COLUMN FORTY-FOUR, APRIL 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
He was in the midst of a Spanish lesson when the territorial supervisor came into the classroom and handed him a message: to see the director as soon as he finished, and that there was a replacement for him for the rest of the afternoon. He needn't to read between lines to know what it meant. Smelled of the sack. He rode on the elevator to the 19th floor, found the bronze plate, and opened the door.
"I'm mister Santana."
"Yes, you're expected, please wait, Mister Oerlikon is in a meeting right now."
El Químico sat on the leather settee, and continued reading TIME magazine where he had left it: Another article about the Nicaraguan Contras and the Sandinistas. He hated the Ortega brothers even worse than the Castro brothers. Half an hour passed before he was introduced to the regal presence of the great man himself. Plush, walnut paneled office with a sight to the Chrysler Building and St Patrick's Cathedral. A whole wall covered with books from floor to ceiling. In his late fifties, freshly barbered silver hair, likely dyed, attired in a beautifully tailored navy-blue three-piece suit.
"Sorry for, ahh, keeping you waiting Mister Santana, ahh, sit down please. . ."
"Which language do you prefer to speak, Sah?"
"I guess English will do. This is a difficult matter Mister Santana, ahh, I don't know how to start. . ."
"I respectfully suggest that you start from the beginning, Sah."
"Quite, ahh. . . I have seen your personnel dossier, and your performance, ahh. . . has been very good since you joined our staff, ahh. . . six years ago. However in these last three months we have, ahh. . . received complaints from the pupils. Ahh, how can I put this to you?"
"I understand, Sah, if you wanted to use a Shakespearean expression you could say that I broke wind noisily in class, the Rabelaisian term would be that I farted. But you see, Sah, we fat men are prone to flatulence. . ."
"Well, ahh, we have had also complaints that you, ahh. . . have come intoxicated to class."
"You mean slightly inebriated."
"You could say that, Mister Santana, ahh. . . I'm very sorry but we have to rescind your contract."
"May I smoke?"
"I'd rather you'd not."
"I see. Could I go into translations instead?"
"I'm, ahh, afraid that you'll have to see Miss Jankowsky about that."
"Oh, I see, I'm getting the full Monty, the full sack, aren't I?"
"Well, ahh. . . we can always provide you with good references."
"You know, Mister Oerlikon, I deeply respected your father, after all he was James Joyce's employer. I remember the first time I heard you speaking, I was in Cuba then, and it was an interview for The Voice of America, and you were talking about how you became a linguist and about the click languages of South Africa. I assure you I respected you immensely; then. Until you wrote those crap, sensationalist books about the Bermuda Triangle and Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat, or whatever. Since then I lost all respect for you. I think you are a pompous charlatan, a windbag, and that you are as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."
The great man blushed. It was obvious that nobody had spoken that way to him ever, but El Químico was by now beyond niceties.
"Could you kindly leave my office, please?"
"Sure, mite, and good riddance."
He rode down in the elevator to the 10th floor and went to the personnel office. He collected his fortnight check and some extra money he was due.
He lit a Gitane
and stood there, looking
at the Empire State Building
He looked for the last time at the statue of the woman carrying a stylized globe on her upheld hands. It wasn't the rush hour yet, and he walked down Fifth Avenue and then turned into Sixth. Autumn was in the air. At a Korean corner store he bought a large can of Budweiser, icy cold from the plastic drum. He lit a Gitane and stood there, looking at the Empire State. Then walked to 38th St. station. It reeked of urine as usual and a black woman, her back to the public, was squatting taking a crap into a paper bag. He took the train to Union City, and to his hovel. He, so neat before, looked at the pigsty his place had become since his doctor weaned him from all the hormones: they were no use anymore, and had induced coronary damage already. He had gained almost 50 pounds since, and sported a big belly, like a pregnant woman.
It was odd that the great decisions of his life pivoted around small discoveries. He was at the chemist, waiting for the Pakistani sod to fill his prescriptions. There were some computer games on a rack. One of them was about blackjack. What caught his attention was the phrase: "Learn to count cards. Mac Edition." He bought it on an impulse and later played it on his old Mac S30. Since the screen was so small and B&W the results were disappointing, but soon he got the gist of the game, and became deeply involved. He spent all night long chain smoking and drinking Ballantines with beer chasers, playing. He slept fitfully for four hours, showered for the first time in three days, and went back to New York, to the NY Public Library on 40th St.
There he read all there was about blackjack: from Edward O. Thorp's trailblazing Beat the Dealer, 1963, to the just published John Patrick's Advanced Blackjack. Scraps, trivia, but as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle coming together.
Such as: Since the eleventh century and all along the Dark Ages, monks and lay brothers in the European monasteries broke the tedium of conventual life by playing card games where you tried to reach a certain total, where you won by achieving a magic, cabalistic number. Fostered by Gutenberg's press, the cards were soon available to the laymen.
In Spain and Portugal, it was Siete y Media, or 71/2, a game still practiced through the Hispanic world. It's played with a beautiful, strange deck that reaches only to 7-no 8, 9 or 10 cards. It has no Queen, has instead a Knight on horseback. The suits: Gold, Cups, Swords and Cudgels.
In the rest of the Sacred Roman Empire the French deck, our present poker deck, prevailed through the centuries. And the magic number was 21, Vingt-et-Un. Prior to the French Revolution 21 was the favorite of la canaille, while the aristocracy went for Baccarat. The guillotine made 21 supreme, and it has remained so since then. It spread across the Channel to England, and from there to the colonies, as far as Australia, its original name corrupted to Van John and Pontoon.
It attained its present name of blackjack in the trenches of the Great War, where it soon vied in popularity with poker among the American soldiers. Back home, it thrived during the Roaring Twenties, in New York's mob controlled gambling dens and Al Capone's Chicago shebeens. During the gray years of the Great Depression the contagion spread further south and west, taken along by the hungry bums who bet nickels and dimes in the Hoovervilles.
Modern blackjack, with the rules we use today, became respectable in 1931 when the state of Nevada shed the cloak of hypocrisy and legalized gambling, thus admitting a fait accompli in American society. Since then, it accounts for almost 50% of casino earnings in Nevada, and Atlantic City, which followed suit in 1978. Together, an 8-billion-dollar-a-year industry.
All along, the great lure of 21 was that somehow the players felt, intuited, that the bank, or the House, could be beaten. Unlike other casino games, it had no fixed odds, which perceptibly varied with each deal.
Once more the US Army was instrumental in the development of modern blackjack. The statistical proof that the House advantage can be neutralized came from four mathematicians who volunteered for the Korean War: Roger Baldwin, Wilbert Cantey, Herbert Maisel and James Mc Dermot. In their sleepless, spare time they painstakingly used desktop calculators, the kind that resembled a one-arm-bandit, to find the strongest possible response for the player against the dealer's first card. They were the pioneers of basic strategy. Their results were made public in the Journal of American Statistical Association in 1956.
This raw material was improved by Edward O. Thorp, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, using a bulky mainframe computer, and later refined by Julian H. Brown, an IBM analyst. Thorp also devised the first card counting method, which gave the player an actual edge of 1% over the House.
His book, Beat the Dealer, 1963, brought panic amid the casino executives in Nevada, who answered by abolishing hand dealt games, and implemented multiple deck games, which lead in time to monstrosities like Blackjack II---which employed 12 decks dealt from two shoes---and elaborate ways of shuffling and washing the cards to the player's detriment.
Nevada casinos also started to expel and ban from their premises suspected card counters. The Eye-in-the-Sky, the video camera focused on every table, became a common feature. Pit bosses and floormen began to retaliate against anyone who increased his bets dramatically, or that just fit into a certain profile-players who seemed concentrated in the game, who ignored the charms of the cocktail waitresses, or simply wore Levis and cheap shirts. They were carried bodily to an office by three or four heavies, mugshot with a Polaroid camera, and warned, even threatened, not to come back.
The operators pooled and shared this intelligence. They also hired private investigator firms to spy on suspected players and on their own personnel as well. They went a step further, and resorted to the computers themselves. In 1980 the Atlantic City operators contracted "Econ, Inc.," a Princeton, NJ, based company, which devised a blackjack simulation model that could analyze up to 50 million hands. When the data overflowed their own mainframe, "Econ, Inc." was given access to the state's computer in Trenton. Some nights the New Jersey cops couldn't even check suspicious license plates. The casinos had priority.
The model replicated the behavior of card counters and high rollers, and also the performance of playing rules, shuffling procedures, and the effectiveness of six and eight-decked shoes. All designed to protect the casinos' bankroll, and the state's gambling revenues. That huge database was made accessible to Las Vegas operators.
The first human to use a computer inside a casino was Kenneth S. Uston. A swarthy, bearded former director of the Pacific Stock Exchange, a successful yuppie who, fed up with his materialistic, predictable lifestyle, threw respectability to the winds and became a professional blackjack gambler. He organized teams, sometimes of a dozen card counters, which operated both in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. In five years, between 1974 and 1975, his teams won an estimate $4.5 million.
Uston and his teammates were barred by the Atlantic City casinos in 1981, after a nine-day spree when they won $145,000. He appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, and in the hearing he was described by Joel Sterns, attorney for Resorts International, as "every bit as undesirable as a drunk or disorderly person." Uston won his suit. The judges were faced with a dilemma: Is blackjack a hazard or a skill game? If it was a skill game, it didn't belong in a casino. If it was a hazard game, skilled players, card counters, could not be barred.
In 1977 Ken Uston experimented with a microcomputer nicknamed "George." It was activated by two switches concealed into the player's shoes, and operated by the toes. It had an 80% success rate. It was so accurate that it could not only predict when a card was due, but even the suit. One of George's clones was discovered in Reno, and subsequently federal authorities banned the use of computers at the blackjack tables.
In essence, what all the computer studies determined was that small cards---2 through 6---favored the dealer. They can improve the dealer's hand without necessarily busting. While 10s and Aces worked to the player's advantage. It was that simple. El Químico, obsessive-compulsive as he was, spent all day long in the library, filling legal pads with notes and photocopying diagrams. What surprised him was that none of all the books he had read raised the possibility of a gambler training himself through computers.
He had plenty money, around $ 23,000, in bank savings and his small hoard of Krugerrands, since he didn't whore around, paid low rent for his bed-seater, and led a Spartan life until recently, when he began to drink. Was it predestination that, browsing through a Radio Shack catalog he found advertised a small hand held blackjack computer, which he hastily bought, two, in fact, and, while riding home on the train, started practicing counting. He ordered from MacWarehouse all the casino games they had, and waited anxiously for their arrival. In the meantime, he bought himself a new Macintosh LCIII, souped up to 32 RAM, and a 4X CD ROM player. His biggest expense was a 17-inch Radius color monitor, for 1,549 bucks. The color monitor was a rarity then, used only by graphic designers. But now he could see the cards in full color at almost life-size.
He explored several methods: John Patrick's, confusing and almost esoteric; the High-Low, the Differential Count, the Ratio Count, etc. He settled on the High-Opt I with an Ace Side Count. The first CD ROM he received was Casino Master, which was very good, but he was later amazed and captivated by Casino Island: a virtual blackjack table, you could even hear the cards snapping and the chips clicking; only that it seated only four instead of seven.
When he felt saturated after a whole blackjack deck, he could switch to any of the seven kinds of poker---his favorites Draw and Texas Hold'em---the American or European roulettes, and 9 kinds of slot machines, including Fast blackjack. Until now, El Químico had used marijuana as a rare, ultimate escape, when he wanted to vanish. Now he found that it's properties allowed him to concentrate on the screen, uncertainty forgotten, time slowed down, and the game became easy, understandable, even rational. The counting of every hand at a glance, the conversion to the True Count, and adding the Ace Side Count, and getting a mental number, -3 or +4, whatever, in seconds, became not a habit but an instinct.
He had a formidable IQ
and a photographic memory,
but he disliked math.
El Químico bought a second hand exercise bike, clapped his graphics to the bars, and while sweating and burning lard, he memorized such arcane moves as the advisability of splitting 9s on a count of +2 when the dealer shows a 10 card. He had a formidable IQ, supported by a photographic memory that he had never really put to use before. He disliked Mathematics, but could handle them if it was to his own benefit. And what waited ahead were money, free time, no taxes. Paradise. Freedom.
So he went on first thing in the morning with the most rudimentary exercises-over several cups of coffee and chain smoking Gitanes---what he called his matutinos: virtual reality couldn't replace the touch of true cards. Boring, but essential, after all he was becoming a professional gambler, an athlete of the mind. To lift weights as opposed to lifting dollars. The first consisted on counting two decks of red Bicycle cards to improve his counting speed.
With the aid of a cheap chronometer he calculated his results, always reaching the final count, number-zero if he had made no mistakes---before 45 seconds elapsed. For the other exercise he had tied with Scotch tape 16 half-decks, and calculated how many there were on the shoe at any time, taking off and adding, eyes closed, then looking from different angles and then guessing. It was an overkill, but which later would prove invaluable in Canada, where eight decks were dealt. And then, his computer sessions, first with Casino Master and later on with Island Casino. He kept detailed accounts of every session, and tried to figure out his mistakes, his bad decisions.
The time arrived when he was sick and tired of computer simulations, and ached for the real McCoy: gambling in a real casino for real money. By this time he had kicked the booze, lost 25 pounds, and could use again some of his old clothes. He dressed in a nondescript suit, with a blue shirt, no tie. He was assuming his innocuous M. Intosh impersonation. He took with him only one grand. Enough to feel secure, and to give him the chance of betting a 500 bucks chip if the opportunity was almost sure-fire, but without the temptations of high-rolling.
The Greyhound took about three hours to reach Atlantic City, and it was a pleasurable trip, the trees in their autumn red and gold livery. He avoided playing with his hand held computer, and read only TIME and Newsweek. Approaching a town he knew from his Monopoly playing days: they had only an English board. But there the similarity ended, and the reality was awesome. As he sauntered through the Boardwalk, he gazed at all those tall, sleek, casino-hotels. That infinity of neon bulbs flashing. Even if he knew New York and Miami upside down, this one seemed the quintessential American city: garish, loud, boisterous, even vulgar, but exhilarating. Like a peroxide blond hooker with big tits. You could smell money. Las Vegas must be like that, only bigger.
Would-be gambler, El Químico, hardshell atheist---he preferred to describe himself as a dialectical materialist---all of a sudden became superstitious. He had picked the day of his debut carefully: a Martes 13. Ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu familia te apartes. Well, he was physically unable to have marital relationships---a lofty euphemism for eunuch---had no family to speak about, and he wasn't boarding a ship. It was a voyage of a different kind, into the realms of chance.
Money never meant anything for El Químico. He grew up on a moneyless land. He ate out of necessity, and drank out of boredom, not because he found those activities interesting. His only luxury was to go once in a while into that posh tobacconist on 37th street and buy himself a good Cuban cigar disguised under a Honduras green tax stamp. He worked just across the biggest drug supermarket in town: the park behind the New York Public Library. But he stuck only to marijuana and always bought from the same Puerto Rican pusher, Manolo. He paid an extra 5 dollars per bag, 25 against the customary 20, but he got the most potent and exotic varieties.
And now here he was outside the temples of sin, since in Cuba gambling was the ultimate sin, and even to play dominoes for money was a crime. Of course he had done that, and also played 7 1/2 for pesos. But that was like jaywalking compared with the step he was about to take. Initially, he had thought of playing in one of those all night shebangs, with eight decked rigged shoes, for a buck a bet, just to taste the feeling of the real table.
But as he came in front of Caesar's Palace he threw all precautions to the wind. That meant betting from 5 to 500, but what the fuck. By now he could feel the exhilarating effect of the three Ritalins he had downed with coffee at a nearby Dunkin Donuts. So in he came, feeling like a panther reconnoitering its domain. It was about 4:30 PM, and the gambling had just started. "Dealer-must-hit-soft-17s" and six decks. Good enough.
He surveyed the carnage, and approached a table with a male, clear mulatto dealer; only a couple sitting there, obviously well to do retirees. He sat at 1st, base, and bought 100 in small 5 buck red chips and a single blue 100. He played the first shoe, neither winning nor losing, his responses almost mechanical, playing on automatic-pilot, counting coming as if a reflex; but with the second shoe he began not just to appraise the value of the cards the old couple were being dealt, but also their decisions: they didn't know shit from Shinola what the game was about: they would stand on a 15 stiff when the dealer held a 10 card. They would take Insurance when the Ace side count was +3; they would split 10s, and raise their bets with a True Count of -3. Breaking every fucking law ever written.
He felt his confidence soaring, and from then on he felt in control of the table, of the game. Playing coolly, with small raises once in a while. Impeccably, emotionally detached, just like playing Chess, although here, even with all his patiently acquired skills, 30% of the game was still plain luck.
It was at the very end of the second shoe that his chance came. Only half a deck left, and a True Count of +3. He peeled four Ben Franklins from his worn wallet and bet 500. The old geezers gazed at each other, surprised by the boldness of this stranger who smoked pestilent alien cigarettes. But who knows? Maybe he had had an inspiration. So they raised their bets to 20 bucks.
He got 9-2 against the dealer's crippling 4. He bought more chips and doubled. Only then the dealer looked at him with interest, and recognized him for what he was, not just a skilled player, but a sharp. El Químico delicately tipped him by placing 50 bucks in chips in the green baized middle ground. Got his only card, a red Jack, for 21, an unassailable hand. The dealer busted with 4-8-10. El Químico had just won a grand, three weeks wages, in just 10 seconds. The dealer, since they aren't allowed pockets, put his $100 tip aside, with a sly smile, almost smirk, of complicity.
The geezers and a buxom housewife who had just joined the table watched amazed and greedily how the black and blue chips changed hands, and wondered if they should have bet much more. El Químico pocketed his chips: no need to change them today: there was plenty time for that, and there were plenty more where these had come from. They bulged nicely on his jacket pockets.
He went straight for the portable bar, and asked for a double straight Scotch, whichever. He tipped the skimpily dressed waitress with a 50 chip, the first he fetched from his pocket. Black leather miniskirt, long succulent legs clad on fishnet stockings, transparent white blouse proclaiming to world and custom alike that she wore no bra, no need. Long brown hair and huge hazel eyes. She looked at him invitingly. What a disgrace to be a castratum, Dios, all that rosy flesh, that juicy cunt, his for an hour for 200 bucks, and he had the means and the desire, but instead looked away ashamed, frustrated, all his former joy burned to ashes.
Yes, definitely he could make a living in these tinsel palaces. But he could never buy a beautiful, fulfilling throw. ##
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