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Aces and Addicts

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.


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?

 

A recent poll by Nevada’s largest marketing-research group shows that only 17 percent of people coming to Vegas say they plan to gamble. That compares with 38 percent who say they are coming primarily for sightseeing. But what sights? Evidently, the casinos. The same poll says this same average tourist will visit eight casinos while here. And in the end, say Vegas tourist authorities, regardless of what they tell their spouses, children, office mates, or marketing pollsters for that matter, a whopping 87 percent of all tourists will spend an average of four hours a day gambling. I’m one of them. Though tonight, I wish I weren’t. Or do I?

The decision I now have to make is the juice of gambling. It’s the buzz. And this one’s a no-brainer. The double-down bet is the smart bet, the right bet, the strategic bet. Out of my pocket comes another Ben Frank. Ziggy flattens it out on the table for the benefit of the all-seeing Eye-in-the-Sky cameras. Then he holds it up briefly to the light and runs his fingers expertly over the bill’s texture. “Change — one hundred,” he calls out to the pit boss, a pudgy, balding middle-aged man with drooping eyelids who, no doubt, is wishing everyone here, including me, would lose as quickly as possible and let him go home maybe a half-hour early.

With his left hand, Ziggy stuffs the $100 bill into the slotted mouth of the table and shoves it all the way down with his plastic plunger. With his right, he scoops four quarter chips from his tray, loudly clacks two of them down next to my upturned seven-four, doubling my bet, and seamlessly slides the remaining two chips toward me. Ziggy straightens his back, which is always tormenting him, wishes me good luck, and with sharp-angled military precision pulls a single card from the dealer’s shoe, snapping it face-down and perfectly perpendicular to my other two cards. In an effortlessly swift move he mastered long ago over his 27 years of dealing experience, he uses his upturned card, the red jack, to shovel over his down card. Another red jack who seems to be smirking. Shit. Ziggy’s got a pair of jakes, a daunting 20.

My stomach knots as he reaches to turn over the one card I’ve bought for an additional 50 bucks. In this game players can’t touch the cards. They can only slap money onto the table. If my double-down card that Ziggy turns over is a nine, we push, tying each other with a 20. Any other card, except a face card or a ten, and I’m down yet another hundred in the middle of the night.

The card Ziggy flips for me is a hefty black ten, a hand-winning 21 in total. I’ve survived another hand.

Ziggy pays me off with a single, black $100 chip, an unspoken invitation to play it. I accept, pulling back my four quarter checks and leaving the black one hundred on the betting line. Ziggy deals me out two eights — a 16. He’s showing a six up. It’s the dealer’s worst card, one he breaks on more than half the time.

My only option is to split the eights into two hands, at twice the price. You always split eights, even against a dealer’s ace. With a dealer showing a stiff six, double eights can be a real moneymaker. I split them into two hands, tossing down the additional four quarter chips I just pulled back next to one of the eights. Now I’ve got $200 in play, but I’m in excellent position. Excellent if I win. Meanwhile, this friendly $25-a-hand game has escalated into a $200-a-shot stomach twister.



Video poker: Fun game with
attractive odds or the crack
cocaine of gambling?


 

Ziggy flips another card face-up on my first eight. A three, totaling 11, and he smiles, knowing that only a fool wouldn’t double down again. I cash another hundred, and this time the whole amount reinforces the bet on that single hand — $200. I ask Ziggy to toss me the one extra card face-up. I get a six, giving me a 17.

“It’s what we call a mother-in-law,” quips Ziggy. “You’d like to get rid of it, but you can’t.” Now I’m in for $700.

Seventeen on the first hand is not very reassuring. I’ve got to play the other hand and hope for something better. Call it the best or the worst of luck, but Ziggy fishes me out yet another eight. He doesn’t even wait for my nod as he moves the new card to the side of its twin, knowing full well I’m going to split those eights as well for yet another hundred bucks.

The card Ziggy throws on top of my second eight is a two. We both break out laughing. Scratch that idea about a 7.0 earthquake. This is a 9-plus on the Richter scale. With the cards breaking this way, we both know that I’m trapped in the middle of a tsunami-size wave of luck — we just don’t know if I’m surfing the crest of it or if I’m about to get sucked away in its merciless tube. My ten against his six is another double down. When I buy that black chip to match what’s already there, I’m in for $900 this evening. The bet made, my next card is a five! A fucking 15, a hand that beats nothing. It makes my mother-in-law 17 hand look like Cameron Diaz.

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.

“The result is often a very lifelike, beepin’ and boppin’ machine sitting in front of a very zombielike, machinelike player,” Bernhard says. “On the one hand, gambling has become the great American pastime. Like it or not, this is now what we do in our leisure time and it’s here to stay. But it can also be a sickness. And yet, addicts are still more stigmatized than understood.”

Through its publicly funded university system, Nevada teaches just about every imaginable facet of gambling and casino management, including for-credit field trips to casinos. But, to the ongoing dismay of many, the state of Nevada doesn’t spend as much as a dollar on treating problem gamblers. It doesn’t fund a single treatment program or service. For the second year in a row, the Nevada Legislature refused to even consider a proposed bill, one lobbied for by Bernhard and others, which would have allocated at least a paltry $250,000 to gambling-addiction treatment. But, as they say, tough luck, buddy.

Bernhard tells me that as part of his Harvard research he began meeting some years ago with Dr. Robert Hunter, the dean of problem-gambling treatment in Vegas. “My first instinct was to want to go back to Vegas and prove from my politically liberal perspective that problem gambling was, in fact, a myth. That it was one more invention of the right, one more moralistic attack on popular culture.”

“But then,” he says reflectively, then pauses. “But then, Dr. Hunter took me into that room one Thursday night, and that was it. I never stopped coming back. I saw many things in that room. I saw many truths in that room. I saw a friend in that room. I saw my work in that room. I went into that room and couldn’t ever leave again.”

 

“That room” he is talking about is a bare-walled, thinly carpeted, air-conditioned rectangle with about 20 chairs pushed against its four walls. Shuttered windows on one side of the room open onto a parking strip. This is the meeting room of the Problem Gambling Center, the PGC, the one and only nonprofit gambling-addiction treatment center in the entire state of Nevada, and Bernhard has brought me here because he knows that I will be as moved as he was the first time he’d been let in.

 

An otherwise unremarkable collection of small, fluorescent-lit offices, in a nondescript Vegas office park, the PGC gets about 90 percent of its anemic $170,000 annual budget from casino-industry contributions. The state contributes nothing. But with intensive peer counseling, classic behavioral therapy, focused self-evaluation and close cooperation with Gamblers Anonymous — which has a meeting somewhere in Las Vegas just about every hour of the week — the PGC treats around 140 clients a year and claims about a 70 percent rate of success.

Thursday nights are group self-evaluation meetings — intimate, soul-baring sessions into which outsiders are rarely allowed. Dr. Hunter, tall and fair-complexioned, wearing blue jeans, scuffed work boots and a faded polo shirt, emits the kind of crackling nervous energy that is, doubtless, a minimum prerequisite for keeping such a beleaguered and shoestring operation still humming.

Twenty or so years ago, both Bernhard and Dr. Hunter tell me, the profile of the average problem gambler was a cigar-chomping action gambler, a card player or dice shooter, relentlessly searching for the big wins and jackpots. “That’s a disappearing breed,” says Dr. Hunter, as we chat before the group session gets under way. “Today the problem gambler is likely to be a 34-year-old woman with two kids and two years of college. And a video-game addiction. We’re not seeing many of the dinosaur action gamblers who play to feel a rush. We’re seeing people who say they want to feel numb, want to blank out, want to lose track. It’s hard to imagine what an intoxicant it can be for them.”

As tonight’s group begins to drift in, Hunter introduces me to one of his clients who has just arrived. An attractive, highly educated professional in her late 30s, Sue is elegantly dressed, right down to her crocodile shoes. Diamonds and gold sparkle from her ears and fingers. Her blond hair is expertly and expensively coifed. Her Southern drawl is cultured and mannered. Her temper is upbeat and cheerful.

She’s been off the machines now for 22 days, and it is with surprising humor that Sue tells me of her descent into addiction:

“I moved here about five years ago when I got married. Before that I never played poker, I had no interest in gambling, nothing. One day, in 1998, just to fool around, I sat down and hit four aces on a video-poker machine and won $500. That was it? What do I get out of it? Oh, man, I get to disappear, it allows me to escape my world. It stimulates my mind. I become hyperfocused on patterns I think I’m detecting. It began to be a problem a year after I started playing. From my own professional work, I already knew a lot about addiction. I had lost maybe $100 a day playing blackjack for a couple of weeks. So I figured, how much could I possibly lose just playing video poker for quarters? Well, the answer turned out to be $200 to $800 a day — sometimes $1,800. In the middle of all this, I inherited some money, so I moved up from quarter machines to dollar machines. Toward the end, I was playing six or seven hours a day every Friday and every weekend. I knew it was getting worse when I felt all I wanted was more and more playing time. The first couple of times I hit a $4,000 jackpot, I’d go out and shop at Neiman-Marcus or buy a piece of art. But I knew I was in trouble when I’d hit one of those jackpots and say to myself, ‘Oh, good. Now I’ve got enough money to gamble through the weekend.’ I quit, really, because I felt I was going to kill myself. I’ve got 17 years of recovering from alcohol, and not once did drinking make me think about suicide, nor did it create the financial and marital chaos that gambling has. To be honest, I had to quit because I just couldn’t stand myself any longer. I figure in the last three years I lost more than $200,000 in the machines.”

Sue is among the 10 women and six men who finally assemble for the group session. I sit next to Dr. Hunter at one end. Bo Bernhard sits facing us. In between are 16 very ordinary, and seemingly very shell-shocked and visibly sad, people — mostly middle-aged, but a few elderly and a few who are younger. I don’t know their ages or their real names or their jobs. But by their looks, these are predominantly working-class and middle-class, average-looking Americans. Dr. Hunter kicks off the session, asking all to briefly introduce themselves and say something brief about how they feel, saying, “Gamblers are masterful actors, adept at masking what they are really feeling.”

 

Those who have been in treatment longer — four, five weeks — sound the steadiest. The newbies seem tortured. “I’m Anthony,” says one shaky, 40-ish man in a white shirt and tie. “I feel kind of worried about my bills coming in, about how I’m going to get through all this. My last bet was 37 days ago.”

Dr. Hunter, like a skilled magician, has a reassuring comeback line ready to pull out for just about every response he hears. “Don’t worry, Alex,” he says. “You got a big raise 37 days ago.”

Another woman, calling herself Catherine, says that after five years of trying, she finally quit four days ago. “You still look haunted, honey,” Hunter says in a blaring understatement. Catherine looks like someone who has just glimpsed some unspeakable horror. “It’ll start getting better next week, trust me,” Hunter reassures her.

Sylvia, a husky working-class woman in her early 30s, her voice cracking, says that after maxing out both her credit cards at the Mandalay Bay, she has no idea where she’ll get the $7,000 she needs to get her broken-down car fixed and brought back from New Mexico. Chris, a middle-aged Asian woman with a designer purse in her lap, says she’s feeling “embarrassed, angry, sad and ashamed.”

“Lancing a boil is painful but necessary,” Hunter responds. “And eventually it heals.”

When it comes to Gerry’s turn, she breaks out crying before any words come out. She’s a rough-hewn woman in her mid-50s, her hair close-cropped, maybe with some Native American or Latina heritage, and wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. It takes her a few moments to regain her composure. “I’m Gerry and I’m a compulsive gambler. And sorry to tell you, but I’m a failure. I was on my way to a [Gamblers Anonymous] meeting this afternoon, and I never made it.” Only on her third day of abstinence, she blew 20 bucks’ worth of quarters when she stopped for a cold drink at a convenience store.

Hunter masterfully takes this painful anecdote and turns it into a moment of mirth and encouragement. “Honey,” he says, “you haven’t been in treatment long enough to relapse. Everyone slips sooner or later. But you’ll be okay. The fact you are even telling us this makes you stronger.”

Only once over the course of the next hour does Hunter ever depart from this embracing tone. Fuji, a soft-spoken woman, about 45, complains that she’s feeling “confused” and mixed-up. “I’ve tried this so many times before and it didn’t work,” she says forlornly. “I mean I really want to quit gambling. But do I? Do I want to stop gambling? Or do I just want to stop losing?”

Hunter shows some visible impatience and decides to switch to a tough-love approach, taking advantage of Fuji’s ambivalence to deliver a minisermon.

“Don’t tell me it’s a pain the ass to get here, goddamnit!” he says with his voice slightly rising. “You had no problem getting somewhere to gamble! No problem spending your kids’ money! No problem waiting in line to play a machine!

“Addiction is chronic and progressive,” Hunter continues, his tone flattening back out and his eyes scanning the whole group. “But for your purposes right now, you must realize you are addicted to gambling and if you continue, it will kill you. Alcoholics can take 20 years to bottom out. Gambling addicts can do it in two years. There’s no stronger addiction than gambling. It’s not about the substance. It has nothing to do with the money. But it’s about where it takes you. This is more about addiction than compulsion. Compulsion screws up your life. Addiction ends your life. You don’t gamble like Tiger Woods compulsively practices golf. Goddamnit, you gamble like junkies shoot dope. Yet I know people who quit shooting dope because it got in the way of their gambling!”

Bernhard had told me earlier in the day that witnessing these sorts of sessions might change forever the way I see gambling. Maybe. But watching these crushed people tell their wrenching stories certainly marks the way I now understand addicted gamblers. They are neither fools nor suckers, but rather victims. And I feel absolutely swamped by their profound sadness. I have an overwhelming sense of their having been cheated out of a chunk of their lives.

 

Perhaps it’s too fine a distinction I make and, in the end, one more rationalization for the sort of gambling that I choose. Alone, in the darkness of my car, I ask myself a question that fills me with dread but now becomes unavoidable. What, if anything, do I have in common with them? I reassure myself that, give or take a few hundred dollars, and thankfully only a few hundred, I can stick within determined budgets; that what I spend on gambling — less than on some other costly hobbies I’ve honed — has no significant impact on my financial stability; and that at least I get a kick from the rush. Until tonight, anyway. Maybe that will also change now.

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.


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