Blackjack in Atlantic City (Part 2)

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24/04/2013 by Don Quijones


A Personal Account by Marcus Peyrera.

My thing is Blackjack, one of the few casino games where it matters not only how you play, but also how the others play. There are many rules and unwritten codes, but basically you need to know the following: you play with the cards open (visible to everyone) and we all have to beat the bank.

In other words we must have better cards than the croupier – who is also playing – but without getting more than twenty-one points. If the croupier loses because he gets more than twenty-one points, we all win. If the croupier loses because a player sticks to his cards – and has more points than the croupier – then that player wins everything. And if the croupier wins – because he got lucky or because of a player’s mistake – that affects the whole table: we all lose. For that reason, it’s vital to have a good Blackjack partner (we all unite to sink the bank and win equally).

By contrast, having a bad player on your side is torture. If someone wins individually or doesn’t stay “still” until the bank loses of its own accord, it has direct, often serious repercussions on your pocket.

That’s another reason I like Black Jack: not only do you play against the casino, but also, and above all, against the incompetence and greed of the other players. It is, you could say, life itself perfectly mirrored in a game of chance.

I sit down at a table and light a cigarette. Casinos are the only place in the United States where you can do that without getting hauled out on your ass.

“From Argentina? Don’t forget to have a walk down the main street. It’s beautiful this winter,” says the croupier.

I have never heard anything like that before at a casino. The croupiers — also known as “payers” or “dealers” — have changed; they’ve become more relaxed, as if — maybe after Sandy — they’ve less need to take money from players. Instead, their job, it seems, is to keep the guests entertained. They talk, they make jokes, give advice and do everything very slowly. In the beginning it’s agreeable, but it quickly becomes irritating. Sometimes they take nearly ten seconds to add up four or more cards, which is terrible for the anxiety of those who, like me, count them more quickly.

“Nineteen, babe: nineteen. Eight plus four twelve, plus three fifteen, and plus four nineteen,” I say to the croupier before she starts using her fingers. A while ago I read that casinos were starting to look for girls that were easy on the eye. And in the process they seem to have gotten rid of anyone that had any real calling for the job. A goddamned tragedy, if you ask me!

Luckily for me, I have Elisha with me: my colleague on the table, a black woman who knows the game. Elisha and I understand each other straight away. The same thing always happens to me. It doesn’t matter what country I’m in or what language people are speaking, I start to play and know exactly what I should do and how, and with whom I should play and why. At the end of the day, on a Blackjack table, you only have to know two gestures: a finger on top of the table to ask for another card and a movement with the palm of the hand to stick. That’s all the casinos want from you. Well, that and your money.

Elisha knows when to ask and when to stick, even though that’s no guarantee that she’s going to win. In fact, Elisha is losing. I start off slowly. I promised myself I wouldn’t bet heavily and didn’t bring much money. The problem is that I can’t stop winning and therefore start thinking about how much money I would have won if I had bet more seriously. By my side Elisha carries on losing, albeit good-naturedly.

“Come on girl, it’s not your money. Be more generous with the cards,” she says to the croupier various times, but always with a smile.

I like Elisha. She asks me where I’m from, then what and where Argentina is. Finally she asks me why I’m playing in this shitty casino. I give her some vague excuse and she then offers up her own.

“I play because I’ve got too many points on the card and am about to win a big prize. Otherwise I’d never play again in this racist casino.”

This cards thing sounds familiar. The casinos give you points for the money that you spend or the time that you spend sitting at a table, and those points are exchangeable for various prizes. In Panama, for example, the system reaches the height of absurdity, with casinos giving back 0.5 percent of the money that you’ve spent. In other words, if you’ve lost one thousand dollars you get twenty-five back. This is very useful in places where there are a lot of casinos as it creates customer loyalty among people like Elisha, who, despite hating Donald Trump, is sat down in his casino and giving him her money.

The primary source of her dislike for the toupéd billionaire is the bitter slagging match he had with Obama. The feud began when the property tycoon questioned publicly whether the current occupant of the White House had been born and educated in the United States. He even offered to donate five million dollars to the charity of Obama’s choosing if he showed his passport and university registration forms.

On the arrival of Sandy, one week before the beginning of the US Presidential elections, Trump said that he would extend his offer for one more day since, he said, Obama would probably be getting soaked and compulsively offering money to victims of the hurricane just to win votes.

“They hadn’t even buried the dead and the racist scumbag tweets that Obama was gonna buy the elections by giving billions away to the victims. Fucking asshole,” says Elisha. The torrent of insults continues until she’s gifted a Blackjack, at which point the fury automatically dissipates.

Meanwhile a new croupier called Zina has arrived at the table. I think she speaks Spanish but doesn’t seem to want to. Elisha talks to her about Sandy and Zina says that the hurricane ruined her life. Her house was destroyed and now she and her two children are living in a friend’s house.

“Those that say ‘we should be thankful to be alive’ didn’t lose everything they own,” says Zina while shuffling the cards cheerlessly and with little skill.

Sandy destroyed homes, but above all — as you can see — it tore asunder people’s spirit. In Atlantic City, where most of the tourism is gambling-related, the temporary shutdown of the gambling joints had a devastating impact on the city’s economy. The casinos have fewer punters and employees’ shifts have been drastically reduced.

“Before, I used to work five days a week. Now I only do two. That’s less wages, fewer tips. Everywhere is empty,” says Zina.

The conversation stalls when Tom and Eileen, a couple of blond, blue-eyed Americans, join the table. Eileen’s noisy, cheerful and has not the slightest idea of how to play Blackjack. The bank has bad cards and is about to lose the hand, but then Eileen — instead of letting it lose and allowing us all to win — greedily asks for more cards.

“Hit me, hit me,” she shrieks while taking frenzied gulps on her gin and tonic and offering it round to all the other punters around the table. Here they give you all the drinks you want; all you have to do is leave the occasional dollar tip on one of the waiters’ trays.

The amazing this is that Eileen, as drunk as she is, can’t stop winning. And what’s worse, Elisha and I can’t stop losing. Soon I realise that Eileen’s unconventional approach is going to wipe me out. I start to bet the minimum on each hand until the storm passes. Elisha, by contrast, has a more aggressive posture and and is trying to recoup her losses by betting more and more heavily. She is a bag of nerves and won’t stop talking to me.

“Fucking dumbass”, she says. “She has no idea what she’s doing; I bet the casino hired her so that we all lose.”

Eileen and Tom are in their own little world and show no sign of having heard Elisha, even as her bitching reaches fever pitch. In half an hour Eileen has won 500 dollars, I am heavily down and as for Elisha, the less said the better. Meantime I’m told that it’s the first time Eileen’s been to a casino, that she runs a golf club and that she met Tom — who’s from Texas — on the Internet. Eileen lives in Connecticut, more than 2,000 kilometres from Tom.

“But I hope to move to Texas soon” she whispers in my ear, with what seems like a conspiratorial wink.

Tom’s not listening, and I am tired of seeing them win so comfortably.

“So, Tom, you’re going to take Eileen to Texas?” I ask. I want to see them bicker.

“What? Where did you hear that?”

“She just told us,” says Elisha. “Eileen is moving to Texas, congratulations.”

Two minutes later the Tom-Eileen love-in has turned sour and a silence has descended on the table. Elisha is beaming. Tom tries to relieve the tension, asking me where I’m from. To my reply he shouts “Manu Ginóbili” (the most famous Argentinian basketball player of all time) three times, with a forced cheer that falls flat around the table.

The table depresses me and I want to leave. Knowing how to retire at the right time is a virtue, although one that is rarely practiced in casinos. Other tips? Don’t celebrate a good hand before winning. And never – and I mean never – bet heavy when you are angry.

I leave the table in a bad mood and with a fearsome appetite. I wolf down a pizza slice and — without finishing the second slice — decide that I need a change of scenery. The nearest casino is Cesar’s. It’s also on the boardwalk and just a stone’s throw from here. I walk.


Translated by Son of Seitan

The English version of “Blackjack in Atlantic City” will be published in four sections. To read the third 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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