Forty million people visit Vegas every year but most never
get past the strip. What about the people who live there? What brought them
there? What keeps them there?
As the five learn the greatest return comes from investing
in one another, their lives stabilize and take on new, positive directions. But
their love and support for each other can take them only so far before they
must determine the meaning and value of their own lives.
Friday, January 17, 2014 Dow
Jones Open: 16,408.02
Never split tens.
The words flashed in their eyes and
formed on their lips. Nervous fingering of chips followed. Except for third base,
the last, and most important, seat at the table. He controlled the fates of the
other players, a role he seemed to enjoy. His stout digits remained steadfast,
cupped over the stack of ten black chips measured to split the hand. Never had
a doubt. Once he saw the house had a five of hearts, he knew his play.
My left hand slid
to the shoe, eyes directed toward first base. “Twelve.”
The brim of her
faded green military cap angled downward, concealing her eyes and half of her
tawny face. Her hat more fashion than function, this girl had never served, at
least in the armed forces. Her body, though, was all function. Lean and mean.
Definitely put on this earth to move. It was just a question of if that was in
the vertical or the horizontal.
She waved her hand
over the cards, never lifting her gaze from the table. “I’ll stay. You’re going
to bust.” She was there for one purpose: to make money. Played every night.
Never for less than $25 per hand and often as high as $200 when she really got
rolling. I wouldn’t say she was unfriendly or mean. Just had an edge to her.
Wanted to be left alone and not have to talk to anyone.
Next to her in
seat two, a burly man, about six foot two or three—somewhere in his late
sixties— nodded approvingly. He had a half-inch gray flattop that with each
tilt of his head revealed a thinning patch on top. “Good girl,” he said. “You
don’t have to have great cards; just need the dealer to have worse ones.“ He
plucked a red five-dollar chip off his stack and placed it next to his bet. Holding
up his index finger, he said, “One card, down please.”
Sliding the card
from the shoe without revealing the value, I said, “Down and dirty.” Directing
my attention to his neighbor, I nodded at the seventeen in front of the
surgically enhanced Barbie doll in seat three. “The ol’ mother-in-law’s hand.”
She furrowed her
brow, barely wrinkling her taut forehead. “What does that mean?” It was obvious
she didn’t know the game, but she wasn’t stupid either. Everything she did had
a purpose. What she revealed at the table was exactly what she wanted the
others to see to elicit the reaction she desired.
seventeen,” I said, about to drop one of my standard lines, good at least a few
times a night. “It’s like your mother-in-law. You want to hit it, but you can’t.”
“Well, I don’t
have to worry about one of those.” Her eyes sank to her cards. “So do I hit or
The burly, elderly
man to her right said, “Always assume the dealer has a ten as the down card,
sweetie. With the dealer showing five, you don’t want to hit because the house
probably has fifteen and is going to bust.”
“Just let her play
her hand, gramps,” the guy at third base said. Diminutive in stature—oh hell,
I’ll just say it. He was a little person or dwarf or whatever the politically
correct term is these days. He played with aggression and anger. Winning wasn’t
enough. He wanted more. Acted like he deserved it. Like the world owed it to
him. He banged back the remainder of his third cognac and motioned for the
cocktail waitress to bring another one.
pushed her puffy lips out in a pout, waving her perfectly manicured fingers
over her cards. “I’ll hold then.”
Seat four was all
business. He was around fifty, black and distinguished, with a wiry frame. He
had short salt-and-pepper hair on the sides and back that connected into a
beard the same length but much thicker than the rest. Too methodical to be a
pro, but he knew the game. He was firm and decisive. It was obvious he liked
the strategy and analysis. My guess was accountant. His face was too kind to be
a broker or a banker. Wasting no time, he pushed his fingers outward from his
clenched fist over the cards. “I’m good with eighteen.”
delivered another cognac to the little guy at third base. He took a green
twenty-five-dollar chip from his growing stack, which was almost as high as the
one on his shoulder. He downed the drink in one gulp. “Bring me another,” he
said. His eyes were drooping with each drink. He ran his hand through his wavy,
reddish-brown hair and pushed the thousand-dollar black stack next to his bet.
With his index and pinky fingers extended like a two-pronged fork, he said,
I tilted my head
to alert the pit boss. “Checks play. Splitting tens.”
Gramps said, “Come
on, junior. You’re going to take the bust card and screw the table.”
The pit boss
walked over. “Splitting tens. Go ahead.”
I pulled the first
card from the shoe, hesitating before revealing its identity. “You sure about
He pressed his
index finger repeatedly into the felt. “Flip the damn card.”
It was an ace.
He pointed at the
second ten. “Paint it.”
I pulled a queen
from the shoe. “Split again?”
“Nah, I’m good
with twenty,” he said. “I don’t want to be greedy.”
“Too late for
that,” the Accountant in seat four said.
I knew what was
going to happen before I even played my hand. I had seen it too many times
before. One asshole screwing it up for everyone else. I revealed my down card.
A king of spades. “Dealer has fifteen.”
rubbed the bald patch on the crown of his head and shifted back in his chair.
“Would’ve busted if you hadn’t split.”
“Come on, need a
big one,” Lean and Mean at first base sneered.
I flipped the next
card to add to my fifteen. An ace of clubs. “Sixteen,” I said, “Not going down
“Six or higher,
six or higher,” Gramps said, standing from his chair.
I pulled the next
card, peeking under the corner to delay their unfortunate fate before flipping
a three of hearts. “House has nineteen.”
I scooped Lean and
Mean’s last four green chips from the bet circle.
She ripped her hat
off in disgust, her thick black hair and crescent eyes now visible, and glared
at Junior. “You’re such a dick.”
I placed my hand
on Gramps’s down card.
He pleaded for a
ten. “Monkey, monkey, monkey.”
I turned over a
six of diamonds. “Seventeen.” I snagged the two red chips from his failed
double and redeposited them into the house bank. Returning to Nip-Tuck Barbie,
in one motion I collected her chips and also seat four’s. “Another seventeen
and eighteen, not enough to beat the nineteen.”
his hands together, Junior said, “But my twenty-one and twenty are. Daddy about
to get paid!”
I pushed two
stacks of one thousand to match his bets. “Twenty black going out.”
The pit boss
approved the payout.
“That’s it for
me,” Lean and Mean said. “I’m not wasting any more money playing with this
“Me, too,” Gramps
said and pushed his thirty-eight fifty to the center to cash in. “I’m done.”
bitching,” Junior said, tipping the waitress fifty for the new cognac.
“But we all
would’ve won if you hadn’t split,” Gramps said.
Junior tossed two
of the blacks back to me. “Give me some green.”
I measured two
stacks of four green chips. “Check change. Two black coming in.”
He combined the
stacks and tossed four green at Lean and Mean and one each at the other three
players, giving the last one to me. “That ought to cover it, you bunch of cry
babies. That’s why they call it gambling.”
Lean and Mean
flipped the chips back to him. “I don’t need your charity.”
He pushed them to
the middle of the table. “Well somebody take them because I don’t want them.”
His eyes scanned the players, stopping on Lean and Mean. She put her hat back
on and pulled the brim low again. He said, “Heeey, wait a second. I know you. You
work down at OGs, don’t you? You and your girlfriend soaked me for about five
grand one night.”
OGs was Olympic
Gardens, a midlevel strip club on Las Vegas
Boulevard between downtown and the strip. Midlevel
because it’s not as swanky as the upper-tier places like Spearmint Rhino or
Sapphire, but it’s also not the bottom rung like you walked into a methadone
clinic the day after New Year’s. OGs biggest advantages are the location right
on LV Boulevard and having male
and female dancers to cater to both genders. The men perform upstairs and the
women downstairs, which was obviously set up by a man, because that’s how most
men want to operate in their relationships as well. If patrons want some
seediness without feeling the need to bathe in hand sanitizer after leaving,
then OGs is the place.
Lean and Mean
snatched her purse off the back of her chair and slung it over her shoulder. “I
don’t know you.”
“Well, you should.
We spent about four hours in the VIP room. Your name’s, um…Faith, and your
girlfriend, oh, what was her name? She was a real rock climber, that one. She
had that chalk bag of coke in her underwear and kept bumping me up while she
was dancing. Damn, what was her name? I kept calling her Dora the Explorer.”
Gramps said, “Just
drop it. The lady said she don’t know you.”
“What are you, her
pimp?” Junior gulped more cognac.
“That’s OK,” she
said. “I was just leaving.” She turned and angled toward the door. Gramps
squirmed in her chair. “Geez, I never knew blackjack had so much drama.”
Junior picked up
the hundred dollars in green that he had tried to give Lean and Mean from the
middle of the table. “For someone who works for tips, you’d think she’d be more
appreciative.” He tossed them to me. “I’m sure you’ll put these to good use.”
And that was how I
met these five broken people—a drug-addict singer-turned-stripper; a widowed,
retired New Jersey police officer; an alcoholic, divorced sportscaster; a
card-counting, ex–Catholic priest; and a self-destructive, dwarf entrepreneur—who
all somehow managed to wander into the El Cortez and sit at my table on a
random Tuesday night.
I haven’t always
been a blackjack dealer, but I have always lived in Vegas—fifty-seven years.
Have held just about every hospitality job this town has to offer, from parking
cars to cooking food to serving drinks. What I’ve never done is been a big
winner. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of winnings, but they don’t even
come close to the losses. For every night in the black, there were two or three
in the red, and the red numbers always seem to be higher than the black ones.
Don’t let anyone tell you different. They might say they’re even, but they’re
well south of even; it’s just a question of how far. That’s why I gave it up
years ago and switched to this side of the table. I can guarantee you I walk
out of the casino up every night.
I’ve tried dealing
other games, but there’s just something about blackjack. I like how communal
the game is. I like how strangers sit down and in no time will be fist-bumping
and high-fiving. Of course there are a fair share of squabbles as well, like
the one I just told you about. You see, a lot of players think they’re just
playing their individual hands, that they should trust their guts. But the good
ones know there are rules and every decision at the table affects everyone
else. I know the math says different, that each play is an independent event
and will help others just as often as it hurts. But I’m talking about the
bigger play, the energy at the table, the stuff that flows through and carries
Yeah, I’ve seen a
lot in my years flipping cards. Seen players win fifteen hands in a row and
lose just as many; be down to their last ten dollars and walk away up a
thousand; win five grand and slink away with their pockets turned inside out.
Won’t say I’ve seen it all, though. Just when I think I have, a night like that
Tuesday happens, and a story like I’m about to tell you unfolds.
Now I’ll admit I
wasn’t present for all the stuff I’m about to share. Some of it I was and some
of it was told to me, and, well, some of it I just filled in the blanks, and
you’re going to have to trust me because in this job I’ve learned how to read
people and recognize problems before they happen: the colleagues headed for an
affair, the social drinker on the road to alcoholism, and the newlyweds who
won’t make it to their fifth anniversary. Amazing what people will reveal
across three feet of felt. They think they’re in control, but putting a stack
of their hard-earned money on the table loosens up more than their wallets. It
triggers their vulnerability, and that opens up the vault to all their secrets.
I just have to watch and listen, like reading an open ledger. Most tell more
than I ever care to know, as much by what they don’t say as what they do.
Jones Close: 16,458.56