The Only Sure Thing
The Trump Plaza sign, 10 red letters 20 feet tall, burns from another tower outside our room. Down to the left, north along the boardwalk, rise Caesar's and, behind and above, Bally's. The beach is white with snow, the streets are empty. Even the waves seemed chilled to inaction; they roll lazily toward the shore. But be not deceived. The streets are empty--the casinos are not. The action along the shoreline is subdued, but not at the tables. This is Atlantic City on New Year's Eve: quiet on the outside, but as vibrant and bustling as I've ever seen on the inside.
Despite my wishes for an end to what, at the time, was a fairly miserable existence, by way of that quickly forgotten Y2K bug, or the arrival of--finally!--a pissed-off messiah or the rise of--finally!--that blue-turban-wearing Antichrist promised by Nostradamus, nothing happened on Jan. 1, 2000. Last New Year's Eve and Day came and went, spent drunken and subsequently hungover with my pal Tom. I had recently separated from my wife, and found myself living on a futon in my friend's living room. Sure, there was the promise of a new life ahead of me, but there was very little to live for in hand. Those were dark days.
Twelve months later, I look back on one hell of a year. As one of those addictive personalities with not-so-infrequent flashes of impulsive thrill-seeking, I take chances. I often act without thinking about consequences. In the 12 months of 2000, I'd taken a lot of chances, and seen a lot of reward. I twice traveled halfway across the country, and all the way across the ocean. I took more trips in the last year than in the previous 10, and most were gambles for one reason or another. None failed to pay off.
What better place to feel the new year settle around me than in Atlantic City, my favorite fountain of desperate optimism, superficial function and the rare reward.
Our room at the Trump Plaza cost $150, cash, thanks to a friend of a friend working a backdoor deal. Apparently, she's a high-rolling type who gets comp rooms at her request. She secured one for New Year's Eve, turned over the keys to us and pocketed the buck-fifty. As with all comp benefits given to high rollers, that $150 seems, from a ham-and-egger's perspective, like big money for nothing. That is, until you run into that person six hours later, and they're sweating every bet, thousands of dollars in the hole. That one-fifty wasn't what most of us would consider found money; it didn't go toward three months of ConEd, or a nice dinner and drinks. It quickly became less than a third of the ante for a single hand of high-stakes blackjack.
But the room. Perfect. Large. Double bed. Twenty-sixth floor. In a casino on the boardwalk. Two weeks prior, I'd worked the phones, chatting up every South Jersey-drawling chick at every casino reservation desk, knowing that I was a bit late for finding a room. The going price--and the only game in town, so to speak--was $300 at the boardwalk Holiday Inn; $200 if we were willing to stay six miles away, somewhere along the state's t'aint, if one considers Atlantic City the asshole of New Jersey.
The casinos were booked solid; their New Year's packages were invite-only. Even on Saturday night, Dec. 30, with a foot and a half of snow covering South Jersey, there were no cancellations for the next day. Seems we weren't the only people dead-set on Sin City Lite for the last night of the year. Everyone was pushing through, blizzard be damned.
Atlantic City is not Las Vegas. Even with the family-ization of Sin City proper, the vice of Vegas still puts A.C. to shame. Once you've been to both, you know it's true. If you've only been to Jersey's gaming paradise--or, God help you, only to some forsaken fuckhole like Foxwoods--and you think you've seen the corruption and indulgence of the gambling machinery, then take your next vacation to Vegas and you'll change your tune.
Atlantic City is the place you go to satisfy a jones for chance. Sure, maybe you go down to check out the Pointer Sisters, but there's always some moment where one of you says, "Hey, baby, let's get decked out like real assholes and play it up!" Or you might go down with your circle-jerk guyfriends for a night of bleach-laced blow and blowjobs from skanks, but it's nonetheless a night with the B-list whores. Go to Vegas for the real sin. You can actually spend a week there, each night commandeered by a different drug, or a different game, or a different fetish. Go to A.C. for one night, do the coke or drop the tab or eat the pill, then wake up in time for your late checkout and go the fuck home.
That's what we do. One night, one morning. Then home. New Year's Eve was our third such trip. We both wanted out of Manhattan, and I wanted to know if anyone would even register the year's change in an environment where clocks, daylight and acknowledgment of seasons are forbidden on the casino floor.
Like Dostoevsky, I love roulette. Unlike Dostoevsky, I can usually control myself. In addition to the aforementioned neuroses, I'm also a numbers guy. I see the world mathematically. So while I love to gamble (as a potential addict), I'm also pained when the money flies from my hands at the mercy of bad odds (as a freaky, math-based guy). Hence, roulette makes perfect sense to me. Bet $10 on one number, which is one of 38 choices, and you get $350 back. It's not even money, but it's easily understood. As they say, the house always wins; with roulette, it gets paid in the zero and double-zero and that extra one-of-36 differential for the straight numbers. I've got no problem forfeiting that 5.26 percent advantage. They've got to tip the odds in their favor somehow, if only to pay for all the free booze and climate control. And you can bet the zeros if you want, so whose fault is it when they come up and you've been betting black and red?
Most other games either bore me or intimidate me. It's too easy to lose at blackjack (unless I really want to pay attention, which I don't). Same thing for Spanish 21, Pai Gow Poker, Let It Ride and the rest of them. I don't understand craps well enough to play seriously (though everyone urges me to try it, as it supposedly offers the best odds in the house), and I sure as hell won't sit down to play poker, especially when I'm drunk. Which I am, at some point, always, in a casino.
I've one serious problem with Atlantic City on busy nights: the table minimums rise higher than I'm willing to go. When I gamble, I put the money I can lose in my pocket and leave my ATM card in the room (because I know myself). I'm more than willing to be impulsive and stupid with my money, but I still want to have fun with it. I want to spread it as thin as possible, but without resorting to sitting down at the five-cent slots with the senior citizens.
Because I'm a lowbrow, recreational, chump gambler, I prefer $10 roulette tables. This way, worst case, I can play five times on $50, usually spreading the dollar chips around the board, covering as many numbers as possible, seeking the small, steady gains and losses. Odds are I'll get at least a little something back along the way, granting me another anxious, agonizing trip or two of that little white ball around the rim (again: freaky math guy computes that 50 chances on 38-to-one yields at least one win according to the pure laws of chance, assuming the pit bosses haven't tricked out the wheels with magnets and that there's no god of chance looking to fuck me over). Even when every roulette table is set at a $15 minimum, it's not the worst thing in the world. In a normal situation, on, say, a Wednesday night when the staff is begging for your business, you can put 15 one-dollar chips down anywhere on the inside of the table. You can cover 15/38's of the board and see a return on your money 15/38's of the time. It's fun: you put down some money, get some money back almost half the time. Put it down again, get some more back. Every once in a while you win a lot more; usually, you lose everything (because of that 5.26 percent advantage, which, when looked at over the long view, pops up twice every 38 spins). Betting on roulette is easily understood, and it's fun. Ruination at a leisurely pace. And, I can usually get two drinks from the molasses-slow waitresses during a 30-dollar losing spree.
When the floor gets busy, however, the tables aren't just $15 minimum, they're nickels only. Meaning you can only bet in five-dollar increments. So if you want to stick to the minimum--and stick to the inside of the table, where you're betting individual numbers, one through 36, zero and double-zero--you can only cover three numbers at the full 35-to-one odds. Okay, the payoff is great: put down five dollars on three distinct numbers, hit one of them and get $165 back in your pocket. (Yes, you can bet splits, streets and corners, which are two-, three- and four-number combination bets, but the house takes a severe advantage on those wagers. For instance, if you cover four numbers on a corner bet and hit one of them, you don't get one-quarter of the 35-to-one; you get an eight-to-one return.) But it's not as much fun, as your money tends to disappear more quickly.
Of course, all the tables went to nickels-only on New Year's Eve, and we were losing at one when I absently checked my watch: 11:58. I scanned the crowd. There were party hats, courtesy of the casinos, and plenty of drinks in hand. But would this crowd react? Would the new year arrive with or without incident in this haven for gamblers who were here to gamble? Then, at 11:59, the strangest thing happened: the casino began to buzz. A slow tremor. Occasional noisemakers began to bleat. An announcer came over the loudspeaker (an unheard-of distraction for a normal night) and counted down the last seconds of 2000. And at midnight, the entire floor of the Trump Plaza casino exploded like a scene from the greatest shindig you've never been to, but always seek out. Party hats flew into the air, flocks of noisemakers drowned out the tinny "Auld Lang Syne." The wheels stopped spinning. The croupiers held their dice. The dealers stopped dealing.
My date, an effervescent and friendly type, accosted a Japanese couple and hugged the woman. My date then turned me toward them and I shook the guy's hand. Feeling randy, I took the next step: I leaned in and planted a big, wet smacker on the lady's cheek, earning me two Japanese expressions of shock. Two minutes later, my date cornered a tall, fortysomething black fellow, wishing him Happy New Year and lamenting his presumed loss.
"Don't tell anyone," he whispered, "but I'm winning! And watch this: I'm going to blow everyone's mind," he said mischievously before planting a wet smacker of his own on my cheek. He gave my friend the same, and disappeared into the crowd.
We soon lost the last of our chips and decided that the nickel-only roulette tables weren't our style. We weren't there to make our money $165 at a time. Winning big is great, and I've had nights where I've brought home a couple hundred bucks, but it wasn't the night's priority. We just wanted to sit at the table, win and lose with our fellow gamblers, get a few drinks every once in a while, and have fun. Losing $15 every two minutes, without fail, isn't any fun.
So we left. Up to the room, where we plunked down on our relatively cheap double bed and talked for three hours, the booze, caffeine and such running through our veins with a benign tingle. We talked about the past year, about the night we were having, about the coming year. We talked about how much can happen over the course of a mere evening. We'd absorbed every win and every loss of the evening, every drink and every kiss with a stranger. We were only a few hours into the new year, but already it seemed like forever, lounging on that bed, 26 floors up, the Trump lights casting a luxurious red haze over the clean, white sheets of our cash-bought room, the only sure thing of the night.