Maxwell jones

A casino is a lot like life. Every time you step inside, you’re entering a microcosm of the real world. Because much like the real world, your odds of success depend in large part on the favours of chance. You put yourself out there, making your gamble, staking your claim. But what happens when the casino itself doesn’t play fair? What happens when despite the odds, a legitimate win is ignored by the digital pit bosses? That’s what happened to me.

I didn’t only win, I won big. Starting with a humble bankroll and notching my way up through the table games and slot machines, I finally went all in: wagering a full $100,000 bet on roulette red. As I watched the gyrating wheel on my screen mull over my financial future, my thoughts drifted to the past. Ever since I was a lad I’d watch my father gamble on our front porch through the hazy screen of smoking cigars and the smell of sweaty cash.

I’d watch as he lost and re-won our family savings as flippantly as that faulty kitchen light that flickered and sparked for most of my childhood. Mercurial dad. I’d often see my mom surreptitiously sneak up the stairs of our double-story wood shack stuffing whatever savings she could salvage into the third drawer biscuit tin of the dressing table.

“Your father’s luck will eventually turn foul for good, and where will that leave us?” she’d say to me.

“Always for a rainy day,” she’d mumble to herself as her eyes darted around the room for signs of my father, “it always rains eventually.”

I found it strange that mom used me as a kind of bedside confessional given my obvious childhood naivete. It’s only in looking back now do I realise that my father had gambled away his marriage the first time he lied about visiting Old Joe’s pub for a poker game with his local posse. My father and money, you see, they had a rather curious relationship. He never had enough of it (so he claimed) and money was a fair weather visitor (I often wondered why my parents kept talking about the weather when it was clear they weren’t talking about the skies).

In reality, money slipped through my father’s hands like silicone syrup. As I grew up, I realised that money was only part of the gambling equation. It was about profit, sure, but it was also about the rush, the feeling of leaping over the cavernous abyss and finding your wings just before you hit the bottom. And those wings took you high. High like Icarus reaching for the fire of the gods. Terminally addictive, but always verging on getting burned.

High school came and went, and my friends were either absorbed into their family businesses or ended up slumming at the local grillhouse for paltry tips and cheap beer. There’s a certain safety in small towns, but they easily become your prison. Not for me. I decided to make my way into Casino City, located about 100 miles away from our small farming community. You’re probably wondering if my father ever made his way to Casino City.

Well, that’s a story in itself, but I’m quite sure that if he had we’d have been living on Easy Street by now or sheepishly banging on doors selling timeshare for our evening meal. Such is the inconsistency of the gambling mindset. My father never went to Casino City for the simple reason that he wasn’t welcome there. He’d had a major spat with one of the bigwig casino owners about a decade before I knew what gambling even meant.

It was a long story, he would tell me, made more complicated by the fact that it involved an erstwhile friend named Jim the Bazooka. Either way, I was told that my surname wouldn’t do me any favours in Casino City, and that I should probably lie about it if I even wanted to rent a room. I couldn’t quite shake the force of my mother’s rather consternated expression as I left for Casino City.

“Just promise me one thing,” she whispered to me as she hugged me goodbye, “don’t end up like your father, or you’ll make a girl really unhappy one day.”

As I trawled my way into Casino City, its sweeping towers like giant dark guardians, I remember seeing the first neon flash, “Bazooka’s Bar and Casino”. I immediately knew that this was Jim’s place. I decided to try my luck. Entering Bazooka’s left me breathless. Its enormous hall was unlike anything I’d ever seen in my small town, cornfield life. I decided to head to the blackjack table and try my skills.

Now, I’ll say this: true humility is acknowledging what you’re good at and where you fail, and gambling is not where I fail. My father may have lacked the self-control to counterpose his gambling compulsions, but you don’t watch your father take a chance on losing the house almost every weekend without learning a few tricks of the trade. You see, observing my father had taught me a number of things about good gambling practice. I learned that a good gambler acknowledges that Fate has the majority vote at the tables and the machines.

But he also has the sense to learn his strategies and systems, both mathematic and emotional. It might be making the right, rational call in a game of blackjack, or it might be making the perfect bluff at the poker tables. A good gambler is passionate and precise, never giving away more than he has to. I was going to show Bazooka’s just how potent a smalltown boy could be with the right resources. Using my scant $100 savings, I began to play the house at its own game.

I followed every strategy I’d never read: I doubled down on my 9s, 10s and Aces at the right time, always taking careful note of the dealer’s up-card and responding in just the right way. I split according to the very best systems I’d learnt. I counted the house down, while never betraying myself via an unintended facial twitch or nervous gesture. At one point, playing in multiple positions with multiple hands and multiple bets I was splitting cards 3 to 4 times.

I never let my feelings get the better of me; intuition is a valuable asset, but not in a game where a good, rational and forward-thinking approach could increase my advantage by a good few percentage points. By the end of the first evening, I’d amassed nearly $20 000 after playing just seven hours. Intoxicated by the win, I spent that evening in a cash-induced emotional high, finally flopping exhaustedly in my car where I slept away what was left of the night. The next night, I was back at it.

By this time, however, I’d caught the attention of a few local pit bosses, who seemed very concerned by the audacious sums of money I was winning. As I won hand after hand in round after round, a stiff-looking angular gentleman with a red tie and a shirt that was far too small for him, walked up to me. He was flanked on either side by two bulldogs in sunglasses. I immediately knew I’d overstayed my welcome, stayed at the table longer than I should have, reached just a bit too high. Icarus again. Had I learned nothing from my father’s own foibles?

It didn’t matter. I was out. The tall angular one motioned me to the side of the room.

“Good evening, sir, I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?”

“I’m kinda busy,” I said, with a certain defiance. “But sure, I know I don’t really have a choice.”

The angular man nodded in acknowledgement, as he motioned towards the door.

“Sir, it is come to our attention that you are a prodigious card counter, and that you have siphoned money off the house in a way that has made the casino uncomfortable with your presence. We reserve our right to evict you from these premises, and ask that you refrain from entering Bazooka’s in the future.”

“Just tell me what you really mean.”

The angular man’s face twitched at his mouth, verging on a smile.

“Okay, fine, you’re scum. We don’t want you here. We know your kind, and you’re not welcome here. If you ever show your face in this joint again, if I ever smell your sweaty pocket cash, catch sight of you, or even see your shadow in my hallways again, I’ll make sure you’re beaten within an inch of your life. I hope I’m making myself as unambiguous as I can.”

So that was that. I was allowed to leave with my $20,000 winnings, but never come back. I wondered how these two-faced places could even be legal. Right of admission reserved. Yeah right. What it really meant was that they welcomed the suckers and turned away the guys who really knew how to play.

As I walked back to my car, angry, slightly ruffled, hands in my pockets, I noticed a small lamppost flyer for an online casino, promising potential thousands in jackpot winnings. I knew this was my answer. It almost seemed divine, the halo streetlamp shimmering behind it.

I deposited the full $20,000 into a new bank account, registered under the name of Jones. Express clearance.

Just two days later, and I was king of the online casino kingdom. I’d made my way to $100,000. I was unstoppable. And I decided to risk it all, all of it, everything, on one spin of the roulette wheel. I would take all the strategy I’d learnt, every method I’d applied, all the sweat, coffee, and ferocious clicking in a straight 48-hour run and stake it all on chance, just this once. Stupid? Possibly. But I was going to take one chance lady luck… My own Virgin Mary.

I staked my full bankroll on roulette red. The wheel seemed to never lose momentum. I cupped my palms over my eyes, unable to look. I slowly pried the space between two fingers and dared look at the screen. Flashing lights everywhere. I had actually won. A full $200,000. I was in the favour of the gods today. I imagined what this could mean for me, for mom, for the family debt. This was a way to lift our family out from the cursed mire of financial servitude. Something good had finally come out of watching my father played badly week after week.

But come cashout time, all my fancies of the future were cut short. When I tried to withdraw my winnings, I was told that the casino would not be honouring its debt. They said no player could be this good without foul play. They wished me a good day.

That’s when something in me finally broke. I realised there was nothing fair about these joints at Casino City. They were full of hoodlums in fancy suits with painted smiles and baseball bats, contained and content only when you were losing. Something had to change. Someone had to do something. I’d lost too much. And for what? For a token message of gratitude from some crooked casino operator thanking me for my time but keeping my money?

No. I finally found my purpose in Casino City. I was going to take down and expose all the online casinos that didn’t play fair. I was going to make sure that the world knew that the bright lights and flashing bonuses on the screens didn’t mean an honourable business. I would dedicate myself to produce briefs and dossiers on the best and the worst, on the honourable and the scoundrels. And scoundrels wouldn’t get away with it.