Friday, November 1, 2019

The Coin of the Realm

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for November is called "Days of Love." If I were a gambling man, I would be willing to bet that if you're reading this, there is an 11% chance that you will also listen to the song. I like those odds.

And guess what... I am a gambling man! I've been to Las Vegas twice in my life, and between those two visits, I placed a total of one bet.

My first stopover in Sin City was in the Summer of 1997. It was the final leg of a post-college road trip. Las Vegas, as I learned from our guidebook, is Spanish for "The Vegas." The party animals simply call it Vegas, but these same party animals also say Ohio State University. Neither is grammatically correct without the definite article. You wouldn't say, "I swam in Pacific Ocean, subscribed to New York Times, and got tortured by CIA." The word THE must be used when describing bodies of water, periodicals, and organizations. You know, like, "I swam in The Lake Ontario, subscribed to The Newsweek, and got tortured by The ISIS."

I was 21 years old, and had never sat at a casino table before. Sure, I had stuffed a few quarters into a video poker machine, but I didn't know what a real casino chip would feel like in my hand. We had only one night in Las Vegas to change that, and I wasn't going to waste it pulling handles at some third-rate suburban roadhouse. We were going downtown to hit the classiest casino on The Strip... Excalibur.

The 1990s were the heyday for themed casinos, and Excalibur ruled over all with an iron gauntlet. It was a 100,000 square foot palace with all the trappings of a 15th century gambling den. There were gaudy tapestries, stained glass windows, and bouncers in plate mail. If you were playing slots, you could keep your quarters in a big plastic cup that said, "Capture the Coin of the Realm!" There were turreted balconies and turreted escalators. There were pamphlets for topless clubs strewn on the floor, and they all looked like ancient manuscripts that had been carefully illuminated by horny monks. It was the most magical place in the world.

"I'd like $20 worth of chips, please," I said to the cashier, leaning on the counter and lowering my sunglasses. Oh yeah, I was a serious gambler, and she knew it. This 21-year-old with a Jewfro and a flannel shirt wasn't heading for the penny slots. He was a legit medium roller.

She handed me one chip.

According to, $20 in 1997 would be worth $32 today, so this was a lot of money.  (As an aside, the founders of weren't really thinking ahead when they got that domain name, were they?)

I nodded at the cashier and went straight for the blackjack tables. My Uncle Dick taught me to play blackjack when I was in elementary school, so I knew a thing or two about strategy.  Always hit on 11, always stand on 20, and if any other combination comes up, casually ask the dealer what he would do if he were in my place. You know, like if he woke up earlier that morning, and he and I had mysteriously switched brains.

It was a good plan, but after I watched the other gamblers for a while, my confidence started to slip away. They weren't all hoodie-wearing card sharks, but they seemed experienced and confident. Not once did one of them ask the dealer what he would do in the Freaky Friday scenario. I felt intimidated, and started to wonder if I wasn't cut out to be a medium roller.

And that's when I saw it. Excalibur had a War table. Yes, War. The card game that 5-year-olds play, and the rules were the same:
1. The dealer places a card in front of the player.
2. The dealer places a card in front of herself.
3. Whoever has the higher card wins.

Excalibur had 32 blackjack tables, but only one War table, and nobody was playing. I sat down and slammed my shiny green chip on the table.

The dealer nodded, shuffled the deck, and dealt me a card. Nine of hearts.

Then she placed a card in front of herself. Four of clubs. I was about to ask her what she would do if a magical fortune cookie caused us to switch brains until we showed selfless love, and then I realized that I had already won.

I thanked her, carefully picked up my two chips and walked back to the cashier as inconspicuously as I could. I didn't make eye contact with anyone until my friend and I were back outside in the Nevada sun with $40 in cash.

We couldn't stop giving each other high fives, and wasted the rest of the night speculating about how Excalibur was handling my unexpected payout. Somewhere in the heart of the casino, we imagined, two Armani-suited pit bosses were pointing at footage of me on a security screen and roaring at each other through walkie-talkies. This guy! Who does this guy think he is that he can come out of nowhere and walk away from the War table with enough chips to pay for two nights at a decent campsite?

I decided that I would come back to Excalibur a few years later. The War table would have a different dealer, of course, and I would be a grown man. The Jewfro would be gone, and I would be sporting an entirely different flannel shirt. Even though the dealer and I would have never met, he would sense something familiar about me. I would turn to the waitress to place my drink order, and the dealer would pull out a laminated card from underneath the table, showing a blurry black-and-white picture of me from the 1997 security camera footage. Stamped across the top it would say Do not play War with this man. He has a system and ALWAYS wins.

The dealer would smile at me and push a secret button underneath the table. Moments later, plate-mailed bouncers would grab me from behind and drag me out into the alley. They would throw me to the ground, kick me in the stomach and poke at me with their halberds. As I lay nursing my nosebleed, they would march in formation back into the casino, shouting, "Fie! Ne'er return thee to Excalibur henceforth!"

Eventually, I did make my way back to Las Vegas, but it wasn't until 2019, and none of that happened. None of that happened because this time, I stayed away from gambling.  Everyone knows that in Las Vegas, the House always wins.

Or as the party animals say: In Vegas, House always wins.

With warmest regards,