Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Teaching / Society / Survival /
Mission: to see gambling in breadth

Gambling: Necessary vs. Foolish

Existence is a gamble. You can’t avoid it. What you can avoid are stupid and unnecessary risks.

When I head fast for the edge of a precipice, jump high and look down, I’m presuming there will be both snow and an outlet for my landing: I’m gambling with my life. (You also gamble … with all of our lives.) It’s the same when I wade into a lake I’ve never fished before. The water is stained black. The ‘gators will flee my approach: unless they’re mating or protecting a nursery. But the moccasins might well decide to hitch a free ride around my neck. No one knows I’m here. My transportation is hidden. Neither bicycle nor car would be found for some time.

The ‘gator will flee, but he might well flee right over me. If he’s decided just to hide from me and holds his position until I blunder against his flank, good-bye leg. Sometimes the four and five footers will hold their place until I’m less than ten feet from their hidey-hole in the weeds. If I’m watching nothing but my popper, I’ll still hear them turn tail. Whether or not I’m ever visited by an exception to my luck, I know the insects and nymphs are helping themselves to my flesh and fluids. I’ll feel some of those nips. What I first didn’t feel for decades I now feel within weeks: the new infestation of fungus: athletes foot, crotch rot, ring worm … Still, fishing naked in hot black water is like staying at the Hilton compared to wearing shoes in a stream in Maine: the most ferocious swarm of Florida salt march mosquitoes would be swallowed whole by any cubic yard of Maine no-see-ums; and as vulnerable as bare feet in hidden muck may be to someone’s environmental contempt, I never again want to remove my skin with my shoes whether or not I find that I’d pulped the leeches while they were busy at me.

Are these risks stupid or unnecessary? Not for me, they’re not. It was a far graver risk to have pedaled or driven to the lake. The chances of being bitten by a moccasin are remote. I see our chances of surviving civilization’s unchecked spread as zero. Walking naked into the lake is my respite from civilization. I’d take even greater risks for a few moments away from civilization. Simultaneously: I pay the risk as a penance. It is my will that once dead, any friend I might have will please defy the law and feed me piecemeal to my beloved bluegills. The pk flipping a coin on his way to Birdland never imagined that he’d be able to feed himself, even some of the time, in what little is left of wilderness.

I hope to return here to comment further on skiing and fishing, on how close skiing became to driving on the interstate (I don’t mean the danger, I mean the mechanization), how even fish are moving heartbreakingly closer toward cattle as they struggle ever less against us, giving up, committing suicide. Cows are as helpless as hospital patients. Maybe they’ll live, maybe they won’t: what does it have to do with them? But I initiate this file today to tell two stories related to ordinary gambling: gambling with money. (I’ll also hope to find time to comment on money as a proxy for life. There’s a huge remove into abstraction between the steeplechase rider and the receipt holder in the stands. Personally, I’d rather be trampled at the first jump than win a hundred thousand dollars from a piece of paper.)

I. As a kid, maybe nine, maybe eleven, my friend Rudy guided me to the carnival just set up between Rockville Centre’s not yet elevated railway tracks and Sunrise Highway. I’ve always liked rides; never paid any attention to knock-down-the-bottles-and-win-a-Kewpie doll. Rudy seemed to be into all of it. I was glad to be with him. I followed.

Rudy, a year older, my teacher, my leader, must have already scouted the place, because when we passed a booth where the carny invited people to bet on their ability to knock down a bowling pin with a ball swung from a chain, he warned me that nobody won. That was one bit of advice I didn’t need. Whatever was true of my fellows at Sunday School, I still took parts of my Puritan heritage, as I took parts of my Christianity, literally. I wouldn’t have put up a quarter if everyone won.

The carny invited us to try it. Free. No risk. But no prize either till our money was down. Rudy gave me a meaningful look but took the freebie. So did I. We each knocked the pin over easily. The carny thought he had him two fish. He looked surprised, betrayed, then angry when we declined. Rudy was ready to move on. I wanted to linger. Rudy got few balks from his slave and he tolerated this one at least for a while. We got dirtier and dirtier looks from the carny as we hung back to watch his other fish. We moved further and further back into the encroaching evening shadows. Finally Rudy left me. I stayed on.

The booth didn’t get a lot of traffic. I waited, not even aware of how much of a hunter I already was. It was always the same. Everyone knocked down 100% of the freebies; 0% once their quarter was on the counter. Some gave up after losing the one quarter. Some spent six or eight before grumbling away into the night. There was one guy who sauntered by a couple of times. The carny didn’t pitch him when no one was near, but did the one time others were in hearing. The guy knocked down his freebie, put up his quarter, bowled the pin, and walked off with a huge pink teddy bear. I didn’t have to have ever heard of a shill to be figuring it out. That part was easy. What kept me there was that I couldn’t understand how the guy controlled the path of the ball.

I finally gave up, found Rudy and went home. The next evening I didn’t need Rudy to show me the way. I planted myself within sight of the booth and watched. After a while the carny spotted me. He started his pitch … Then he recognized me: either individually or generically as a square. He chased me, threatening to break my legs if I ever came anywhere near his booth again. He didn’t chase me far or chase me hard: a fisherman has to stay by and watch his lure. I circled around and repositioned myself perhaps two feet further back in the shadows. My life’s second occasion of night fishing. My strike would come only in my mind. It finally did.

To this day I am satisfied with my hypothesis. I’ve never researched or tested it further. I’m satisfied I know how he did it.

2000 12 25 The other day I went fishing with a veteran worker at carnivals. I asked him. He didn’t believe that I had it right but assured me that every game is controlled by the barker. I told him about being shown some guy a distance from the ring-the-bell: win-a cigar-game who I was assured controlled the possibility of winning by changing the tension on the cable the weight slides up via a remote string. Naw, my companion said, the barker controls it. How? What’s the mechanism, I asked. It’s under the game, he said: hidden. So how does he control it, I asked. He answered that if too many people were winning, the barker had to wait till there was some slack in the crowd, then fix it.

He said further that the law required that any game be winnable by a five year old child. The carnivals comply with the law, he assured me. Indeed, they often let five year olds win the cigar: just not big, strapping he-men.

I certainly accept my friend’s expertise, but I don’t buy it as absolute authority on the matter. He’d worked putting the carnivals up and tearing them back down for travel for nearly forty years: that does not mean he’d designed them or installed the gimmicks. I still insist that the guy leaning on the counter might have been one way to tilt the swivel from which the ball was suspended off center, thereby changing the probability of a solid connection with the target.

The booth was a wooden structure. Easily struck, easily re-erected. The back and side left walls were covered with prizes. The counter had two strips of molding nailed to it in a horizontal “V.” The “lesser than” point of the V was aimed at the mark’s belt buckle; the “greater than” side opened toward the back wall. Time and again the carnie would snug the bowling pin within the V. Anyone could see the pin was in the “same place” time after time. The ball hung on a chain attached to the top frame of the booth by a swivel. Anyone could see that the chain didn’t twist, affecting its path. The carny lounged around the front of his booth, waiting for passing fish. Sometimes he worked the game from the dirt, sometimes from within the booth. He lounged near the customer more often. Indeed, he was most helpful. He gave lessons. Like a golf pro. He stand behind the fish to help line up his shot. He’d show them. Again and again. He never missed. Once the quarter was down, he’d move aside, leaving the guy plenty of elbow room, hike back into the booth and lounge against the counter, still leaving the fish a clear view of his target. Or he’d just move off to the side and lounge — that’s when I finally saw it — against the end of the counter.

I’d looked for confederates behind the booth, under the booth … Nothing. But he didn’t need confederates. All he needed to do was lounge against the counter near the front right upright once the quarter was down. Guaranteed miss.

I never built a model. I never measured whether leaning on the counter offset the swivel by one millimeter or two. I’ve always been satisfied. Left alone, the swivel was positioned so that any swing would contact the pin; any casual weight on the counter near the upright and any swing would breathe the ball through the pin’s neck. No contact.

I never had to waste a quarter to learn not to lose a second twenty-five cents. That may well be related to why I’ve so seldom made any kind of living. The market sees that the fish make enough to stay in the market. I know how to work the market: but I chose not to a hundred times for any one that I chose to do so. (And past forty-five, a player finds that the market doesn’t respond well to players it doesn’t recognize from yesterday.)

2006 03 03 In the 1945 Richard Rogers musical film of the play State Fair carnival gimmicks get a little attention: first ring-toss for a kewpi doll, then ring-the-bell-and-win-a-cigar. The father of the female lead (Jeanne Crane, making technicolor look good), a lusty if somewhat senile hog breeder, slams the mallet down on the peg with all his machismo, and no bell rings. Then an even more senile wimp rings the bell: great character actors coming out of your ears in that film. I used to assume that some clown, hidden amid the temporary scaffolding, could remotely alter the tension of the wire the bell clapper rises on, letting the twelve year old achieve the cigar while Charles Atlas fails. Not according to my neighbor mentioned above, the carny veteran. My bet is that there have been many instances where some clown with a remote does affect the outcome, but am content to believe that in most cases it’s more random. The crowd believes, falsely, that the ringing of the bell is related to brute strength while actually the ringing of the bell is related to a set of factors: the angle of the blow, the velocity at impact … Perhaps an impact of 80 or 100 mph will stretch any slack in the wire while a blow at 40 mph will leave the wire limp: so the clapper can rise to the bell. Perhaps the 40 mph blow will work only one of twenty tries. So long as one twelve year old can walk off with a prize by week’s end, the state’s law is satisfied.

Regardless of the actual mechanism and its physics, think of how rich a metaphor carny gimmicks are for everything in society. Presidential elections: you can’t be too too stupid and win, but you’d better not be too bright, too virtuous, too closely in touch with science, or god, or Thoreau.

I love the carny diction of win a cigar. Monday to Sunday of most weeks, most people want to know the model T costs $500, gum is a nickel, a subway token is a dime … or a dollar, or five dollars. We want things to have a price. But on this or that Saturnalian Friday night, we don’t want to buy the cigar for a nickel, we want to win it for a penny: even when seven or eight pennies later we still haven’t won it.

The robust if aging hog breeder doesn’t get the cigar; the dipsomaniac pickle judge does. Jesus gets crucified: then Peter, who denied him, is made Pope.

God, our myths have us to a T.

II. I’ve never been to Las Vegas. I have no interest in going. Even at fifteen when I loved the lights of Broadway, I would not have been attracted to the lights of a casino. Broadway meant that jazz was near. Maybe they have jazz in Las Vegas too, but it’s bound to be produced. The jazz I gravitated toward was casual. One night in the Vanguard, Miles hadn’t even shown up by 1 AM! (That’s not just casual: that’s contemptuous. But hell, he’s the best.) Minton’s was very casual. Monday nights at some of Harlem’s other clubs were guaranteed casual: no band, just jam session. No advertised names, but anybody might show up. Some guy who couldn’t even tune his guitar might be fumbling next to a known master.

I’d long heard that the show girls in Las Vegas were spectacular. So what? Once I was fifteen, my best friend was seventeen and could drive at night. When we were maybe sixteen, we filled Dick’s car with ourselves and some six-packs and drove to Union, NJ for some burlesque. We saw plenty of tit but the jokes were often as cruel as they were crude. One burlesque show and I knew: tit or no tit, it wasn’t under my hand, it wasn’t in my mouth. Even if she showed her pussy, it’s on the stage; my dick is no where near it. Years before, we’d seen a porno at the fire house. Yuck. It was so amateur, so ugly, it wasn’t even erotic. Spread open, the girls didn’t look anything like my Esquire calendar. The guys didn’t even take their socks off. As an adult I heard about the hundreds of gorgeous girls near naked on the stage. Is my face going to be in their lap by the end of the evening? Walk into any bar, go to any church picnic, and you might be surprised what any ordinary enough looking girl has once you’ve got her cloths off.

I have however been in Reno: twice, just passing though both times. How can you drive from New York to California and not pass through Reno? The second time I decided I’d look at a casino. I walk in. The first table I see is blackjack. I take what I think is a discrete distance. I stand. I watch. I’m not watching for any rigging of the booth. There doesn’t need to be any. Mathematics itself is all the rigging the house needs. I just want to watch people “voluntarily” attach themselves to a system guaranteed to erode a steady percentage of their money.

I haven’t been there for more than a few minutes when the dealer starts fidgeting. He looks at the players a little differently. He deals. He fidgets more. He looks around. He sees me. Problem solved. Very solicitously, he asks the players if they’ll excuse him for just a moment. He beelines for me. “Get the fuck out of here. And don’t come back. If I signal the office … We know how to deal with people like you.”

Did he think I was someone’s confederate? Perhaps a card counter waiting for the right time to move in? Could he have thought I was watching him for false shuffles? Maybe a cop of some sort? I don’t think so. I believe the parsimonious hypothesis is correct: he saw that I was immune. All but the parson are welcome at the orgy. Only drunks can come to this party. God! What if sanity were catching? note

I now know that magicians have ushers who know who to give the bums rush to. Beat them up in the alley. Then refund their ticket on their face.

Something comparable is true for any fraudulent enterprise. I know how Mailer sneaked his way into journalism: but how did Tom Wolfe ever get through the door? Our current Vice President once wrote an actually rational book. Was he faking the “reason”? or is he faking the politics?

Where knowledge of trickery is evenly distributed honesty not infrequently prevails.
Dashiell Hammett

There are the two stories I intended to tell. They’re about me as the n- in the woodpile. I say that if the society hasn’t crucified you in one form or another by the time you’re thirty-five, then your work isn’t likely to be very interesting. I say further that if no carny has ever offered to break your legs, then either you’ve lived in a monastery or you’re pure patsy.

[Bowdlerizing K., 2016 08 02 To me a syncopated word is even more offensive than the straight vulgar term.]

As I write, more stories occur to me. I’ll just string them.

III. In 1968 my wife and I broke in the Saab by driving west and back. We took three weeks to get to California and gave ourselves one week to get back to Waterville, Maine. We camped the whole way. Even in Berkeley we camped in the sense that colleague Robert Taft Olmstead and his friend, Chris Van Saltza, were in the mist of moving closer to Stanford: we slept on the floor of their old place. Heading back through Nevada we slept under water. The desert doesn’t drain worth a damn and it had just rained. We felt like a couple of Oakies in a campground that might well have been ugly when it was dry. Too wet to be comfortable setting up the Coleman, we accepted the proprietor’s recommendation of his own restaurant.

“Americans? Materialists?” my office mate had once snorted. “Americans are 100% spiritual. Have you ever had a hamburger in Nevada?” Well, we were about to. I never wasted my energy telling Bruce that contrary to his own emphatic assertions, he wasn’t always right. (No worry: he wouldn’t have heard.) But he sure was right about the hamburgers in Nevada. But the hamburgers and the rain weren’t the worst part. The waitress finally sidled over, shot her hip, transferred a tad of weight to her fist on the Formica table top, and said “Hi ya.” I’d been watching her. I couldn’t avoid it. On our first entering this slattern had a snot hanging a digit length from her nose. It rose and fell as she breathed, got longer and longer. The gob end just had to break off any moment now. But it never did. Now and again she’d give it a snuffle and up it would come like a yo-yo … only to suspend back down, shimmering a green translucency. I’d never been so disgusted by a woman but I was simultaneously hypnotized.

The waitress was not the only entertainment. We received a raucous account from a gal at the counter of how her boyfriend had gone up the drainpipe and in through her window the night before. She’d emptied her six shooter at him. “Gawan. Didn’t you hear it?” She can’t have been much of a shot because her apparent target sat there nodding and yucking. Whenever Hilary and I traveled, public contempt of Lyndon Johnson followed us. Just then people were throwing their dirty paper napkins at the TV.

There were plenty around as the one waitress didn’t seem to be much interested in her busing function so long as one table was semi-clear enough to pass as open for business. No. She’d shamble up to an abandoned mess, scratch around for tips among the debris and dream shuffle with the change to the one-armed bandit. In would go a coin, down would come the handle, three columns of fruit or whatever graphics would spin around, and in would go another coin. The waitress never watched the show. She was in her trance. The fruit would still be spinning and in would go another coin and down would come the handle.

Every several coins or so, some bells and shit would jangle and some number of coins would cascade into the tray. The waitress never looked at them. Never counted. In would go another coin, down would come the handle. Her snot would shimmer on its way up, shimmer on its way down. Eventually, the last coin from her tip would have gone into the bandit. She didn’t miss a beat. Her left hand now empty of coins, her right would go to the tray. In would go the coin, down would come the handle. The tray would thin of its treasure, the tray would noisily refill. Eventually the tray would empty and the waitress and her snot would walk the dining room once more.

Hilary and I hadn’t planned to have Nevada hamburgers. I took Bruce’s point for granted. I felt no need to verify it. You answer a Jehovah’s Witness’ ring at your door. The Witness probes neither your knowledge nor beliefs: the Witness just starts in preaching at you. If you were wearing a two thousand year bloodied crown of thorns, they’d never notice. Bruce never noticed whether he was preaching at pagans or to the converted. Talk about 100% spiritual: he was the sole inhabitant of his semantic universe.

“Whatcha want?” the waitress had inquired. “Do you have a menu?” “We got hamburgers. We got beans. Wednesdays we got meat loaf. This ain’t Wednesday.” “OK, hamburgers, rare, with everything.” Rare turned out to mean that no respectable saddler would have sold it as a boot. Well, we lay down long enough to get soaked, got back up and got the hell through the rest of Nevada as fast as we could. But thirty some years later I still think of that waitress. Perhaps the snot alone would haunt me forever but what I relive primarily is her playing the Bandit. She played until every last coin from her tip was gone into the Bandit. She kept on playing until every last coin from her “winnings” had followed. Then she shuffled off, shoved another shoe tongue at somebody, scooped up another tip from another pile of debris, and dream shuffled her way back to her bandit trance. It looked like a lot of time had passed since the faded dress she wore had been new (or cleaned). I wouldn’t accuse her of working hard or well, but she apparently put the time in. Did she ever take $1 home with her? What happened to her salary if her deal with the owner included one? If some dreadful series of events ever landed me back in that campground, would the same snot still be yo-yoing from her nose?

2012 11 17 I was reminded of that waitress the other day when I went to cash a couple of lottery tickets in a convenience store. My darling friend Carole stuffed my birthday card with scratch-offs. My party at the dance, celebrating Carole’s birthday too, netted me a half dozen tickets. I know nothing about this, never bought one, Carole showed me what to do, showed me which ones said they paid something out. $3 I had coming, but the tickets lay in my glove compartment from early September to mid November, finally I noticed a store likely to know what to do with them. I walked in, handed my trio of tickets to the Indian guy at the register as Indian children played among his feet, a woman in Hindu garb nursed a baby … He fumbled with them, and fumbled with them some more. “What do you want back,” he asked, his eyes darting everywhere but on me.
“You owe me $3, don’t you,” I asked, not too sure of myself.
“I know that,” he complained extremely peeved in tone. Then muttered something into the cash drawer about maybe I’d wanted to buy more tickets with the $3.
That waitress never would have taken home a dollar no matter what she won: that convenience clerk, part of the owning family I presume, didn’t want me to go home with anything. The state would take a big bite, he wanted to bite all of the rest: ad infinitum.

IV. I’ve already recounted how my “partner” David and I made of lot of money running the Columbia Refreshment Agency. In 1960 a couple of would be entrepreneurs asked the Columbia Placement Service to hook them up with a couple of young hot shots. One, a Columbia Alumni, had an idea for a business that would be and remain integrally associated with his beloved gambling on the horses. A Bernard Baruch nephew, one Perry Frank, married to a Schenck (heir to the flat tracks’ parking monopoly note)
was able to come up with the capital and still be chauffeured in his Schenck Rolls.

The scheme was to use a bank of Polaroids to reproduce the photo finish of each race. If a couple of young studs could click fast enough, tear after 60 seconds, slap the result into a paper frame, and run them to the Stephenson cigar stand monopoly fast enough, we’d soon know how many of the previous race’s winners would spend a buck of their loot for a souvenir.

David and I had just broken all records with one monopoly. We each got a nickel out of a twenty-five cent hot dog. Thousands of hot dogs; hundreds of dollars each. Per day. Of course we never touched the hot dogs. We had seventy-five slaves for that. The photo finish entrepreneurs guaranteed us a pittance. If it worked we’d discuss percentages. We figured if we could sell thousands of photos a day … Even if we settled for a nickel each, we’d be twenty-two and rich for ever. We met the money guys in a camera store. The store, hoping to sell hundreds of Polaroids had set up a trial room for us. We ran from camera to camera for about five minutes. “Forget it,” we said. “We’ll design you a system that will be better faster and cheaper.” Any photographer knows that you want a slow exposure for quality: careful, cool development, a slow fix, and hours to dry on a metal sheet. But quality was not an issue here. We made a negative. Zapped exposures for a micro-second with a 200 watt bulb, developed in half a second of hot bath, said “fix” out loud, and fried them dry in a mangle. Within five minutes of the end of the race we had a hundred repros. By fifteen minutes of next post time they were in all the stands. I didn’t even have to run. Next thing you know, we were selling enlargements in mass produced frames for $5.

Trouble was, we didn’t sell thousands of them. The bosses were disappointed, but what the hell: they still got to hang out in the Club House every day. David and I were disappointed, but hell … I was going to be drafted. David’s navy commission was still a few months off. So, as long as they paid us our pittance, we hung around for the whole season, even went up to Saratoga for August. But they had to understand that they would be it for us.

Meantime, our senior alum had another scheme. David accepted $5 an hour to research it. Executing it for a salary was offered strictly to me. It didn’t take me thirty seconds to decline.

Mr. 10 Fifth Avenue was the first source I ever knew for this idea. Since then I’ve learned that the idea is very common. On paper, David proved that it returns 500% on investment. Why then isn’t everyone at the track doing nothing else? Because the scheme works only if you stick to the scheme. “No one” can. That’s why they wanted me. I could. I could resist. Anyone else would start playing hunches as they saw the money bloom. There would go the scheme, there would go the bloom. Other people’s gambling profits would mean no more to me than a line of ants on the sidewalk.

The morning line is based on past performance. The pari-mutuel is based on bets actually placed. The track paid out 85 cents on each dollar bet, keeping 15 cents for the state’s and its own well-gardened subsistence. The scheme is: compare the morning line to the pari-mutuel. If the betting windows are about to close and the pari-mutuel resembles the morning line, stand pat. Keep your hands in your pockets. You’ll lose 15% on average. But: the morning line is as rational as they could make it; the pari-mutuel is determined by irrational gamblers. So, if the horse is 6-to-1 in the morning line and 20-t- 1 near post time, haul ass to the betting window. Expect to lose five out of six times. Trust the morning line. But when you win, you don’t recoup minus 15% on average, you recoup 20-to-6 minus 15%. Whopping profits. “500%”

It doesn’t work because the beneficiary will inevitably start making additional bets, having hunches, departing from the scheme. The boss wanted me because I was the only person he had ever seen who seemed wholly immune to the bug. Somebody would give me $2 as a tip “to put on a horse.” I’d put it in my pocket. He figured that pk would follow the scheme and only the scheme if that was the assignment. pk wouldn’t give a shit whether the boss made $1,000 a race or lost his shirt. That part was right. But I’d had enough of life among the lost souls of the Purgatory called Belmont, Aquaduct …

“But you can bring a book. Read Shakespeare for twenty-five minutes, make the comparison. If it says bet, it’s two minutes on the line. If not, you’re right back to your Shakespeare.” Maybe, but if I’m home I don’t have to look up to notice when it’s twenty-five minutes.

The Army had me in my own limbo. And then it had me in hell. Soon enough.

Those two guys though, if they’re still alive, I’ll “bet” they are still in the Club House.

Also see: Refreshment Agency
2015 09 10 I’m watching a DVD of a movie, 21: same idea: MIT professor recruits math whizzes to execute his system. They develop their own language, a code where ordinary words stand for specific probabilities. The team counts the cards played from the shoe, then signals a team member to enter at high stakes once the shoe, is advantageously loaded. They do well till Jim Sturgess’ protagonist gets cocky, abandons the system, starts actually gambling.

Difference, Discrepancy
2013 03 19 Just watched Brad Pitt’s Moneyball.


Pitt plays a baseball general manager who buys into an idea that cybernetics-assisted cost-benefit analysis can build a winning team. See? That’s exactly the same perception. See further that it’s exactly the same as Jimmy the Greek’s description of his winning behavior in Las Vegas: know the percentages, bet against whoever isn’t following them. That is: don’t bet your hunches, bet against the guy who’s betting his hunches.
(And bet against the public when the public is, as usual, following its hunches!)

I gamble with my life. The culture gambles (a bad gamble) with all our lives. Give it time and we’ll all lose. The times I’ve gambled with anything resembling money I can count on three fingers of one hand.

1. In the summer between sixth and seventh grades my friend Lenny and I played poker with toothpicks. “Let’s play with pennies now,” he said. “No.” “Come on … What can you lose? Pennies.”

I was fond of my times with Lenny and didn’t want to alienate him. I’d even pretended to be hypnotized once after he’d ordered a pamphlet from a comic book ad. What to do? “OK,” I said. “Just this once. Then never ask me again. But we’ll play with the toothpicks, same as before. Two toothpicks equal one cent.”

We played. I won. I’d often won with the toothpicks. I won when they represented pennies. I don’t think too much time passed. I think Lenny was pissed off at losing. He announced he’d had enough. He wanted to pay me. We counted the toothpicks. Thirty-five. I’d won seventeen and one half cents. “I’ll give you a quarter,” he said. “No,” I responded. “All I’ll take is an IOU. Write it out: ‘I, LA, owe pk 17 1/2 cents’.” “What in the world for? Here. Take the quarter.”

“Because,” I said, “this is my only venture into gambling. With the IOU I can always prove that I quit when I was ahead.”

2. I’m thirty-something. An old friend’s step-son’s Bar Mitzvah is coming up. Hilary and I haven’t spoken anything but short words in years but for this occasion we’ll actually drive up to Westchester together. I decide to spend the night in my office down of Lafayette Street to have a head start on picking her up from Morningside Heights. I work till I can’t stand it, want to get to the pull-out couch early, but really really want to play a couple of games of backgammon first.

My favorite girlfriend had taught me. Poker is a game that doesn’t really make much sense to most people unless they have something “at stake.” Not too many adult imaginations are enough. Backgammon too makes the most sense as adult gambling. But I love the patterns, the pure probabilities. Backgammon plays like music. Feeling that way, one doesn’t find too many partners. Before long it’s let’s play for pennies all over again. Then nickels. And so forth.

I insert another story from the track. By the time David and I were upstate in Saratoga, we’d been hearing the horses names everyday for a couple of months. We arrive at the track in the morning and be each handed the morning line. Part of the job. I’d glance through mine. When a horse’s name jumped out at me, I eventually took to writing the number I heard next to it’s name. At the end of the day I’d stand with my marked line and review it against the final pari-mutuel board. My sense was “always” right.

One day mid-August one of the degenerates who knew who I was, obviously without actually knowing me, said something like

Wow, what a day! I had three winners! How’d you do?
“Seven firsts, two place, one show, two races no-call.”
You’ve got to be kidding. Jesus. How many losers?”
You can’t be serious. How much did you win?
“Nothing. I don’t gamble.”
This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. What do you mean then: ‘Seven firsts.’?
I produced my marked line and showed him.
This is bullshit. Anybody could mark one of these up after the races is over. What’s with this guy?

Appealed to, David just shrugs. Still “friends” even decades later, he too has never really known me. Falls asleep when his wife asks me to read something. note I tell the guy I don’t give a shit whether he believes me or not, but for David’s sake I’ll make my marks publicly the next day, stow the line in the safe, and produce it for examination after the ninth race. They all knew neither David nor I would have time to monkey with it till the end of the afternoon. “The safe” wasn’t ours, but in the office upstairs.

The next day I look at the morning line, first time with an audience. Not much hits me but I mark what I feel: something like five firsts, no place or shows, four no-calls. End of the day, one to one correspondence. No errors.

Publish a sheet. No handicapper has ever had that percentage.

No. You still don’t get it. (I’m now paraphrasing both parts.) I don’t summon these impulses. They just come. I don’t trust them. I just have them. They’re pure. Nothing depends on them. Were I to bet on them, or to publish them, how do I know what would happen to them? Sure I’m proud that my impulses prove “right.” But it wouldn’t cost me much if they weren’t.

I play backgammon like a demon. Fast. Right. I’ll win a dozen games in a row, lose one, win the next eight … I love it. I don’t care about “winning”; I care that I saw the true rhythm. It’s music: math without any drudgery.

It’s a Friday evening. I know there are chess parlors in the Village. Maybe some of them play backgammon too. (Chess is another story in my life. But I wouldn’t really play it for another several years.) (Chess is another form of music. Unlike backgammon, chess I believe is antithetical to gambling. Or rather it’s something far more valuable than money that you’re gambling. If not your life, then certainly your ego. The loser at backgammon has every excuse; the loser at chess has none.) I call a couple of places. Finally, a parlor at 72nd and Broadway says they have backgammon boards and backgammon players. I drive uptown. A half dozen guys will be happy to play this newcomer. “What’ll it be? Fifty cents a point?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t bet. I just want to play.”

They all walked away. I must have looked very unhappy because one guy comes back. He takes my hand like a child’s and sits me down. “Look,” he says. “Time is money. We have to pay for the tables. We have to make a living. It doesn’t make any sense for us to play for less than fifty cents a point.” The guy must have been six four. His skin was very black, if you can call that undiluted African purple “black.” He had scars that didn’t look like they’d been put there by the shaman. A circular depression above his temple made him look like he’d been counter sunk by a crocket mallet. His left hand was in a cast. A very scary looking guy. What the hell. Let’s see how he plays backgammon. “OK,” I said. “I’m willing to pay for the time on the table. I’m willing to pay for my time with you if I lose. But I warn you. I have to get up early tomorrow. I play for one hour. Then I leave. No discussion.”

He started setting up the board. “Which color?” “I don’t care.” “Inner board left or right?” “You chose. I don’t care.” That got a bit of a murmur from the other regulars, but for the most part they had already forgotten us. Chess was their real game.

We play. I win the roll. I move. Wham! He slams the doubling cube onto the board. I shrug and accept it. Blitz. He beats me, the cube still at 2. He beats me a gammon. A couple of minutes, I’m down $2. He gammons me again. A couple of regulars start to gather to watch the fish get eaten. Side bets are offered and refused. One guy considerately explains that he’s offered to bet against me because my opponent made his five point at once, and I still don’t have mine. “It just hasn’t come my way. Give me time. I know about the five point. And the bar point. You’ll see.” My five point never comes but I win that one anyway. Then a gammon, then another gammon … I never lost another game. Chess was forgotten. Everyone had gathered. “Hour’s up. I gotta go.” “Hey, man, I’m down eighteen dollars. You gotta give me a chance.” “I told you: no discussion. I gotta go. Thanks.” We shake hands. He sticks his long legs out, slumps back, reaches for his greasy wallet. “Na. Forget it. I told you. I don’t gamble.”

“Just a minute, mister. A man has to pay his losses. If you lost, you bet I’d get my money.”

“I really don’t have time. OK, I’ll take the money, but I’ll pay for the table and your soda.”

Apparently this was not a scene that played often in that parlor. I was further slowed down by all the back-slapping. “How come we’ve never seen you before?” “Are you from out of town?” “Where do you usually play.” The proprietor was handing me parlor literature, trying to sign me up for his newsletter.

I play by myself. Both sides. I can’t find anybody who’ll play just for the game. When I do find a human opponent, I’ve won as many as thirty games in a row.

Now I’ve forgotten what the third finger is for. But I’ll be back. There are at least another couple of stories to tell as well. Stories in which I play no part but to relay them.

2005 06 09 A guy I was stationed with in the army loved to gamble. He’d take his girl to the track, go off to the windows, come back, show her his $2 ticket on whatever horse … What she didn’t know, what he was concealing from her, was his real bet for that race: $100 on the nose.
If she married him, I don’t doubt that she found out in due time.

There we were, twenty-three years old, conscripted into the army, promoted in a timely fashion to PFC, where we would remain till our time was up. We’d been assigned to a situation where further promotion was impossible: for draftees. Both this fellow and I had already not opted for officers training. I presume he too had qualified. Hell, we were both graduates from the Ivy League: he from Cornell, me from Columbia. $99 a month was what the army paid us: except that we’d been stationed where the army had no barracks, no mess hall. We had to house and feed ourselves. Oh, the army have us each an extra $120 a month for that. What!?!?! In New York City?!?!?
But: for Jake it didn’t much matter. He lived at home. His family was comfortable; not like mine. Jake was betting more than his monthly income on each and every race! nine of them a night!
Out of the army Jake became a buyer for JC Penny. I’m sure they paid him. But no matter what they paid him, I don’t doubt that his wagers were beyond what he could afford. My bet is that he fell eventually.

I tell the story not to embarrass Jake: you don’t know who he is anyway. But because I bet his behavior was not untypical. Indeed, the track put its $2 windows where all could see; for the $100 bettors, they had a private room: where his girlfriend couldn’t see him! You think the state didn’t understand what it was encouraging?

Can’t Lose Casino

2015 03 22 Yesterday’s article on a casino getting “winnings” back from gamblers following a mistake by the casino is still riling me the following day. The casino buys cards “pre-shuffled”: a shipmment of cards came not shuffled at all. Some players noticed the patterns, starting betting heavy against the house, won big. Now a court says the gamblers have to give the money back!

Heads I win; tails you loose. With courts like that the entire society should lose: permanently: no going back, too late to fix. What if Alexander when into battle one day, so hung over he can’t sit on his horse: his army gets their asses handed to them. Fine, I have no problem with that.
But what about if Alexander gets picked up by his losing men, brushed off, and a new army declares Alexander the winner? Now the vanguishing army has to give its trophies back? Where does Alexander’s second army get the resources to reverse an outcome? Only in kleptocracy, only in civilization. Tails, you lose; heads, I win.

ProBono Slots
2016 10 30
Say What Now? Casino Claims ‘Malfunction’ After Slot Machine Says a Woman Won $43 Million
I’m not a lawyer I’m glad to repeat. I do though occasionally wish I had a pro bono libertarian Lone Ranger lawyer to shake down corporate cheats. A company mistreats you? Sue them till there’s nothing left to sue for.
2016 11 02 update:
The casino is not responsible for machine “malfunctions”: OK, the casino does not have to pay pay outs; does the casino have to refund the coins from malfunctions that don’t pay out? I’d like to see the casino forced to track the contact information for every 25¢ in play: track them down, pay them off.


What if sanity were catching?:

Just reading Stephen Hunter’s Hot Springs I come on this line: “We got to keep moving, Earl, ” said the old man. “They don’t like baggage in a joint like this. You play or you leave.” Maybe the dealer didn’t recognize my disapproving immunity; only my non-participation.

I intend my “quotes” from long ago to be accurate but have to admit that memory gets edited. Getting chased in a threatening way is a fact: exactly what was said could have modified to support my preferred interpretation: that he saw me the way a germ sees penicillin.


I knew the name sounded familiar once I’d heard it. Being rich from parking franchises didn’t explain it satisfactorily. But watching a Buster Keaton six reeler last night did: one Joseph M. Schenck seems to have produced Keaton films. Bravo!

Same family? Spelled the same? What do I know?

(Actually, I do know something about spelling and family names.)

Falls Asleep:

David is the only person I’ve ever know to fall asleep on the phone: even when it was his call!

But then David had a crushing schedule: architecture school, a young daughter, a commute from LI, naval reserve on weekends … And I don’t remember David ever missing a martini for either sleep, family, or military duty. Hard worker, but no intellectual.

Social Survival


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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