The Gambler – A Mea Culpa
In the 1970’s I was living in the boonies of northern Canada, Flin Flon was so far north that occasionally we could see the gorgeous Northern Lights from our town. The other characteristics of this place were bitter cold in the winter and an invasion by bugs in the summer. On particularly cold days my Canadian friends used to remark “it was colder than a whoo-err’s heart (whore in English, pronounced whoo-err in rustic Canajun). In the summer, while playing tennis, we would wield a racquet with one hand and swat at bugs with the other. I was having a pretty sad time in Flin Flon and was despairing of ever getting out of this place when quite out of the blue I was offered a position with an engineering company in the San Francisco Bay Area. So I moved to the Bay Area in June and settled into a rental apartment in Alameda, a little community on the water just outside of Oakland.
A few months later my roommate quite unexpectedly moved out and I was left with an expensive apartment that I neither needed nor desired. Fortuitously, at about that time my friend Gautam, a crackerjack chemical engineer, was completing his PhD from UC Berkeley and needed to move out of his student digs. So we agreed to share an apartment and moved into a 2br, 2ba unit in Oakland on the shores of Lake Merritt. This was a congenial pairing because we seldom met during the weekdays and if then, only for dinner. We got together on a regular basis on Saturday mornings when we usually had a leisurely breakfast quite often at Sambo’s, a diner quite like the Denny’s of the present day. Sambo’s does not exist anymore, likely done in more by the quite inappropriate choice of moniker than due to any act of commission. One morning, while sipping coffee and reading the San Francisco Examiner, Gautam remarked that the horses were running in Golden Gate Fields. I had no idea of racing except it had been drilled into my head from a young age that drinking and gambling were bad! bad! bad! and only shady characters went to the races or to booze dens. So, of course I was intrigued. If Gautam, a pillar of our youth community, could go then surely racing could not be as bad as it was made out to me by my mother, could it? Gautam suggested we spend the afternoon at the races and I agreed to tag along. We got to the racecourse to find an exciting atmosphere. Crowds, touts selling race forecasts, bars selling booze, horses getting saddled and paraded, all quite intoxicating. With a calm demeanor Gautam placed his entire trust on the Examiner’s racing correspondent, Mark Robert’s forecasts. I followed Gautam’s lead little knowing that Gautam knew as little about racing as I did. We ended the day losing a bundle each. Gautam declared that this was an aberration because Mark Robert was usually on the money, and so we repeated it the next weekend. And got the same result.
Stepping back a bit, it should be noted that before Gautam’s proposal I could barely recognize the front end of a horse from its back end. For those of you who have not come in close proximity of these creatures, the front end is the end that bites and the rear end is the end that kicks. It has always been a wonder to me that the industry can find men and women to work as grooms. These brave souls take care of the horses. You may have seen them leading the thoroughbreds holding on to the bridles. I cannot imagine how they keep their fingers from being chomped off or avoid being kicked in the head. And these grooms are the lowest paid employees in the stables. Go figure!!
Anyway, back to the narrative. Tagging along with Gautam, it soon became a ritual to drop money on the ponies every Saturday. We occasionally lucked out and won a few bets, but that was pure chance. After a few weeks of losses I figured that I could do better by throwing darts at a board. So I got me a book on handicapping horses. This was fascinating reading because I learnt that there was a daily publication called The Racing Form that packed in it an immense amount of information on every horse nominated for a race. The trick was to make sense of the information. I will not go into the details of handicapping, suffice to say it was tedious work to develop a numerical rating for each horse in a race. Given the variety of races and the range of tracks these horses ran on it was painstaking work in those pre-personal computer days to come up with a selection. As it turned out, for me at least, about half the races in a day’s card were impossible to call. That was because of the track’s handicapper -- the guy who handicapped the races and assigned weights to the horses to give every horse an equal chance of winning. His sole life ambition was to make the race so close that all the horses finished dead even at the finishing post, thus making the race impossible to forecast. But my system worked because I soon started to return from the track with money in my pocket, and that pleased me no end. After a few weeks of me winning and Gautam losing, I proposed to Gautam that if he would just give me a hundred dollars every Saturday morning we could cut out the middleman and we both could enjoy our Saturdays without wasting time on handicapping and at the track. Predictably, this was a no-go with Gautam.
In the early 80’s the personal computing era was in its infancy and the unit most commonly commercially available was the Commodore 64 (64 because it had 64 KB RAM). The only thing you could do with the unit was play Pong (a game of batting a ball with a paddle). I literally could not find anything else that was worthwhile to do with it. You could compile an address book but it was easier and quicker to write it out by hand. So, mercifully, it was soon put out of its misery by its makers. To develop a program for the Commodore to analyze handicapping data was clearly beyond its capability.
My handicapping days continued for several months during which time Gautam gave up going to the track in disgust. I found it boring spending the entire Saturday alone at the track so after a while I too stopped going. A few memories remain. Quite often swarthy gentlemen of the Hispanic persuasion would come up to me recognizing me as a brother and ask me questions to which I could not respond because I did not know a word of Spanish. It has remained a mystery to me as to what they said. Being the friendly kind they could have been offering me tips for the next race, asking for tips or possibly, directions to the nearest john. A few times I was able to recognize and cash in on long shots, but I missed the biggest one of all. One weekend I had reserved a spot at a consciousness raising seminar in Solano Beach which was quite some distance from the track. Coincidentally, that same Saturday I spotted a real long shot that I was absolutely certain was going to win. This colt had avoided the spotlight by running on little known tracks and against a better class of opponents. When it came time to cash in, the trainer nominated the colt for a nondescript race at Golden Gate Fields. Few recognized the colt’s potential and it was set to go off at huge odds. I asked Gautam to place a hundred for me on the colt to win. Came the race and the colt won. After returning from Solano Beach, I was flying about two feet above the ground (which you will recognize if you have been to one of these seminars). Unfortunately Gautam could not make it to the track that day and I did not get to collect on my prediction. Obviously, saddened by my loss, I landed back on terra firma with a thud. Finally, there came a time when I was fully convinced that I could make a living following the ponies from track to track and I seriously considered giving up my 8 to 5. Thankfully, sanity prevailed and I stuck to collecting a regular paycheck.
My impression after the encounter with these thoroughbred ponies is that they are superb athletes, intelligent, and the good ones, just like humans, have tremendous competitive desire. They are also vulnerable to injuries, especially of the forelegs (ankles). At full gallop, a ton of weight landing on those narrow forelegs creates tremendous stress and they can snap quite easily. Sadly, the racing community, instead of treating the horse, more often than not destroys it, often in the racecourse where it has fallen. I found this aspect of racing rather sad and exploitive and it contributed to my finally swearing off from racing.
One weekend Gautam and his friends were going to South Lake Tahoe and they invited me to join them. Gautam’s friends were all Berkley PhD’s and I was an intellectual minnow among all that brainpower. South Lake Tahoe offers beauty, skiing in the winter, and casinos. This bunch did not care much for the beauty and skiing had not yet started, so they headed straight for the casinos. Their game of choice was Blackjack, a game played with a single or multiple deck of cards, because of their intellectual ability to keep track of the cards as they were dealt. In those days blackjack was usually played with a single deck. It was possible to win at single deck blackjack. This came about after the book “Beat the Dealer” by Ed Thorpe was published. This book analyzed the game and came out with the odds and the best playing strategy. The best strategy could be used if you could keep track of the cards being played. However, counting cards was something everybody tried to do but very few were capable of doing. Before Beat the Dealer, the casinos were minting money on blackjack by fleecing the yokels. This book put a stop to that. Even the yokel from Podunk could follow some simple strategies. The casinos retaliated by not dealing down to the last card on a single deck and by banning card counters from the casinos. Banning card counting I thought was a terrible injustice because it was like asking someone to check in their brains at the door before entering the casino. This is akin to having a cricket batsman with one arm tied playing against a bowler with all faculties intact. Of course, players tried all kinds of ways to avoid being detected as being a card counter. Soon, the casinos realized that single deck blackjack was not in their best interests and introduced two decks, and when that did not deter the best players they went to multi-deck play. In recent days I have not seen a single casino that does not deal from 10 or 12 decks. This was the casino’s way of telling the card counters “Take that, you suckers”. I stopped trying my luck with blackjack when the casinos moved to multiple decks. The odds were too far out of kilter for me to risk my money. It never fails to amaze me when I see the crowds fighting to get a seat at the blackjack tables to (mostly) give their money away.
I was never very attracted to gambling for the winnings. Winning was fun but I was more interested in figuring out the winning strategy. It turns out that in most games of chance the casino has all the angles covered. There are very few casino games where skill has a chance. Poker is one such game where skilled players travel the world making big money. The casino, while hosting poker games, does not risk its fortunes on the game and is content to deal the cards and take its cut off the top thereby avoiding any risk. The closest game to poker that I am aware of is “teen patti”, the Indian version of poker, though at a much more elemental level.
I learnt the basics of blackjack from the Berkeley brains. These guys were great at figuring out odds and in spotting favorable situations but somewhat of a loss in managing their money. Ranjit, a brilliant mathematician from Maharashtra, could never figure out when to leave the table. On several occasions he would be winning big but bitten by the gambling bug he would stay on until he was completely wiped out. Our trips to South Lake Tahoe were fun because in those days with several of us just out of school and in our first jobs, we were mostly dirt poor and had to pool our resources for these trips. There was a great sense of camaraderie because we were all in the same boat financially and we would not, could not, let one of us go under. So, it happened occasionally that we collectively ran out of money in those pre-credit card days and had to forgo a meal to save money for gas for the return trip home.
After my early days of trying my luck with the ponies and blackjack, I started to find the whole gambling enterprise boring. I found other outlets for entertainment and I stopped going to the track and the casinos. After I moved to Southern California, I was sent to Las Vegas for a technical conference by my company. While passing through a casino I saw a table with people hunched around the edge yelling their heads off. These people were playing Craps and seemingly having a great time. There was also the transfer of a lot of money quite rapidly. So, I learnt all I could about the game and one day I jumped in. To my surprise, I did quite well coming out a winner in that first session. Later, after many more sessions over several months at the table my net result was in the win column. I won and I lost but the net was satisfyingly positive.
After immersing myself in the game, I found the best casino odds are in Craps. This is a game where a pair of six sided dice are rolled on a green felt covered long table. For a casino game to be equitable, the payoffs should reflect the odds so that both the casino and the player are at an equal advantage/disadvantage. In casino gaming, this does not happen. The game odds and the payoffs are heavily in favor of the casinos. The beauty of the casino system is that the player is beguiled into thinking that he/she has a chance of making money. Craps is the only game where several wagers are paid off at true odds thus shaving the overall house advantage and there are also several other wagers that give the house only a very small advantage. A word of caution: Craps is a game where it is possible to drop a lot of money in a hurry if luck is not with you and just as easily to win a lot if the dice are with you. So, money management is the name of the game. With proper money management and good playing strategy it is possible to minimize losses and maximize returns while winning, thus coming out on top overall. I do not gamble anymore but by using prudent strategy and money management I was able to consistently win in craps.
It is evident that all the games in the casinos are set up to make money for the house. So, of course the best winning strategy is not to put your foot inside a casino. The casino banks on the player to turn up with money and high hopes and for the casino to relieve him/her of both. The way the games are set up, a player can possibly win for a short while but in the long run will definitely lose. These huge, opulent palaces are built on the broken aspirations of millions of small time gamblers out to have a good time who feel privileged to be let into such a glamorous place to lose their money. Even the big money gamblers, the ones who are brought over by the casino’s private aircraft, chauffeured, wined and dined and put up in luxury suites and have their every desire fulfilled lose money by the bucketful. The only difference between the small time gambler and the big money guys is in the size of the bet. The outcome remains the same.
If you wish to wager your money on casino games, do so, but this grizzled veteran suggests that before you make your first wager, understand the odds and the playing and betting strategies of the game and do not ever put the milk money on the line. There are many books where the games and their betting strategies are discussed in detail. The last place where you should take instructions from is the casinos where they instruct you how to play but not how to win.
So, go forward and gamble if you wish but do it for fun, not with the hope of making money. If you ever hit it big and clean out the casino let me know because I will be cheering for you.
(Posted February 15, 2018)
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