Jackpot summer, part one

Life-changing events come in two flavors:

#1. The Unexpected. You know, it’s the inside fastball that whacks you in the cheekbone before you can duck.

#2. The Anticipated. You’re not happy, but you’ve got a seat in the dugout and you can study the dangerous southpaw as he makes his long, slow walk from the bullpen in deep right field.

If you’re lucky, the seismic shifts in your life fall into category number two, like mine did in the summer of 2003, on August 29 to be exact.

Next stop, Eden!

I knew well in advance that I was going to drive my black RAV-4 three thousand miles across the country to the University of Pennsylvania with my 18-year-old daughter. This is the part I knew I was going to like.

I’d prevailed upon AAA to issue me a TripTik (remember TripTiks?) that would guide us mile by mile. So yes, we would be spending one night at the Amber Inn in Eden, Idaho. Yes, we’d have stopovers Cheyenne, Des Moines and Strongsville, Ohio, alternating nights between places rated two diamonds (welcome to the Bates Motel) and three diamonds (a nice step up from Motel 6) by the esteemed travelers of AAA. And yes, it would take us precisely five days to reach the City of Brotherly Love.

I knew I was going move Julia into a dorm room, then leave her among strangers in a strange city, and I knew that saying goodbye was not going to be easy. But I did not know that it was going to affect me quite the way it did: emotionally, sure, but also physically.

Thirty miles outside of Philly, sad and shaken, the image of her growing smaller in my rear-view mirror still fresh in my mind, I pulled into a rest stop on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Deep breaths, a few sips of water. I needed to pull myself together because I was going to retrace the five-day route that had brought us here. But not only would I have to do it alone; as a special bonus, at the end of those five days of driving, I was going to have to grapple with the sad state of my marriage. It was on the verge of implosion.

Lucky for me I had a knapsack full of printed material guaranteed to distract me:

• A Rand-McNally road atlas of North America;

• AAA travel guides for every state I would be driving through;

• A recent copy of Current Blackjack News, which listed every blackjack-playing casino in the US;

• And a copy of Blackjack Autumn, which held the blueprint for at least several days worth of distractions.

I pulled back onto the road and pointed the car west towards Jackpot, NV.

Jackpot, Nevada -- a chip toss away from Twin Falls, Idaho.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Jackpot.

The Limits of Obsession

No matter how obsessed you are, there are limits. You can’t stand in a stream waving a fly rod or park yourself at a poker table seven days a week. Well maybe you can, but I can’t. That’s why God created books: So you can experience vicariously what may be too expensive or time-consuming to experience on the river or in the casino.

While there are a profusion of high-quality narrative books aimed at certain hobbyists—travelers, for instance, and sports fans—most gambling books fall into the instructional category.

Travel fanatics get Kerouac’s On The Road and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.

Sports fans get Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four and Laura Hillenbrand’s stirring Seabiscuit.

Blackjack players get Blackjack for Blood, Blackbelt in Blackjack, and Blackjack Attack. I’m guessing that these titles offer valuable advice for BJ players. I’m also guessing that they lack the literary heft of A River Runs Through It or The Innocents Abroad.

As a source for literary endeavors, blackjack is the Mohave Desert. You’d have to go way back to 2003 to find a book that made any kind of splash. That would be Bringing Down The House by Ben Mezrich, a “nonfiction” account of the escapades of a team of card-counting M.I.T. students. The book is an enjoyable read, although Mezrich took some well-publicized hits in the press for—shall we say—embellishing the aforementioned escapades. The Kevin Spacey movie 21 was based on Bringing Down The House and took the already fictionalized nonfiction story one more giant step into the realm of fantasy.

The closest thing in the genre of recent blackjack nonfiction that approaches the literary is Barry Meadow’s Blackjack Autumn: A True Tale of Life, Death, and Splitting Tens in Winnemucca. Part memoir, part travelogue, part history and part instruction, the book is based on a simple premise: Over the course of the autumn of 1998, the author was going to play blackjack in every casino in the state of Nevada. He ended up putting about 4,000 miles on his odometer as he traveled to nearly 200 casinos.

Back in 2003, just the idea had me drooling. That’s what obsession can do to a guy.

The first time I read the book, I was struck by Meadow’s sardonic humor (he writes that the Reno Philharmonic is “an odd juxtaposition of two proper nouns”) and his skills of observation (“Partial truth is about the best you can expect in Nevada”). In re-reading it, which I’m doing now, I realize just how much I learned from this book, how it informed the way I play the game and how it influenced me to begin counting cards.

But ten years ago, the book provided me a bit of hope, inspiration for a way that I might both mend myself and prepare myself for the traumas that lay ahead. As Meadow writes, “One thing about the casino world—real life never gets to intrude upon it.”

So here’s the deal: It was about 2400 miles from Philly to Jackpot, and there were a few casinos along the way.





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