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A few months after I gave up drinking, when my 30-year-old body was finally free of toxins but my immature inner self still reeked of vodka,
I found myself at a Las Vegas blackjack table fondling a stack of chips that had sextupled in size to $1 200 since I’d sat down approximately 15 hours earlier.
My boxer shorts were stiff with minerals deposited by evaporating sweat. My eyes were so gritty I could have struck a match on them. The veteran player beside me, a rumpled salesman, kept urging me to take my winnings and scram, but I was new to gambling, and euphoric. I believed in momentum, in fate, in destiny. I believed that we drew the cards we deserved and that I, having drawn mostly good cards, deserved the best. I upped my bet to $300, lost, repeated the bet, lost again, and then sat there, dumbstruck. The potent dopamine-serotonin cocktail mixed by Lady Luck, the world’s best bartender, had softened up my newly sober brain. Within 10 minutes, I was at the ATM punching in my PIN with trembling fingers.
Sixteen years later, I still haven’t touched alcohol but I continue to play blackjack. Some would say I merely switched addictions, exchanging one form of numbness for another, but the truth is that gambling has been good for me. More than all my gravely nodding therapists and the countless self-help books I’ve tossed aside, blackjack has exposed my self-delusions, schooled me in humility, and forced me to face my lifelong foe: reality. Pretty much everything I needed to know but didn’t learn in kindergarten – or forgot, thanks to thousands of nights of heavy drinking – I’ve learned at the card table, jazzed on diet cola. The odds in blackjack are simple and unforgiving: unless a player can count cards without detection, the house, over time, will always win. No clever betting system, no heartfelt prayer, and no superstitious ritual can change this. But human beings are creatures of hope and vanity, perpetually striving to outmanoeuvre the immobile laws of probability. The only statistics we genuinely respect are the ones that show us to be exceptional – our matric results, our IQs, the balances of our investment accounts. And those that alarm us, such as unemployment rates and temperature trends pointing to global warming, we either apply only to other folks or, if that’s impossible, we simply ignore.
The ego of the alcoholic, whether he’s hit bottom and bounced back or is still falling and trying to find the floor, is particularly prone to selfish magical thinking. Once, while playing blackjack in a hotel casino, I sat beside a famous professional athlete who didn’t know what he was doing and yet kept winning. What galled me was that he didn’t need the money; his gold Rolex had diamonds instead of numbers and he talked nonstop about a stock he’d bought that had gone up a 1 000% that year. He took a hit on 18 and drew a 3. He split a pair of 7s. The dealer busted. My forehead throbbed with resentment as I watched the sportsman rake in the winnings, and my play turned sloppy as I shifted my focus from beating the dealer to outperforming the privileged idiot sitting next to me. Weirdly, it worked. I surged ahead. Then, inevitably, I surged behind. I learned my lesson, though: taking blackjack personally is like taking the weather or politics personally. It breeds frustration and, ultimately, insanity.
A lot of the lessons I’ve learned at games of chance have come from watching other people screw up. Once, in a dumpy casino with an Irish theme, surrounded by images of demonic leprechauns and that icon of wishful thinking, the four-leaf clover, I watched as a wealthy seafood broker enjoyed a stupendous run of victories. The pit boss ordered a waitress in green fishnets to ply the man with jumbo margaritas, but even as the seafood baron’s head lolled to the side, his lucky cards kept coming. I urged him to quit, as once I’d been urged to quit, and miraculously, he paid attention, walking away with a pile of cash. An hour later as I headed off to bed I glimpsed him at another table, his head about to tip forward into an ashtray. I counted his chips from afar, which wasn’t hard since there was only one. To some guys, gambling is entertainment. They play, they lose, they grumble, but they have fun. To me, though, gambling is psychoanalysis, continually probing the weak spots in my thinking, levelling my mood swings, and reminding me that defeat is not an option in life; it’s an absolute, inescapable certainty. This knowledge is freeing if you can handle it, but what’s even more liberating is accepting that no one can handle it fully or all the time. We win a few, we lose a few, and our drive to win more often than we lose is what makes us both suckers and human beings.
Life is unfair to me, the drunk laments, which leads him to drink even harder and withdraw even further from life. The gambler, however, assuming he’s willing to learn, knows that life’s unfairness isn’t personal. It’s universal. It’s built into the game. Unfairness is, in Vegas terms, the house rule – and this understanding allows the gambler to play on.