I gazed out the eighth-story window of a humble – bashful, even – apartment at crowds of pedestrians on the street below, feeling drawn to those crowds, blissfully lost in their collective thoughts, basking in a sense of universal oneness and kindness toward everyone and everything. I held a specially designated Study Mug to my chest, nestled just so, withholding for a time the pleasure of that first sip. At last I relented, and gave in to sweet temptation, raising the Mug to my lips.
Ugh … I lurched toward the window. Not good.
I glared down at the crowd.
Leaning out the window it was all I could do not to spit the ghastly brew all over their unsuspecting heads.
Damn and blast you all to hell, I thought.
I pulled sharply away from the window, slamming it shut with the anguish of a young man in confusion and pain.
It was an intense, existential pain.
Physically I was okay, though. (Absolutely tip top.)
I glared down at the brown liquid, a dirty circular pond, withdrawing into myself, leaving my once cherished Study Mug on the emotional outer, unloved. Any sense of oneness it may once have shared with its holder and the crowd below had since crashed down upon the hardwood surface of the table, its contents not hot – nor even warm – but tepid. Unforgivably tepid.
Moments later my glare was redirected toward the moka pot, perched in all its feigned innocence on the kitchen stove. I was about to reach for something breakable to throw at it when the microwave clock came into view. It conveyed the surprising news that two full hours had elapsed since the discredited brew had come fresh off the production line. Sensations of universal oneness had apparently left me incapable of keeping track of time. Deflated, I rested against a wall to take stock, exhaling a slow, steady breath. Letting it go. Letting it all go.
Lukewarm coffee had spilled on lecture notes that awaited revision. Tactfully, courteously the notes had waited, but so far with little reward.
Fetching a cloth from the kitchen sink, I mopped up.
A stack of playing cards sat aloof on a bookshelf – mockingly, haughtily, difficult to ignore forever. Their presence oppressed me, too, like unstudied lecture notes. Procrastination only added to the burden. I approached them gingerly. Grabbed a pile in one hand and sized it up. Checked the last card in the pile (the cards were numbered with a pencil). Repeated the exercise.
Some time later I was out the door.
“Dealer has six, sixteen, too many!”
Players at the table roared their approval, happy, on a winning run. The young dealer, Chintana, made the payouts. She was currently very popular with the table, a popularity that was, perhaps in part, of the “what have you done for me lately?” variety. Some say it’s the best kind of popularity.
I stood by a nearby table. There was a German couple, tourists, or so they said. Also a sleepy looking Indian guy pretending to be sleepy. And a twenty year old international student I recognized from class chatting in Cantonese to Enlai, the sharply dressed dealer, about how much the stockbroking game had changed over the course of his long career. I chatted to some guy playing box one, who said he was from the suburbs, while affecting disinterest in Chintana’s table, waiting for the shuffle.
I’d been in the casino for a few hours by now, pretending to drink beer, nibbling on snacks, hard at work, occasionally placing a bet, mostly just watching, mingling, joking with dealers and winning players, commiserating as losses began to mount. It was fun, really, apart from the need to wager.
At the happy table Chintana presented cards for the players’ cut. A messy-haired guy in T-shirt and jeans cut about a deck from the bottom of the eight decks. A bit more than a deck, really. About fifty-seven cards. Not more than fifty-nine, anyway. Maybe as few as fifty-five. Best guess fifty-seven.
I studied Chintana’s hands for a moment, and the stack of cards she held, rested against the baize. The bottom card faced her, away from the players, but angled somewhat to my point of view. I caught the identity of that card. It was the bottom card prior to the players’ cut, but the fifty-seventh card post cut, once Chintana had placed the cut cards to the front of the shoe, and the fifty-sixth card once she burned the first card, placing it face down in the discard tray. It could be a go.
I turned back to watch Enlai’s table, a spectator only, engaging in a bit of encouraging banter with the international student (we pretended not to know each other) and the box one suburban guy who had decided to “chip up”, pressing his luck, as if he really was from the suburbs. I cheered them on, but kept an eye on the happy table. With three boxes open, the players and dealer would typically consume about a fifth of a deck of cards per round. The sixth round was the one of possible interest. But only if it panned out as hoped. The situation could just as easily dissolve into nothingness if the card came a round earlier, but too late in the round to be useful. Or maybe another player would arrive and mess things up. Hopefully peer pressure would prevent it.
With hope still alive at the end of the fifth round. I wandered over to the happy table, lingering behind box three, a beer in one hand, a clutch of gaming chips in the other. Players eyed me anxiously, fearing that I’d open a new box and mess with The Flow. The Flow was – still is – a concept embraced by the superstitious and scientific alike. The former as true believers. The latter as a pretense, a way of discouraging new players from joining a game at inopportune moments.
They needn’t have worried. I placed a “back bet”. The players nodded their approval and relaxed, glad, or pretending to be glad, that The Flow had been preserved.
“Eight hundred dollars on box three,” said Chintana. Three hundred and twenty five of those were mine. Or, at least, used to be mine. They were up for grabs now. The remainder of the eight hundred used to belong to a happy-go-lucky corporate guy. His girlfriend turned and grinned. Said they were in marketing and due back at the office. Maybe it was true. It was not impossible.
The pit supervisor nodded approval to Chintana, then laughed at the marketers’ truancy. “More money to be made in here,” he joked.
“Yeah, right!” said the marketer, in good humor.
Chintana ran her hand across the baize – “no more bets” – and wished everybody luck.
Tipsy and easygoing on the outside, sober and queasy on the inside, I pushed clenched fists into jacket pockets, hoping for the best. The wager amounted to a sizable chunk of my still pitiful bankroll, a few thousand dollars plus change built up from a measly initial thousand. I knew that until that got up to perhaps a hundred thousand or so the game was always going to be a slog. A hellish, never-ending kick in the guts, placing back bets to appease other punters and avoiding costly waiting bets by resisting the comfort of a chair. Slog was right. I still sweated the turn of each card. The psychology of it all should have been conquered by this point, but had not been.
The wager as a proportion of bankroll was more or less justified. With a margin for error of five cards, my theoretical advantage on the round was about ten percent, and the standard deviation on the wager only a bit more than the bet itself. Optimal betting theory called for roughly the bet placed.
On the dealing of box three’s first card by the amazing Chintana, my spirits soared. An ace of diamonds, as hoped for! No, not as hoped for. As intended, and expected. I was a pro, damn it, or at least on the way to becoming one.
Oh, Chintana, thank you! You are wonderful and your popularity thoroughly deserved.
With the appearance of the ace as first card the advantage had now spiked to about fifty percent. I tried to conjure a sense of optimism to mask the gnawing in the deep dark pit of my stomach that said this was all going to end in calamity.
I longed for a picture card to go with the ace, for blackjack. Nothing but that three-to-two payoff would do now. A nice add to my small but growing – yes growing, damn it – bankroll.
Chintana showed an eight as up card. Box three, unfortunately, soon showed a seven for its second card, giving a mediocre soft eighteen. The marketers correctly stood.
I cursed the universe inwardly. Typical. And it was typical. It typically happened twenty-four times out of every four hundred and fourteen attempts that a seven would be drawn to an ace when the lovely Chintana showed an eight as up card from an eight deck shoe. Roughly one in thirteen times. The temporary fifty percent edge had eighty percent evaporated, though the situation was not terrible. There was still hope. I was reduced, once again, to hope.
Hope, that is, until Chintana revealed a seemingly heartless three of hearts for eleven and a ten of clubs – for clubbing players over the head – for three-card twenty-one, swiftly banishing eight hundred dollars, three hundred and twenty-five of them formerly mine, down the chute.
Chintana shrugged sympathetically. I gave my best impression of a good-natured roll of the eyes, commiserated with the marketers and strolled off in the direction of a bar. (The nearest high cliff was some distance away and peak hour traffic would frustrate any attempt to reach it in a hurry.)
Soon after, I headed for an exit.
Back at the apartment, I brooded, waiting for the moka pot to work its magic. The lecture notes, for their part, still waited in dignified, non-judgmental silence on the table.
With Study Mug in hand, fresh and forgiven, I resumed my earlier vantage point by the window, gazing at the crowds below. Such beautiful, crazy crowds. How they wandered to and fro. Happy. Unhappy. Rich. Poor. Amazing. Wonderful. Crazy beautiful crowds.
I muttered to no one in particular, “Damn and blast you all to hell.”
The door opened.
It was Chintana. She was beautiful, eyes sparkling, changed out of her work clothes. She gave me a look. Quizzical.
“It didn’t work?” she asked.
“It worked perfectly,” I assured her. “You did great. It was not obvious, but clearly visible.”
She crossed the room and nestled close. “The ace,” she said, “but it was no good.”
We kissed and went to the bedroom. Later, we got a ton of study done and, that semester, caned finals.