Ghosts of Gambling Past
Yes, that’s really me. Age 5. 1967.
I can’t say where and when exactly my infatuation with games of skill and chance first began, but it probably happened inside the crib. That wasn’t a baby rattler I was shaking. It was a pair of dice.
This baby needs a new pair of shoes. Seven out. Line away.
From my earliest childhood memories, I just sort of always knew the standard rules on how to play poker. I can’t even recall who it was exactly that taught me this hand beats that hand. Seven-Card Stud, High and Low Chicago, Mexican Sweat, and of course, Five-Card Draw weren’t just friendly card games played for nickels and dimes. To me, they were genetic markers, part of my DNA.
I remember taking a couple of trips to Las Vegas in 1969. Those visits made quite an impression, so much so, that I can still recall the most trivial details from 47 years ago.
At a time when most kids were starting the first grade and joining the Cub Scouts, I recall what the gambling mecca was like in a very different time. My parents divorced when I was only 2, but I can’t say mine was a broken family. Somehow instead I ended up the beneficiary of two extended families, which meant twice as many Christmas presents, plus double the vacation time. No wonder I turned into such a spoiled and selfish brat. I got to take two summer drives to Las Vegas — one with mommy and one with daddy. With apologies to Herbert O. Yardley, call this “the education of a poker player.”
My dad was always a gambler. He’s what I call a serious, but cautious manager of risk. Later on, he played the markets full time as a day trader. He’s retired now, living on what he earned and saved over many decades.
Around the time I was tossing and turning in my crib, rattling imaginary dice, dad must have gone out and bought a brand new blackjack book that had just come out. It was the first book on how to count. That was a big thing back then. Casinos thought Edward O. Thorp’s timeless classic “Beat the Dealer” would kill blackjack games. Instead, they fueled a gold rush and made “21” the most popular game in the casino. The late 1960’s and beyond were times when all serious blackjack players knew about “Beat the Dealer,” which then fueled a cottage industry of many more books with different counting systems and schemes.
My dad was part of this generation that became something of an invasion. He headed off to Las Vegas to get rich. For a time, he even ended up getting invited on all-expenses-paid junkets to Las Vegas. Just to gamble!
Is this a great country, or what?
My dad was an air traffic controller. That’s a big part of the story, as in critically important. So, I’m going to try and explain to you the deeper meaning of working within that unique culture. He was really big in the PATCO union, which was the group of striking controllers later fired by President Ronald Reagan, in 1982. Perhaps it’s the stress of the largely thankless and anonymous job and the caffeinated rigors of a ’round the clock 24-hour lifestyle, since there are always planes in the sky and air controllers on the ground playing traffic cop. Think of sitting in front of an electronic video game 8 or 10 or more hours a day, with overtime, in an environment where if the controller make a single mistake during his entire career, which means if he messes up just once in his life, a loaded airliner with 213 passengers might slam into the side of a mountain. Then, it’s ballgame over. Forget the so-called stress of gambling. That’s not stress. I don’t personally know what that level of pressure is like over the course of 20 years, which is what my dad put in, but the air traffic controllers I met all seemed to carry some serious weight on their shoulders, especially way back then, before technological advancements when ATC gradually became automated and air traffic was protected by computer software and internal controls which make mid-air collisions all but impossible now. Air traffic controllers drank more, they cursed more, they certainly had more divorces. They just had a tougher time with life outside of those quiet dark rooms wired to headsets and spinning radar screens affixed to giant desktops.
Once, I visited my dad at his work on the graveyard shift. I must have been age 10 or 11 at the time, just a kid. Within the first hour, I’d heard the F-word about 20 times and met three bookies. That was the ATC culture. They worked hard and played harder. Among my dad’s generation were mostly Cold War veterans and Vietnam-era navigators and controllers who came back stateside, went into the ATC system, and ended up wearing wrinkled shirts with narrow neckties while pulling in $38,500 a year talking to airline pilots making at least twice that for doing the same basic job. Under those conditions, why wouldn’t my dad become a gambler or seek to gamble, or be entitled to some time off to occasionally travel to Las Vegas?
I always saw my dad every other weekend, so I wasn’t victimized by divorce. He never missed a Saturday or Sunday with me. Never missed a school play or a ball game when I was playing, which is pretty impressive when you think we didn’t always live in the same city. I didn’t realize it then, but my dad never once brought up his job or complained of the pressures of that pressure-filled lifestyle. He took pride in performing a unique skill set and performing tasks that few would have had the consistent ability to do. It didn’t help my dad’s stress level any that he was originally assigned to Chicago’s massive O’Hare Airport, the world’s busiest airspace at the time. That’s where he became a rising star within the ATC system. He worked in the toughest center in the world, and then mastered it like an combat soldier. Later on, he worked at Albuquerque and then Dallas.
Anyway, about the same time my dad had been an air controller for nearly a decade (after serving in the U.S. Navy, where he initially learned his trade), the controller’s union PATCO held it’s annual convention in Las Vegas. It was pretty damn cool that he took me along for the ride. Come time to tell the school class what we did over the summer, the other kids all bragged about taking swimming lessons as the local YMCA. Big deal, losers. Hell, I was 40 feet away from Vegas craps tables and schmoozing with showgirls. Las Vegas might be some pathetic version of a diet-Disneyland now, but it wasn’t a place for families and kids way back in 1969. That made me even cooler, bragging to the other first-graders that I was hanging out in casinos over the summer while they were learning how to do a breaststroke. In Vegas, Dad got to hang out with his controller buddies in the pit while he let me do my own gambling up on the second floor at Circus Circus, which used to have those carnival games on the periphery of a giant rectangle along the upstairs promenade.
Why do we become the people we are? What causes us to gravitate in one direction or the other? There’s got to be some cause and effect here. Indeed, I remember what it was like looking down through the giant safety nets that used to catch the occasional accidental fall by a trapeze act that performed over the casino floor, gazing from the rows of carnival games awarded giant stuffed animals to the occasional winner for shooting a water gun into a clown’s mouth or tossing a softball successfully into a bushel basket, and longing for the day when I’d be old enough and big enough to play real gambling games with real adults for real chips which could be converted into real money, all of that beautiful wanton lust happening down there in the pit, packed with pretty people drinking cocktails I’d never heard of while looking as though they just walked off the set of the Dean Martin Show and were having the time of their lives.
Now, I wonder. How many other impressionable kids shooting water guns at Circus Circus all those years ago ended up like me, fulfilling their own grey destiny of anticipation?
I wanted to be just like them, with their fancy money, and their bronzed suntans, and their pretty women wearing flashy clothes, and their first-class sophistication, and their seemingly carefree existence as though all that mattered in the world was what was coming out of a double-deck shoe on a blackjack table at a luxury resort in the middle of the Nevada desert. Who could go back and get all excited about joining the Cub Scouts after seeing what this life was like inside the only place on the planet where legalized gambling happened on such a mass scale?
That anticipation. That envy. That falsetto of dreams.
This isn’t a blame game I’m playing. It’s not finger pointing. To the contrary. It’s explanation. My dad was astoundingly good in the sense he always believed in giving his children as much freedom as they could handle without getting into trouble. Looking back now I can’t fathom a better gift than to be not just allowed, but encouraged to explore curiosities. He wasn’t afraid to let me go out and see the real world, whether it was walking the streets of the New Orleans French Quarter at midnight, or taking me to Las Vegas, or going with me to R-rated movies (that was a really big deal 45 years ago — you didn’t see small kids attending movies like The Godfather, Serpico, or Midnight Cowboy — but I saw them all thanks to my dad, and my mom, too). He was an authoritarian in the strictest sense. But he also believed in taking personal responsibility for one’s actions. He also never once criticized my gambling, even as I became an adult, and even when I made some mind-blowing personal errors of judgement, I never once heard, “I told you so.” I suspect that he saw himself in me, and I saw myself in him. Yelling at yourself in the mirror serves no purpose.
As for other landmark gambling events, there were many more. My mother drove me to Las Vegas a few months later. We did mostly non-gambling things — Hoover Dam, shows. She also drove me to San Francisco that summer where I rode a cable car and swung from the platform when I was 8. Again, I know this is a giant brag — but not many kids in the second grade in 1969 had been to Las Vegas (twice!) and San Francisco once, where all those radical hippies hung out.
Over the next few years, there were more poker games than I can remember. We played everything, and it was always for money.
As for sports wagering, I lost my first bet and have been on the chase ever since. The princely sum of $1 was placed on the Dallas Cowboys versus the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V, played in 1970, with a bigger and meaner kid that knocked on my front door demanding his money by the time the last-second kicked field goal from the boot of Jim O’Brien landed in the end zone seats at Miami’s Orange Bowl. That’s was the first of many bad beats, and my mother was furious — not that I gambled, but that I gambled with money that I didn’t have. I had to mow the yard several times to get the dollar from my mother to pay off the debt.
I did learn a few things from that humiliating experience. Over the next decade, I booked a ton of action, lots of quarters here, a 50-cent piece there, a few dollars sometimes when I got older and had the means. The angle was to offer taking the unpopular side of the bet with the local teams. If the Cowboys were playing the Steelers in the Super Bowl (which happened twice), I’d take all the money I could on Dallas and not even have to lay points. That racket worked for a decade and I think I ended up collecting a grand total about $72.50 over the course of the 1970’s while getting stiffed for another $1,500, as the elementary school’s illegal underground bookmaker.
As Tom Robbins wrote in “Still Life with Woodpecker,” it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.