I met Anthony in a poker game at the Diamond Club in New York City. He was fairly nondescript, just a normal everyday thirty-something white guy, business casual, head-down and putting-in-work in the pot-limit game. We were having a conversation around the table about blackjack. I had just made a comment about card counting when his head shot up.
“You count cards?” he asked me.
“A little,” I responded. I had no idea how to count cards. “Do you?”
“Do I!” He laughed.
It turns out Anthony, a finance industry flunky by day, had a small crew that hit Atlantic City and Foxwoods on the weekends and counted cards. He said a typical weekend haul was “nothing serious, maybe twenty or thirty grand.” It just so happened they were looking for some new talent and would I like to go to Foxwoods with them for the weekend and give it a shot? It sounded like an adventure. The fact that I had no idea how to count cards never entered in to my mind before I enthusiastically agreed.
Card counting isn’t mathematically very complicated. You keep a running tally in your head of the high cards versus the low cards. Low cards add to the tally, high cards subtract from it. The higher the number the more favorable the conditions for betting; the idea being that a shoe with a high concentration of high cards in it will deal out more winning hands than a shoe with low cards. There’s more complexity to it than this, but that’s the basic gist. I went to the bookstore and bought a book on counting called “Blackjack for Blood.” I practiced on decks of cards at home. I thought I had it down. I felt like I was ready. Once again my overconfidence was not only unfounded but about to get me in to trouble.
Overconfidence, both founded and otherwise, runs in my family. My mother is one of these people who is always coming up with new business ideas and trying to make them work. It is one of the traits I picked up from her that I’m most proud of, the proclivity to not just talk about something but to go ahead and do it. My sister, too, has always been what we call back home “too big for her britches.”
I’m three years older than my sister, which means that we only went to school together one year, my senior year. It was uniquely humiliating to be known throughout my senior year as “Jamie Hill’s brother.” I had been there for three whole years before Jamie showed up, yet almost as soon as she arrived she made her mark on the place. She was popular and outgoing, she was loud and brave, she was domineering and aggressive, and she loved attention almost as much as she loved getting her way. As long as I could remember she had always been that way.
We grew up as close as two kids of different ages and genders could. With one parent working on the road and the other one working full-time, we spent a lot of our childhood together being shuttled between school, day care, and grandma’s house. I tried to look after her, to be the protective big brother, but it wasn’t always so easy. One of the consequences of being in the middle of everything all the time meant that whenever there was trouble, you were in the middle of that, too.
One of my earliest memories of not being able to protect my sister from danger came around the age of nine. My sister and I were at daycare and all of the children were playing outside. Despite my protestations Jamie insisted on playing with the bigger kids who were roughhousing and chasing each other, rather with the other little kids, who were playing with toys. I’m not sure if my motives for wanting to stop her were more that I didn’t want my “baby sister” cramping my nine-year-old style or if I was truly concerned for her safety, but it didn’t matter. She did what she wanted. And on this particular day while she was chasing some of those big kids in the yard, she tripped on a stone, flew through the air, and ate dirt face-first into the yard. At first everyone laughed, myself included. But when she stood up all of the kids stood in horrified silence. Her face was covered in dirt, her mouth was filled with blood. It poured out over her bottom lip like a faucet. Her teeth were knocked in every direction. She wailed like no six-year-old should ever have to. I froze in fear.
Anthony’s crew worked like this: there were four of us who would sit at four different tables and play for the minimum while we counted the deck. When any of us had a high count we would signal in Anthony and his girlfriend Alexa, who would come over to our table and start betting big until the count went cold.
The table I saddled up had a $5 minimum. I just played $5 a hand while I tried to keep the count going in my head. It wasn’t at all easy. There were so many distractions all around me that kept me off the count, not to mention all of the decisions I had to make along the way. One thing I failed to take in to consideration while practicing at home was that I’d still have to play my hands and play them correctly, which often caused me to forget where the count was at. It was constant stress. I was sure I wasn’t counting right. I missed cards left and right. It’s one thing to be a little off when you’re playing with your own money, but this was a whole other thing, Anthony’s “nothing serious” money. I prayed that my count never got high enough to warrant me signaling Anthony and Alexa over to my table. Just a couple of hours in to the first night and I was petrified. I wanted out of this.
It didn’t help that I was seated next to Paul. Paul was a very large man in a tweed jacket with wild hair and large, thick eyeglasses. He was professorial but also completely wasted. He rambled on and on out into the ether; neither the dealer nor I were paying his trivia and anecdotes much mind. It was irritating on many levels, but mainly because it was fucking up my count.
Then it happened. My count was growing steadily. One stiff card after another came out of the shoe. I grew anxious. If my count was right then it was time for the signal. I signaled by taking off my baseball cap. I waited. The count grew higher. Plus-one, plus-one, minus-one, plus-one, plus-one, plus-one, on and on it went—still no Anthony or Alexa. I glanced around the room. The other counters were all around me. Anthony and Alexa stood behind a table, not even playing. I leaned back in my chair, trying to get their attention. Anthony looked over at me, saw my hat was off, and then looked away as fast as he could, not even making eye contact.
“Sir, place your bets.” The dealer was waiting for me to put my $5 chip out in the circle before dealing the cards. I wasn’t sure if my count was right, but I knew that even if I was a little bit off, the count was still huge. I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go to waste. Screw waiting for Anthony. I put a hundred bucks on the circle.
“Holy Mary Mother of God!” Paul almost fell out of his stool. He slapped his big ham hock of a hand on my back. “Check out Mr. High Roller over here! You feeling lucky or what?”
Paul wasn’t helping. The whole reason card counting crews operate this way is so that a single player doesn’t have to do what I’m doing, dramatically vary their bets with the count. It is a dead giveaway that you’re counting if the pit boss or dealer is paying attention. We do the counting, Anthony and Alexa do the betting, that was the idea.
“Yeah, I feel lucky. Plus I’m going to go soon,” I tried to cover.
“If you’re feeling lucky, I’m feeling lucky,” Paul said. He dropped three more $25 chips on top of the green $25 chip he had already bet. Great, now I got a partner. I looked around for the closest exit. I wanted to disappear.
I left Arkansas after graduation. Jamie finished high school and stuck around Arkansas. She tried college for a semester but failed every class. She tried living on her own for a while but managed to get fired from every job she had, usually for sleeping through work. Over the years her popularity had turned to notoriety. Her circle of friends shrunk and her number of enemies grew. She did drugs, she drank to excess, she stole, she got in to fights. She had a terrible car accident one night while driving stoned and exhausted. She was thrown through the windshield of her car and met the pavement on the interstate with her head. The crack in her skull that prevented her brain from swelling kept her alive. When she regained consciousness in the hospital, the police were there waiting to question her about the stolen purse they found in the car and the drugs they found in her system.
Eventually Jamie figured she needed to flee Arkansas and the people in her life in order to give herself a chance to catch some good cards. Our parents reluctantly agreed. On one hand she had proven a poor decision maker, immature and irresponsible in virtually every aspect of her life. On the other hand there were no good jobs in Arkansas and Jamie’s only friends were a seedy cast of characters. Collect calls came to the house from prisons. Police would come to my mother’s home, guns drawn, to search for suspects. Every month there seemed to be another funeral for another kid from Jamie’s class. It was a tough choice to let her go off on her own, but at the time it certainly seemed wise compared to the status quo.
She chose Dallas, Texas. She crashed with a friend and quickly found a good job and a nice apartment. By that Christmas she was buying everyone expensive gifts and paying off her debts. She was kicking our mother extra cash, even picking up the check at dinner. She seemed happier. A little change of scenery and the cards were finally breaking the other way. Everyone breathed easier and bragged on the newfound spring in Jamie’s step.
The dealer dealt out the hands. I had an eight. Paul had a sixteen. The dealer showed a face-up four. So much for the count being high. The dealer motioned to Paul.
I sat straight up in my seat. Did he just say “hit me”? With a sixteen against a four? Even a drunk nutjob like Paul should realize that the dealer was going to have to take a card and stood a good chance of busting. The dealer peeled off another card. Fwap. A three.
“Nineteen! Not bad! I’ll stand.”
The dealer motioned towards me. I swiped my card towards me indicating I wanted a hit. She slid out the next card from the shoe and flipped it over—the jack of clubs. I waved my hand to indicate I wanted to stand on eighteen.
The dealer then flipped over her facedown card. It was a nine giving her thirteen. She took off another card—a six—giving her nineteen. She picked up my green chips and put them in her rack. She patted the table next to Paul’s chips, indicating a push. He clasped my shoulder.
“Guess that feeling you had wasn’t luck after all,” he chortled, rubbing salt in my wounds.
“It would have been if you knew how to play your hand!”
If Paul had stood on sixteen like he was “supposed” to, then I would have caught his three and my ten to make twenty-one.
“I think I did just fine. If I played my hand the way you say, I would have lost,” Paul huffed, his breath sour with booze. “Just worry about how to play your own hand instead of worrying about how I play mine.” He grinned and winked as he slapped me on the back.
“That’s hard to do when the way you play your hands is costing me money,” I growled. The dealer patiently waited for our argument to finish before dealing the next hand.
“Your bad luck isn’t my fault, kid.”
“You are my bad luck,” I shot back.
“You think all those cards are in that shoe in some kind of perfect order, just magically arranged so that you can win? The cards come how they come. How I play my hand didn’t make you lose. You think that when I got up to take a piss an hour ago and missed all those hands, you think that made you lose this hand, too? I mean if everything I do affects you, then it must!” He laughs and slaps the table. “This isn’t like some butterfly flapping his wings in China shit. Me and you aren’t connected.”
“I don’t know about all that. I just know that nobody hits a sixteen against a four.”
“It’s easy once all the cards are out face up to see how maybe you could have won if this thing didn’t happen or that thing did happen. But that isn’t how life works.”
“What are you, a philosopher now?”
“No, I’m just someone a lot older than you who has been playing this game a lot longer than you. You think you’re fooling anyone? I know you’re counting cards. Hell, even she knows!” He pointed at the dealer. She chuckled. I knew then why Anthony and Alexa had written me off. I was made. The pathetic thing was it didn’t even matter; the casino didn’t even push me off.
“What’s the point of all that, counting cards?” Paul asked as the dealer started dealing again.
“To make money,” I responded. “To get an edge on the house.”
“Yeah but where’s your edge?” he laughed. “You just lost a hundred bucks!”
“Over the long run I have an advantage.”
“Long run, I love it.” Paul grabbed me by the back of my neck and aimed my face towards the dealer. “Can you believe this kid?” he said to her. I wiggled out of his grip.
“How long is this long run, anyway? Hours? Weeks? Months? You planning on moving in to this place? You gonna sit here wearing a diaper like those other degenerates?”
“It’s all just one long session,” I said, repeating something I’m sure I heard someone else say once. “Tonight and every other night, it’s all one long game.”
Paul shook his head in disapproval. “That’s the trouble with you ‘advantage players,’ you long run types. You never know which shoe could be your last shoe.”
He looked down at his cards. Blackjack. The dealer said “ooh, nice one,” as she stacked his chips in front of him. He tipped her a five-dollar chip.
“Forget the counting, kid. Carpe diem and all that shit. Just try to enjoy the game.”
Jamie told herself this would be the last time she did it. She had been lucky so far. Lucky to have made so much money. Lucky to have so many powerful people looking out for her. Lucky to have kept it all from her family. Lucky that she hadn’t been caught by the police. She knew that eventually her good luck would run out. But she needed to do it one last time. One last time and she’d be done for good.
There had been other ‘one last times,’ but this one was different. She needed this money. She had to get oral surgery, the last oral surgery in a long line of dental work she’d had done throughout her life. The time she fell at daycare when she was six had set her teeth growing in all sorts of strange directions. She spent decades with braces and bridges and mouthpieces, all manner of contraptions to get her teeth growing back in the right direction. But now she was an uninsured adult with several maxed-out credit cards and an expensive drug habit, and dental work isn’t cheap.
She knew the routine. She left her apartment at dark driving a white rental car. She called up the guy she only knew as Peanut and told him she was on the road. As many times as she had made this run, she always knew better than to ask what it was she was carrying. Better she not know, she figured, in case she ever needed the deniability.
She drove for a couple of hours on Interstate 30 heading east towards Arkansas. Usually when she made these runs she had an escort in a car up ahead of her or behind her, just to make sure things went well. Tonight they sent her out alone. When she crossed over the state line she picked up the phone they gave her and dialed Peanut to tell him.
“Get off at the next exit,” he told her. “There’s a Wal-Mart on your right. Park it in the lot, leave the keys in it, then go inside. I’ll call you when it’s time to come out and someone will give you a ride home.”
“I’m afraid,” she told him.
“You’re doing great,” Peanut consoled her. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Jamie reached up and adjusted her rearview mirror to get a count on the number of police cars behind her.
“What about all these blue lights in my mirror, P? Should I be afraid of that?”
Walking around the yard outside the prison visiting room, I tell my sister about counting cards. I wonder whether or not she thinks it is an apt metaphor for what happened to her—that her life ran in streaks, each one eventually and inevitably met with its opposite.
“I don’t think there’s such thing as streaks, as luck. Nothing was inevitable. I just think the more you win, or get away with or whatever, the more you risk the next time. And the more and more you risk, the more severe the consequences when you finally lose.”
“Was this really the last run, then? It sounds like you think if you got away with it you’d have done it again.”
“Every trip was supposed to be the last one. At least that’s what I’d tell myself. But I don’t think that means I had no choice. I had a choice. I made the wrong choice over and over again. And you get used to making bad choices is all. But it doesn’t mean you don’t still have a choice. It just gets harder and harder to make the right one the more wrong you do.
“I could have got out. I could have avoided 38 staples in my head when I was nineteen. I could have made straight A’s and got an education. I could have made different choices. But this life got to where it was what was more comfortable for me, believe it or not. Doing all this shit was actually the easier choice than to play it straight. Isn’t that nuts?”
I didn’t think it was nuts at all, and I told her so.
“I still try to make my bad choices worth all of this,” she motions around the prison yard. “I had tons of money, tons of friends, tons of free time, tons of fun. But then sometimes I think coming to prison saved my life. Maybe that’s all luck is, unintended consequences. Like I was lucky I didn’t wear my seatbelt that night I had the wreck because flying through the windshield probably saved my life. And I’m lucky I got busted because who knows where I was headed if I didn’t?”
We sit down on a bench for her to show me the hat she has knitted for my infant son, her only nephew, who was born after she was locked up. Knitting is a popular pastime in prison. I always figured that when my sister did her bid she’d make use of the time by taking college courses, learning a new language, exercising, whatever; and she did all of those things. But eventually the women in the prison turn their attention to idle activities like knitting or playing cards because it makes time pass by quicker. I asked her about this.
“That’s one of the things you learn in here,” she tells me. “Nobody can stop time. You just have to wait it out.”
I look up to my sister despite all of this. Her kind of life has been a hard kind, one filled with heartbreak of epic proportions, only the surface of which I’ve scratched here. Even now, hearing her brush aside any suggestion that a hard life is a form of hard luck, I still won’t be angry with her for the choices she has made. Her choices had terrible consequences, and they affected more people than just her, myself included. All the same, they were hers to make alone. Sitting here next to me in this prison yard, telling me about how luck is bullshit, holding this tiny little hat, she’s paying the price alone. I still can’t protect her. I will not judge her.
“That’s the trouble with you ‘carpe diem,’ short-run types,” I tell her. “You never know when your life is going to be agonizingly long.”