploy to lure you back so you’ll lose some more money. This doesn’t stop you from illogically feeling that you’re special or that you’re getting something that’s truly free.

My Eldorado card, in mothballs for 10 years
All that glitters…

Thus, I was idiotically pleased when I received an offer from the Eldorado in the summer of 2004 for a $19-per-night room. They liked me! They really liked me! Also the timing was perfect: Marital woes were taking a toll and I needed to get out of town in a big way. This would be a way for me to take some time for mental hygiene and to put my card-counting skills to the test.

So it was that on my first night in Reno, I found myself downstairs at the Eldorado casino sharing a blackjack table with five other players. Everyone was laughing, joking, having a swell time: They were winning. The star of the table was a serviceman on furlough from Iraq. “Affable” doesn’t begin to describe him. “Roaring drunk” is closer.

In spite of his inebriated state (or perhaps because of it), he was killing the house. An abysmal player, he was making one boneheaded decision after another (hitting his 12 versus the dealer’s up-card of 6, for example) but he simply could not lose. Everyone loved it. Cheering! High fives! Who didn’t like to see a member of our armed forces win? Hell, he deserved it, no matter that he was among the most clueless blackjack players on Planet Earth.

But I appreciated this guy in uniform for another, totally selfish reason: He was providing me with cover. All attention was on him and his growing pile of chips. Perfect!

Since the spotlight was on G.I. Joe, it seemed obvious that I’d be able to count cards and vary my bets however I wished without attracting attention. The casino be damned! I could do whatever I pleased. In Greek tragedy this kind of attitude is known as hubris; the hero displeases the gods which leads to his downfall. The gods in this case were the security cameras positioned in the ceiling above the gaming tables. And I displeased them because they caught my stupid blunder.

To understand this blunder, you’ll need a little background on card counting. (Pardon me while I get a bit technical for a couple of paragraphs.)

By FASTILY (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene of the crime

It’s good to be high

Card counting is based on a simple precept: When the deck contains a high proportion of aces and cards valued at 10, the odds shift away from the casino and towards you. So when the count is high, you raise your bet. The higher the count gets, the more you “spread” your bet.

Eldorado playing cardConversely, when the count is low—meaning that there are a lot of low-value cards still to be dealt—you lower your bet. There are a bunch of fine points and nuances that I’ll skip, but here’s something out of Card Counting 101: When there’s a “push”—a tie between the dealer and the player—you never ever alter your bet; you simply let it ride. Altering your bet in this situation signals that you know that the “count” has changed; it’s akin to wearing a dunce cap with the words “I AM A CARD COUNTER” emblazoned across the front.

I was about to put on the cap.

 

Exit stage left

In front of me were six red chips—thirty dollars. The table was littered with a bunch of face cards and aces, bringing the count into negative territory. I was holding two face cards and the dealer had two face cards: a push, so my chips remained in front of me. The G.I. had pulled down a blackjack and was busy giving his neighbors a high-five, making a big commotion, giving me the bright idea that I could pull back three of my chips, a move that I just knew would go unnoticed.

Ten minutes later, I was bored. Despite all the help I was getting from the U.S. armed forces, I was up a mere $34. Time to seek my fortune elsewhere. I scooped up my chips and turned to leave the table.

“Mr. Baldwin?”

It was a bland-faced guy in a beige suit, open collar.

Me: “Uh, yeah?”

Him: “We’d prefer it if you not play blackjack at our casino.”

I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “Excuse me?”

He said, “Feel free to enjoy any of our other games,” and made a gesture that in the movies says One day, son, all this will be yours.

Me: “What? Why?”

The word “nonplussed” was coined for this exact kind of situation.

Him: “We don’t like your style of play.” Now looking out across the casino, he spread his arms grandly, Moses parting the Red Sea. “But you are certainly free to enjoy any of our other fine games.”

Me: “Come on. Are you kidding? I’m only up thirty-four bucks.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We don’t appreciate your style of play.”

I wanted to say, What about that drunk soldier? What about HIS style of play? Do you see how much he’s got? Do something about him, why don’t you? But that would’ve been a betrayal. After all, I’d used him for cover and I’d blown it.

This brief episode was conducted so quietly, so politely that it attracted no attention whatsoever.

I wandered into the banks of slot machines. My mouth hung open. I was in shock (nonplussed, I tell you! nonplussed!) at this absurdity.

Let’s get this straight: They invited me to this hotel, more or less comp my room, and then—in effect—toss me out of their casino?

Then a worse thought occurred to me. As a professional courtesy, casinos were known to fax photos of card counters to other area casinos. And that would put me out of action for the remainder of my trip.

I had to find out.A king of clubs

Ten minutes later I’d crossed the Truckee River—where it’s reputed that the newly divorced would toss their wedding rings—and was playing blackjack at the Siena. I did not slouch or turn away from the security cameras. I wanted to know where I stood; I wanted them to get a good look at me. An hour later it was apparent that I had not made it onto the Most Wanted List. It was also apparent that card counting does not constitute the road to riches.

I skulked back to my hotel room $200 poorer.

So what did we learn today? Well, that card counting is not a foolproof recipe for success. And that military personnel may be useful in providing cover on the battlefield, but at the blackjack table? Not so much.

 

 

 

Jackpot summer, part three

Jackpot is the Mickey Rooney of Nevada gambling: pint-sized, but not lacking a certain pizzazz.

He's the Jackpot, Nevada, of movie stars.
The one and only Mickey Rooney!

Contrary to common knowledge, Rooney never proclaimed, “Let’s put on a show,” but those might’ve been the very words uttered by Idaho slot operator “Cactus Pete” Piersanti when he cofounded Jackpot in the mid-1950s. It was around that time that Idaho banned gambling, inspiring Pete to take his slot machines and plunk them a few yards beyond the Idaho border. So, unlike Las Vegas (and most cities, towns and villages on planet Earth), Jackpot was created for the sole purpose of gambling.

Ol’ Cactus Pete soon put up a hotel casino, cryptically named Cactus Petes (sic—there’s no apostrophe). Prior to reserving my room, I’d done a little research and learned that AAA had bestowed a four-diamond rating upon this establishment. The room rates were dirt-cheap and Jackpot boasted a preponderance of single-deck blackjack tables. Add to this the fact that Current Blackjack News told me that playing conditions were close to perfect, and this seemed like the perfect stopover for a guy desperate to forget that his marriage was cratering.

A field of ploppies

It’s Labor Day and I arrive at 6pm. The casino is nearly deserted, which is good news: Card counters prefer playing with as few other players as possible. In fact, one-on-one blackjack sessions are highly favored by “advantage players” (a euphemism for card counters).

Should I auction this on e-Bay?
Yes, Virginia. There is a Cactus Pete.

The few players in attendance, however, manage to find me. All of them are what we call “ploppies,” mediocre to poor players who screw with your rhythm, who bounce in and out of games, who make it difficult for this particular player to gain any traction. This isn’t any fun, so after losing a hundred dollars, I cross the street to one of the other two casinos in town, the Horseshu, which is run by the same company that owns Cactus Petes.

This place is small enough that it ought to be called the Shubox. It, too, is nearly empty, with just one other player trying his luck at blackjack, which like Petes is of the single-deck variety.

I sit down at a table—I’m the sole player—and things click right into place. Everything’s working: splits, double-downs, blackjacks. It’s easy to keep the running count of a single deck, so adjusting my bets is easy too: I flat bet when the count is low, raise it when the count’s high. Pretty soon I’m ahead over $200, when a floor supervisor appears behind the dealer.

“Hey,” he says by way of greeting.

Me: “Hello.”

Him: “Say, what’s your name?”

Uh-oh.

This is not the trickiest question in the universe, but uh-oh. My sense of paranoia, incubated during 12 years of Catholic school then finely tuned by two decades in the world of show business, kicks in. Big time.

My name. He wants to know my name. What answer do I provide? Is this a prelude to  being shown the door?

Suavely I reply, “Huh?”

This had happened to me once before, at the Palace Casino in La Center, Washington, before my card-counting days. I’d been on a tear, a ridiculous run of good luck during which I’d been progressive betting—that is, raising my bet when I won a hand, cutting back when I lost—and I could do nothing wrong. It was a full table and the other players were gasping and cheering at my invulnerability: catching a five when I hit 16; getting blackjacks after I split aces; drawing perfect 21s on my double-downs. It was a thing of beauty and I was up over $600—a fair amount when betting in units of five dollars—when, while the shoe was being shuffled, a woman appeared at my elbow: the supervisor.

“Wow. You’re doing pretty well. What’s your name?”

Crap, I thought. Why does she want my name? A pick-up line? Idle curiosity? Don’t think so. This cannot be good.

I went through a list of aliases in my brain. Claude? Mel? Diane? No wait, that’s a girl’s name.

She continued to look at me expectantly. I imagined her train of thought: This is not a trick question. Does this bozo have amnesia or is he simply retarded?

“Your name…”

Oh, what the hell. I blurted out the truth, threw her a bone.

“Doug.”

It hung there a split second. But she wanted more. She prompted me.

“Doug…”

Now the other players were looking at me. What is wrong with this man?

I gave up. “Baldwin,” I said. “Baldwin-Baldwin. Baldwin”

In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate.

The supervisor gave me a sweet, gentle look that said Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Back to the Horseshu, where the supervisor is patiently awaiting me to deliver this precious piece of information.

(A side note: In the casino world, this is the mildest form of “heat,” so mild that it might not even qualify as heat. Simply a way of the casino saying, “We are aware of your existence. So just watch yourself.”)

A few seconds tick by. My thoughts go back to the La Center incident, the futility of pleading deafness or memory loss. I’d learned my lesson, so I reply.

“Duhbalwin.”

“What’s that?”

I give him a look that says Who’s playing stupid now? I’m sticking with my response, going all-in, adding a degree of emphasis.

“DUH-Bal-win!”

In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate. Did I mention that?

From the November 2013 issue of Current Blackjack News
Say it ain’t so: No more blackjack at the Horseshu.

The Dalles blues

The next morning I’m on my way. It’s the final leg of this journey, an 11-hour drive to Portland if I stopped to stretch my legs and get a quick bite. And I knew the perfect place.

Pendleton, Oregon, is known for three things: plaid shirts, a rodeo and the Wildhorse Casino. The rodeo is a week away. I don’t need any plaid shirts. So, oh well, I guess I’ll have to stop at the casino.

First impression: It’s an institutional joint, like the dining room at a low-security prison. Cold, kind of stark.

I sit down and play for ninety minutes. No single-deck games here, but the six-deck shoes are kind to me and I do OK.

Darkness is nearing as I hop back onto I-84. In about four hours I’ll be back in Portland. Although I’ve emerged from the casino $75 richer, the ninety minutes there has proved costly. Just east of The Dalles, there’s a roadblock and a reader board telling me I must exit. There’s a forest fire ahead and it’s jumping the interstate, rendering travel perilous.

So here I am pulling into downtown The Dalles (the “The” has been Krazy Glued to “Dalles” for reasons unknown) at nine-thirty on a smoky Tuesday night, utterly famished. The clerk at the Best Western tells me that the best restaurant in town is Baldwin’s Saloon. Hey, that’s got to be a positive omen, right? I arrive there at 10pm on the dot, just in time to see a waiter flip over the sign on the door: Closed.

Nothing is open. The streets are rolled up.  I have a dinner of Coke and chips piping fresh from the Best Western’s vending machines.

There’s a literary term known as “pathetic fallacy” in which writers ascribe human emotions to elements of nature. I’ve travelled 2900 miles and now I’m stuck here in The Dalles, an hour and a half from home, a raging fire impeding my journey. Thwarted in my travels, stranded in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult to see it not as a fire, but as a symbol of what lay ahead in the months to come.

 

Jackpot summer, part two

This is the deal.

You’re in Philadelphia.

You’re down-and-out because you’ve just dropped your daughter at a college among strangers in a strange city that’s 3,000 miles from home. There were some teary moments as you said farewell.

She grows smaller in your rearview mirror and it’s time to head back home to Portland, Oregon, in your black RAV-4.

But there’s a sad realization: Once you’ve traversed those 3,000 miles, you’re going to have to face domestic chaos. There’s a marital meltdown awaiting you and you’re going to have to deal with it as soon as you pull into your driveway. So with a heavy heart (and a cliché to express it) you suck it up, point your SUV west, pull out onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and –

Whoa! Wait a minute. What’s the big hurry, mister? Here’s an idea: Don’t rush home. Head for Jackpot, Nevada!

The magical world of bladders

Traveling west from Pennsylvania to the west coast, you can divide the landscape roughly into thirds: rolling hills, then a pancake flatness that extends from Ohio to Nebraska, and finally a breathtaking dose of western grandeur.

Part two—the pancake flatness—is the hard part. To get relief from the tedium, you’d love to pull off the road, but to where? That silo in the distance? Perhaps a quick side-trip to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart?1 And let’s not forget about downtown Altoona.

Thankfully there’s an antidote in Council Bluffs, Iowa; this is where the Harrah’s empire (now the Caesars empire) planted a riverboat casino.

Ever been to a riverboat casino? Notice please that I said not on but to. Being on a riverboat casino conjures up images floating down the Mighty Mississip, consorting with rogues and rascals, and taking an occasional break to smoke a cigar on the deck while the bartender prepares your Mint Julep.

All aboard!
Actual riverboats that actually move through the water.

Being to a riverboat casino is a different story. It’s a gambling concept that, in my experience, manages to integrate the worst parts of boating: tacky carpeting, the oppressive claustrophobia of a below-deck, and being stuck in dry dock. One good thing: There’s not much danger of losing your balance and falling overboard because, as the Byrd’s sang, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why? Because many of these casinos are riverboats in name only.

In a state like Iowa, for example, regulations formerly mandated that casinos be constructed over water. The state’s initial impulse—to protect citizens from the evils of gambling by segregating casinos and making them more onerous to build—was a noble one. In actuality, it seems to have spurred casino owners into new levels of creativity. Look at the Riverside Casino in Riverside, Iowa: It’s land-based, but to satisfy local regulations it was built atop 29 bladders filled with water.

Talk about a  recipe for success: Fill the bladders with water… and they will come.

He: “Honey I’m off to the Riverside.”

She: “Now don’t you go throwing away all your hard-earned money at that bladder-boat!”

Back to Council Bluffs and Harrah’s. It’s a riverboat casino but I cannot say if bladders were or were not involved. I can say it was claustrophobic. The word “shoebox” comes to mind. That might have been because I was exhausted: I began the day at a Comfort Inn in Toledo, Ohio, and had been on the road for 12 pancake-flat hours.

I was too tired even to count cards, which was a big part of this Blackjack Autumn-inspired excursion. However, in the odd way that gambling can defy your expectations, this bleary-eyed boy in the space of 90 minutes won $150 at blackjack, then another $157 at a lucky video poker machine. It was money that unfortunately would not stay in my pocket for very long.

Ghost-gamblers in the sun

So.

Friday night in Omaha, which borders Council Bluffs.

Saturday night in Rawlins, Wyoming, which like most of Wyoming borders nothing.

And then Labor Day 2003: Onward to Jackpot!

The direct route to Jackpot entailed taking I-80 west to Salt Lake City, then merging onto I-84, which would take me to Twin Falls, Idaho. From there it was just a chip’s throw to Jackpot.

Given my mode of willful avoidance, this was not the route I intended to take.

Instead I was going to stay on I-80, which would lead me around the Great (and spooky) Salt Lake and right into West Wendover, NV, or just plain Wendover, as everybody calls it, because hell, in this place who needs the adjective “west”? It’s redundant because you’re in the middle of the desert and there are animal skulls by the side of the highway and tumbleweeds blowing across the highway and the ghost of Joseph Smith windsurfing across the Great Salt Lake. It’s flat flat flat, not a creature is stirring not even a vulture, until there, in the distance, is Wendover.

Shiny. Impressive. From a distance Wendover looks like Oz, but without the flying monkeys.

Up closer, it’s a bit more prosaic. In Blackjack Autumn, Barry Meadow writes that towns like Wendover and Jackpot exist “solely because people like to gamble.” And how!

The one and only Wendover Will!
The Eiffel Tower of Wendover. (Photo credit: “Wendover Will” by Pitamakan is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Wendover consists largely of hotels and casinos, so although the town is hosting thousands of guests, its streets are nearly empty, a ghost town teeming with tourists huddled inside windowless, clock-less rooms—ghost-gamblers invisible in the Wendover sun.

I join them.

Wendover’s blackjack tables are a player’s dream, single-deck games with rules that shave the house edge to almost zero. And there’s not just one or two of these primo tables: They’re everywhere. For a card counter to lose under these conditions would be close to impossible. But that doesn’t stop me. Apparently I’ve entered the Bizarro Blackjack Universe, because I do lose. Quickly. In fact, I say farewell to most of my ill-gotten gains from the riverboat in the space of an hour.

It’s no longer Wendover to me. It’s Bendover.

Clichés abound in gambling, and it’s time to comfort myself with an oldie but goodie. To wit: I’m still up fifty bucks! And hey, that’s better than losing!

Time to hit the road. Jackpot is just 125 miles away and I’ll be there well before dark.

 

  1. In addition to the RV Hall of Fame, Elkhart is also famous as the breeding ground of Evil George Taylor. It is here where he learned to gamble at his father’s knee, and where he later drove both parents into financial ruin during a particularly brutal session of penny ante poker.