That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that on some level, to some degree, I do know what those 16 people in that room were feeling all those times they couldn’t stand up from the machine and walk away. I’ve never been inside the psychological cells and cages in which problem gamblers are imprisoned. But I’ve been close enough to those cold iron bars that tonight, in the black solitude of the PGC parking lot, they send an icy shudder through my heart.
Back at the Mandalay Bay, after I won that triple hand of split-up eights, I stayed on at the table, even after Ziggy went off shift and was replaced by a young Korean woman I’d never seen before. Unsmiling and silent, she whipped the cards onto the table at a blurring, lightning pace. There were no Ziggy-like stories or even exchanged glances of sympathy or understanding. This wasn’t a good time. Still, I played every hand meticulously, never straying from basic strategy, never playing hunches, guesses or feelings. It was a good run. My double downs were making it, the dealer busted regularly, and I got a generous helping of winning 19s and 20s. Three hours later, I rose from the table $1,475 richer, drained and exhausted. That night I felt like a genius. But in my gut, I knew that the experts were right. It was mostly pure dumb luck. A month later, I surrendered back just about all of my winnings.
Excerpted from Marc Cooper’s just-published book,The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas (Nation Books). Cooper will read and sign The Last Honest Place Thursday, March 18, at an L.A. Weekly–sponsored party at Boardner’s of Hollywood, 1652 N. Cherokee Ave., 6:30–9:30 p.m., and at Book Soup, 8819 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Thursday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m.