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By Matt Haplin

The smartest gamblers never play. The luckiest lose so bad their first time that they never play again. I am neither smart nor lucky.

The first time I played blackjack, I sat down in a Dakar casino with forty dollars and walked out with over five hundred. The table caught fire. Glenn and I sat all night between these Tunisian men in flowing white boubous. Whenever the dealer busted, the Tunisians sang a chant, hands to the sky. Glenn and I joined them. After a while I stepped away and bought everyone Cuban cigars. We couldn’t lose. And when we finally quit, we did so with grace, far ahead moneywise, a big fuck you to those talibé boys begging for food and change at every intersection—to the men living on the curbside selling flip-flops. I felt bad about that. We left the casino and walked around the city until the sun came up and we had to go to school.

Blackjack led to roulette. In European roulette the house edge is 2.7%. Far worse than blackjack. So why choose a game with fewer odds? Why should you gamble at all? Casinos only exist because on the larger scale they steal more from the mass of fools than they give away. And since we were now gambling two or three nights per week, the law of large numbers was eating into our luck, bringing us somewhere nearer to the inescapable house edge. But we liked the sound of the ivory ball rolling on mahogany. And I liked to watch people’s faces as the ball stopped spinning. I liked watching Glenn detach himself from the material world except to order drinks and to place new bets. We were all gathered in this place of criminal worship, the doormen and the raspy hookers and that little man who lurked around the slot machines with a cup of coins in one hand and a cup of wine in the other. And who among us was really here to win money?

The casino as an institution is pulseless. It is terse and systematic, designed for nothing more than to rob you from under the guise of chance. Leave it to people, though, to flood the room with humanity, with emotions and with strange rituals. I’d watch this Lebanese man run around playing three games at once. He would lose, he always lost, and would start yelling at us. I liked him. Leave it to people to flood the place with grief and sometimes three months’ rent or their whole damn mortgage. And sometimes with a kind of brash smile.

Glenn mailed me one of those ivory balls when I was back in Chicago. I’m not sure how he got it, but he said in its time it had probably given and taken millions. From the scum and the squares. From those French military that would all show up at once and fill the room with big arms. Probably from Glenn and me, and all the friends we’d made, leaning together over green felt. So now when I twirl the ball in my fingers I begin to feel connected to all those unlucky fools.