Mississippi Grind

I’ve been a gambler all of my life, well before I ever had the nerve of walking up to a blackjack table to get screamed at by a bunch of strangers for not hitting my 14 when the dealer was showing a picture card. I went home that night and memorized basic strategy so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake again; twelve years later and I’m on the dealer’s side of things and that’s life.

Gambling was in my blood before money was involved. For my whole life I placed bets on myself. Some were little bets, like which shirt and what color jeans I wore to a house party in high school, and some bets were bigger, like falling in love and moving across the country to go to a stupid school to study a dying industry.

I realized many years ago that these bets didn’t always work out, that the goal was never to bat a hundred percent all the time but rather to be right just a little bit more often than I was wrong. In the sports betting world — which I may or may not know a thing about — the goal is to hit on fifty-five percent of your bets. That’s all. Fifty-five percent. Be right that often, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. It’s a hard way to make an easy living.

Then I think about games like blackjack, where the odds of winning a single hand are about 42%, and it’s just so dumb. I mean, you’d have to be sick to sign up for an addiction to a game where your odds of losing are 58%. But that’s where I was as a 21 year-old and 22 year-old all the way up until the point when I started dealing, and even that took a few more years before I decided that playing cards wasn’t really for me anymore.

Yet, I am still a gambler. I am addicted to the thrill. Just instead of putting myself in situations where I was forfeiting all my advantages to the almighty edge of the House, I signed up for instances where I was the House and my edge was more than they have on slot machines. I protected my heart and my mind and my ego against all of life’s challengers; I traded the 42 percent chance I had of winning into a 100 percent chance of not losing; I played fast and loose with other people’s emotions in lieu of my own. And the returns were a life with minimal risk and what I believed for a long time to be only rewards.

Alas, gambling runs through my veins whether I like it or not. I guess I always believed I would have endless opportunities to prove myself as a gambler, to roll the dice and if it didn’t work out I’d just roll them again until it did. So I kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling further, and then I stopped rolling. I stopped rolling because I no longer saw the point. (That’s a craps reference. Points. All that.)

Now I sit here, at the end of my world, and all I want to do is play. All I want to do is gamble. 55 percent to prove I’m the king? Let’s do it. 42 percent? Eh, that’s fine. Where am I at now? 30 percent? 20? Am I at 10 percent? Am I at 1 percent? Do I have any chance at all to win? If it’s only a needle in a hay stack it’s still worth it to try, isn’t it? I am a gambler, after all. When I enter into an equation not expecting to win, why do I still feel so let down by the prospect of it not working out? Is it my ego? Is it the ridiculous nature of once again allowing myself to get my hopes up? What is it that makes me this way?

I once told myself that I would never go back. I would never go back to feeling the way I used to. Then I felt the rush of a hot streak; I started getting 20’s every hand and winning my double downs and even when I had shit cards the dealer still found a way to bust. I started rolling them dice and hitting them numbers and every time I did I pressed and I pressed and I pressed and the money kept flowing in and there was nothing I could do that didn’t work out and so I just kept rolling. It’s a once in a lifetime feeling. I’m only 32.

But maybe it was all a dream. Maybe it was nothing more than a reminder of what it’s like, to make me believe that it was still possible. Maybe the real message was never about the rush, but rather that the rush still exists. It’s still out there. How will I possibly look back at this any other way? I guess it either happens or it doesn’t. Everything is a binary proposition.

That may not be what a gambler likes to hear, or realize, or feel, but at the end of every day that is the only bet that can be made. You set out with all these hopes and dreams and visions of grandeur, and you feel like you can control it most of the time. You never really see or understand the factors that are out of your control, the minor inconveniences that tilt the odds out of your favor. The one percent here, the two percent there, and before you know it you are playing a very dangerous game that acts quite contrary to all the sure-things that you stake so much of your wellbeing upon.

In that sense, I do not like gambling. I do not want to be a gambler. I want all of the cake, and I want to eat all of the cake. But that’s not the way this works. If you have a chance, you must take the chance. You must be open to the reality that losing is a part of the game. I hate losing. I hate opening myself up like that. I’ve always liked winning and I’ve always been a winner and the fact that I like winning so much is probably the reason I have always been a winner.

I wish I was a lot more stupid than I am, and I didn’t have the competitive spirit to gamble as much as I have throughout my life. I wouldn’t be burdened with the outcomes. I could just play it safe all the time and not have to worry about anything. I could just be happy, and numb. I could enjoy all the fruits of a risk-free existence, forever shunning the highs and lows, and peaks and valleys, the things that make me feel more human than I have felt for almost my whole life. I could be that way. I really could.

But then the other part of me, that which dominates each and every one of the faculties that drive me, that I give a shit about, tells me that this is what makes life worth living. This rush and this thrill. It arrived on my doorstep many moons ago and when it left it was replaced by silly games like blackjack and silly drugs and many empty nights. When I gave all of those things up I thought the rush and the thrill was gone, that I abandoned it along with everything else from my late teenage years and my twenties and the dawn of my thirties.

But somewhere inside me it survived. Maybe it was merely sleeping. Maybe it was awake and just sitting there, starving, waiting for the moment to pounce. Maybe I simply closed myself off to its potential and decided that a life of comfort was more worthwhile, only to wake up one day knowing that the gamble was getting the best of me instead of me getting the best of it.

And it was on that day, and in that moment, that I remembered that I’m a gambler. And I’ve been a gambler my whole life.

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