I lost a hundred dollars in Vegas last month.
“I have no interest in gambling,” I’d said. “But I’ll play a few hands just for the experience.”
Riding shotgun across the Utah desert bound for Sin City, I Googled “how to play blackjack in vegas”.
“I’ll only spend fifty dollars, max,” I told myself. “I know my limits.”
The next day I was driving west toward California, a hundred dollars replaced by a hollow feeling just below my ribs.
As I breathed in the fresh desert air, I played back the night before: the unexpected thrill of the game, the stacks of chips that grew faster than I’d expected and disappeared faster still. Swiping my card at the ATM at 3:30 in the morning, making excuses for all the reasons why it was ok.
In twenty-four hours I have no interest in gambling had arced into I could be good at this before crashing into the sober realization that I should never go back to Vegas. This could become a problem.
Last night I found myself in a casino again, a few miles south of the Twin Cities.
This time was different. In the weeks since Vegas, my mind had returned to the game.
A familiar voice whispered to me: “You can dodge shame, outsmart loss. Learn the rules. Follow them perfectly. You can control your world.”
So I read websites, studied strategy guides, practiced online. My heart was racing and my breath came quick as I set foot on the red carpet, heard the siren song of the slot machines, watched the dealer slide the cards smooth across the table. I handed over a pile of twenties, stacked my chips, and played.
This time I was ready. Hit. Now stand. Double. Split. Bet. Bet again. Again. Again.
A few months ago I sat hunched on a therapist’s couch in Charlotte.
I’d put all my chips on that city and my hand wasn’t looking good. Swallowing anxiety I asked: “What do I do?”
She refused to answer, turning the question back on me.
I didn’t know. All I’d known my whole life was right answers and asking for permission. I was lost.
It’s a conversation I’ve had again and again: “Here are my cards. What should I do?”
Even God is silent (or at least enigmatic) when I beg for clear directions and guaranteed outcomes.
It turns out that “should” is much more elusive than I was led to believe. More elusive than I’m comfortable with.
There’s only one person who will always answer that question, “What should I do?”
He’s standing across from me at the blackjack table, sliding cards my way.
I grew up in a world of absolute right and wrong, Proverbs and principles and seven steps to success.
If you read your Bible every day, you’ll feel close to God.
If you tithe ten percent, you’ll never run out of money.
If you follow the rules for dating, you won’t get your heart broken.
If you never sin, you’ll be blessed.
After all, the Bible has all the answers to “What should I do?”
Learn the rules. Follow them perfectly. You can control your world.
And I was good at it.
After Vegas, I learned that there are rules for blackjack. A pre-determined answer for every hand. And if you ask the dealer, he’ll tell you.
I played by the rules last night.
When the dealer has seven or more, stand on seventeen.
If the dealer has four, five, or six, stand on twelve.
Double elevens if the dealer has ten or less.
Split aces and eights.
I had made my own rules too:
Double your bet after you lose.
Reduce your bet when you win.
When you have five stacks of chips, take them to the cashier.
And when you don’t know what to do, ask the dealer.
There was no creativity at the blackjack table. No game, no dance. Only the memorization and performance of pre-determined steps.
But don’t underestimate the toxic satisfaction of vindicating your soul by carefully memorized rules, even when you lose. Especially when you lose.
The world doesn’t work like a blackjack table or a baptist church, where memorized answers and a strong dose of willpower give you the best shot at beating the odds.
Outside the glass doors of the casino, there’s a lot of I don’t know and maybe and the only way to know is to try. There’s no basic strategy for life.
Out here you have to go all in without knowing the odds. All my rules and programming can’t give me control over the world out here.
That’s why I love blackjack.
That’s why my religious heart wants to slink back to the lights and noise of the casino just south of town.
Not for the money or for the game, but because it’s the same red carpet as the church I grew up in. A place where someone would tell me what I should do. A place where we had all the answers.
I love blackjack, because for a few hours and a few folded twenties I can buy the illusion of control.
I didn’t know if I was going to write this part. This is an epilogue.
This is the part where I tell you about how strong my religious heart craves the mock reality of the blackjack table.
This is the part where I tell you that I have a problem:
I composed all these words in my head this morning after breakfast. Just before lunch, I headed toward a coffee shop to put them down here. But then that whisper came in, quiet at first: “Take a hundred dollars and go back. Now. You’ll feel powerful. You’ll feel good.”
Last night I had gone with a friend, for fun. But going alone to a casino on a Monday morning is another sort of problem all together. This is what I reminded myself, weakly. But I proceed to check my bank account and look up “nearest casino to Minneapolis” anyways.
18.2 miles. In twenty-five minutes I could be at a blackjack table, stacking chips.
“Just this once. You can call it quits tomorrow. You’ve had a rough weekend; you deserve this. Think about what you could do with the money. It’s not technically immoral. God won’t mind. Nobody will know.”
But what about these words I’ve already written in my head, about how blackjack is so bad for me?
“Go to the casino for an hour. Then go and write them with a few extra dollars in your pocket.”
I sat at the stoplight for an eternal moment. To the right, a coffee shop, a notebook, my work. To the left, the freeway and the casino.
I had my left blinker on.
Somehow I managed to turn the wheel toward the right lane and find my way to this oversized leather chair in front of a fireplace with a shot of espresso on the table next to me.
I have a problem.
Not a gambling problem, or a drinking problem, or a smoking problem.
I have a religion problem: I love knowing all the right answers. I love being in control.
I love blackjack.
published February 23, 2015
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