So why did I go again? Couldn’t tell you. Actually I could tell you. I could tell you it’s because I woke up and I knew it would be a good day. That after the free hockey tickets, the overtime comeback, and the smile from the cute girl on the train, I knew it would be a good night. I could tell you it’s because I was due. No one runs so bad for so long. Maybe I’d run cold again, but I wasn’t going to run bad. My favourite, the one that always gets me moving, is that I’d only stay a couple hours, till two at the latest, and then I’d go. Right. This time for sure though.
I’d had a rough run, probably losing about half of what I’d make working. I was running so sickeningly bad it was becoming comfortable, the way a routine can be. Trips top kicker, flush back-up, losing to a set full-house on the river. Calling bad and catching and then getting punished when the Ace comes on the river. Getting brutalized by the same prattling bull-shiteer over and over. The kind of guy everyone hates because when they run good they can’t shut up, and when they run bad the whole world’s against them and you need to hear about it. The cabbie on the way here, the dealer who flashed the turn too early, the flush that hasn’t hit in a month. Character comes through in how you lose, all the gunslingers know that. But today this guy can’t keep the smile from leaking down his collar because you’ve shipped him two racks and it’s barely midnight. You sit, seething. They call that a squeeze tilt. An innocuous name for the red mist rush of anger that drowns out every rational thought, every hard-earned, expensive lesson learned at the table. Some people like to call it blowing off some steam, which I’d say is a little closer to the truth. A child has a tantrum, smashes his favourite toy against the wall and it breaks. I go on tilt, blow off a little steam, and throw my money down a deep dark corridor that only goes one way.
By now I’m definitely steaming. Down a grand, this is not the way I saw this going. And now I can’t leave, now I’m stuck, all my hard work is stacked in front of these clowns and I have to earn it back. Grind it back with disciplined folds, picking my spots, and in no way losing my cool. Again. I need a walk, some air. I need to damp down this slow burn before I chew off my lower jaw. I’m not the type, but if they had professional girls working like they do In Vegas. I swear. Instead I head to the blackjack pit for a smoke and some action I don’t come near affording. Fifty a hand, two squares. I either make five-hundred or lose five and walk. Surprisingly, it turns out okay. I make a couple hundred, have some laughs, a couple of genuine smiles, and when I’m done, I’m off the boil. Something about a close shave, the feeling of having escaped certain harm, makes me better.
Now. This is the point in the night that separates the gamblers from the degenerates. I could stop now. I could ride this wheels up belly-flop buzz home down eight hundred. Not great but not catastrophic, I probably won’t even think about it past lunch tomorrow. Plus it’s close to one, work starts at seven, and I only came to kill a couple hours. It would probably be a good idea to go.
Or I could go back to the table and get my freaking money back.
I go grab a couple racks, sit, and blind raise my own straddle. I get six callers, which—considering I slammed my chips down hard enough to knock over some other stacks, muttered a few unflattering remarks about the blackjack dealers in this shithole, and otherwise made it very clear I was still steamed as could be—is pretty much what I was expecting. My hand is not what I’d hoped. With almost two hundred in the pot and a blind raise way out of position, a premium hand in this spot is deadly. A real raise would generally mean a legitimate hand, especially in such a weak position, but a blind man—a steaming, raging, tilting, blind man—almost never gets credit for a strong hand. On this table, with these players, no way do I get any respect.
Ten eight. Clubs. It’ll do. The flop brings me love. Ten deuce seven, two clubs. My palms start to slick up and I have to pull my hood down so that it covers my throat. My heart pounds in my head.
My hand is strong, top pair, drawing to a flush. No need to scare anyone away. The button bets and four of us call. The turn comes another ten. Trips. This should feel good. This should feel like when a girl smiles and takes your hand. It doesn’t. I feel queasy. I can’t shake that last beat. I look up but my chatty friend’s not in the hand. Some small revenge-obsessed part of me is disappointed. It goes around again and this time when the button bets, I take my time and then I raise. Nearly half my stack. My bones go hollow. They’re just drums for my heartbeat now. He re-raises all-in.
Now my brain’s really in overdrive, batteries of synapses letting loose entire cavalcades of endorphins and dopamine and adrenaline and all kinds of amazing shit. It’s called action. It’s why gamblers gamble.
The river comes a beautiful three of clubs.
Now. This is the point in the night that separates the degenerates from the sick compulsive wretches. This last pot pretty well gets me unstuck and it’s not quite one in the morning. To all appearances, the time is right. This is, however, and to my lasting bewilderment, also usually the point in the night where my reasoning comes unglued, where just about the only thing I hear from those upper cognitive regions is a frantic whispered warning; you should probably go. I used to tell myself the only thing separating me from them was the sense of knowing when to quit and the discipline to follow through. I’m not so sure there isn’t much, much more, but the discipline remains a problem.
I’m not surprised when my rush dies down and I step out of it to find two hours have passed. It’s a kind of zone you get into. Ask any widower on the preferred player plan how long she’s been there, and you’ll get the same frozen stare, plus or minus a rictus grin, every time. It’s a happy place. My leg is asleep. I’ve been sitting on it, perched rigid on the very edge of my seat, almost like I’m trying to pull my luck right out of the ground and project it into the table. I should take a moment, walk to the bathroom, take stock. It’s barely three, if I leave now, I could still get an hour or two of sleep and with all the rain days and the extra time off, the adrenaline’ll see me through. A quick look at my chip situation. Nice rush. I’ve got nearly a grand in profit plus the satisfaction of getting a rack back from the suddenly taciturn donkey. Time to go.
Four minutes. That’s how long it takes. Four minutes.
Plus one minute
The walk through the parking lot is a blur. Light dancing at me off the puddles and chromed bumpers, freezing in the shattered bits of green glass. Someone laughs, a girl, high and laced with the knowledge of teased-out promise nearly fulfilled, but I can’t hear it. I’m sealed in, trapped in some nightmare of blacks and grays, jagged edges. My fingers feel swollen, like I’ve been standing out in the cold, and my head is drifting somewhere far above the ground, way out in the jet-stream where the wind makes soothing noise. It’s a mammoth task to get the door open, my keys just keep scraping off and onto the door handle. My body’s in shock, I’m in shock. I start choking the steering wheel. Then I’m hitting it. I smash it, pound down on it with my fists, forearms, elbows, my knees come hammering up and then my forehead comes down on the wheel, over and over and over. I know the whole car is shaking, that I’m smashing cup holders and bruising myself, but I can’t stop.
Plus sixteen minutes
I drive like a man with an open wound over his heart. The car can’t go fast enough but I don’t have anywhere I want to get to. Past experience has taught me a loss like this will take hours to come down from, but sitting alone, there’ll be enough of that in the days to come. Work tomorrow? You’d think after losing more than two thousand dollars, the first priority would be to make some money. You’d be wrong. The first priority is to forget. If you can’t forget, you’re fucked. The self-loathing will swamp you. And work is not somewhere I can forget, watching plastic harden is not forgetting. In fact, the only thing that gets you any closer to forgetting is hard, guilt-free sex. Ha. Fat chance of that. I’m so broken, my confidence as a man so shattered, I couldn’t even look another human in the face right now.
I’m angry too.
Plus five hours
I can’t bear to see just yet. I haven’t slept nearly long enough to feel okay about opening my eyes and facing what I’ve done to myself. Again. I settle for my laptop, pull it in under the covers and feel for the power button. Password. Stupid idea born of a time when my thoughts were worth protecting. I squint one eye open, and stab out at the keys.
Plus nine hours
Later, when the world has regained the outlines of equilibrium, when I no longer want to snap every carefree limb I see, I can reflect on the absurdity of my situation, but right now I can only sing songs to my broken heart. I don’t stray too far from a steady rotation of Satie, Chopin, and the sad country musings of a broken hearted Beck Hansen. I am in mourning.
Plus fourteen hours
The most important thing is to not have to leave the house. This means one big trip to load up on frozen pizza, chicken breasts, noodles and fruit. That way I won’t to have to face the delivery guy. This also means no Vitamin D, and the only fresh air I get is up on the roof late at night.
Plus thirty-one hours
Reality is an unwelcome intrusion. I want science fiction, lots of it. Trilogies, ill-conceived sequels, prequels, I have no standards. I need to escape into a world where I walk out the door when I am supposed to. When these creations start to feel too gritty, I retreat further into childhood. The animated Batman series is unreal. And there are one hundred episodes.
Plus forty-four hours
I ignore the outside world studiously. I turn off the breaking news. I don’t return calls, ignore texts and avoid updating any status pages. I can’t stand to look at any bills. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t exist. Job interviews are first rescheduled, then postponed, and then I just don’t show up. I am overwhelmed with shame.
How could anyone be so unlucky? Really?
Plus forty-eight hours
It’s hard to understand. It’s almost like a door closes somewhere and immediately you’re cut off from everything you thought you lived for. None of it is ever going to make you feel joy. It’s never going to work. And then that’s when the fear starts to creep in, colouring everything in shades of out there and in here. You get to be like a trench rat, jumping to cover every time the subway rattles by. It’s amazing what losing twenty-three hundred dollars will do to a guy.
How the fuck could anyone be so unlucky?
Plus ninety-five hours
Up on the roof, watching last call play out, I start to feel better. It’s not out of some sense of moral or material superiority, it’s an honest human connection. I empathize with these shredded human remains. I feel what it feels like to howl at the universe only to have it throw back a reflection of your empty insides. I have nothing to fear with them, there are no promises I can make they haven’t already seen broken.
Plus one-hundred and eight hours
I know I’m coming out of it when I crave a hot shave.
Plus one-hundred and twenty-two hours
Today I’m out of bed minutes after the sun reaches in and shrugs me out of a pleasant date with my fifth-grade math tutor. I shower for the first time in a week. Moving from bills to bank accounts is a monumental step back into the world. It’s acceptance of the catastrophe I’ve inflicted. So much money.
In the end, the last straggler on the road is God. Some players rely almost exclusively on the mathematics of a particular situation to give them their decision-making edge. For these players—known in the community as winners—things like pot odds, implied odds, and expected value, trump any notion of bad luck. While they realize probabilities have little bearing on single serving sample sizes, in the long run the mathematics always bear out. For the remainder of the gambling population, luck is their mother and superstition their mistress. I’ve never been a big superstition guy, I’m usually okay with math and a well-timed pedo-wink across the table. It’s easier to think there’s no divinity controlling your fate at the table. What if you piss him off, or blow him a little less good than the guy raising your bet? Better to lose knowing you caught the wrong side of the odds than to wonder if it maybe wasn’t a coincidence. And while that does sound good, the reality is cliche; there really are no atheists in foxholes. It’s easy to believe in the math when everything goes the way it ought. It gets tough out on the edges of the curve. When you’ve been running in the third and fourth percentile for months, you start to think there’s a message somewhere in all the mess and misery. The guilty catholic types think losing is punishment for some adolescent latex fantasy. They feel good when they lose. The rest of us, we who’ve recently rid ourselves of the habit of seeing the divine in the everyday, are left baffled and confused in the face of such singular bad luck. It becomes a struggle between the stiffening sensation that this is not just coincidence, that there is a reason this is happening to you, there is a message here for you, and the common sense wisdom that says it cannot be this bad every time, it is not possible, it will be better. Next time. »Working In Steep Ditches was selected as the Winner, Creative Non-fiction Category, Lush Triumphant Awards 2010. From issue #57