Double Down

Pat and I just returned from Vegas with Mom and Dad, where we attended the International Home Builder’s Convention, losing ourselves in several warehouses of collected wood, tools, and chalk-stained jeans.  The weather was less than ideal for a vacation.  For our first day, Sin City drowned in rain and yet emerged all the dirtier the next morning to abscond with our money and weakened consciences.  With twenty-five bucks a pop, Dad consulted his stock broker before sitting down to eat at the buffet each morning and to lose fifty bucks at the tables later in the evening.

Luckily the rain stopped the following morning, providing clear skies for an afternoon on the fairways.   I gracefully threw in the towel after the first hole, gradually relearning the game for the remaining seventeen while Dad and Pat battled for longest straightest drive.  Still, the course was beautiful and fun, offering a fantastic view of the entire valley which stretched out like the bowl of an immense crater. White-capped peaks newly blanketed by the week-long snow storms rose behind the Strip like a scene from a fantasy novel.

The scenery inspired me.

Texting Shannon on the golf course:  “The peaks remind me of LotR [Lord of the Rings] and the peaks of Middle Earth.”

His response:  “Gay.  Nerd.”

The following story details Dad’s success and frustrations at the blackjack tables for those three days, proving that distraction can ruin even the best strategies.

The girl began talking before she sat down at the blackjack table, her mouth a sewage pump of vulgar chatter and cigarette smoke.  My father sighed at this new distraction and promptly lost two more hands as the girl removed her coat and nearly fell out of her dress, allowing her chest to hover over the table.  Card-counting was not an exact science, and Dad never claimed the proficiency of an MIT grad or Dustin Hoffman.  He simply kept track of the face cards and played accordingly.  Still focus was the key, and the presence of Vegas Strip Barbie and her plastic chest bouncing off the green felt like soccer balls did not help.  Moreover the girl could not simply talk; she expected a conversation, hurling questions between hands, which he politely dismissed with a grunt.

“At that table over there, they wouldn’t talk to me, just hit on me hand after hand after hand after hand like I was some cheap whore down at the Rio, where Clyde and Eddy always take me Saturday and Thursdays.  One guy grabbed my leg too after complimenting me on my dress like I was going to give him the time of day.  Men are always hitting on me at the blackjack tables, never poker or craps, just blackjack.  Guess these card-counters don’t get any back home, eh?  Are you going to hit on me?”

“No ma’am,” he sighed.

“Well, why not?  Not a queer, are ya?  Guys are usually jumping all over me.  One grabbed my ass near the roulette wheel.  Bold but I was flattered nonetheless.  We had a wild night then . . .”

He should be accustomed to distractions by now.  This town wielded every advantage to cheat and rob you from the one cent slots through the boutique shops — forty bucks for a cup of gelato.  The casino boss at the Bellagio warned him of that earlier.  Three hundred dollars on the table, in fifteen minutes he had tripled his bets.  The cards looked favorable too when the pit boss sidled over and began making introductions:  How are you doing, sir?  Where you from?  Do you play golf?  What’s your handicap?  Lousy weather, isn’t it?  What’s Maryland like?

Two, three, four hands lost.  The dealer scooped away sixty bucks before the pit boss waddled off to the poker tables, careening other players from the money train with a handshake and a smile.  In such a position, I imagine that a more anti-social player might have fared better, eschewing all courtesy and polite conversation, never lifting his eyes from the table, delving into habits forged from long hours in solitude (reading comics or writing blogs for example).  Still few can count cards or possess the courage to toss to the table  hard earned wages, funds I might spent investing at the local Borders or Best Buy.

The girl continued to prattle, her voice disappearing into the ambient noise of the casino: the clang of the one-armed bandits, shouts from the roulette wheel, the dull monotony of Sinatra songs echoing over the loudspeakers.  The dealer had at least a nine.  Dad absently fingered his jack and seven.

“Hit me.”

Four of spades.  Twenty-one.  Dealer flipped over an ace.  The rest of the table grumbled.

“Why’d you do that?”  The guy at the other end of the table growled, sucking on a fat cigar like a mob boss.  His comb-over and long pale fingers suggested computer programmer.

“Huh?”  Dad turned.

“You stole my card.  I needed that four.”

“Look buddy,” Dad asserted.  “I had a soft hand.  You had to assume the dealer had a ten and then nineteen.  My seven wasn’t going to cut it.  I’m not playing you, buddy.  I’m playing him.”

The guy twirled his cigar in his mouth, scowling as he sipped at his drink.

“So what are you a card-counter now?”

“All blackjack players count cards,” the girl whined.  “Except me, never done it.  Can’t really keep track of anything after a few drinks.  Anyone want to buy me a whiskey sour?”

Dad picks up his chips and leaves, flicking a ten to the dealer who nods with a sympathetic wink that says: “Wish I could do what you’re doing now, sir.”

The girl shifted over beside the angry would-be-mob-boss, who leaned back further in his seat, gratified by the added attention.  His right arm fluttered behind his chair, uncertain whether his new admirer might react to a grab.  His left hand confidently tossed a blue chip into the ring, costing him a hundred dollars and subsequently his arm-candy as the dealer flipped the hidden king.

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