You sit at a $5 minimum bet table to play heads-up with the dealer, but an old man sits to your right, his silver chest hair poking through the buttons of his Hawaiian shirt. He shakes $80 out of his wallet, checks his pockets, and drops another crumpled $5 onto the table. He bets $10. Chest Hair is dealt a 17 and you’re dealt a 12.
The dealer shows a 3. Chest Hair stands. You hit your 12.
Chest Hair groans—he thinks you made the wrong play. He’s one of those idiots who thinks the dealer will bust on a 3, but you know that 60% of the time the dealer has a 6-8 as their down card, and even if they do have a 10, they’ll likely pull a 6 through 8 and make it to 20. The indisputable correct choice is to hit. You’re dealt an 8. The dealer flips a 7, pulls a 5, and busts with a 9.
You and Chest Hair win.
After a few more wins, he turns to you and says, You’re pretty good at this. Who taught you?
Read the books. Taught myself.
You pick at your nails, trying not to look at Chest Hair. Small talk with other players is distracting, and you especially don’t want to talk with Chest Hair, who organizes his chips in $25 stacks and recounts them so often you know that he’s thinking, If I can make it back to $300, then I’ll be even. Now that he’s following your plays, he will win, and soon he’ll be betting it all on something stupid, like roulette. If people were just like you: controlled and meticulous, then gambling addiction wouldn’t exist.
The dealer points at your San Diego hoodie. Long way from Iowa, he says. You visit there?
Oh, cool. I joined the Navy and trained in San Diego. Man, those guys were tough. They called me Child of the Corn.
You almost laugh.
The new shoe begins. Your hand is twenty. Chest Hair has a sixteen—the worst hand to be dealt in blackjack. Child of the Corn shows a ten. The right play is to hit the sixteen because it’s already assumed you’re going to lose so you must attempt to better your hand. Hit it. You rub your temples. Just hit it! You wish Chest Hair had been dealt the twenty and you the sixteen because you’d at least play it right.
Chest Hair’s two brain cells finally make a connection, and he hits his sixteen, pulling a 3. You’re dealt a pair of 8s. Your fingers splay. You’re given another pair of 8s.
You sit up straight. This hand only comes around once a month. It’s the full moon of blackjack hands. You can win so much money from this one play—but blackjack is so much more than that. It’s the high. Your cheeks tighten into a grin, heart thrumming in your chest. The blackjack high is the best high you’ve ever known. Nothing else has made you forget the monotony of your dreadful existence consumed by working as a barista and loving your cat and fearing that your life will never extend beyond the four walls of your apartment.
Nothing else has made you feel like dying one minute and like an unstoppable goddess the next.
Four eights on the table. Child of the Corn deals a 3 on each. You double down—one makes it to 21 and the other to 19. You get a 10 on your other 8—stand. You get a 7 on the last one, hit the 15, and pull a 5—stand. Child of the Corn’s showing a 10. He fumbles to flip his card. You chew your lip. Come on, come on, be a 7. You hold your breath.
It’s a 7.
You grin, sliding the $120 stack of chips into your arms.
You have to go work in a couple hours, so you cash out your chips, but before you leave, you feed $80 into the Cat’s Eye 9 Lives slot machine. You max bet at $5. The machine meows with each spin. The odds of winning a jackpot on a slot machine are astronomically low. But you have a strategy: you turn one-hundred dollars into three hundred at blackjack, then put your winnings on a slot machine, only ever risking the casino’s money.
You don’t win anything from the $80 so you put in another $80—it’s still the casino’s cash, and you still have the $200 blackjack winnings from the day before. You keep max betting. Tonight’s your night. You were just dealt four 8’s at blackjack—you’re lucky. You’re on a roll.
You lose that $80. You feed in another $40. It’s the last of the money you’ll spend on slots. Two cat food bowls click into place. The last reel flashes red. It’s a third food bowl! You win 10 free games.
You imagine winning the $50,000 jackpot, the freedom it’ll bring you—paying off your car, finally buying that giant exercise wheel for your cat, forgetting about rent for a while, visiting a new city. The free games pay you $140. You print the voucher, eyeing the exit or high limit room.
You head for the high limit room, where real winnings happen. You once saw a woman win $64,000 in here and almost died from envy. You feed the voucher and $100 into Crazy Money. You play $20 spins. In fifteen seconds, you lose $240.
It’s okay. You laugh a little. Tomorrow–or hell, tonight!– you’ll return and win it all back on blackjack. You glow in the light of the slot machine, digging at the bottom of your purse, uncrumpling any dollars you can find. Chest Hair’s probably at roulette losing every last penny, but not you. You’re going to win it all back.
You’re going to win so much, you’ll never have to gamble again.