Jackpot is the Mickey Rooney of Nevada gambling: pint-sized, but not lacking a certain pizzazz.
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).
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.
Him: “Say, what’s your name?”
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?
Oh, what the hell. I blurted out the truth, threw her a bone.
It hung there a split second. But she wanted more. She prompted me.
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.
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.
In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate. Did I mention that?
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.