Immediately after I finish any serious relationship with a woman, I always make a mad dash for Las Vegas, Nevada, which means I’ve visited that fair city several times over the past two decades. Solo. It doesn’t matter where I’m living when the breakup occurs—California, New Jersey, Rhode Island—I’ve got the trip planned weeks before the bond’s actual demise.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that I’m a particularly sturdy person. Terminating even the most meaningless fling liquefies my innards, dispatching me to the nearest cut-rate psychiatrist to beg for meds. It has simply been my experience that nothing heals a broken heart like twenty-two hours of single deck blackjack at Binion’s Horseshoe, where mobbed up dealers with pock-marked faces dourly flick cards across the green felt and scantily clad, fortyish waitresses shout cocktails (!) over your shoulder.
For a casino, the place used to be ominously quiet, exactly what you need after discovering that your live-in girlfriend despises trade unions and practically wretches whenever she encounters a striking worker. (I don’t understand how I could end up in the same room with such people. And there I was living with one of them. From then on, I decided to include a question about labor history on the entrance exam — wait, that’s Match.com’s job. Actually, the failure of the relationship was mostly my fault anyway.)
Anyway, since I’m the type of individual who never sticks to his own protocol, I decided, after my four-month post-breakup grief regimen, to bring a date to Las Vegas, a potential disaster for the serious card player. At best, you’ll wind up lollygaging on the roller-coaster at New York New York and nibbling overpriced Caesar salads at the Venetian; at worst, your date will stand behind you at the blackjack table and gasp every time you increase your bet by ten dollars. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a chance.
Phoebe (not her real name) and I had only been seeing each other for about two months, but we had this partners-in-crime thing going on; therefore, Vegas seemed like the perfect vacation. We were both finishing Ph.D.s in English at — don’t laugh — Oklahoma State University. She had short hair; she was thin, and she was always smiling and sort of squinting. This was in the late-1990s.
I thought we might just hop on a plane — my sister worked as a mechanic at United Airlines, and she would send me these cheap stand-by tickets — but all the employees at United were about to go on strike (they might have been engaging in a bit of the old sabot, if you know what I mean), so we chose to drive the nearly five-hundred miles to the City of Sin and hole up downtown at the Horseshoe for three days.
The drive itself was grueling. If it hadn’t been for the immense blue sky in Arizona (my Saturn had a sunroof) and the Dramamine, the crossing would have proved unbearable. And somewhere near Kingman, Phoebe announced that she wanted to “suck me” while we sped down Interstate 40 (I say this now because I’m basically an old man eating stewed tomatoes out of a can).
That type of thing always made me feel guilty, especially when Phoebe did it. The entire time I was thinking, I don’t deserve this, I don’t deserve this. (I imagine it has something to do with my lousy kidhood. After my birth, I should have bribed the infant in the next incubator to switch places with me.) Furthermore, if I smashed into the back of an S.U.V., I didn’t want guilt to be the root cause, so I declined the offer. As a result, the conversation turned to masturbation.
“Do you think guys ever masturbate when they’re driving?” said Phoebe.
“Uhh, yeah,” I said.
“You mean they can do both at the same time?”
I raised my eyebrow in mock-pride and said, “Men can masturbate while they’re masturbating.”
When we arrived in Las Vegas and checked in at the Horseshoe, we dumped our suitcases in the room and Phoebe lay down for a nap. I splashed some water on my face and headed straight for a ten-dollar minimum blackjack table, bought in for two hundred, and asked the floorman to fill out a rate card for me.
As a migrant academic, I didn’t have much cash to throw around, but I always tried to buy in for at least two hundred dollars, so the pencils (pit bosses) thought I had a lot more money in my wallet than I actually did. Then they’re more likely to fork over the free coffee mugs and dinner buffets.
Three people sat at the table: one very pure old man with incredibly tan skin; a middle aged woman with obscenely thick glasses and a mangled rabbit’s foot; and this absurd greenhorn who kept blathering on about the different rules at his basement game back home in Indiana.
As a player, I’m loyal to Edward O. Thorpe and Julian Braun’s Basic Strategy and Hi-Lo Count System. These guys are the Marx and Engels of 21. Something that always mystifies me about playing blackjack in Vegas is how many people don’t know anything about the Basic Strategy. They think blackjack is a game of chance and not mathematical formalities. They’re just throwing their money away.
I sat for about forty minutes, and I was up fifty-five dollars when the dealer’s shift ended. During that initial session, I placed several bets on her behalf, and she repaid me by “accidentally” exposing the burn card after each shuffle, which made my card counting more accurate. Picking the right dealer is one of the most important factors in winning blackjack. When you find a good one, stick with her, follow her from table to table, and tip her when you win. If she takes a break, you take a break.
So I was standing at the bar, drinking bourbon and cokes and depositing my winnings into one of those stupid video poker machines. (I have to remember to STAY AWAY FROM THE SLOTS. Video poker is still a slot game, no matter what anyone tries to say. Free drinks cannot possibly compensate for the loss of capital.)
About that time, Phoebe came downstairs, and we did the tourist thing: up to the Bellagio to check out the blown-glass flowers in the lobby; over to Paris to drink mimosas at the bar and then take the elevator to the top of the imitation Eiffel Tower; we even changed into our swimsuits and sneaked into the pool at the Tropicana to play swim-up blackjack, which is where I invented the concept of “Bedside 21.”
Pretending to be staying at the Tropicana, I asked the water pit boss if he would ever send a dealer to someone’s room, so he could play blackjack in bed. With a smirk, he looked at my three-dollar bet and said, “If your wagers are big enough, the Trop’ll provide you with any service you require — within reason.”
Between the roller-coaster at the top of the Stratosphere, the Liberace Museum, and the Penn and Teller show at the MGM Grande, I never made it back to the tables at the Horseshoe for any serious gaming. I did, however, teach Phoebe to count cards while we ate breakfast in the coffee shop on our second day in town.
All afternoon, she lay by the roof-pool and practiced counting with the deck of cards I bought her in the gift shop. Face cards and aces are minus one; 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and 6s are plus one; 7s, 8s, and 9s are zero. You keep a running count of all the cards as they’re turned up on the table, altering your bets and your strategy accordingly. If the count is positive, the deck is ten-rich, an advantage to the player. If the count is negative, the deck is ten-poor, an advantage to the house.
That night Phoebe stood behind me in Binion’s Horseshoe at a twenty-five-dollar table and counted the cards for me. She could see the entire playing surface and had no problem keeping accurate numbers. After every hand she tapped out the count on my back, finishing with an affectionate little scratch whenever the number was negative. It was beautiful. The floorman never suspected a thing. He even let Phoebe drink for free just for standing behind me. The pencils assume any man playing with his girlfriend or wife is a sucker. Sexists.
In an hour and fifteen minutes, we won three hundred and forty dollars, a great session. Even though the video poker machines made eyes at me after we walked away from the table, I resisted. Phoebe and I went up to the room and poured the pork to each other (old man, stewed tomatoes, etc., and I’m so happily, happily married now that it’s deranged). I threw out my shoulder trying to attend to her clitoris while screwing. I should probably have had it looked at — my shoulder. Bottom line, though, the blackjack cure worked. Until Pheobe later, well, cheated on me. Think of that montage in Snatch when Dennis Farina keeps flying back and forth between New York and London. That’s my old breakup life.
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