Hooked on blackjack

I learned to love blackjack in a cruise-ship casino in 1994, a Norwegian vessel in the international waters of the Caribbean.

Sea sickness, it occurs to now, may just be the most extreme and unpleasant physical reaction to the ocean’s undulations. As with alcohol, there may be a whole range of effects to it, feelings that are subtler and not at all unpleasant, a euphoria, even, a priming of the neurological system during which something with its own inherent potency and viral agenda, like gambling, might gain a deeper purchase in the imagination.

The experience of oceanic blackjack that night hit my brain rather like cocaine might have, I imagine, if I had ever given that agent a fair shot at the blood stream (I thank myself daily that I did not). It was pure, heady stimulation; acute and heightened awareness; a fine, crisp tension that my cells liked, and a collaborative energy among the players that made the high seem rather multi-organism, a colony buzz.


But whereas cocaine produces a high that, according to no less an authority than William Burroughs, “even a machine could feel,” gambling’s effect is a hybrid of social and physiological factors. For example, the intensity of the high probably increases the closer you get to the financial bone, the farther you go past what you came willing to lose.

All I know for sure is that I caught a bug there in that tiny ship casino with the super-low stakes tables. Since then, I have played in three Nevada cities, in many small neighborhood casinos in California and Washington, in three different Canadian casinos, in the dingy large joints of Atlantic City, in the gigantic reservation casinos of Connecticut, on three other cruise liners, and lord knows where else. I really don’t even recall.

It’s been on me then to manage it, to keep the upper hand. So far, so good. More than a quarter-century after that initial exposure, I estimate my lifetime gambling ledger is pretty close to balanced, just a touch in the red, thanks to a handful of extravagantly successful nights and no comparably disastrous ones, though I have certainly left the palaces of sin down more often than up. That is literally in the cards for anyone who does this.

While there is a basic skill to it, it’s not a tricky game. The percentages and plays are not at all hard to understand, and many of the counter-intuitive things “expert” players will tell you at the tables are just flat crazy and wrong, rooted in superstition and heroic myths of gaming the system. Common sense prevails. Come willing to lose twenty times your minimum bet or so and consider it the cost of the fun. Walk when you’re down. And walk when you’re up. I have somehow been able to do both.

Still, when New York looked to enter the market, I was as opposed as any lefty, and for all the usual reasons, plus one. I know it is a good thing for the nearest casino to be no closer to my home than a three-hour drive.

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.hjjoh