I went to Atlantic City with $200 in my pocket, a smile on my face, and an overwhelming sense of pride. I came home with none of the above.
It was my 21st birthday, and I wanted to celebrate it in style. I wanted one of those parties that people talk about for years. I wanted my birthday to always be described by someone starting a story with “remember that time?” and it ending in a chorus of “man, that was awesome.” Atlantic City seemed like the only possible solution.
I convinced six of my friends to leave with me at 10:00 PM the night before, so that we’d arrive in the casinos sufficiently after midnight. The idea was to gamble for a few hours and be back in the city by about 7:00 or 8:00 AM, leaving enough time to sleep a little bit before class.
I had never seen Atlantic City, outside my sister forcing me to watch “Beaches” when I was nine. But this – nothing could have prepared me for this. I knew there’d be no clocks or windows – I had heard about how casinos wanted you to lose track of time. But when I got to the bottom of that escalator, I think I lost track of everything. I don’t really remember what the casino looked like, other than not being able to see more than one wall at a time. What stuck with me was the sound – the bells and whistles that put any ice cream man to shame, the happy shrieks and “yes!”s from every direction, and the marvelous, marvelous ching-ching-ching of constant payouts.
But I shook it off. I had a plan, and if you come to Atlantic City with a plan and stick to it, you can not be disappointed. Mine was to take the $200 out of my wallet and not spend any more than that. I was looking forward to playing at the tables all night, and more so, I was looking forward to being IDed.
Everyone wants to be carded the second they can prove they are legal. What I didn’t realize is that when someone is actually legal, they act like it and summarily do not get IDed. My quest to be carded failed, but this was Atlantic City and I could have fun other ways. I could have $200 worth of fun. Donald Trump may be a model-chasing loan-defaulter, but he builds one hell of a casino.
We split up, and I started at the video poker machines. Triple Play Poker is a great game if you know what you are doing. If that logic holds true, it is not a great game for me.
The idea behind Triple Play Poker is that you are dealt three of the same hand simultaneously. You can then choose which cards to keep in all three hands, so you get three chances to win at the same hand. It takes three quarters to play, but if you put in six quarters, you double your payout, and so on up to 15. This was my game – for the first half hour.
I sat down at one machine and in two games I had won $10. I figured that if I had been playing with 15 quarters, I could have won $50. But I wasn’t ready for the plunge yet, so I instead moved up to nine quarters at a time.
And I kept winning. I won $5. And another $5. And $10. And another $10. And I thought that if I had been playing with 15 quarters the whole time, I’d have won over $100. So I figured, “Why not?”
I, in the grand tradition of most gamblers before me, am an idiot.
Gambling can be fun even when you don’t win, so it must be phenomenal when you do. Maybe one day, I’ll find out.
It took me ten minutes to lose $80. 15 quarters didn’t seem like all that much while I was feeding the machines, but a broken man can still do math, and I realized I was paying $3.75 per game. $3.75 might be a good price for a sandwich, but it was too much to play a hand of video poker. If I really wanted to have fun, I’d have to play roulette.
If you have never gambled before – I mean really gambled – you probably don’t appreciate what I just said. But playing roulette after you’ve already lost a lot of money is like doing shots of tequila after a long night of drinking. You had the chance to walk away, get some sleep, and feel fine in the morning. But by the end of it, you are capable of nothing other than stumbling home a shell of your former self – if you even get home.
The only thing I knew about roulette was that awful line from “Passenger 57,” when Wesley Snipes said “always bet on black.” It seemed like a reasonable strategy, except that by the time I got to the table, black had come up three straight times. I put $10 on red, having faith in equilibrium. The cliche is that a fool and his money are soon parted. I find it astounding that they were able to meet in the first place.
Okay, no problem. I did some quick math and figured that to get my money back and win, I’d have to bet $20. On Red.
$40 then. Black had come up five times in a row. This was my spin.
I lost $70 in about eight minutes, and I’d have done it even faster if the croupier didn’t take so long setting up between spins. I had spent $150 of my $200, and I didn’t have enough to double my $40 bet. So I started again, and bet $10. On red.
I looked at the board and saw that black had come up eight times in a row. With my last $20, I damned Wesley Snipes, and did the only thing I could. I bet on black.
When I say my last $20, that assumes I was smart enough not to take any more money out of my account. But it was 3:00 AM, this was my birthday, and I had convinced myself that with enough money, it was impossible to lose at roulette as long as you kept doubling. So I took out another $200.
Like I said, I am an idiot.
I decided this time I’d bet on black from the beginning and I’d find a wheel that seemed to constantly alternate between black and red. I called my friends over to the roulette wheel I was eyeing because I couldn’t just be a moron and blow it all. Apparently, I needed witnesses.
I told them all my new strategy and bet $10 on black. And I won. For the first time since that first half hour of video poker, I won. It felt good, and I wanted so much more of it. So I bet another $10 on black.
But this time, the spin came up red. No problem. If you keep doubling, you can’t lose, right? You just have to go balls to the wall and trust the wheel. Or be flattened by it.
What I wasn’t realizing – or rather ignoring my friends when they were trying to tell me – was that if by some awful coincidence the wheel came up red ten times in a row, I’d lose over $10,000. But that couldn’t happen, could it?
You start each spin with a 50/50 chance. But if you walk up to a table cold, the probability that the wheel will be black on one of the first two spins is 75%, and within the first three, the probability rises to almost 90%.
That was $150. I had $50 left. I couldn’t double anymore unless I dipped into my account again, and that was finally out of the question. So I took $20, and I bet on black. If you walk up to a table and say “I want black for one of the next five spins,” your odds are at almost 97%. This was the fifth spin, and this spin was black. I knew it. I felt it with every instinct, every twitch, every last piece of faith I could muster. I may as well have bet everything I owned on this one spin, because I knew that god dammit, it was going to come up black.
I was glad I didn’t bet everything I owned on that one spin. I sat there, looking at my last $30, wondering if I should put it in my pocket and quit. I had been sensible enough to buy my bus ticket in advance so that I could get home without stopping at an ATM, so I decided to let it ride.
Don’t forget, I am an idiot.
I wanted to put the $30 on something that could win back all of my money. But just to be safe, I split it up. As a redheaded 21-year-old, I put $10 on red 21, another $10 on red, and another $10 on the middle third of the numbers. If red 21 came up, I’d win exactly $400, but even if it didn’t, I’d increased my odds to a 65% chance at winning something. This was my time. I had beaten the system. I should have done this from the beginning. But there was one flaw in my plan. I announced that I would get up and leave if I won. Never say that in a casino. Never say that near a casino. The wheel will hear you. Actually, the guys behind the cameras will hear you. But I’m sure they’ll tell the wheel.
It was time to go home.
Several months later, I got together with a group of my friends for a few beers. After a little bit of reminiscing, one of the guys told us that his 21st birthday was coming up, and he was having a small party to celebrate.
One of my other friends spoke next.
“Remember that time we went to Atlantic City for Steve’s birthday, and he blew $400?,” he asked. The table nodded their heads knowingly.
“Man,” they said. “That was awesome.”