Reflection: On Gambling

Sleight of Hand

       Illustration from “SLEIGHTS: A Number of Incidental Effects, Tricks, Sleights, Moves, and Passes (1914)”; by Burling Hull; given to me by Dad’s friend, Levi Lashua (Auctioneer, Table Tennis Hustler, and Parlor Magician Extraordinaire) in 1947 on my 10th birthday

I am not a gambler.

Well, I suppose everything you do in life is some kind of a gamble. I’m not a gambler in the sense of Off Track Betting, or even frequently purchased lottery tickets. In fact, a statistician once told me that your chances of winning the top prize in a national lottery is about the same, in a practical sense, whether or not you buy a ticket. You lose the distinction in the rounding off of the odds. Of course, without the ticket you have no chance at all, microscopic though such a chance might be, but – when it comes to the lottery, you’re not buying a ticket anyway, you’re buying a dream.

Over the years, I have known a few heavy bettors, but never anyone who made real money over the long run. There are too many skilled gamblers out there, and the odds are against you.

A while back, I ran corporate events and recognition programs all over the world, including resorts throughout Las Vegas, Reno, the Caribbean,  and on cruise ships – all of which feature casinos. They are a magnet for the high energy,competitive, aggressive types who seek thrills and endorphin highs at every opportunity (especially with a few drinks under their belts). Meeting Managers always kept a special eye on these guys to try and make sure they didn’t go off the deep end. It didn’t work all the time, and a few Happy Campers on a sponsored vacation trip, ended up going home sadder, poorer, but hopefully wiser. In general, casinos are not desirable destinations for corporate recognition programs.

People in jobs like mine, Meeting Managers, rarely gambled. They were not heavy drinkers, or heavy anything-else either. One colleague, a senior Meeting Manager from IBM I met on the road, and I talked about that one night over dinner. I shared my insight and he said, “Absolutely. Look around at the Meeting Managers you meet out here: There aren’t many old men in our business. If you want the fast life, don’t take this job. You’ll kill your fool self, burn out, or get fired within a year.”

I smiled at the memory of the old nuns in parochial school back in the Forties gravely warning us about “Occasions of Sin.” I guess a casino might qualify.

I learned a few new things about casinos too. They will attract business using every tactic, and trick, in the book. For example, resort casinos are designed and built so that you cannot get from the lobby to your room without walking through the casino, or at least walking past the casino. You can’t go in or out without hearing the laughter, the music, the clank of coins hitting the winner’s tray, seeing the dancing colored lights – everything that appeals to the senses. Why are slot machines so noisy when they dispense coins into the winner’s tray? That noise is designed in, and it’s special. It cries “Winners Over Here!” And the would-be winners come. Once, in Las Vegas, I saw a big bus pull in one morning loaded with area senior citizens. Their luxury bus ride was free, as was a nice lunch at the casino, and then they had 4 hours to lose their money. The buses arrived every morning.

A few of the elderly women carried white, canvas work gloves. “Why is that?” I asked.

“Because,” the floor manager said, “they don’t want to develop calluses from pulling down the slot machine handle several times each minute.”

I worked for, and hung around, with Texans on the road for a while. I always found Texans and Germans to be the most raucous partiers. They were both loud, funny, story tellers who, after hours, enjoyed a drink with friends, telling, and listening to, each other’s tales. And – you better have something new, because they had heard them all.

Like the other successful people I met, they knew their own limits and paced themselves accordingly. One night a bunch of Texans got going on the subject of gambling and “Pappy’s advice.”

One guy said he was told: “If you ever find yourself at a bar, sitting next to a slick looking dude with a deck of cards, who wants to bet you 20 bucks that he can make the Jack of Hearts jump out of that deck and spit cider into your ear, don’t take the bet! You’ll just be out 20 bucks and have an earful of cider.”

Another guy said, “Just look at these casinos. They’re like some temples the ancient Romans built. These casinos are palaces, and people don’t built palaces to commemorate their losses.”

Another told the story of the Texas gambler who: “…..came to Las Vegas in a $50,000 Cadillac El Dorado, and went home in a $250,000 Greyhound Bus.”

And finally, my favorite, the story about two Texans who ended up in a small border down that allowed no gambling whatsoever. They had to find a game, and eventually the bartender steered them to a private room in back where betting games of every sort were available. The two split up and when they got back together an hour later, one of them said: “Every game in this room is fixed.”

His friend replied, “Shhh! If they hear you say that, they won’t let us play!”

And, people take their gambling seriously. One night in Las Vegas, a group of high stakes poker players invited me to swing by their suite after a late night event for a nightcap. I agreed, and showed up after the game for a drink and a visit. Everybody was talking and laughing, and I picked up the deck of cards that was on the table and, unobtrusively  “rigged it.” I had learned a magic trick from an old book (see illustration) whereby you can quickly and quietly stack a deck of cards so that you know all the cards, rank and suit, in order. You can even let someone cut the deck, and you can still pick up the “read” within a card or two. It’s an easily learned memory trick.

I quietly stacked the deck and, during a conversational lull, conspicuously put the deck on the table. I felt the back of the top card as though was searching for something. I said “Six.” I flipped the card over. It was a “Six.” Then I said, “Jack, Eight, King, Three.” I flipped those 4 cards face up: They were “Jack, Eight, King, Three.”

The room grew quiet. I looked up and everybody was gathered around, looking very serious indeed, and watching my performance. I knew it had been a high stakes game, and one of the guys, sensing my unasked question, said: “That’s the deck we’ve been playing with.”

Another guy, the host, became visibly upset: “Guys,” he said, “the casino sent that deck up with the refreshments. I don’t know anything else about it.”

I saw where this was going. I said, “It’s a trick! I stacked the deck while you all were talking!”

There was a pause. “You stacked the deck while we were all around you?”

“Yes,” I said, “It’s a magic trick, and you weren’t paying attention because your focus was elsewhere.” I then broke the Magician’s Code and showed them how the trick was accomplished.

And I had to show them again, and again, and yet again until they could all do it themselves. Then, everything was calm and fine, and I had learned another rule about gambling that the Texas boys’ great grandfathers had probably learned a century or more before in the Old West:

First Great Rule of Gambling: Gambling, Magic Tricks,and/or Sleight of Hand, never go together.

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1 Comment

Filed under Business Insights, Humor

One response to “Reflection: On Gambling

  1. We always have a rule for company outings, if you make an ass of yourself, you have no one to blame and you will pay for it later. Losing your own money with friends is one thing, with coworkers and bosses, it says something about your management ability.

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