Blackjack in Atlantic City (Part 1)

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21/04/2013 by Don Quijones


A Personal Account by Marcos Peyrera.

The first time I played in Atlantic City was fifteen years ago, when I lived in New York. It was a Saturday afternoon and I was bored. I got in the car at three and by six o’clock I was sitting down playing Blackjack. I didn’t move from there until 10 a.m. the next day.

Every time I tell this to somebody, it shocks them; it was too much time, even for me. By the time I’d finished playing I was so tired I could hardly move, but still I decided to get in the car and drive the three hours back to New York. I didn’t kill myself, but I did fall asleep and the police did stop me for speeding, though I can’t remember exactly what order these things happened in.

I do remember, though, that I promised myself I would never return to Atlantic City. Or at least I would let a good while pass before going back.

The years passed.

Now I’m going to the city for the second time. Somebody at the magazine (Orsai) heard the gambling anecdote and suggested that I should return, not only to gamble, but also to tell the tale.

I’m capable of playing until I pass out, so this time I will take the bus; I choose a vehicle called “Lucky Streak,” which will take me from Manhattan and leave me at the entrance to Ballys casino.

The website that offers this service says “Do you feel lucky? In that case, come aboard one of our Lucky Streak® buses and we’ll take you straight to the doors of the country’s most popular casinos and resorts”. Next to the blurb there is an enticing photo of two blondes in bikinis plastered with “$” signs.

But real life’s never like an advert. My travel companions don’t seem to be going through the best of times. Most of them are black, although there are a handful of latinos too – I’m one of them – and a Chinese guy. Of girls like those in the photograph, there is a conspicuous absence. It doesn’t bother me though, I’m going to gamble.

Atlantic City is in the state of New Jersey. Getting there from New York, all you have to do is cross the River Hudson by a bridge or tunnel. The bus decides to go underground and the first thing I see upon coming back up to the surface is a billboard offering legal assistance to victims of Sandy, one of the top 5 most brutal hurricanes in the history of the United States, which last November killed hundreds of people and caused damage to the tune of tens of billions of dollars in more than 20 states, principally New York and New Jersey.

“Superstorm Sandy touched land near Atlantic City”, the BBC said at the time. “Hurricane Sandy destroyed the coast of Atlantic City” said the Washington Post. I start to remember some of the things that I have read and try to imagine, while we’re on the road, what the city would look like. But the trail of thought is interrupted by the coarse voice of a passenger who, like so many others, shouts into her mobile phone.

“I’m not going to the casino, I’m going somewhere else,” the lady explains to her daughter. She’s not ashamed to lie in front of us, she must consider us all equals.

Maybe in some way we are.

I often get asked what I like so much about gambling. In the beginning it bothered me because the words “so much” seemed to carry an implicit judgement. “Didn’t you ever think of getting help?” was the underlying message. Then I grew up and now I laugh. Although this time I want to find an answer. Not for them, but for me. Maybe this trip will be good for that too.

I can’t remember the first time I walked into a casino. I do remember that at fourteen years of age I went to a racecourse and the concept of “gambling” seemed appealing. That time they let me bet, and of course I won. You always win the first time. Then I grew up and at around eighteen I started going to a casino — it was in Mar del Plata — and of course I played.

Even to the point where I got into some problems. Once I lost all of my holiday money by the third day of the trip and had to beg for the rest of the month. Another time I wanted to cross the border between the United States and Canada to go to a casino in Windsor, but did it without a visa and ended up in handcuffs. I went back to the motel by car, escorted by two police cars.

I look now at the route that takes me to Atlantic City. It’s flat and predictable; there are no signs of the hurricane. But once in the city little piled up mountains of wood, which used to be houses, begin appearing. It’s as if the Big Bad Wolf of three little piggies fame had blown and blown until destroying them and then afterwards somebody went to the trouble of tidying the remains into heaps of debris.

There are mountains like that everywhere but, as we advance, I see that the town centre is clean and orderly. It’s a whole other reality. The centre of Atlantic City reminds you of one of those movies where a chemical bomb takes out the people but not the buildings.

Take the main street, for example. The city’s board walk is famous for being the first one ever built in the United States –- at the end of the nineteenth century — and for having been destroyed three times, always by hurricanes. However, a few months after the disaster, it looks perfectly intact. The twelve casinos built opposite are also in tip-top shape.

The bus stops in the TrumpPlaza parking, where we’re greeted by a mass of neon lights, arabesques and general bad taste. I get off the bus, light a cigarette and a porter called Kevin tells to me, in Spanish, to come through and that I can smoke inside. I ask him about the hurricane: where is it, where was it?

“It only passed through here, but it destroyed the houses. My house was OK, but not my mother-in-law’s. I’ve got her living with me now, you know.”

Kevin explains that the casinos were out of action for a week. It was the first time since 1978 – when the first casino was opened in Atlantic City – that they’ve been closed for so long. There were other times in the past, but never for so long or with so many losses.

The figures, I find out later, were presented by Tony Rodio, President of the Tropicana casino and chief of the Association of Casinos of New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy, he claimed, cost each of the casinos on the main street upwards of 5 million dollars per day. Hence the intense pressure from the owners to re-open, even in the middle of an emergency.

“You know, they make a fortune. Of course they want to open,” Kevin says. “And there are people who would have come too, you know, even with the water flooding their houses and the cars floating around.”

I go in and the casino’s dead. All the lights are on, but nothing here resembles what I saw fifteen years ago. Before Sandy, Atlantic City was pure excess. It’s not just me, there are innumerable studies that talk about gambling being a booming business in the United States.

One of them, called “Social Impacts of the Business of Betting Games,” published by Universidad Nacional de México (UNAM), makes two startling observations: in the United States, the industry is worth more than 60 thousand million dollars annually, and US citizens spend more on gambling than they do on going to the cinema or theme parks.

As for Atlantic City, a May 2010 report by Rutgers University analyzed how much money had come into the city in 2008. The total was more than 7 billion dollars, straight from the pockets of almost 35 million tourists.

In any case, you don’t see that now. Where before there was once laughter, now you only hear slot machines that nobody’s playing creating an infinite echo. Before going any further I go to the reception of the hotel. I’m older than last time and at some point I’m going to need a room to lie down in for a while.

I get room 1925, on the nineteenth floor. The room has views of the beach and the city. You can also see the neon sign announcing “TrumpPlaza”; some of the letters are burnt. I remember the hurricane and think that it could be because of that, but don’t wait around any longer. I put on my jacket, long johns, hat and gloves (it can get below zero in these parts) and leave. It’s casino time.

Once in the main hall, the first impression is strange. All the lights are on, and the noises are just as they should be, but the people are still missing. The tables are empty and the roulette wheels aren’t revolving. It seems like a ghost-casino and you have to go pretty far in to find any kind of activity. One hundred metres in, we finally get to the thick of the action. And I start to play.


Translated by Son of Seitan

The English version of “Blackjack in Atlantic City” will be published in four sections. To read the second instalment, click here

Marcos Peyrera is a lawyer and writer. His novel Te sigo, published by Libros del Zorzal in 2012, was highly acclaimed by critics.

front cover, orsaiHis article Blackjack in Atlantic City was featured in the 12th issue of Orsai magazine. To see more articles, illustrations or comic strips from Orsai (in Spanish), click here. 

You can also read an interview (in English) with the magazine’s co-founder, Hernán Casciari, or his children’s fable on the economic crisis, Papelitos (also in English). 


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