Los Angeles, CA
"Sometimes contact with the lucky can change a man's run of bad luck," said William Burroughs. "But generally it works the other way. Junkies are an envious lot."
This is your obligatory Luck of the Irish post where I revisit the theme of binge drinking and luck. The horrors of luck tormented many souls. Panhandlers can tell you about their losing stories in life, and how a word like luck dredges up horrific connotations decided to look the other way. Busto poker players regurgitate hours and hours of endless tales about how they constantly ended up on the "shit end" of the stick.
Then there's genuine stories about simple people averting catastrophe, like the perplexed businessmen who got caught in traffic and missed his flight to Buffalo that ended up falling out of the sky and killing every single passenger. Two of my friends died then came back to life at the hands of a paramedic: one of them had their heart stop, while the other got shot seven times. Both were about to depart this world, yet at the last second, they were called back. They both woke up in the hospital. It was not their time to expire. Lucky? Absolutely.
The over-inflated beliefs and the illusion of control was one of the biggest contributing factors to problem gambling. Consistent losers justified their losing sessions at the tables and blamed “bad luck” as the culprit, instead of owning up to the fact that they lacked the necessary skills to play the game or simply fell on the bad side of mathematics and probability.
Rituals were things that made people comfortable, like flipping the on and off switch to the lights eight times before you left the apartment or why I used to knock twice on the outside of a plane in the jetway before I boarded any flight. I firmly believed that touching the outer shell of the plane would prevent it from crashing and improve my flight karma which meant avoiding sitting next to babies, chatty people, and folks with morose body odor.
The inflated expectation of winning by adhering to superstitions was the ultimate downfall to any gambler that set foot in Las Vegas. You will not win at blackjack or flop a set if you do or do not follow the delirium of a specific superstition. The randomness of luck is more powerful that your willingness to increase your edge with lucky items or fulfilling a ritual that's nothing more than a waste of your time and your crutch against facing the harsh realities of the world.
Gambling is a chaotic, godless, and random universe.
Asian people viewed luck in vastly different ways than those of us in the Western world. The Chinese believed that the ebbs and flows of luck can be predicted by astrology, and that you can gain an edge by taking advantage of an instance when celestial luck is in your favor. That's why Chinese New Year is a popular time among Asian gamblers. They believe that winning at any form of gambling on New Year's Day will bring them positive luck for the rest of the year.
In some Asian cultures, people saved up money for decades then checked the stars to find out the best dates to travel to Macau, Las Vegas, or a local casino. They felt that their destiny was determined by the gambling gods. If they are supposed to lead a blessed and wealthy life... then they would score big on their gambling sojourn. If they lost on that epic trip, then they accepted that they had to settle into the role of mediocrity or poverty for their remaining years.
There was an appropriate Vietnamese saying, "Winning is luck. Losing is bad luck."
Some poker players found some truth to that statement. Was a run of bad cards just a run of bad luck? Or was it simply... a random event? That depended on the belief systems and psychological temperament of the person experiencing the rush or the dismay of the awful run of cards. There was a sort of randomness associated with the shuffle of the cards along with the shuffle of luck. When you ran bad, the player at the other end of the table was discredited as a "luckbox" or a "lucky fucker." But if you got sucked out on, you might chalk up your negative experience to a run of bad luck.
I used to hand out $1 bills to homeless guys who I encountered on the subway on my way to the play poker at one of the clubs or at a home game. I felt that my overall karma would improve by helping out the homeless and come back in a form of a winning session at the tables.
One of the hardest superstitions to shake is the theory that bad luck was passed along from one player to another like a quick spreading strain of the Swine Flu. My brother and I often joke around that certain friends of ours were coolers. We had a running theory that they were symbols of death at the tables. There were instances when one of them wandered to the blackjack table and Derek picked up his chips and walked away.
Believing in luck whether it was good or bad was a form of tilt. Stat and math geeks will tell you that there was no such thing as a rush and pushing your luck was nothing more than feeling confident about your cards. Conversely, when stuck in a losing streak, worrying about the outcome of your hands due to an unlucky streak was simply playing without confidence. Like I said, math and science ruled the universe over hokey superstitions. That is... if you believed in that.
Some people believed in God and they firmly believe that praying to God would affect the outcome of their cards. I came from the school of thought that if there is a God, the last thing he wanted to do is to turn off the doom switch on PokerStars for you or help you catch your two outer on the river. Las Vegas was the post-modern version of Sodom or Gomorrah. Didn't God send his angels to burn those cities to the ground?