By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I’ve got one more eight to play, and it better be good. I get an ace of spades from Ziggy. An ace counts 11 or one, so I’ve got a nine or what’s called a soft 19 — a high hand. But Ziggy hesitates before turning over his hole card and playing his hand. He lightly and expectantly raps the back of his knuckles on the table next to my hand, his palm half-open. He knows what’s coming. It’s a move he taught me months before in some other late-night session.
What the fuck, I figure. In for nine hundred, in for a grand, what’s the difference? Another $100 in. A high-wire double down on a soft 19, counting it as nine, betting I’ll draw a 10 bringing me back to a strong 19 and that Ziggy’ll bust out with his stiff six up. But making this bet means tossing out a relatively good 19.
Ziggy throws me my last card, a king. So now, with a thousand dollars invested in the game, with $600 on the line and a measly $50 in reserve, at least I’ve got one decent hand — the 19. And two weak ones.
Ziggy flips over his hole card, and instead of the ten I want to see, the ten that would give him a 16 and push him to the edge of busting, he instead shows a five. Five-six, a deadly 11. Deadly for me. I can as much as hear the 50-foot wave above my head about to pound me into the rocks. Everything in me says I’m about to walk away a thousand dollars poorer. Sitting with 11, Ziggy’s due to pull a face card next and wipe out all three of my $200 hands with a 21. He pauses and gives me a sympathetic glance. Not only is Ziggy a friend, but like most dealers he’s pained by my coming loss. Losing players rarely toke, or tip, a dealer.
But when Ziggy plucks his next card out of the shoe, he pulls out an ace of spades, giving him 12. Two seconds of reprieve before he hits again and banks my chips. But out comes the queen I expected on the previous card. Ziggy busts out, breaking with a 22. He neatly stacks up two black $100 chips in front of each of my three hands. Between my bet, my winnings and my two quarter chips in reserve, I’ve got $1,250 on the table. I’ve gone from losing $450 to winning $250 in about 90 seconds with a thousand-dollar risk in between. The wave’s definitely running my way. The tightness in my chest has subsided, the flutter in my stomach is more anticipation than dread. I keep on playing.
“For some people,” says Bo Bernhard, barely 30 and the rising wunderkind of gambling research, “something like the Fourth of July is going off in their brains as they gamble.”
Understanding gambling, gamblers, and especially problem gamblers, drives Bernhard’s work. And it’s a tough field because, as he and most of his colleagues agree, just as in the field of sex research, people often just don’t tell the truth about their relationship to gambling. “When you poll people on the phone about gambling, can you trust anything they say? No population offers more research challenges than gamblers. And I admit, studying gambling may sound goofy,” says Bernhard, who has honors undergrad degrees in psych and sociology from Harvard and a Ph.D. in the latter, “but if you’re not studying this, then you are not studying what moves the masses.”
Whatever the ambiguities of just who gambles how much and when, some certainties nevertheless arise from modern research. “It’s trendy to say gambling is sweeping America,” Bernhard says. “But mostly it’s machine gambling that’s sweeping America. And these machines are a convergence of so many factors: the logic of capitalism, technology, and increasing comfort with machines.”
For most problem gamblers, the machines turn their habit into a solitary activity.
“Today’s gambling environment is much less social than yesteryear’s gambling halls and saloons,” says Bernhard. “What we’re really seeing is what I call a ‘deforestation’ effect — the machines quickly overtaking and crowding out everything else on the floor.”
I breathe a little easier when Bernhard discusses the machines. My passion is blackjack. And for me, playing blackjack isn’t at all just about the money — it’s social. There are great stories that percolate around the table. And a dealer like Ziggy, with his warmth and wit, his ongoing sly narration about everything happening around us in the casino, his retelling of Vegas lore, makes it worth it to me to now and then tough out the turbulent swings of a blackjack game. Video poker, the crack cocaine of modern gambling, can offer attractive odds like blackjack, but sitting alone for hours in front of a video screen and pushing buttons every eight seconds hardly sounds like fun. I want to have a good time playing. At least that’s what I tell myself.
Bernhard, who was born and raised in Vegas, takes extra caution in underlining that gambling, even frequent gambling, doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of problem or addiction. Some people can gamble every week or every day and not have a problem. Others may hit the casinos only once a month but still be captive to a pathology. But for those who are hooked, the rise of the machines has radically altered the profile of the gambling addict.