Los Angeles, CA
Everyone has their guilty pleasures.
Pai Gow is the core of my degeneracy. We have had a long abusive relationship along the lines of Ike and Tina Turner, except Pai Gow is Ike and he's beating the piss out of me with the heel of his boot. Self-destructive co-dependent relationships rue the Las Vegas valley, and neither of us is able to walk away. Well, I attempt to walk away more often than not toward the sunset in the dusty Nevada sky, but something always lulls me back and I succumb to the fleeting temptations.
It's harder than you think to describe how easy it is to cross the line. The struggle to stay away from Pai Gow is an entirely different story. I could write a book about it. Perhaps I can devote an entire section to Pai Gow in the follow-up to Lost Vegas.
The nightmare cliche is waking up in the middle of the night with the cold sweats after being terrorized by your deepest fears and insecurities. But for me, since I sleep so little, I experience waking nightmares which strike at random times -- walking through an aisle at Whole Foods, riding a subway, or waiting in taxi line at an airport. I feel the invisible ants marching on my skin, beads of sweat stream off my scalp, my heart rate accelerates and I'm suddenly ill with wretched pain.
The only thing that can help?
Pai Gow. Seven cards. Two hands. Me versus the dealer.
That's sort of the fight and visceral experience that I'm looking for... me versus The Man. The main reason that the casinos have a love-hate relationship with poker is a money issue. Generally speaking, poker rooms do not generate as much income as a section of slot machines. As one industry exec pointed out to me, "Ben and Jerry's stores located inside casinos pull in more money per day than poker rooms."
Now there's a novel idea... put a "toking" poker room inside of a Ben & Jerry's in order to cater to counter-culture gamblers; all of those pot-smoking Baby Boomers of yesteryear battling against the new wave of herb-friendly neo-hippies.
I apologize for sharing my pipe dream with you. Let's get back on track here... the suits, who only care about the bottom line, aren't keen on poker since players are playing against other players. Thereby the poker room only secures income in the form of raked pots and tournament fees.
Brick and mortar poker is a battle between myself and fellow humans. Online poker is not quite man versus the machines, even though at times I'm playing against cyborgs, part-humans and part-machines, especially with tracking software and other data mining programs being utilized.
But Pai Gow is a showdown between me versus The Man in an old school wild wild west showdown at high noon, except that I'm stoned to the tits and it's 3pm in the afternoon.
I don't want my peers' money; I want the corporate bucks. My goal is to take down Big Business one Pai Gow hand at a time. This is a momentous task considering that I often feel as though the powers to be are conspiring against me.
Yes, yes, yes... I know I'm sounding paranoid, but I'm not one to wear tin foil hats. If anything, I constantly deconstruct those half-baked conspiracy theories using Occam's Razor and my Dick Cheney Illuminati secret decoder ring. And, I don't have concrete evidence that The Man is using dirty tactics to remove ever single Benjamin out of my pocket. These matters are always so vague to prove, besides, The Man has clever agents at his disposal.
Casinos are crawling with operatives. The Imperial Palace is loaded with mostly robots that Harrahs' purchased from Nagai Systems in Tokyo. The Nagai Bots (NB) are cold and emotionless, similar in demeanor to the Scandis but wrapped in the body of a five foot Asian woman.
The Gold Coast is bot free, but those operatives were easy to spot during the mid-afternoon. The Gold Coast specifically caters to locals, budget gamblers, and crazy Asian gamblers. The north end of the pit is always packed because that's where the baccarat tables are located, and people stand three-deep sweating the action. I made a lap around the gambling pit at the Gold Coast. It's not very large compared to Strip casinos, but they have five or six Pai Gow tables running during peak hours. The Emperor Challenge Bonus Pai Gow tables happened to be filled, so I took the only available seat at a regular Pai Gow table with three Asian grandmothers and a middle-aged Asian guy. Two spots were open, both flanking the guy. I sat to his left so I could get a crack at the Dragon hand before he did. I bought for $500 and requested only green chips. He took one look at me and left the table. I guess he didn't like half-breeds.
Two of the old ladies on the right side of the table didn't say a peep. They conservatively bet the minimum bet of $10, however, they were pounding the fortune bonus with $5 bets. The third old lady sat to my left and admitted that she was still learning the game. It took her several minutes to set her hand, much to the dismay of the two other old ladies. I didn't mind the delay at all because it slowed down the game which worked in my favor. I tend to avoid tilt when I see less hands per hour. Usually you want to see as many as possible, but I discovered that I play optimally when the game slows to a turtle's pace. You see, the bots are the ones who deal super fast. The Man knows that in the long run the odds are in his favor (ahem, insert the "the house always wins" comment anywhere into this post) so if he can generate more hands per hour with the bots, then that means more potential revenue at the end of every shift.
It took me a while, but I figured out that I have spread out the Pai Gow buzz over an extended period of time. Part of the reason why I love sports betting is that games last at least 2+ hours (college hoops and the NBA), with many 3+ (NFL and MLB). That's a sustained high, sort of like eating time-released opiates. Craps, blackjack, and roulette are the crack cocaine of the pits. Online poker is the marijuana of the gaming world that makes you sit on the couch for hours of endless tedium coupled with unpredictable fits of psychosis and a tinge of paranoia. Ah, and how could I forget about the munchies. Do you ever see craps players chomping on a sandwich while rolling the bones?
The old lady to my left wondered if she should bet the Fortune Bonus.
"Look, here's the deal... you either do it all the time or don't do it at all," I said.
"You don't do it," she noted, then pointed at the other two ladies at the opposite end of the table, "But they do it all the time."
"It's up to you. If you're feeling lucky and think you're going to hit a couple of huge hands -- then go for it."
I'm not a bonus person, much to the protests of Grubby and Grubbette. I see some value betting the bonus as as a hedge with a flush or straight because more often than not, if you're setting one of those as your five-card hand, then you probably have a weak two-card hand which eventually ends up in a push. The bonus gives you a chance to get something back on a pushed hand. However, the bonus is only profitable over the long run if you hit a couple of big hands to cover the cost of the bet. I know some people who bet the bonus because they once hit a straight flush or quads, so they feel obligated to keep betting it. Yet, at this point I'm fairly certain that they have since pissed away all of those winnings.
I'm never one to tell someone how to behave in Las Vegas unless you're actually like a total douchebag and going to get me 86'd due to guilt by association. Vegas is one of the few places where you can go ape shit in the Nanny States of America. Vegas is one of the few bubbles that the Nanny State directives are not followed and aberrant behavior is encouraged. That's why I kept my mouth shut at the Pai Gow table.
The old lady thought about it for a few minutes then came to the ultimate decision to play the bonus. Within thirty minutes, she hit three full houses, two flushes, and quads... twice. That lucky bitch is going to play the bonus now and every fucking day until she dies.
The Man sent in two operatives to seize my bankroll. I had only two dealers during my first session, and kept my cool against both. They tried the good cop/bad cop routine and it didn't work. I only had a single instance when I began to tilt but caught myself. I accidentally set my hand wrong. I thought that I had a busted gutshot, even with a Joker, so I set a pair of treys with a weak-Ace up top. The dealer turned over my hand and shook her head. She was taunting me for setting my hand wrong.
Rookie mistake. I felt like a gimp.
I was seething in anger, but had to let it go. Mistakes happen. As George Harrison wrote many moons ago: "With every mistake we must surely be learning, still my guitar gently weeps." All I could do was make sure that it did not happen again during that session and in future sessions. Once I shook off that ugliness, I played even-tempered for the remainder of the session.
I bet $25 a hand and if I won I'd progressively increase my bet to $50, and if I won that, I'd bet $100. If I lost a hand, I'd reduce the wager to $25. I never got as high as a $200 a hand, because I never won more than two hands in a row (including pushes) without losing.
Back to the good cop/bad cops. The first operative was the good cop sent in to butter me up. The Man likes to use young woman as operatives. The Man thought that he could use sex to lure me over to the dark side. I'm sure if they had their way, The Man would have their operatives dressed up like Japanese schoolgirls from those erotic anime and manga comics.Although the dealers have to hide their sexuality behind casino uniforms, some of the operatives pull out all the stops with subtle glances and the constantly licking of their lips. This one was fresh off the boat and barely looked 21 years old. She laughed at my jokes, or rather, at anything I said. She couldn't tilt me. I refused to allow it to happen.
The second operative, the bad cop, was a silent assassin. I'm sure you have come across the type of cooler who does not say a word, nor respond to any of your banter. At first I thought she was a bot, but then I discovered she was dealing to slow to be a machine. Her silence was eerie and outright spooky. She purposely acted like that in order to induce tilt. However, the silent treatment failed to send me off the reservation. I was not digging deep into my pocket for multiple rebuys, instead, I was grinding away and beating them at their own game.
After a while, I deviated from my gameplan and mixed things up by betting $50 or $75 a hand. At that point, all of the old ladies let me have the dragon every time. They were kind in that way and didn't have to, but I appreciated the respect. I also noticed a trend -- they often asked me how to set their hands instead of looking to the dealer for help. In fact they wouldn't set a hand unless I nodded in approval. They must have assumed that I was a pro or a heavy roller, because why else would they seek my advice on how to set a hand?
I half-expected them to start showering me with gifts and bundles of food like that scene with Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino when all of the old Southeast Asian women on his block left food on his doorstep to pay homage to the local neighborhood hero/vigilante.
After I won a $150 hand, one of the old ladies referred to me as "Mr. Pai Gow" in broken Mandarin.
Yes, I am Mr. Pai Gow.