June 11, 2008
It’s never bad when you walk in. In fact it’s good. The same way, I’m sure, that the first hit of heroin feels when it starts to have its effect.
No, it never sucks to walk in.
You strut with an air of confidence. A confidence that this time—this one time—will be the time you take them. This time you will get it back. You will atone for your past sins in a 24-hour session of caffeine, attractive cocktail waitresses, and flawless decision-making.
It never works out that way, of course, but the dream is there and that’s all that matters.
As we entered, the oh-so-familiar stench of cigarette smoke barraged our senses. The smoke a metaphor for the foggy haze that would become the next 12 hours. Had I known what was about to happen, the ambush I was about to walk into, I would have turned around and driven back home.
We grabbed open seats at the Pai-Gow table. Our dealer, Hee, remembered us from previous bouts at the tables. (A little advice: if dealers start remembering you, and you them, it might be time to re-evaluate your life.)
Thirty minutes in, I had burned through $200—halfway to my self-imposed “limit.” Tara eyed me concernedly; I tried to act like I didn’t notice her gaze as I slid another crisp $100 bill to Hee.
"Changing one hundred!" he bellowed. A shout of victory for the house.
John was too busy counting his winnings to think too much about my plight.
Five minutes later I was out another hundred.
When it happens bad, it usually happens quick too.
I looked at Tara.
"Let’s go to the room," I said, deflated. Demoralized.
The air outside was muggy and overwhelming. Arkansas heat doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. We hadn’t made it 50 yards outside when Guy and his wife (at the time) walked up. G lived 30 minutes away in Memphis, so of course he was coming in.
"Beeeeeee," he said, egging me on and grinning in a way only G can. A grin that only means one thing: "Are we about to take this casino down?"
My dejected reply let him know I was off to a tough start.
"Ugh," he replied. "How bad?"
"Three," I told him.
"You gonna get it back?" he asked, hopefully. His session hadn’t started yet and he didn’t need the negativity of losing a partner so early in the night.
"I’ll be back," I assured him. "I just have to cool down a little. Chlope’s at the Pai Gow with Hee. Go get started."
We said a temporary goodbye and parted ways.
Tara looked at me after they were out of earshot.
"You’re going back?"
She wasn’t happy. Understandably. I was already in debt. I was in college with no job. I simply couldn’t afford to be here. But here I was.
"It’ll be okay," I said. An empty promise if there ever was one.
Back in the hotel we laid in the bed. Neither said much, if anything.
"I’m going to bed," she said, finally. "Be smart, Ben."
She kissed my cheek and rolled over.
I stared at the ceiling a little longer, before I grabbed my phone. Unfortunately, I was catching my second wind.
I sent the quick text: “A little jank?” (Again… If you and your friends have nicknames for blackjack, maybe consider a different hobby. Putt-putt golf, perhaps.)
"Already there," G replied, almost instantly.
I grabbed my wallet and headed down.
What happened next, I’m fortunate, I don’t recall. I do, however, still show the records on my credit card history.
10:30 p.m. $150 cash advance
11:25 p.m. $200 cash advance
John had quit by this time, happy to secure his winnings and get a reasonable amount of sleep. G was off doing his own thing.
You don’t know “sickening” until you are alone at a blackjack table on a Wednesday night, the casino curiously empty.
12:30 a.m. $165 cash advance — I can’t explain this odd number. I was either starting to worry about hitting my credit limit or trying to round off some earlier gambling debts. Either is likely and believable.
I do remember switching to roulette in an effort to switch up the luck.
I drained it.
Down $815. More than double my limit.
I was done. Heading back to the hotel, where, even though I was in a bad place financially, I could sleep. At least I could sleep.
As I made my way to the exits, unfortunately I passed by another ATM. And like the addict I was—the addict I am—I did some self-rationalization talk and decided to make one last stab. Always a really bright idea…
1:55 a.m. $185 cash advance.
I would put it all on one hand and if I lost, I would be down an even $1,000. As if the numbers mattered anymore. They never do.
I approached the table, no longer confident. I was timid. The gambling gods, no doubt, licking their chops as I approached the table, a wounded lamb.
I put the money down and told the dealer that large chips would be fine.
"Changing one-eighty-five!" she yelled. I cringed.
Three seconds later I was sitting on 16 against her King.
I waved it off. I couldn’t bear to bust and not even have a shot at the money.
She turned over a 4. I had a chance.
She hit a 5 and took my money before I had a chance to do the math. Down a grand, in a span of seven hours. And none of it was mine to begin with.
I made my way to the cafe and ate a free burger that I had been comped. If they had asked me to pay for it, I wouldn’t have been able to. The man sitting next to me made eye contact with me and we immediately empathized with each other. No one sits alone in a casino cafe and eats a burger at 3 a.m. unless they are at rock bottom.
And I was. Financially. Physically. Emotionally.
It’s no coincidence that this night took place in the heart of the biggest depression of my life. Addiction is a powerful thing. It’s a noose that coils at your weakest moments. Luckily, six months later, I decided to change the area of my life that was causing my weakness, my depression. And once you change one area, everything begins to change.
Do I still gamble occasionally? Yes. But I found a thing called moderation. I no longer lose (or win) too much and I owe it all to the fact that I’m not trying to compensate for a sad life by looking for excitement in the wrong places. I’m happy, I’m confident, I’m satisfied. And that’s all that matters.
Change one thing, and everything else will change. Believe it.