Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Pai Gow Diaries: The Whale, the Goldfish, and the Toothless Old Man

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

I'm a floater. Just another dead goldfish.

I'm not a whale. I'm more like a disposable goldfish, the sedated orange ones that you win as a consolation prize in a rigged carny game at county fairs, that die within a fortnight and then unceremoniously flushed down the toilet. That's the best way to describe my Pai Gow binges.

Gambling is an ego-driven obsession. Losing gamblers indulge into the depths of depravity, racking up deep debts in the process, because the ego takes over with a blind determination to win your way out of the jam. The decision-making processing that control self-destructive behavior often gets cloudy with delusions of grandeur by the intoxicating rush of daydreaming about what you'd do with the surplus of money, along with getting off on the head-swelling power and bully-pulpit fame that accompanies a gigantic score.

Slot machines are the bread and butter of casino revenue. In profitable casinos, their customers' losing slot play more than covers their nut. The gravy is anything that the casinos can collect in the pits from table games. Whales can make and break a casino, whether it's in Las Vegas or Macau, but historically speaking, the edge is always with the house. Carcasses of dead whales usually wash up on shore. Dead whales. That's why the Bellagio sends lavish private jets to scoop up whales up so they don't have to deal with intrusive cock check by TSA agents before boarding a overbooked flight to Las Vegas. Sheep fly commercial. Whales fly private.

Pai Gow falls into two categories -- social and demented.

The social aspect is what makes Pai Gow one of the most fun table games ever invented because you can sit at a table with five friends for hours on end and get comped drinks for a mere $1 tip. Evidence includes some of my most fond memories, which were night-long benders in Vegas with friends at the Pai Gow tables. If you're a booze hound, then gambling at Pai Gow is +EV. If you prefer spending intimate time with friends in the pits without losing all of your bankroll within 15 minutes, then Pai Gow is also a rare +EV group prospect.

However, I often find myself with the demented side of Pai Gow when the ego drives out any semblance of sanity, I break apart from my friends and rage solo. The social aspect of gambling dissipates when I fall into a black hole of degeneracy, stagger over to a table and dig into my pocket. During those reckless and unmonitored binges, I don't have my friends preventing me from sliding into the depths of MPGT (Mega-Pai-Gow-Tilt). I'm the most dangerous threat to my own existence. It's sort of the difference between going to a bar to drink with your friends... and going to a bar in the middle of the day to drink by yourself.

I'm the weakest during the early mornings when fleeting temptations are impossible to rebuff. My insomnia guarantees that I'll be up with the sun and wandering through the casinos. The Midnight zombies in the trenches of I Dream of Jeanie slots have been replaced by chipper retirees, fresh off of stuffing their faces with a $2.99 breakfast buffet special. The sportsbook reeks of desperate horse bettors, most of them were vets of some sort of foreign war, but all of whom lost all hope for this country and blow their retirement checks at different race tracks. They are dinosaurs on the verge of being extinct.

The mornings in Vegas are tempting. Maybe it's the chemtrails that the get sprayed over the valley, or maybe it's the infusion of pure oxygen. When the itch is the strongest, I can feel it bubbling under my skin. The moment before I take the plunge is when the gambler's high is at its strongest peak because expectations have yet to be fractured by reality.

At the Gold Coast during week day mornings, four Pai Gow tables are not all filled with players. Two were empty. I had the option for heads-up action against the dealer at two tables, however, my searing paranoia made me pause to inspect both dealers. They stood motionless and expressionless. Two Asian women. I waited for them to blink. I theorized that if they didn't blink, then they were not human. I only saw one blink. The other was presumed a bot. I took evasive actions and resisted the urge to rage solo. Instead, I dashed to one of the other tables.

Playing heads-up against the dealer is always a bad proposition because 1) I'm always taking a Dragon Hand, and 2) the lack of other players speeds up the action too much that it's like the Rush Poker of Pai Gow. It's better in the long run that I have a sustained gambling session, so I prefer half-full tables.

The new table had only one empty seat. An elderly Asian woman shot me an evil glare as I attempted to sit down in the green chair. I drew the same scalding look from another old lady. I scanned the rest of the table. All elderly Asian women, and every single one of them gave me the stinkeye. I picked up on the uncomfortable hint that I wasn't wanted. The adjacent table was semi-filled with Asian men, and quickly figured it out that the old ladies want to play with each other. The guys play at their own table in some sort of unspoken gender segregation of gamblers. Must be a superstition thing or maybe they have a secret code based on astrological charts and numerology, and they don't want me besmirching their cabal.

In order to preserve the harmony of the table, I wandered to the other semi-full table where three Asian men sat; two middle-aged guys and one very old guy in a fedora who was missing his teeth. I tossed my player's club card across the felt. The pit boss snatched it up and I made a crack that they old Asian ladies chased me off the other table. He smiled and said, "They'll do that. It's a territorial thing."

I was on their turf and they didn't like that. Fair enough. I wondered how many of them were bused in from Southern California, or which ones lived in Vegas and dealt Pai Gow at different casinos on the Strip? I assumed that some of them were graveyard shifters who headed to the Gold Coast to donk off their tips.

The toothless old man in the seat 6 sipped whiskey and coke. He bet the $10 minimum. He chatted in Mandarin with someone in seat 5 -- his adult son, a wiry man in his late 40s wearing a golf shirt and a Orleans casino hat. The old man had trouble setting his cards on the table, and his trembling hands struggled to place the cards snuggly into their respective boxes. After his son set his own hand, he helped the old man push the cards into the correct box.

Seats 1 through 3 were empty, and I settled into Seat 2. The chairs were surprisingly comfortable (I have to restrain myself from writing a 2,000 word footnote a la David Foster Wallace about the said-ultra comfort of the Pai Gow chairs, but someone did their homework in designing a chair that is sturdy enough to withstand people in excess of 350 pounds, yet comfortable enough to induce narcolepsy. I have a bad back and most chairs are utterly brutal for me over a sustained period of time, but man, those Pai Gow chairs at the Gold Coast suck me in for hours and hours).

The guy in Seat 4 wore thin-rimmed glasses but his eyes were blood shot and two pink spheres looked right through me with the gambler's stare. He had been up all night, that much I was sure of. He wore a white dress shirt and jeans. He bet $600 to 800 per hand and nonchalantly tossed out black $100 chips to buy the Dragon Hand.

On the next hand, he cut down six black chips from a stack and slid them next to the betting circle belong to the guy in Seat 5. I wasn't 100% certain, but it looked like a side bet. The robotic-like dealer nodded and proceeded to grab the cards from the automatic shuffler. When the hand ended, which he had won, I politely asked him what happened.

"Gold Coast is one of the few casinos that let you have side action," he happily explained and I quickly learned that he was a reputable Pai Gow player in town. "This is a game that's tough to make any real money playing unless you bet big and spread your money around. That's why I'm betting on his hand. If I get to buy the Dragon, then I have three chances to win money. I'm gambling that the dealer is going to have a Pai Gow, or at least, an inferior hand compared to all of mine. That's the only way I'm going to make big money."

"But, the downside is that--"

I didn't have a chance to finish my sentence before he untastefully thrust his hand up making a "stop" motion and blurted out, "Yeah, yeah, yeah... the downside is that I could lose all three. Sure. But if you don't gamble, then you're not going to win."

That last sentence summed up his philosophy on life. I had just met the guy and didn't even know his name, but that's all I needed to know about him. He didn't want to play Pai Gow to kill time or milk the casino for comped drinks. He was an authentic action junkie with a whale-sized ego. He wanted to win big and did whatever he could to maximize that edge, even with the Fortune bonuses. As one of my fraternity brother Teddy B summed up, "In order to win big -- lose big!"

The fours of us (toothless old man, his son, the whale, and myself) played for almost an hour before a new dealer of Asian decent took the box. My neurosis kicked in, and I was worried that the eye in the sky called in a cooler. Luckily the young woman from Vietnam blinked, which confirmed she wasn't a bot.

The toothless old man nailed quads and the whale collected his envy bonus. The old man flashed a toothless-grin and told his son to order another drink from out haggard and underachieving cocktail waitress. Old man celebrated with a whiskey drink. He nodded at me before he took a sip.

That's when the old man's son in Seat 5 began a torrid losing streak. The whale stopped betting side action on his dreadful hands. Instead, the whale slid six blackbirds next to my green chip. For the next half hour, the whale wagered on three hands -- his own, the Dragon, and mine.

Talk about pressure.

The whale's extravagant action induced me to raise my paltry betting limits. I went from $25 to $50 for a few hands, and then bypassed $75 and then right for $100 and $125 a hand. He continued to bet $500 or $600 on every one of my hands. He was up a a few grand since I sat down, but in reality he was only ahead by 3 or 4 big bets.

I often turned to the whale for advice on breaking pairs. Normally, I want to be the one in control of my gambling destiny. I don't always play by the book and often go with my gut after assessing table conditions. That time, played my hands very wide open so he could see them. Because the whale was gambling on my hands, I wanted to make sure that my play was optimal, or at the least that my decisions to split/not-split had met his approval. That's the least I could do for showing me a new way to bet on Pai Gow -- by wagering on my neighbor's hands.

The significance of that self-indulgent moment was amazing, yet horrifying -- sorta like the first time cash game poker players decided to "run it twice." Or on the dark end of the spectrum, it's like the time a junkie discovered the frazzling cumulative results of mixing cocaine with heroin. Betting side action in Pai Gow is like the speedball of gambling.


  1. Anonymous10:54 AM

    Can't bots be programmed to blink?

  2. When I played Pai Gow and Baccarat at a California casino, betting behind was very normal.

    Often the lines were 3-4 people deep playing my hand as I'd ask the group before taking a card in Baccarat.