LAS VEGAS — The streakers are lurking everywhere.
College students, housewives, bond traders, dentists. Maybe an Elvis impersonator on his afternoon off. You don’t realize they’re nearby, watching, waiting, until they strike, slapping down twenties or more likely hundreds, onto the green felt by the roulette wheel.Red or black.If the croupier has just spun four reds in a row, or five, or six — holy Jesus, could it be seven reds in a row? — everybody’s on black. Enough cash to cover a month’s rent on a charming duplex near the Beverly Center waits to be doubled by the powers of fate or scooped up and rudely dunked into the roulette table’s cash box. Everybody on black?That’s when I place my money on red.Roulette is a game of chance, much like the chance you take eating expired meat or investing in the Southern California real estate market. It’s also the most profitable game in the casino — that is, for the casino. The house holds a whopping 6 percent advantage. Might not sound like much. But that’s a 6 percent profit every spin of the wheel — forever and ever.You don’t think about the eternal edge against you as the metal ball whirls over the numbers. You fixate instead on the delicious possibility of a 35-to-1 payoff. That’s if you hit one number straight up. You can also bet on a 12-number column for a 2-to-1 payoff, or a street of three numbers for 11-to-1, or the ever-popular even-money bets: red-black, odd-even, high-low.For me, the best bet is that single number, straight up. Bet $1, win $35. Bet $100, win $3,500. Odds are, you’re right once every 38 spins. But that’s not how randomness works. To live a truly random life, you need a strategy. Every spin of the wheel exists independently in eternity and has no relation to what comes before or after. So take your choice: Double up when you win. Or double up when you lose. Play the thirds. Paint the board? The wisdom of that last strategy was imparted to me at the Palace Station by a garrulous young man who seemed remarkably together for someone who was obviously a meth addict. “Spread your chips all over like you’re painting on canvas,” he told me. “Feel the colors.” He’d put chips on red 7, red 12, red 14, black 17, black 31, one on double zero for a splash of green. What threw me about his haphazard bets was that he kept winning. My wheel-watching and sector-betting turned up nothing. Evidently, I wasn’t feeling the colors. I was feeling my wallet get thinner. So I took his advice and freestyled it. I lost my entire bankroll while he was still in the midst of a run-on sentence.
The lavish billion-dollar Venetian entertains a decidedly different
clientele. The black-chip crowd. Each Oreo-like chip worth a C-note.
“It’s gonna be 14,” proclaimed a golf-shirted black-chipper as he laid an Oreo on one of the few unoccupied numbers on the board. I already had bets down on my magic numbers, and in no way did I expect 14 to hit, particularly after such a public proclamation. The dealer waved his hand across the table: “No more bets.” Drop, bounce, roll, roll. “Fourteen!” I consider myself a rational individual, but this was making my head hurt.Bet big, win big? It’s an attractive strategy if you ignore logic. And ignoring logic is one of the best ways to have fun in Las Vegas. Across the street at the pirate-run Treasure Island, I bought in for $300. “Nickels,” I requested, and the dealer slid over sturdy stacks of red $5 chips. My plan: $15 each on single zero and double zero, every spin, until either I hit one for a $525 payoff or I had nothing. The first spin, nothing. Second spin, nothing. Third, fourth, fifth, nothing, nothing and nothing. I was losing at a rate of about $10 a minute (that’s $300 per sitcom half-hour for you TV addicts out there). On the sixth spin, the ball rolled effortlessly into double zero. Jackpot! Five hundred twenty-five bucks back from my $75 investment.Time to walk away? Not a chance. It’s a waiting game, folks, and all I had to do was wait for my zeros to come up again. Six hundred dollars in the hole later, I stopped waiting. Maybe roulette wasn’t the moneymaker all those books I’d bought at McCarran Airport had led me to believe. Doubling up, doubling down, the D’Alembert method, the reverse anti-Martingale, nothing kept me from spiraling toward financial ruin every time I took a seat at a roulette table. My favorite ATM in L.A. was getting jealous of all the time I was spending with ATMs in Las Vegas. Down at the mammoth MGM Grand, at the foot of the Strip, I found myself playing the wheel alongside a couple who seemed to exist in a world of their own, a world where a two-out-of-three chance for a 1-to-1 payoff was their own private Shangri-la. They repeatedly placed their bets on two of the columns and two of the twelves, effectively the same 24 numbers every time, and they won. Again and again. They cashed out winning several thousand dollars. I’m not proud — I copied their strategy. Five dollars each on the second and third 12, five dollars each on the two outer 2-to-1’s. A $20 bet netted me $20 more. Twenty up again, and once again. Only four numbers could beat me entirely: 2, 5, 8 and 11. The next four spins? I lost everything.Obviously, I wasn’t using my head. Time to try psychic powers. I figured if I could simply conjure up the next number, I’d make a killing. Seemed like a reasonable plan. I bought in at a table at the Gold Coast, closed my eyes, summoned the forces of the universe to help make me rich, and there it was: “9.” I placed five chips on number 9, red.Up came 31, black.Perhaps I needed to concentrate harder. In my mind’s eye, again I saw the number: “9.” The dealer spun the ball, and it kerplunked into the 6. Getting closer. Again, I thought, “9.” The universe was talking to me. Next spin, the ball rolled into zero. Maybe the universe was talking to me in German.About broke and back to square one. What was the secret formula? Why did everyone seem to know how to win at roulette except me? My only hope: the seedy old Sahara, one of the original grand ladies of the Strip, now harboring a NASCAR-themed hamburger joint.The Sahara had long ago turned my first-time-ever-in-Vegas lark on a penny slot machine into a multi-hundred-dollar-profit obsession. It was here at the Sahara that good luck ran through my veins like gold blood, here that I would take Las Vegas for its last cent.My final strategy: reckless guessing. A frenzied Saturday night, every table tight with voracious gamblers. I elbowed my way to a spot at dead center of the roulette table, easy access to any number on the board. Four $1 chips on 17, five on 29, three on 14, a smattering of chips across one, two and three. How about 36? And a last-second bet on 27? Nothing. Try again. Anywhere, everywhere. I wasn’t painting the table, I was peeing all over it. I won a few, missed a lot, then I hit 34 with four chips on it for $140. “Nice, dude,” another player congratulated. I gave him a thumbs-up as I silently calculated that I was still down several hundred.From nowhere, the hands started poking me. Twenties, hundreds, all on black. I looked at the devilish digital display attached to the roulette table, at the past 10 numbers that had come up. I saw seven reds in a row. I’d been thinking of numbers, not colors. I had no idea a streak was happening.For a moment, I pondered the options. Seven red — another seemed unlikely. Or maybe not. I made my move. My last and best bet. I slid my chips toward the dealer.
“Color me up,” I said. “Cash me out.”
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