“Dostoevsky? Did you say Dostoevsky? You’re reading Dostoevsky in Las Vegas?”
– Anthony Holden, Big Deal
Nearing the end of the blogger tourney, as F-Train and Pii battled it out for bragging rights, Iggy pulled me aside and led me out of the beautiful Caesar’s poker room to tell me a joke. As far as jokes go, it fell a little flat, but as we stood outside the poker room entrance taking a few hours off our lives, an idea struck me:
“Let’s go Dostoyevsky and play roulette”
Iggy, being well-read and just a wee bit drunk, was immediately up for the idea. We took off through the casino and stopped at the first roulette table we found. Iggy bought $100 of red chips and sat down to play, with me over his shoulder looking on. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing. Having recently completed reading The Gambler, I knew only that the game could result in big wins and, just as easily, total losses. It’s the very definition of -EV, the one game that even drunk and crazy bloggers avoid, preferring to instead spend hours at PaiGow or craps.
Having played a few spins, Iggy got up and left me in charge of his chips. I now know that the $5 minimum bet set at the table meant that you had to bet a total of $5 on the “inside” (the area where the numbers are) – this could be done by betting $5 on one number, or $1 on five different numbers. Bets on the “outside” require a $5 minimum on each spot – these are the bets for the color (black or red), the range the number will fall in (1-18 or 19-36), etc. At the time though, I assumed the minimum applied to every spot and played accordingly.
Many people will tell you that they have a strategy for playing roulette. In The Gambler, Dostoyevsky writes “They sit with papers before them scrawled over in pencil, note the strokes, reckon, deduce the chances, calculate, finally stake and – lose exactly as we simple mortals who play without calculations”. In Vegas, pencil-scrawled papers are replaced with the digital screens at each table, displaying the results of previous spins, and which numbers are currently “hot”. Black has come up on the last three spins? Red is sure to hit on the next one. 36 has come up twelve times today? Be sure to put a chip down there. But the wheel has no memory. You are, in affect, playing a very small, very localized lottery – picking your numbers and hoping for the best.
Shortly after Iggy and I put in our order for Greyhounds, several other players joined us at the table. All were very stoic, taking their wagers seriously as they determined which numbers to bet, and then placed large stacks of chips on them. The number board would soon be covered in towering stacks of pink, blue, grey, and yellow $1 roulette chips. The mere sight of so much money being randomly wagered with mock seriousness put Iggy on tilt. All these people so willing to give their chips away.
My phone began to ring, and since I was sitting at the table, I handed it over to Iggy and asked him to answer it for me. As he took the call and wandered over near the bathrooms, I continued playing. We had won a bit, so I had, at random, bumped up the bets to $10 or $15 a spot. Everyone else was doing it, why shouldn’t we?
Keep in mind that the number spots on a roulette board pay 35:1. Nice odds if you can pick numbers, and boy could I. As Iggy later said, “I’m coming back from the bathroom and I see this huge stack of reds being pushed your way”. All of us have won a big pot in poker at some point in our lives. It’s a great feeling, but it doesn’t compare from the feeling you get when you win big while really gambling. Suddenly we’re high-rollers. The waitress comes back with our drinks; I tip her $10 and tell her she’s beautiful. I tip the croupier a handful of reds, then give her one more when she’s coloring me up and my total is uneven. Tourney over, we’re joined by the others and find our way to the cashier and then out the door to a cab. We head back to the Excal, where the cab driver receives a $13 tip for the $7 fare. I am the Casino Queen and I love it. I may never play poker again.
“But what is zero? You see that croupier, the curly-headed one, the chief one, showed zero just now? And why did he scoop up everything that was on the table? Such a heap, he took it all for himself. What is the meaning of it?”
“Zero, Granny, means that the bank wins it all. If the little ball falls on zero, everything on the table goes to the bank.”
“You don’t say so! And shall I get nothing?”
“No, Granny, if before this you had staked on zero you would have got thirty-five times what you staked.”
“What! thirty-five times, and does it often turn up? Why don’t they stake on it, the fools.”
“There are thirty-six chances against it, Granny.”
“What nonsense. Stay, I’ve money with me – here.” She took out of her pocket a tightly packed purse, and picked out of it a friedrich d’or. “Stake it on the zero at once”
“Granny, zero has only just turned up,” I said; “so now it won’t turn up for a long time. You will lose a great deal; wait a little, anyway.”
“Oh, nonsense, nonsense. If you are afraid of the wolf you shouldn’t go into the forest. What? Have I lost? Stake again!”
A second friedrich d’or was lost: she staked a third. Granny could scarcely sit in her seat.
“There, look at it,” said Granny angrily; “isn’t that cursed little zero coming soon? Alexey Ivanovitch, stake two gold pieces at once! Staking as much as you do, even if zero does come you’ll get nothing by it.”
I staked two friedrichs d’or. The ball flew about the wheel for a long time, at last it began dancing about the spokes. Granny was numb with excitement, and squeezed my fingers, and all at once –
“Zero!” boomed the croupier.
“Alexey Ivanovitch, he said that one could only stake four thousand florins at once, didn’t he? Come, take it, stake the whole four thousand on the red,” Granny commanded.
It was useless to protest; the wheel began rotating.
“Rouge,” the croupier proclaimed.
Sunday evening Iggy and I again find ourselves in the casino with not much to do. We join a group at a PaiGow table where Heather is giving lessons, and Iggy buys in and begins to play. I mention I’m off to a roulette table and he decides to join me, leaving his chips in Maudie’s care. We sit down at a table and each buyin in for $100. Within 10 minutes, I’ve doubled up. JoeSpeaker comes by to say hello, and we attempt to persuade him to join in. He declines, choosing to get ready for dinner, and not so secretly thinking that Iggy and I have crossed the line in to true degeneracy. We continue on, stacking up chips and having a blast, especially after we are joined by Joe, Bob, Maudie, and Heather. It’s a full blogger table, save for Jorge, the Hispanic man on my left, whom I am attempting to practice my Spanish with. We’re having fun with the dealers, we’re letting Bob pick our numbers because anything he bets won’t win, but all the numbers around his choice become hot. Soon it’s dinner time and Matt and Alan drop by to try and tear us away. I ask Alan for numbers, bet them, and they win. He’s resisting our encouragement to play, but I tip him $5 and tell him to get in on the fun. The dealer hesitates a moment, since with us having the same color chips, it won’t be easy to tell who should get the payout. I make it easy on him and tell Alan to play for me while I run to the restroom. When I come back, my already large stack of yellow chips has doubled. We continue to play together, stacking up more wins, me betting $25 on black just because I had a green chip and that’s how I roll. Colors pay out even money and now I have two green chips. It’s soon bowling time, and we still need to eat, so I color up and cash out, promising Alan dinner, then buying it for Zeem and Matt too, because that’s what a good high-roller would do.
“Yes, I just went and won twelve thousand florins! Twelve, indeed; what about the gold? With the gold it makes it almost thirteen. What is that in our money? Will it be six thousand?”
I explained that it made more than seven, and in the present state of exchange might even amount to eight.
“Well, that’s something worth having, eight thousand! And you stay here, you noodles, and do nothing! Potapitch, Marfa, did you see?”
“My goodness! how did you do it Ma’am? Eight thousand?” exclaimed Marfa, wriggling.
“There! there’s five gold pieces for you, here!”
Potapitch and Marfa flew to kiss her hand.
“And give the porters, too, a friedrich d’or each. Give it to them in gold, Alexey Ivanovitch. Why is that flunkey bowing and the other one too? Are they congratulating me? Give them a friedrich d’or too.”
Monday night found me on mega-tilt, mad at myself and exhausted from a week in Vegas. After brief bar meet-ups at the Rio and the MGM, I hobbled back to the Excal with Heather and Shelly, intending to play a bit more -EV games before getting to bed at a semi-reasonable hour. The girls went off to play craps, and I took a seat at the same roulette table we’d occupied the day before. Ten minutes later, I had not doubled up. I couldn’t pick numbers, and wasn’t winning my outside bets with any consistency. At that moment the absurdity of the game hit me – there was no strategy, no method, and really, no fun when not surrounded by friends. What had been the best game in the world for two days prior was now a sad, lonely experience. This is where gamblers go to confirm their view that life is miserable and the world is stacked against them. I watched as another man at the table kept hitting number after number, even hitting the same number in a row, time after time. My rush was clearly over, but his was going strong. I kept on though, hitting the occasional outside bet here and there, until finally my $100 was gone. I got up from the table and went over to check in on Heather and Shelly, arriving in the middle of Heather’s 20 minute craps roll. I told them roulette no longer loved me, and they both expressed their sorrow. “It’s ok,” I told them, “It had to happen. Wouldn’t be as good a story without it”.
They were already expecting Granny at the Casino. They immediately made room for her in the same place, next to the croupier. Then just what we had expected happened.
This was how it was.
Granny pounced at once on zero and immediately ordered me to stake twelve friedrichs d’or. She staked once, twice, three times – zero never turned up.
“Put it down! Put it down!” Granny nudge me, impatiently. I obeyed.
“How many times have we staked?” she asked at least, grinding her teeth with impatience.
“I have staked twelve time, Granny. I have put down a hundred and forty-four friedrichs d’or. I tell you, Granny, very likely till evening…”
“Hold your tounge!” Granny interrupted. “Stake on zero, and stake at once a thousand guldens on red. Here, take the note.”
Red won, and zero failed once more; a thousand guldens was gained.
“Stake again on zero; we’ll stake ten times more and then give it up.”
But the fifth time Granny was thoroughly sick of it.
“The devil take that filthy zero. Come, stake the whole four thousand guldens on the red,” she commanded me.
“Granny! it will be so much; why, what if red does not turn up?”
I staked on red the whole four thousand won that morning. The wheel turned. Granny sat calmly and proudly erect, never doubting that she would certainly win.
“Zero!” boomed the croupier.
At first Granny did not understand, but when she saw the croupier scoop up her four thousand guldens together with everything on the table, and learned that zero, which had not turned up for so long and on which we had staked in vain almost two hundred friedrichs d’or, had, as though to spite her, turned up just as Granny was abusing it, she groaned and flung up her hands in view of the whole hall.