The Count

Ace blackjack player Stuart Ziglin has been beating Missouri casinos at their own game. Now they want to change the rules.

He's tired. He's too old for this. He, Stuart Ziglin, the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri. Too old. Got him smelling like a filtered Camel Wide, he'd been in there so long. How many did he smoke? He's got to stop. Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty? Who knows? He smoked more cigarettes than he won chips tonight, he knows that much. Dumb game. Can never figure it out. It's that randomness. That blackjack randomness. 'Cause he made all the right moves. Split all the right pairs. Doubled down when he should've. Bet the table limit when the count was right. Stayed on a 15 with the dealer showing paint; hit on a 15 with the dealer showing paint. He wasn't guessing on the table; he wasn't going by feel. As far as he's concerned, those feel players -- most everybody else out there -- might as well give their chips to the dealer before the game even starts if they're gonna do that, if they're gonna go by feel. Even made up his own word for what they do: SWAGing -- scientific wild-ass guessing.

No, the best blackjack player in the state of Missouri would never be a SWAGer; he calculated his moves tonight at downtown's President Casino on the Admiral the way he always does. He knew precisely what move to play. It was just that randomness that did him in tonight. And that six-deck shoe. And the cycle. He was just on a bad cycle. Give him a two-deck game, no middle-deck cut, head-on against the dealer, and watch out. Let him double down on split pairs and surrender early? He'd be greased clockwork, a Baptist preacher given a locked church and a full congregation, Gore Vidal writing American history; shoot, he wouldn't even feel as if he was working for his money anymore. St. Louis had something close to that two-deck game once upon a time, some five, six years ago -- was a candy store, is what it was, but no use even thinking about that now. Won't happen again, now that counting cards is legal.

But, Lord, he's too damn old for this. This: riding home from a casino in the dead of night. Missing his wife. Missing dinner. Chewing on the same soft candy he feeds his horses. Karen had said she was going to cook tonight. And when she says she'll cook, she wants him to be there. He meant to be there. He had told her so before he left. It was going to be a short session, honey, he'd said. She'd been half-asleep on the couch when he said it, so maybe she hadn't heard. But he had anticipated the quick in-out. A solid grand or so up, of course. And now look at him. A dozen hours later, past midnight. Slurped down a heap of cold pasta topped with oily string- bean stir-fry in the President's poker room. The wad in the Montana silver money clip Karen gave him now 30 $100 bills thinner. Whew, that's three grand.

David Terrill

He shouldn't have gone to the ATM. He was chasing. No, no, he wasn't chasing. The best blackjack player in the state of Missouri never chases. Every time he gets up from the table, it's a whole new game. Even this loss -- it's not even really a loss. He's just taking a break. And then he'll be back to recoup. He has to ... because Stuart, he doesn't lose. He gets hives; he gets sick. It's the truth -- Karen'll attest to that. Losing -- it makes him psychologically ill. And when something makes you ill, you just don't do it. Simple as that.

He did, once -- lose, that is. But now ... now the numbers won't let him lose. And the casinos, they know it. If blackjack is anything, it's a game of numbers. And Stuart took their numbers. Their edge. Tonight, though, just has him feeling rough. Blinking sleep from his eyes, flying west down Highway 40, peering stiffly through the windshield to where the pickup's headlights are muted by night. Gas pedal pressed down and engine revving faster, faster, he hasn't even made it across the Missouri River yet. Faster. This is just too long of a drive, especially when he has to work early tomorrow. Casino's valet parking didn't help either -- took a good 20 minutes to bring the truck around. He just wants to get home and crawl in bed with Karen. She's probably asleep. He needs to call her: "Karen? Hi, hon, yeah, I'm on my way home ... OK, bye." Yep, he woke her up, but she didn't mind; she never does. What would he do without Karen? That scamp Arnold's probably in bed with her now. In his spot, more'n likely. Dog shows no respect. No respect. Came over three weeks ago from across the street, refused to go home and, his first night as a Ziglin, he claimed the bed. Typical Ziglin animal, that Arnold -- Frankie, the chocolate poodle, uses a fork to eat; the barn cat has a damn litter box and is afraid of mice.

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