Aces and Addicts 

Modern gambling in America and the rise of the machines

Thursday, Mar 18 2004
Photos by Anne Fishbein

Las Vegas—It’s coming up on 3 in the morning in the dark heart of the Mandalay Bay Casino, and every blackjack hand landing in front of me is stiff as a board. Every hit I take pulls out a hand-busting high card; meanwhile, Ziggy, the chatty dealer, nonchalantly flips over one pair of face cards after another, ruthlessly cutting down my pile of green-and-red $25 “quarter” chips — or checks, as they’re called on the casino floor.

As in every casino on the Strip, the Mandalay Bay is designed to imprison me: its labyrinthine no-exit layout; the absence of any clocks, phones or windows; the cashier cage inconspicuously hidden in the back; the ubiquitous ATMs that dispense nothing smaller than c-note denominations; an endless flow of free drinks (I’m on my fourth Wild Turkey); the loud clanging of coins in acoustically hyped metal trays; the disorienting flashing and flickering lights of the slots and video machines; the brightly colored chips themselves — like play money, so much less painful to push forward than the $25 or $100 in cash each one costs. The room temperature is perfectly calibrated to a womblike comfort level. And the air-exchange cycle is so accelerated that there’s enough fresh gushing oxygen in this hangar-size room to burnish the cheeks of an entire army’s worth of zombies to a rosy baby-pink.

Truth is, however, I’m here completely voluntarily. At least technically. I’m actually in the worst position a player can find himself: what’s known as chasin’ the money. Nervously, and somewhat recklessly, getting deeper and deeper into the game, I’m spending more and more, trying not so much to get ahead but to at least win back what’s already been lost.

Son of a gambling man:
Ziggy deals ’em as they come.

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I’m not quite sure how I got into this fix — though I’ve been here enough times before. I was alone at the table, yakking it up with Ziggy, as I often do, savoring the tales of his late gambler father who ran the Desert Inn’s original bar, when what was a relaxed, no-stress, give-and-take round of near-even play somehow took an ugly and rather precipitous dip.

That’s being polite. More accurately, I’m in free fall. Blackjack is a game that can simmer literally for hours at a break-even pace. Mathematically, of every 100 hands, the dealer should win 48, you should win 44, and you should tie eight times. That’s, of course, the theoretical odds, and it’s sometimes more or less the concrete case. But, without warning, the game might start to swing way up or way down, like the needle of a Caltech seismograph in the midst of a 7.0 earthquake.

And right now the ground underneath me is rocking and rolling, and I’m way down. Down, all of a sudden, in just the last 10 minutes. In much deeper than I want to be for what was intended as friendly play with one of my favorite Vegas dealers. I bought $500 in chips an hour ago, and now my last surviving two tokens — $50 in total — are sitting on the betting line.

Ziggy pitches me an 11, a seven-four combination. The one card he’s showing is a red jack — a 10. Apart from an ace, it’s the best card a dealer can have as his up card. If his hole card, the card he has face-down on the table, is a seven, eight, nine, ten, jack, queen or king, he’ll have a made hand and he won’t bust out. His 10-up means I have no choice but to keep hitting, to get at least 17, hopefully higher, without going over 21. Ziggy’s red jack is a formidable, intimidating up card.

But my 11 is marginally better. Almost a third of the cards in the deck, theoretically, have a value of 10 — meaning I’ve got at least almost a 1-in-3 shot that when I hit, when I draw a card, I’ll end up with an unbeatable hand of 21.

This is the moment to double down, to double my bet and take one card only. But the risk is high and so is the bet. Is this really how I want to spend a hundred bucks? My slight advantage is only one more mathematical construct and not even remotely a certainty. My mind begins to race. My last two checks are in play on the betting line — so to double down I’ll have to break another $100 bill, thanks to those doctored ATMs. Half of the hundred will go right on the betting line to double the bet. If I lose, I know for certain I’ll play the other two chips left over, and then I could be in for $600. Yet, if I don’t double and I win, I’ll regret my cowardice for hours to come. I think of the story Ziggy tells of the little old lady who last year walked into the Mandalay and won a mind-scrambling 28 hands in a row, but stubbornly refused to ever raise her bet beyond the $5 minimum, or to ever let any portion of her winnings ride, and so walked away with only $140 to show for what must have been a record streak. I won’t make that mistake. And what if I don’t double and I still lose? Will I walk away, accept defeat and go to bed? Or will I buy in for more chips, hoping that my losing cycle is about to end?

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