Monday, March 22, 2021

More Than Just A Coincidence

First, I'm sorry for not posting very much these days. Besides being busy trying to wrap up my second book, I've been on the mend lately. No, not COVID. Just aches and pains of pushing myself too hard digging post holes and repairing my stable. 

Instead of talking about Old West history, which seems to be what more folks are interested in these days, let me answer a letter to a long-time reader who wants to know if I gamble? I was writing an email back to answer her when I thought this might be a fun story to relate to you. It has to do with why I don't gamble. 

There are two Indian casinos relatively close to where I live. If either of them depended on my contributions to stay open, they'd close for certain. No, I am not a gambler by any stretch of the imagination. I've known people who were and are, but that's not me. 

Why not, you ask. Well, it has to do with a lesson that I was taught back in the early-1980s. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and found myself with about $400 in my pocket and two weeks off work. I decided that I wanted to get out of Dodge, as they say, and do a few things that I put off doing. 

Because I had worked many extra hours, I found myself with time off and money to spend on myself. So what did I want to do? Go camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in a place called Hope Valley. The camping was great there, quiet and beautiful, and the fishing was good in the nearby lakes. But before going camping, I figured that I would take a quick trip to Reno, Nevada, about an hour away from Hope Valley. 

I had always wanted to try every game in a casino in a serious way. Frankly, I had never really been a gambler simply because I saw it as throwing away hard-earned money. But, there was that part of me that wanted to try my hand at some serious gambling if I ever had the money to do it. 

After arriving in Reno, I checked out Reno for a bit before I pulled into a gas station to top off my Jeep. I then found the casino that my friends recommended as being "lucky." Before going into the casino, I had one of those steak and eggs breakfasts for $2 that were so common back in the day. 

After lunch, I wandered into the slot machine area and played for a little while until I was let into a poker game. It was Five Card Draw. I had played a little poker in High School and the Marine Corps, while it was not difficult -- it was a lot more serious.

I was actually surprised that I was ahead at that point. After playing poker, I played roulette for a while. Roulette is a game using a spinning wheel with either 38 red and black numbered pockets. Before the wheel is turned, players bet on where the ball will land. The roulette wheel is spun in one direction while the dealer sends a ball round it in the other direction. I learned that trying to will a ball to land where you want it to land is a silly exercise. One's chance with a poker hand sure beats waiting for a small ball to land where you want it to.

After roulette, I sat at a Blackjack table. As most know, Blackjack's goal is to beat the dealer's hand without going over 21. Each player starts with two cards. To "Hit" is to ask for another card. One of the dealer's cards is hidden until the end. Face cards are worth 10. If you go over 21, you "bust," and the dealer wins regardless of the dealer's hand. While this was one of those games you learn as a kid and play at home, I played in the Marine Corps. It was on that day that I learned the finer points of losing gracefully.

I followed my Dad's advice about playing Keno during dinner. And believe it or not, I got a little lucky at Keno. After dinner, I found a friendly crap table that held on to my attention for quite a while. After that, I was back at the slot machines. The night sped by fairly quickly. I had been there for hours of playing all of the games. It was late, and surprisingly I wasn't loaded on the "complimentary drinks." 

In those days, casinos gave out "complimentary drinks" to loosen up their "guests." While to the public, those the visitors are referred to as "guests" -- most casinos referred to those there as "suckers." And really, I doubt that's changed over the years.

It was about when I was playing the slots when I realized that I lost a lot more than I made that night. I figured out later that while I made a few dollars at poker and Keno, I lost at Blackjack, the dice table, and the slots. 

Just so people understand something about those days. At the time, gas was about .60 a gallon in California and Nevada. Cheap motels were all over the place. In Reno, casinos put out a steak and eggs breakfast for $2 just to get folks in their doors. While things were cheaper back then, we certainly didn't make the hourly wages that people are making today. 

As for our money going further, the $400 that I arrived with was the equivalent purchasing power to about $1,500 today. Of course, those were the days before ATM machines when needing more cash. In those days, you had to cash a check if you wanted more funds. And really, checks couldn't be cashed 24 hours a day. 

So now, it was after two in the morning. I arrived to try every game that I could, and I did it with no real luck at doubling my money. While I wanted to try every game there, I really thought, like most who go to casinos, that I would be able to double my money or better. Well, it was now going on three o'clock in the morning, and I had maybe $40 left of that $400. So much for doubling my money. 

A gal came through to offer a complimentary drink, and I asked for coffee. She was nice and asked if I wanted another whiskey and seven. I told her that I was getting on the road and heading out. I remember thinking about how I had my camping equipment in my Jeep and how I did have enough gas to get me to Hope Valley to go camping and home later. My Jeep was also loaded with my groceries. I remember thinking, of course, if worse came to worse, I could find a bank to cash a check in the morning. I was getting ready to leave when I was stopped while walking by a Wheel of Fortune dealer. 

Also known as a Big Six Wheel, Big Wheel, Lucky Wheel, and a Money Wheel, a Wheel of Fortune is a big vertical wheel where a player bets on the number it will stop on. The odds are conveniently the same as the number. The top of the wheel stood about 7 or 8 feet in the air. It was divided into 54 equal segments separated by pins or spokes. Each segment was associated with a number that corresponded to a dollar amount. The game also used two different symbols in the segments and have different odds if a symbol is selected. For example, the symbols are $1, $2, $5, $10 and $20 bills. If memory serves me right, there were two special symbols, a joker and the casino logo. 

The $1 bills pay at odds of 1 to 1, the $2 bills at 2 to 1, the $5 bills at 5 to 1, and so on. If I remember right, the joker and the casino's logo segments paid at the odds of 40 to 1. I've heard of some casinos used to have their logo pay at odds of 45 to 1 or even 50 to 1, but I've never seen that. A player has less and less of a chance to hit the $5, $10, and $20 because only a few segments have those bills. There are only two of the 40-1 joker and casino logo on the whole wheel.

The wheel is spun by a dealer, and the winning segment is indicated by a pointer mounted on a flexible piece of rubber or leather, which also rubs against the pins to impart friction and slow the wheel down. 

The house advantage or its "edge," which is the proportion of the stakes that the casino expects to win on average, is one of the highest of most casino games. That's why the game has been around for so long. Let's be honest here, casinos don't build their huge casinos and hotels by losing. The odds are always in favor of the house. It has the edge. 

I was not naive to the fact that the percentage is always in favor of the house. I knew that when I was playing slots, dice, roulette, and Blackjack. 

The dealer was a nice guy standing next to the wheel. He stopped me to say that I had a few of the people there talking about me. I was surprised by his comment and asked what that was all about. I remember how he told me that "guests" usually come in for an hour or so and then leave. Some of the casino workers thought I may have been some sort of a gaming inspector because I had been there playing so many different games for so many hours. Some there thought I was checking on things. 

I laughed and told him that those types don't hang around all day drawing exposure to themselves. Inspectors are usually in and out under the radar. I told him that I had some time off and was going camping. I told him what my visit was all about and how I simply wanted to play as many games as I could afford to play -- if for any other reason just so I can say that I did. 

When he asked me how that was going, I admitted that I was almost broke. I also told him that I was loading up on caffeine before hitting the road. It was almost 3am, and the place was fairly deserted. The dealer asked me if I had tried his wheel before he arrived for work?

I told him that I hadn't. He asked me why not since it is one of the games? When I again told him that I was almost broke by then, he asked if I had $20 left. When I said that I did, he said that I should put it on the Joker. The 40-1 spot. Yes, he wanted me to bet half of what I had left on one of the spots with the worse odds. The very worse. 

I remember telling him that I thought that was crazy. And looking back on it today, I have no idea what I was thinking. The place was dead at that time of night. More people were cleaning up the place, dusting, and vacuuming the carpets than there was gambling at the time. The bartender was restocking, and the gal with my coffee just walked up when I placed a $20 bill on the Joker. It was a crazy bet.   

The dealer nodded while replacing my $20 note with a $20 chip. He then gave the wheel a pull and showed me his open hands. I sat there talking with the dealer while trying not to show how much I wanted it to hit. The wheel ticked away. Fast at first. Then slower. And then it stopped. 

Lights came on, a siren sounded, and the dealer nodded. It landed on the Joker, and the dealer very professionally counted out $800 in chips. He then pushed the chips toward me. 

I looked at him and said thanks. He smiled and told me, "You're welcome. You should get this cashed in before leaving. You are leaving, aren't you."

Do I think my talking with the dealer in the dead of the night when he was bored and no one was around had something to do with how that Wheel of Fortune stopped? I don't know. But, it has always felt like more than a coincidence.

Tom Correa

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