Monthly Archives: February 2015

Short Story: The System

pic for system

I try not to think about it. It’s like walking down stairs or riding a bike – if you think too much you’ll fuck it up.

I take the ball, push the roulette wheel and flick the ball around the track in the opposite direction. The red and black numbers blur and the casino’s bright lights gleam off the wheel’s chrome spokes. I roll my shoulders, trying to dispel the tension that’s built waiting for Lee.

‘Last bets,’ I call.

The only customer at my table is a pale, blinkless man slouched on his stool like a melted candle. He peers furtively into a dog-eared notebook then dolefully plops a few more chips onto the green baize. I look around for Lee. He should be here by now.

Like Lee, Blinkless is a regular in the Las Vegas room, though, as far as I can recall, I’ve never dealt to him before.

‘No more bets.’ I sweep my arms over the table as the ball slows and pings musically across the wheel’s spokes before coming to rest.

Zero. Bang on target. I place the dolly on the winning number with a surge of triumph.

Dealing roulette is the one thing I’ve ever been good at. I don’t have a girlfriend, I’m not witty, I have few friends, I hate sport and I’m not artistic – but damn I run a good game of roulette. Not only do you need to be an enforcer, keeping control of big games where arms seethe across the table like tentacles, but you also need the brains to calculate complex payouts.

What’s 35×4 + 17×6 + 8×7 + 2×11?

Too slow. Three hundred and twenty.

Lots of dealers have the basic skills, but few turn dealing into an art. I’m not normally a graceful person, but years of spinning, clearing chips and delivering payouts has allowed me to refine my motions until they are as smooth and precise as tai chi in a park.

I sweep Blinkless’s losing bets towards me using a gentle breaststroke motion then use the back of my hand to brush the chips into the maw of the chipping machine.

Blinkless has lost $500 in 20 minutes. He seems to bet with a system – most regulars do. He chews his pencil and jots in his notebook. The book’s rumpled pages are full of scrawled calculations, sketches of wheels and columns of numbers.

‘Place your bets.’

Lee hooks his leg over a stool and throws a wad of notes on the table. He rolls up the sleeves of his blue shirt to reveal his colourful tattoos and turns a smile on Blinkless. ‘Any luck tonight, Chief?’

Blinkless shies away, hiding his notebook from view.

I count the notes onto the table. It’s all there. Ten thousand dollars, half of it mine.

‘One hundred dollar chips,’ Lee says. ‘I’m feeing lucky.’

How can he sound so confident when I can hardly keep my hands from shaking? It’s just one of the reasons I admire him so much.

I take five stacks of black hundred dollar chips and slide them across the table.

I got to know Lee at the $2 tables. At least twice a week he’d wander in and lay down a few hundred dollars saying something like, ‘Plumbing, the last frontier of cash-in-hand.’ Unlike most regulars he was sociable, always up for a chat – a welcome distraction on long, quiet nights. It didn’t matter whether he won or lost, he was always in a good mood, joking with the waitresses, speculating on the backgrounds of other punters, taking the piss out the casino’s kitsch décor and cheesy background music. He said he liked the way I dealt.

Blinkless sneaks a peek in his notebook and dolls out chips. Lee confidently puts a chip straight up on 0 and further chips on 32, 15, 19, 4 and 21 – the numbers to the right of zero on the wheel. He places further bets on 26, 3, 35, 12 and 28 – the numbers to the left of zero on the wheel. This is called a neighbour bet. It’s a simple, undetectable plan, but my heart still kicks hard in my chest.

I dry my fingertips on the leg of my trousers and send the ball zinging around the wheel. ‘Last bets.’

Blinkless plonks down a few more chips. Lee leans back on his stool and orders a bourbon and coke from a passing waitress. The ball orbits smoothly around the wheel with a gentle scouring sound.

‘No more bets’. I wave my hands across the table as the ball plinks and plunks across the frets.

I swallow and glance at the wheel. ‘Twenty-eight, black.’

I place the dolly on Lee’s black chip and sweep away the losing bets. Blinkless has lost as usual. I slide Lee over his winnings: 35 black chips. Revenge really is sweet.

Blinkless looks dolefully at his few remaining chips. This is one of the reasons I hate the casino. It presents itself as a glamorous destination for sophisticated people, yet it gets the bulk of its money from people like Blinkless – addicts in tracky-dacks. The casino thinks its moral responsibility ends with a gambling helpline poster in the toilets.

Lee takes five chips and uses his thumb to roll one chip off the front of the stack and flip it to the rear. It’s a deft trick, made even more difficult by all the rings he wears on his fingers. When we meet later, I’ll have to ask him how it’s done.

‘Place your bets.’

When I was training to be a dealer, back when I was bright-eyed and had a full head of hair, they showed us surveillance footage of people trying to swindle the casino. The footage mostly showed hapless punters trying to slip a chip onto the table after the fall of the ball, but there were also clips of dealers trying to steal as well. The dealers’ ruses were slightly more sophisticated, such as passing a stack of $2 chips with a $100 chip hidden among them to an accomplice, or else slipping a palmed chip into a sleeve or pocket. It didn’t matter how sophisticated the scam, each clip ended with a visit from a black-suited security guard. The message was clear: we have 20 cameras focused on each table – you shifty bastards better not even think about shafting us.

The casino doesn’t realise a lack of trust provokes a lack of loyalty.

Lee places the neighbour bet centred on 28. His drink comes and he chats easily with the waitress. He is often at the casino with a beautiful girl, a different one each time. Blinkless makes a calculation in his notebook and lays down his chips until he only has three left.

The other reason I hate the casino is more personal. Hundreds of dealers work here, but I’m one of the best. So why am I still dealing shitty tables in the Las Vegas room after 10 years? Lesser dealers, with lesser experience, are earning twice as much working in the VIP rooms. I should be up there too.

Once a year it gets explained to me at my performance review. As well as cameras on every table, they also monitor the number of spins, and my spin rate isn’t high enough. As one pit boss explained, ‘You average twenty spins an hour. That’s 33 percent below your performance target. Don’t worry about making it look beautiful, just start spinning faster.’

I’m a professional. I’m not going to spin up every two minutes like a robot. I’m proud of my work, even if they aren’t.

I take the ball and spin up again. I love the sound of the ball whizzing around the wheel, the way it changes pitch as it slows and the satisfying clunks as it tumbles across the wheel.

‘Twenty-six, black.’

Blinkless loses. We win.

And it’s undetectable. There is no fast fingerwork to be caught on camera. No hushed conversation between conspirators. It just looks like luck.

Back when I was training, the instructor mentioned some veteran dealers were able to hit the same section of wheel each spin. I pictured the ball rotating 40 or 50 times one way and the wheel rotating a similar number of times in the opposite direction. He had to be joking. It would be impossible to spin the ball and the wheel with the exact force required to land the ball on the same section of wheel each spin. I smiled quizzically at the instructor, not sure if this was some kind of roulette initiation, like an apprentice being sent for a left-handed hammer.

Lee incorporates our winnings into the rampart of chips building before him.

‘Place your bets.’ I unload some chips from the chip-stacker and arrange them neatly in the bank while Lee places the neighbour bet around 26.

Blinkless plonks down his three remaining chips. I’m reaching for the ball when he speaks. ‘This game’s rigged.’

His voice is clear and sharp. It’s a shock to hear him speak, wrong somehow, like one of those mute TV puppets piping up after a lifetime of silence.

I recover enough to give my standard reply. ‘The game’s not rigged because it doesn’t need to be rigged. The odds just aren’t in your favour.’

Blinkless stands up and shakes his notebook at me. ‘It’s rigged, I know it’s rigged – I just can’t quite prove it.’

Lee turns on his stool and looks at Blinkless steadily. ‘Shut the fuck up,’ he says, ‘you’re speaking shit.’

Blinkless hunches into his shirt as if trying to disappear. Lee gives him a final glare then turns back to the table and takes a sip of his drink.

I take a deep breath and spin the wheel, but immediately know I’ve pushed harder than normal. I try to compensate by spinning the ball slightly harder, but know this spin is purely chance.

‘Five, red.’ Almost directly opposite 26 on the wheel. Lee gives a sound between a groan and a growl, and makes the sound a second time when he sees Blinkless has landed a split.

Blinkless drags his stool further away from Lee and sits down. He accepts his 17 chips thoughtfully and studies the cover of his notebook for a long moment before shoving it deep into the pocket of his tracksuit pants.

I remove the dolly from the winning number. ‘Place your bets.’ I glance at Lee. He seems unperturbed by the loss. We had spoken about this. The occasional loss was to be expected; sometimes the ball can hit the right section of the wheel but bounce along the frets for longer than usual. As long as we stay ahead in the long run.

‘I still think the game is rigged.’ Blinkless watches Lee lay his bets. ‘They have magnets beneath the wheel.’ When Lee finishes laying his bets, Blinkless places his own.

I suddenly get the shakes. They start at my knees and run up my legs to jangle my spine. Until now I had just gone along with everything, but now I realise this isn’t just a dealing exercise, it’s stealing, and more than that – I can’t afford to lose. My share of the kitty was cash-advanced on my credit card. What the hell am I doing?

I take a couple of deep breaths, stretch my fingers and spin, hardly even looking at the wheel. The spin feels natural, the ball seeming to roll for the perfect length of time, but it lands on 18 – outside the neighbour bet.

‘Yes!’ Blinkless pumps his arm. He has another split.

I sweep away the losing bets, the black chips seeming heavy in my hands, and pay Blinkless.

Lee’s rampart is reduced, though overall we are still up. I try to give him a look, or as much of a look as I can with so many cameras covering the table. I catch his eye and twitch my head from side-to-side.

Lee cuts down a pile of chips then stacks them back up. He spots a waitress and orders another drink. His smile is as easy as ever. He lays bets around the 18.

‘Aren’t you going to say “Place your bets”?’ asks Blinkless.

‘Place you bets,’ I repeat mechanically.

Trying to spin a section of the wheel started as just another challenge. I wanted to test the rumour. At first I concentrated on regulating my spin – the same push of the wheel and flick of the ball every time. After a month I was ready to give up. While my spins felt uniform, the winning numbers remained stubbornly random. But I didn’t become a good dealer by not persisting, so I experimented with different spins, a little harder and a little softer than normal, still seeking consistency from spin to spin. After three months I found a spin that sometimes hit the same section of wheel. Initially the ball often skittered to another section before coming to rest, but, buoyed by my progress, I redoubled my efforts. Little by little my accuracy improved, until after about five months of effort I finally mastered it, culminating in spinning the number 3 fives times in a row.

That was the night I ran into Lee in the Rage Bar. I sometimes dropped into the bar for a couple of beers after work, especially if I had been dealing a big game. It was the first time I had seen Lee outside of the casino and it was strange not to be separated by the width of a roulette table. He was just as friendly as usual, insisting on buying me a beer and laughing at my casual clothes. Perhaps I had a few more beers than normal – as well as perfecting my spin I had had my performance review.

At work I had to be circumspect when chatting to Lee, but at the bar I could tell him what I really thought about the casino. I wasn’t surprised to learn he shared my feelings about the casino’s greed. ‘They’re leeches,’ he said, ‘Leeches. Someone should take them down.’ Then he put a hand on my shoulder and said seeing me spin the five 3s had given him an idea.

‘You going to spin or what?’ It’s Blinkless again, twitching with excitement.

The next spin feels good, though maybe I’m a touch heavy on the wheel. Still, as the ball circuits I feel hopeful. ‘Last bets.’

The ball rattles and I glance at the wheel. ‘19, red’.

We lose again, but Blinkless’s luck has definitely changed. He is straight up on 19 and receives his 35 chip payout with the makings of a smile.

Lee fiddles with his chips, continuing his nifty thumb roll trick. Why would a plumber wear so many rings? Wouldn’t they catch on things?

‘Place your bets,’ says Blinkless and leans over the table with a handful of chips. Lee places the neighbour bet once more.

I can still do this. I close my eyes and imagine a graceful flick and a smooth spin. Just like I’ve done a million times before.

But the spin feels wrong, I’m too keyed up – I’ve flicked the ball too hard. It runs for longer than usual and drops on 22, black.

We lose, Blinkless wins again – two chips straight up on 22 for a 70 chip payout. Even with $5 chips it’s still a $350 win.

I pray for Lee to take the remaining chips and cash out, but he finishes his drink and leans forward to bet again. He looks grim, scolding, as if teaching me a lesson. But it’s his money too. Why would he stay?

I try and regain my groove, but the pattern continues, Lee loses while Blinkless maintains his freakish run of good luck. Their piles of chips reverse, Blinkless gaining while Lee’s pile erodes, 11 chips per spin, first down to three stacks, then two, then one. After each spin I pray for Lee to leave, to take our remaining chips and cash out. But he stays, obstinately losing $1100 a spin, like he doesn’t even care about the money.

Lee places his last 11 chips on the table, doggedly maintaining the neighbour bet around the previous winning number.

‘Last bets,’ I croak.

Blinkless is energised. He places handfuls of bets, always avoiding the numbers Lee selects. Lee places his final chip and pushes up from the table to stand. He looks severe. I realise it’s a look that seems natural for him, more natural than all his jokes and smiles.

The ball races around the track. The wheel glitters beneath the lights.

‘17, black’. I place the dolly on Blinkless’s pile of chips.

Lee looks at me. His eyes have volume and weight.

‘Sorry,’ I murmur.

I begin sweeping away the losing bets. I try to calculate Blinkless’s payout, but the number won’t come.

A mirthless bark of laughter makes me look back up. ‘Don’t be sorry,’ Lee says, smiling coldly. ‘I never thought it would work.’ He takes a step closer to the table and drops his voice. ‘You owe me now.’ He nods, his smile widening. ‘I’ve got some plans for you.’

He takes two steps backwards, keeping me locked in his gaze, then turns to stalk across the carpet and deeper into the casino.

‘I think I proved my new system,’ Blinkless says. ‘Never bet where the black chips are.’ He pushes his chips across the table towards me. ‘Cash me out.’

——–

First published in Page 17.