Wheel of misfortune

The one, and perhaps only, vice I never indulged in is gambling.

On the simplest level, I just don’t understand games of chance. And when I say I don’t understand them, I mean I don’t understand them at all. And it’s not like I haven’t tried.

Take cards, for example. At various times in my life (always encouraged by friends) I’ve joined in for hands of gin, rummy, gin rummy, pinochle, hearts, pitch and poker. And always with the same result — abject failure. When it was a game with partners, it didn’t take long before no one wanted to be mine, and I couldn’t blame them. As for me as a solo player, I had the same opinion of myself.

And it’s the same with other gambling games. I have no idea how they work. The only exception is the slots. I understand them perfectly — there’s no skill involved, it’s just a matter of luck. And since the odds are always in the house’s favor, the chance of your luck holding — or even rearing its lovely head in the first place — is slim to none.

But that never discourages folks, especially since in a room full of slots, one of them is always paying out, with the accompanying bells, whistles, sirens and other fanfare. So while everyone, including you, is losing their dupa, it seems your jackpot is but one more yank of the handle away.

Then there’s craps. Though it looks to me like it’s just tossing dice down the table, there are betting strategies involved. I’ve had people explain some of them to me, but they might as well have been telling me in Farsi.

Finally, there’s roulette, and whenever I think of it, I immediately think of my old pal Freddy K.

Top of the game …

Freddy was like a lot of Depression-era folks. He was undereducated by circumstance, intelligent by heredity, and self-educated by motivation. He’d had to drop out of high school to go to work, but got his GED in the service, where he was an Army Air Corps fighter pilot. He was effusively friendly, loved to chat and was an animated speaker with a most expressive face. He was the only person who ever called me Rob.

He also was the smartest gambler I ever knew. And that was because he gambled on only one game, and he did it only once a year. At some point, he’d take a week off work and go to Atlantic City, where he played roulette.

We never met by design, but we always ran into each other every few months by accident. And when we did, at the start of our shmoozing I’d ask him if he’d gone to AC. Inevitably, his face would light up and he’d break into an ear-to-ear grin. He never said anything then but waited till I prodded him, which of course I did.

“So, how’d ya do, Freddy?” I’d ask.

“I’ll tell ya, Rob,” he’d inevitably answer, “I’ve had some good years, but this one was a great one.”

I never asked him how much he won, nor did I have to, since — numbers aside — it was clear he made what he thought was a killing. And he was an old-school gambler: He didn’t think of winnings as profit. Instead, he first subtracted all his expenses — gas, tolls, hotel, food and the rest — and what he’d won after that was what counted. I doubt he ever made a real killing, but like all the gamblers I’ve known, the size of a win, even a small one, was greater than the numbers themselves.

Ultimately, I guess he had fun on his jaunts to AC, but what he really went there for was to gamble.

… bottom of the heap

After several years of hearing of his wins, I had to ask him how he did it every time.

“I’ve got a system,” he said. Then he gave a sly smile and tapped his temple with his index finger.

I knew lots of gamblers, and talk of systems was common. But though they never talked about losing, I knew they did a lot more of it than winning, so I never put much stock in their systems. But Freddy K. was an obvious exception — a guy who had a system and who won. And it wasn’t like he won now and then, or most of the time. He always won.

Looking back, I can’t remember how many years Freddy and I had that same conversation. I know it was at least 10 years, but I think it may’ve been over 15. However many it was, a bunch of years after we’d started talking about his gambling junkets, I ran into him in a local beanery.

After our initial greetings, I said, as usual, “So, how’d ya do, Freddy?”

His face dropped, literally.

You know the saying about someone looking like they lost their best friend? Well, Freddy looked like he lost not only his best friend but his wife, his mistress and his faithful hound Ole Blue.

He said nothing. He just stood there, slowly shaking his head.

“That bad?” I said.

“Worse,” he said.

I was at a loss for words, and without thinking, I said, “But I thought you had a system.”

“Yeah,” he said. “So did I.”

He took a deep breath and let out a big sigh, which signaled the end of our talk about that disaster.

We never talked about roulette after that because he never again stepped foot in AC or any casino.

As I said, Freddy was the smartest gambler I ever knew.


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