Comfortable and Furious

The ABC’s of Gambling

A: Don’t gamble.

Bridge Jumper: This is a horse racing term for a player who lays a huge sum of money to win a small amount on a big favorite. For example, you might bet $100,000 on a horse that is a heavy favorite to win just to show (finish in the top 3), figuring you’re almost a lock to win a years’ worth of interest on your money in a few minutes. The key word is, of course, almost. If the favorite stumbles and the bridge jumper loses $100,000 chasing relative peanuts, look out below.

Casino: I don’t know if there’s any bigger disparity between the representation of something in advertising and the reality of that thing. I’m getting to the point where I’ve spent more hours in casinos than I spent in school and I still haven’t seen that dashing, tuxedoed man with a glittering dame at his side, the pair of them consumed with a childlike glee as they rake in yet another winning bet at the roulette table. I have seen lots and lots of people who use mobility scooters because they are so fat.

Debt: Ben Franklin was right. Don’t borrow, don’t lend. There are guys who become famous on the foundation of borrowing small fortunes and never paying them back, like Erik Lindgren and God knows how many others. But you can probably do much better swindling old ladies, if cheating is your bag. The existence of borrowers is not nearly as perplexing as the existence of lenders. Unless you are a juice lady (see below), why would you loan someone money knowing for a fact they are going to use it to gamble? Yet, even among pure degenerates who only play blackjack and pai gow, it is a common practice.

Eating: Perhaps the best thing about the world of gambling is that, in most places, you’re going to eat pretty well, thanks to comps. And buffets are only a small part of the equation. I’m no high roller, but I eat at some ridiculous, trendy, Patrick Bateman place for free many weekends. Even if you’re a casino worker, you’ll probably get a break on some top-notch food. Outside of Vegas, casinos might not have the clout to make Thomas Keller dance for your amusement, but they cater to a swarthy clientele from distant and backward lands. That means you’ll often have a chance to try solid examples of food from places like Iran, Freedonia or Vietnam.

Football!: Everything loathsome about the male of the species comes out here. Millions of couch potatoes who think that by watching a game or two on Sunday and listening to chatter clowns on sports talk, they can beat the NFL. Now, it’s just a given that your average fan knows the game better than coaches and players. Anyone who’s listened to a call-in show on ESPN radio for five minutes knows that. But they can also predict outcomes better than the bookies who set the lines and the pro bettors who move the lines.

The basis for all this expertise? Ego. Unfounded assertiveness. I’m me, therefore I am good at this and know everything about it! So, they line up to beat one of the hardest sports there is and lose money year after year, deluding themselves about the results. Almost any sports bettor you talk to will say he wins a bit more than he loses. Thats why his bookie drives a Porsche.

Gratuities: If you’re a losing gambler, you’re degenerate. If you’re a winning gambler, you’re a parasite in society. The one redeeming quality of the gambling industry as a whole is that it provides a handful of good jobs for non-college educated people and those with degrees in the humanities. When you win, take care of the dealer. Order a drink and give the lady a dollar. Two bucks if she looks like a frayed single mother. It’s your one chance to not be completely worthless.

Horses: Though I bet on Orb to win the last Derby and got lucky, I don’t know shit about horse racing. It’s not a game Id learn because, though its beatable, you have to be an elite to do it. The takeout, i.e. the amount of all the wagers that the house pockets, is close to 20%. When you are betting $100 to win $80, you have to be right a lot of the time.

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However, I went to Santa Anita for something to do one day and had a ball, betting $2.00 a race and eating good food and found something fun to do a few times a year. If you approach it that way, it’s barely even gambling. Derby weekend (which is also Cinco De Mayo and, invariably, the week of a huge boxing match) is one of the two best times to be in Vegas, behind only Halloween. And heading out to a beautiful track like Del Mar or Santa Anita is a lock for a good time, and one of the best things to do in LA. Sadly, this pastime is dying off, with the kids all hooked on video games, Pepsi cola and MTV. So, enjoy it while you can. Also, HBO had a great show with Luck, and it’s a crime that they canceled it in favor of a bunch of puerile crap about dragons and vampires.

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Indians: As it turns out, in states where gambling is illegal, it is legal for casinos to be opened on the reservations of those Indians who have paid off enough politicians. Its somewhere towards the back of your state’s constitution. These joints mostly attract hard core degens, willing to drive hours to the middle of nowhere for gambling with few frills and bad odds. Perhaps the single most naive thing I ever did was carpool to San Manuel with my Filipino neighbor, never guessing that I’d be stuck there for 17 hours. The Indian casino experience is typified by ATM fees that are analogous to a crack dealer insisting on being sucked off. You’ve got an addiction to feed. What are you gonna do, drive to the gas station 8 miles away to save money on ATM fees? You’ll also overpay for bad food and learn that free cocktails are forbidden by The Great Spirit. What did we ever do to these people?

Juice Lady: Sounds like an old woman who sells gourmet lemonade at the farmer’s market. In reality, the juice in question is a 100% weekly interest rate (seriously) and the lady in question is a loan shark.

Juice ladies can often be spotted sitting at a table in California card clubs, playing $5.00 a hand, waiting for people occasionally walk up and give them money. There are juice men too, but the idea of them isn’t as entertaining. I’ve seen one juice man get sucked into playing pai gow tiles and wiped out himself, probably up to his eyes in debt with a juice lady. Can’t say I felt too bad for the guy.

Kournikova: Part of the lore of poker is that a lot of starting hands in Texas hold ’em have nicknames meant to be funny or clever. It’s almost charming how unfunny and unclever most of these actually are. For example, Jack/Five = Motown because of the Jackson Five. Only one of these nicknames has ever been funny. Ace/King was often called, “Ann Kournikova” during her prominence because it looks good but never wins.

Lotto: Some say, the lotto is a tax on people who are bad at math. I love this slogan because I enjoy watching arrogant pricks attempt to trumpet about how they are smarter than thou, but fall on their faces. If you enjoy playing the lotto, then you’re getting what you pay for in consumption value. The chance of winning is microscopic, but it’s still better than your chances of winning millions if you entertain yourself by seeing a movie.

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Music: Casinos have their draws as businesses: gambling, partying and food. So, their next job is to be pleasant to as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible. Every casino in the world has arrived at the conclusion that the best music for these goals is popular music from 15-40 years ago. Sometimes they try to get clever with it. The Venetian has Stacey Qs Two of Hearts, in heavy rotation, for example. I probably heard it 75 times before I thought out of all the songs in the world, why would you… oh… because the two of hearts is a card. Ingenious. But several casinos have Twisted Sister in heavy rotation for reasons that are mysterious. I think the song I’ve heard more than any other is Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I’ve come to realize it’s a pretty good song.

Newbies: Beginners luck sounds like a superstition, but it’s kind of a real thing. Let’s say you play blackjack a couple of times and lose all the money you brought with you. You’re likely to say this is the stupidest thing on earth. Next weekend I’m just going bowling. You’ll forget gambling and gambling will forget you.

But, suppose you get lucky and win a month’s pay in your first couple of trips to the tables. Now you’ve got a dragon to chase and are more likely to be hanging around with a bunch of other smelly, car-living sacks a few years down the line. So, your peers, the casino employees and other people around gambling will know a disproportionate number of people who’ve had beginner’s luck.

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Online Gambling:

Gambling on the internet is like being a prospector in the 1800s. If you find the right spots, you could make millions. The fact is that, with such low overhead and such vast player pools, online gambling offers you the best chance to make your fortune.

There are plenty of online resources to help get you started. One of the best to learn the basics of playing real money poker online is

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Poker: I love poker because the money it makes me has gotten me through some tough times and, though I’ll never be in the big games, I always have a plan b. I hate it because of everything else about it. It brings out the worst in most who play. It takes work to prevent it from turning you into an asshole too. If you think first world problems are ludicrous, how about a guy who makes a nice living without a job or a boss, spends his time playing cards in high end resorts and who works whenever he feels like it, bitching and moaning endlessly about his bad luck because he lost a single hand in which he was a 65/35 favorite?

Quiet: This is something you’ll have to find in your room or at home. Particularly at the big casinos, the din is a carefully woven tapestry of piped in music, crowd noise and slot machine sounds. If you walk all over one of these places trying to find a sweet spot where it dies down, so that you can call in sick to work without a machine saying Wheel… of… Fortune! in the background, it becomes clear that this is one more aspect of the casino that is designed to manipulate. As soon as one sound starts falling off, the next one starts picking up. They want to keep your brain stimulated and will do everything in their power to prevent a moment of reflection.

Your room, however, is a tomb. Not only is it dead quiet, your curtains are made out of those bibs you put on for x-rays, allowing you to crash and recharge with maximum efficiency in total darkness, any time of day. This stark contrast underlies the flow of the casino vacation. Long periods of relentless stimulation and expenditure, separated by short periods of comatose restoration, allotted so you to get back to it as soon as possible.

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Rail Birds: OK, there is one other legitimately funny poker expression. I learned this term in online discussions before ever going to a real casino. It refers to people who have no money left and so decide to become spectators. I laughed out loud, and still sometimes do so, upon seeing a lineup of grubby unfortunates, all leaning on one of the brass rails that surround most poker rooms. Indeed, they perch in a row and just sit there like birds. The big games are run elsewhere, so rail birds typically pass the hours watching the lowest stakes game, where a day’s winnings or losses are usually under $100. They criticize the play of those in the game and hope or ask for the occasional handouts. But they are usually not full-blown shoe shiners (see below). When lacking money for play, this is what they want to do.

Shoe Shiners: If you’ve only gambled at higher end or mid-range or almost-half-decent casinos, you might not have run into the most remarkable of all casino denizens. They are in LA card clubs and off-off The Strip. They cheerlead winning players hoping for tips. And yes, they often refer to handouts as tips, and will sometimes even get mad if a dealer is tipped and they are not. The shoe shiner is also a fountain of free advice. Their advice is always to do the opposite of what you were about to do. If you are leaning towards staying on 16, they will tell you to hit. If you are leaning towards hitting, they will tell you to stay. That way, they can always take credit for contributing if you win and ask for a crumb.

Shoe shiners often just flat out beg or harass people for money. They steal food off people’s plates. They take any opportunity to inject themselves into drama, so they can feel relevant. They regard themselves as meaningful characters in the play and, well, look at all I wrote about them.

Low end casinos tolerate shoe shiners because they gamble away whatever small sums they come into from welfare, family members who are soft touches and other outside sources. Over the years, I imagine the losses of a decent pool of shoe shiners add up. Similarly, they tip casino staff just enough to tolerate them and I guess a few dollars here and there from the shoe shine swarm adds up over a year. The only downside is that no sane person ever comes to that casino twice.

Touts: A tout is a guy who sells his sports betting picks. Many people revile all touts on the view that even honest touts are scamming their customers. The reason for this is, even if the tout is legitimately good at making picks, the advantages in sports betting are so small that customers will be hard pressed to earn money with the added cost of paying for picks. I don’t really have a problem with selling picks if you’re honest about it. If anyone offered me money for my picks, I’d sure as hell take it.

Anyway, the more interesting touts are the con artists who make up the majority. These are the motor mouthed boiler room operators you hear on sports radio stations. (Rule of thumb: everything advertised on radio is a scam.) They bet imaginary money on numbers that don’t exist and claim the non-results as wins. They might have multiple characters that they play on the radio, each with different sets of picks, guaranteeing that some of them will always be on a hot streak. How is this legal? Fuck if I know. But rest assured, these men are charlatans. If you’ve ever coughed up money to one, you lose your right to laugh at your girlfriend for paying a psychic.

Under: For a long time, you could make money on sporting events just by betting the under. Why? Because it’s fun to root for teams to score points, people liked to bet on the over and so bookies sold it to them at an inflated price, creating value on the under. Many say you should still lean towards unders. In combat sports, I find its the opposite. Everyone wants to root for a knockout and watching the fight hoping for nothing to happen is not only less entertaining, it’s stressful. So, everyone wants to bet the under and you can get a good price on the over. The moral of the story is that you should look for uncomfortable and unpopular bets in gambling. For example, if you bet against your kid’s little league team with all the other parents, you’d almost certainly clean house.

Vegas: Baudrillard’s muse is the gambling capital of the world, as long as we apply the 3/5ths compromise to Macau. The strip is a sparkling collection of architectural marvels and facsimiles of architectural marvels, gluttonously consuming energy and water that are drawn into the middle of the desert. The Golden Nugget is the 42nd largest hotel on earth and the 25th largest in Vegas. VIP doesn’t refer to someone who drinks for free, but someone who’s been duped into paying $400 for a bottle of cheap vodka. But you can still get a steak for a few dollars if you know where to look, or a decent house for $100,000. There are people who make $60,000 a year parking cars.

There are girls who make well into six figures sitting with foreign businessmen as they are gauged on Champagne, with no hanky-panky (seriously). There are strippers and prostitutes who barely sustain themselves and there are areas that look like scenes from Robocop. Pretty much the whole place happened solely because of quirks in American gambling laws. Just under two million people live here. The population growth is not all attributable to gambling though. Before the casinos, the construction of the Hoover Dam triggered a surge in population from 5,000 to 25,000.

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Wynn, Steve: The son of a bingo parlor operator, Wynn is the man most responsible for the perpetual one-upmanship that drives the resorts on Vegas strip. He started with The Golden Nugget, moved to the Mirage, moved on to the Bellagio and went from there to his masterpiece: The Wynn. His guiding principles: Everyone feels like a high roller just by walking in the door and surveying the splendor. No customer shall pay less for a 16 oz soda than for a gallon of gas. An ordinary muffin and coffee shall be sold for the cost of a dinner at Chilis. Free internet is an offense to God. In other words, his places are very pretty and the prices of the rooms and nice restaurants are reasonable, but they’ll quietly violate you each day with resort fees and 600% mark ups on smaller items.

This is especially effective in their business because many of their customers are too proud to complain about seventeen-dollar hamburgers and some of them take pride in overpaying for such things. Finally, everybody gets a kick from telling the people back home that they stayed at The Wynn. Not only will this attract them as customers, they will become micro-PR men for the next few years, taking any opportunity to discuss their lavish stay at the high-status resort and the time they paid seventeen dollars for a burger. Wynn’s keen understanding of human nature and how to exploit it has led to a fortune of $2.5 billion.

[Fun fact]: Wynn is a vegan and all of his restaurants have several vegan options. His employees had to sign for and take home a video on the virtues of veganism.

EX-gamblers: Gambling addicts might be the most annoying people in the world. Selfish, entitled, pushy, arrogant, needy, superstitious, dishonest and full of boring, boring stories. Many of these are character traits that lead to addiction, rather than unfortunate byproducts of it. So, it’s unfortunate that the addiction is rarely lethal. Few ever recover, or really want to, making the ex-gambler a rarity. The ones I’ve known who got over it had some level of decency. The assholes stay forever and dish out much more misery than they absorb.

Yellow Fellows: Asians love to gamble. Of all the racial stereotypes floating around, this is the most resoundingly true. Unless you spend a lot of time around gambling, it’s difficult to convey the magnitude of Asian gambling. When I worked in casinos, it almost immediately became the case that most of the people I worked and socialized with were Asian. I had friends who I didn’t think of as heavy gamblers and who did not regard themselves as such, who would casually win or lose 10% of their annual income on a trip to Vegas.

I infiltrated their ranks to the point where I could comfortably ask, what the hell is wrong with you people? and the most common answer was just that it’s ingrained in the culture. For example, home games centered around playing variations of cards and tiles are a mainstream social activity that comes into play on many occasions, crossing age and gender lines. I guess it’s kind of like drinking, and how American whites think it’s fairly normal to get blackout drunk dozens of times in your teens and twenties.

In any case, once it was properly opened up for gambling, Macau quickly surpassed Vegas for gambling revenue. That doesn’t stop Vegas from heavily catering to Asian players with restaurants and promotions designed specifically for people who live on the other side of the world. I don’t have statistics but I’m quite comfortable saying that, in the California card clubs where I used to work, more than half the revenue came from Asian customers, who make up 13% of California’s population. Those clubs are divided into two sides: the poker side and the California games (black jack, pai gow, pan-9) side. But everybody just calls the latter The Asian side. Most of the dealers and floor men are Asian too. We can only hope that this solitary but devastating vice is enough to prevent them from taking over the world.

Zero: The number on the roulette wheel indicating that the house just took everyone’s money. An amount greater than your checking account balance.



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