Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Beginner’s Luck (a Casino Gambling story)

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Boarded up former Lido Casino in Venice, © Alan Shapiro 2006

In 1978 I took a bus trip to Atlantic City with my brother, my aunt and uncle from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and my grandfather Samuel Morrison. I was with my extended family. We read a book out loud on basic blackjack strategy during the bus ride. I played blackjack for four hours at Caesar’s Park Place Casino and won $172.50 (one hundred and seventy-two dollars and fifty cents). I sat with my brother at a $5 minimum table (my brother lost for the day), and I had $75 with me to blow. I started off betting $5 per hand. I hovered around even for a while, but then got on a winning streak and began to increase my bets. The high point was when I bet $15, got a blackjack, and then bet $22.50 on the next hand. I was ahead at least $100 at that point, and must have had a big shit-eating grin on my face. “Now I’m really going for it!” I blurted out to the other players at the table. The dealer, a mustached young man about my age, looked at me with scorn. “Do you think that I’ve never seen a bet for $22.50 before? Do you think that $22.50 is a lot of money? Do you have any money? People in here drop $22.50 like it was five cents! I hope your big winning streak lasts!” My streak lasted until I was ahead over $200. Then I started losing some of it back, and I stopped playing and got out of there. I even gave the dealer a gratuity.

Venice view from boat crossing to Lido, © Alan Shapiro, 2006

I took my “big winnings” with me for my next round of European wanderings. A few months later I was in Venice, Italy, where the idea of going to the casino came up again. I was staying with a male acquaintance of mine, a native of Venice. He was the friend of a close friend in Bologna (Hello, Marc!). He had a humid, steamy ground floor apartment in one of the sections of the city where tourists do not venture. He and his longstanding girlfriend had separated a few months before, and now he had a new girlfriend. I developed a Platonic friendship with his old girlfriend. One evening the four of us were sitting around in the dampness, and I told them the story of my winning trip to Atlantic City. I embellished the story by proclaiming that I had developed a system for winning at blackjack. I explained that most players concede a huge statistical advantage to the house by making haphazard decisions in their basic strategy of whether to “hit” or “stick” after they have received their first two cards and seen the dealer’s face card. By making the mathematically correct decision in every single possible situation (including knowing when to double, split, take insurance, or surrender), one could reduce the house advantage to a statistically negligible minimum.

In those days, there was a famous and elegant casino at the Venice Lido called the Casinò Municipale di Venezia. My friends knew about the casino but had never been inside. Tony was a former hippie and vagabond like me, but now he had settled down and was running a moderately successful carpentry business. To my surprise, Tony expressed his belief that I was destined to win a lot of money at blackjack. He announced that he intended to “stake me” money to play. He would give me two hundred thousand lire (about $240) to start with and I would start playing the very next night. If I lost, it would be his loss to absorb. If I won, we would split the winnings fifty-fifty.

I immediately assented to Tony’s proposition. I thought he was ingenuous, perhaps even a sucker. He was mesmerized by what he perceived as my American ingenuity in coming up with an infallible blackjack system. For me, it was a no-lose scheme. If I lost, the losses would not be mine. It did not seem important to think about what losing might do to our friendship, nor how it might feel to win and then have to hand over half of my winnings to my “backer.”

I had never been inside a European casino before. In America, you can enter a casino wearing unlaced sneakers, Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and a beanie cap. I had left my beanie cap at home in Roslyn. In Europe, there are attire requirements – men must wear dark shoes and a dinner jacket and tie. I had no such accoutrements with me, but Tony was more than happy to lend me a complete monkey suit. The shoes were several sizes too big, but otherwise the garbs fit me fine. I knotted my necktie, and Tony’s erstwhile girlfriend and I set out for the vaporetto that would steam us to the Piazza San Marco. From there, we could take the fancy Casino Express Boat to the Lido.

Express boat on way to Venice Lido, © Alan Shapiro, 2006

It was about 10 in the evening when we debarked at the landing dock of this genteel ludic setting. The other passengers all seemed to be casino regulars who knew where they were going. We followed closely behind. My palms were sweaty, my throat was dry, my heart was beating rapidly, my breathing was laboured, the pit of my stomach was lumpy, my asshole felt on fire. There were marble statues and a crystal case filled with gilded jewelry in the lobby. The red embroidered carpeting slipped under our feet and guided us up a turning staircase. We waited briefly in line to show our passports or identity cards to a tuxedo-clad clerk and purchase our admission cards. But the casino official quickly noticed that Francesca was a high school teacher, an impiegato dello stato, a state employee. She was, therefore, according to Italian law, prohibited from entering a casino.

Boat landing dock at former Lido casino, © Alan Shapiro, 2006

Francesca was seriously disappointed at discovering that she would not be allowed in. It was also a letdown for me – I had counted on having a woman at my side for luck. Luck be a lady tonight. New arrangements would now have to be made. Francesca said that she had noticed an outdoor bar 50 meters to the left of the casino, facing from the dock, and that she would wait for me there. It was late April, but the weather was unusually balmy. I thought that it would be vexatious for her to just “hang out” at the bar. I offered to gamble for only an hour and to meet her at the bar at an appointed time. But she responded that I should not concern myself with her or how she would pass the time. I should direct all my thoughts to the game. The only criterion for how long I play should be what is required to achieve my goal. L’importante è che vinci, what matters is that you win, she said. She kissed me on the cheek, squeezed my hand, and walked toward the elevator doors just as they were opening. “Good luck!” she mimed with her lips, smiled and disappeared. Now I was alone, an exote in a foreign land, wearing my fine zoot suit and cloddish shoes, just me versus the tables. Nothing to lose, everything to gain. I handed my admission card to the next tuxedo man and walked with feigned assurance into the sumptuary interior.

The action was in full swing, and the sights and sounds only stirred my excitement further. I resolved to observe for a period of time before starting to play. The main salon of the establishment was taken up by about a half-dozen roulette tables. There were also European games which I didn’t know, like chemin de fer and trente et quarante. In the backroom a couple of baccarat games were going on, and there was a single blackjack table. I asked someone why there was only one blackjack table. He explained that blackjack was an American game and that it had only been recently introduced at the Casinò di Venezia, sort of as an experiment.

I spent quite a while studying events at the roulette tables. I went to a cashier’s window and bought two hundred thousand lire worth of chips.

5 Responses

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