[Excerpt from 1536 Free Waters and Other Blackjack Endeavors--Finding Profit and Humor in Card-Counting, by Glen Wiggy, published by iUniverse, 2012.]
~ The Hand ~
...a grizzled old man climbed onto the seat at first base. I’d seen tens of thousands of hands in my lifetime, but never one like this. The man, who later introduced himself to the dealer as Jake, had been missing the three middle-most fingers on his left hand. Holy crap! What happened to this guy? Was it a birth defect? Couldn’t be. His mangled limb contained geometrically perfect scars where sutures had once been. Jake was obviously the victim of some sort of accident or operation. Was he in a war? He was too young for World War II, but too old for Vietnam. Korea, maybe? I pictured Hawkeye or Trapper operating on him, but not Winchester or Honeycutt. I prefer the earlier seasons of M*A*S*H. Was Jake involved in a nasty farming accident? Could be. The casino was smack dab in the middle of corn country. I pictured three detached fingers lying in the cornfield directly behind my house. Then, I pictured something worse--three mangled fingers floating in my daughter’s cornflakes.
I had jumped a little when Jake said “Hi” to everyone at the table. He bought in for $50 in red chips. Play began, with Jake betting the $5 table minimum. My $15 unit bet from the previous hand remained. The true card count was neutral. As the dealer distributed the next pair of cards to each player, I tried to regain my focus. No luck. My eyes were glued on Jake’s hand. Not the fourteen, a nine plus five that was face-up on the felt in front of his betting circle. I’m talking about the “five minus three” hand sitting atop his left wrist.
The outrageous thoughts continued. Did Jake qualify for a handicap sticker on his car? I doubt that his driving ability had been impaired, although his ability to flip-off other drivers in a fit of road rage certainly had. Could Jake throw a baseball? Maybe, if it were a split-fingered fastball. Was he married? No ring was showing. Stop it! You’re supposed to be an adult. Instead, I was acting like a fifth grader who had teased and bullied the first girl in class who grew boobs. I quickly shook my head, focusing my eyes toward the ceiling. While looking up, I thanked God for blessing me, and every other person I had seen or known for my thirty-seven years, with two full-functioning hands. Back to the cards.
The dealer was showing a ten of spades. My hard eighteen wasn’t impressive, but it had been pat. Jake disobeyed Basic Strategy by standing on his hard fourteen. He waived his good right hand over his fairly lousy hand of cards. All other players were pat. The dealer had uncovered a hard fourteen also, and drew a six for twenty. Jake, that was your card. I lost. No biggie. The running count turned positive, but still not high enough for me to change my bet. Jake’s next hand was similar to his first. Another hard fourteen, but he had an eight and a six this time. I had a total of ten and felt that wonderful tingle in my gut when the dealer had showed a five. Perfect double-down time. Jake, in his elderly, twisted wisdom, had decided it was now time to take a hit. Oh no! It had been painfully obvious to me, and the other players at the table, that Jake was blackjackally challenged. He possessed not only a physical handicap, but also a gambling handicap. Jake busted when he had drawn a king. Poor guy. Life just isn’t fair for some folks. After the dealer had passed a few more cards to the players in between Jake and me, it was my turn. Three of hearts. Great, I had doubled down to get a lucky thirteen. The dealer had drawn a three as well, adding to his now upturned fifteen for a total of eighteen. A couple of players won at the table, but not the player who had mattered most, me. On quick inspection, it appeared that Jake’s second snafu against Basic Strategy was to blame. I lost because of his play again.
All three players in between Jake and me departed the table at that point. The Taiwanese husband and wife made a few remarks in their native language while gathering their chips. The man in the business suit hadn't spoken, but he made some sort of grimacing gesture to the dealer as he colored-up. I wasn’t leaving. Statistically, players making bad decisions will help your hand as much as they hurt it. You just don’t remember the good occurrences like the bad. Besides, the running count had made a hefty jump with all the small cards that surfaced on the last hand.
Although the casino had been packed tighter than a can of sardines, only Jake and I remained at the six-person table. I tripled my bet in response to the +2 true count. Jake was dealt a pair of aces. I had a hard twenty against the dealers seven. Surely, Jake would know to split aces. You always split aces. Everyone knows that.
Not Jake. Despite the dealer explaining the split option, and then recommending it, Jake had waived him off and said, “Nah. I don’t wanna double my bet. Just hit me.”
After receiving one face card, Jake motioned for another hit. Queen. Instead of two magnificent hands of twenty-one at twice the stakes, Jake had one putrid hand of twenty-two at the cost of a losing hand. The dealer showed another seven to match his upturned seven. Want to guess what he drew? No smarty, it wasn’t a seven. He drew a two, for sixteen. Then he drew a five, for twenty-one. Shit. Three good hands in a row lost because Jake hadn’t known his ass from a hole in the ground.
Patience. The true count was still high. I calmed down as much as possible, trying not to be distracted by Jake’s play. Maybe I should purposely distract myself to keep from losing my cool. As I doubled the unit bet, my thoughts turned back to Jake’s two-fingered hand. This time, however, I found myself being vengeful in wondering how Jake’s accident had occurred. Maybe he had been caught cheating at poker and lost his fingers to a knife-yielding member of the Yakuza mafia. Maybe he wrecked a motorcycle on a dangerous curve after cutting off a school bus full of children returning from a tour of the pottery factory. Maybe he had been high on LSD and decided to carve himself just for kicks.
Next hand. Jake drew a blackjack, and I had been dealt a soft twenty against the dealer’s face card. No way Jake could mess up this hand. He collected his $7.50 with a huge smile. I pushed when the dealer had uncovered his twenty. At least I didn’t lose.
Jake chuckled, “Boy, I needed all of that one, heh, heh.” He really was a nice fellow. Maybe I had been too hard on him. After all, losing a few bucks didn’t compare to losing a few digits. Maybe Jake had lost fingers trying to save that baby Jessica who fell into a well a long time ago. What a decent man!
Although the true count had decreased by one, I left my bet from the previous wager. The shoe was nearly ready for a shuffle. I added a two-dollar incentive toke for the dealer. Jake was dealt an eight and a three. Me too. The dealer had an eight showing. A good double-down situation for both of us, but Jake might not have known it. In the friendliest tone I could muster, I said, “Jake, if you didn’t know, this is a good double-down hand.”
He replied, “Nope. I don’t wanna double my bet.”
“You know, you are going against Basic Strategy.”
Jake was incorrigible. “You play the way you want. I just wanna hit.”
After motioning to the dealer for another card, Jake received a two. He then hit again and busted with a face card. My face card. I received a four, for a total of fifteen. The dealer upturned a jack, for an advertised eighteen. Loser for me, again.
Jake had turned to me and said, “See, I would have lost either way.”
I had wanted to scream it aloud, but I kept the thought in my head. BUT I WOULDN’T HAVE LOST, STUBBY! WHY DON’T YOU GO FLASH THE ‘HANG LOOSE’ GESTURE TO SOMEONE!
I knew probability theory. I knew myth from reality. I knew that the actions of other players didn’t affect my cards in the long run. But Jake’s bad play was unprecedented in my mind. Four bad plays in a span of two minutes. I wasn’t the only sore loser. The dealer, who had lost a double toke, gave me an I-understand-what-you-are-going-through look. The shoe was over, and so was my tolerance for further torture. I needed a walk on the riverboat deck to cool down and prepare for a financial comeback. Before I could leave, however, I had to know why Jake was disfigured. It had to be a result of his stupidity.
As I pushed my chair into the table to depart, I pointed to Jake’s nub and asked, “I was just wondering. Were you in some sort of accident?”
Jake replied, “Yup, had my hand in the garbage disposal clearing it out. I hit the run switch instead of the light switch.”
“Tough luck,” I said.