Archives for category: personal history

GAMBLING

 

We didn’t win the Powerball last week. I suppose I wouldn’t be writing this if we had; I’d be meeting with lawyers and accountants and, possibly, plastic surgeons.   The fact that we even played is unusual. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool realist in such matters and never indulge in the awful odds of a lottery. But my wife, Katie, insisted we participate in the vast national hullabaloo and contributed $20 to the cause. Every cell of my body knew we were wasting money, but I have to admit I spent several seconds considering how wonderful it would be to have her tell me “I told you so” for the rest of our lives.

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The trajectory of my gambling career is modest. It reached a peak with my first effort, at about age 18, when I won a then-lordly sum of $50 at roulette in the newly opened Atlantic City. So enthused was I with this windfall that I briefly pondered gambling trips as a regular activity. Over the next several years, however, my one win receded into the mists of memory, never to be repeated. My losing streak now measures fifteen-twenty well-spaced efforts over nearly forty years.28978733

Only once did I approach gambling with a systematic plan to win. When I was in my forties and had some time and cash available, I accompanied Katie on a visit to Atlantic City during the State teacher’s convention, where she marketed an educational book she’d written. Though I spent several hours with her, manning a booth at a book show, I also spent an afternoon at the roulette table. I’d read several articles about the strategy of “doubling up,” and I looked forward to my assured success.

Doubling up involves placing a bet not on a specific number or numbers but on the color black or red. There is nearly a fifty percent chance on each turn of the wheel landing on black or red, except that there are also two green slots on a roulette wheel. The latter afford the casino their near-six percent advantage. For my purposes, however, I viewed my chances on each spin of the wheel as fifty-fifty, and I felt confident that if I lost $20 on the first try, I could move my bet up to $40, then $80, etc. Surely I would win eventually and then start over at $20. After six wins, for instance, I would be ahead by $120. The betting would not be exciting, and would not reward the superstitious selection of family birthdays or “lucky numbers” or any of the other “strategies” that people employ to play roulette. But VICTORY would be mine. Accordingly, when I started, my wallet contained $1,000 in twenty dollar bills.

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Feeling smug as I walked several blocks from the convention center to the casinos, I thought to myself: “How foolish real gamblers are. I might be the only one with enough discipline to make certain I leave with more money than when I arrive.”

Not wanting to loiter long on Atlantic City’s less-than-inviting streets, I entered the closest casino. To me, they are interchangeable, with the same garish décor, noise and smoke. In retrospect, I hope I didn’t patronize one of Trump’s but, at the time, it made no difference to me.

I walked past the clanging slots area, where guests deposit their money as fast as possible into machines aptly named “one-armed bandits.”

 

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I continued past the blackjack tables with players deep in concentration, confident beyond reason, in my opinion, that they will outsmart the dealer and the cards. Past the craps table, I continued, amazed at the hopes fixed on players’ faces, most destined to be disappointed. Finally, I found the roulette wheels, a relatively quiet oasis.

I observed several rounds before I traded my cash for $20 chips. $1,000 makes a satisfying pile of chips. I felt like a real “player,” and yet, I knew that I was more than merely playing. I was there to make money.

Three or four people at the table selected their favorite numbers with looks of concentration completely out of proportion to the likelihood their “choice” would be advantageous. In fact, I knew, there was no way to “beat” a roulette wheel except through my strategy, the impersonal, unemotional, but patient doubling up.

*****

 

Finally, I waded in. I looked forward to watching my pile of chips grow, however slowly. I put $20 on red. Around and around went the wheel. It landed on black. I lost. No problem.

I put $40 on red. I wondered if house management would eventually tell me to leave the table, after they realized my strategy couldn’t lose. The wheel circled. Black again. Okay.

 

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I put $80 on red. I felt pity for the players around me as their hands hovered in indecision over one number or another. I was free from such mental anguish. Geez, it landed on 00, a green space. “What are the chances?” I said to myself, though I knew they were one in nineteen, and shook my head in commiseration with several other players, losers all. After all, no one’s birthday is 00. The dealer, a young Asian man, wiped away my chips again.

I put $160 on red. “This is going to take longer than I’d hoped, but it’ll come around,” I thought to myself. The wheel landed on black again. Now, several of the people around the table were looking at ME with pity.

I counted out $320 in chips and placed them, with a sigh, on red. Even the dealer broke his stone face and established eye contact with me. He spun the wheel. “Did he think me a fool or a wise man?” I wondered, as the wheel circled. It stopped between two numbers, a red and a black, the needle perched for a long moment between them. It settled, agonizingly, on black.

Having now lost $620, in order to continue my strategy, I would have had to bet $640 on the next spin. I couldn’t do it; my nerve had receded along with my pile of chips. I put one lonely $20 chip on red. Against all rationality, I decided I had to break the losing streak, somehow. Yet, my mind was also torn. If I won with a $20 bet, I’d only earn $20 back in winnings. I’d still be $600 behind. I almost hoped to lose. Such cognitive dissonance! I lost.

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*****

 

Feeling both foolish and, now, morose, I continued up the sequence to $40 and $80, losing again and again. I started over again, at $20, and lost three more times. Only $280 remained from my original $1,000 and the wheel had landed on black eleven times in a row. The chance of that happening, I calculated, was one in 2,048.

Now, I realize the chances of each individual red or black spin, like a coin flip, is one in two. But my mind began to fixate on the CERTAINTY that my “luck” was bound to change. The wheel could not, the now resurgent irrational part of my mind insisted, land on black again. I placed my entire $280 collection of chips on red. The dealer spun. I took a deep breath. I lost again.

A one in 4,096 set of circumstances had occurred to cost me an even $1,000. I refused to look at the dealer or the other players as I trudged out of the casino.   I didn’t know if I felt more stupid or more unlucky. Either was bad. Katie was sympathetic. “Well, at least you had fun,” she said.   “Didn’t you?” she added, hopeful.

I shook my head. “There was nothing fun about it,” I said. I admit now, fifteen years or so later, that I only owned up to having lost $500. When she reads this, she will learn for the first time that the loss was $1,000.

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Other than a couple of near instant losses of $10 in slot machines, I am fully reformed. Since I want intelligent analysis to dominate my financial decisions, I don’t gamble. My money is invested in SAFE places, RATIONAL places, LEGITIMATE places, such as the stock market. Hmmmmm.

 

 

 

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MYSTERY FAMILY

When I was little, there were no photographs of my father’s relatives in our house. My mother’s “side” was the only one that existed. My three siblings, all more than a decade older than I, had experienced limited contact with my father’s family in the period that preceded me, but the flames of kinship were almost extinguished by my early childhood.   This pullback occurred even though my father’s family contained just as many aunts and uncles as my mother’s, and a full set of cousins, most of whose names I never learned.

To my recollection, my father, who died in 1994, never uttered a word about the subject. When I was four or six or eight-years-old, I took relationships for granted. I didn’t ponder the absence of my father’s family. From occasional remarks, the unanimous impression I gleaned from the rest of my immediate family was that I wasn’t missing anything by not meeting the other half of my relatives.

To my knowledge, my father and his siblings rarely spoke. I recently considered this subject, after five decades, when a wedding provoked the question of how the couple would divide holidays between their respective families. We’d never had that issue.

My father absolutely had a right to privacy. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for his silence. But I’m still entitled to wonder, at least: “What happened?”

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I knew this from overhearing conversations as a child: my father had been fond of his older brother, Nathan, who lived in New York City until his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit hastened his death. The habit persisted after a cancer diagnosis. My father was neutral about a younger brother, Harry, who lived above his own corner store in a rundown section of Philadelphia. And my father disliked a younger sister who lived in New York City. My mother sometimes referred to her as “Shitty Shelley.” This made an impression; my parents never swore.

I didn’t know many details about my New York cousins. But Uncle Harry’s daughter in Philadelphia had the unfortunate name of Rhea, a source of hilarity at every mention by my siblings, who couldn’t resist adding “Dia.” He also had a son who fled his non-religious upbringing to become an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel, where he fathered fourteen children. Unable to support his brood, for years he begged my father, his uncle, for money. I never saw the letters, nor did I know my father’s response to them. From time to time, I’d hear him tell my mother, “I got another letter from the lunatic in Israel.”

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On a culturally historic evening, the night when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on his variety show, I accompanied my parents on my only visit to Uncle Harry’s home. I would have been six or seven. After parking the car on a dark, dismal street, my father pounded on a door in an alley. I heard footsteps descend inside and the door creaked open. A bald man appeared who was so slight that my five-foot-seven father looked huge by comparison. Harry led us upstairs where we sat in a dim, cramped living room on plastic lawn furniture, and watched a tiny black-and-white television. I don’t recall what we ate but Uncle Harry and his wife, Celia, bustled around to try to make us comfortable. My father and uncle agreed the Beatles were “animals” and represented a threat to western society.

After the show, Celia took me downstairs to their store and handed me a pack of baseball cards from behind the counter. I opened them immediately. I couldn’t believe my luck. The first one was my favorite player, Ernie Banks. This act of generosity impressed me so much I recall it fifty years later, but I recall absolutely nothing else about my aunt, who I never saw again. My cousins were not present that evening.

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Then there was Aunt Shelley. One day, when I was a teenager, we received a family tree in the mail from a distant, unknown relative, with a request that my father complete our branch. My mother noticed that Shelley had listed 1911 as her year of birth.

“How can that be?” she asked my father when he came home. “You and Shelley aren’t twins, and you always said you were born in 1911?”

My father declined to respond, except to sigh: “Eccch, a business with Shelley.”

My mother dialed Shelley’s number for the first time in decades.

“Why did you say you were born in 1911?” she asked. “Aren’t you younger than Lou?”

Shelley rasped, with all the charm that may have inspired her nickname: “He’s a liar. He’s older than he told you.” With that, she hung up.

Confronted with this information, my father said: “1911, 1907, what difference does it make?”

*****

When my parents married in 1941, my father was likely over thirty and my mother had just turned nineteen. My mother didn’t learn for seven years that my father’s father was still alive and living nearby in Philadelphia. After she discovered this, my mother, who didn’t drive at the time, tracked him down and took my two oldest siblings, who were around three and five at the time, on a bus to visit. A grey-haired, brilliantly blue-eyed man opened the door then rushed to a closet in his tiny apartment and returned with a piece of candy for each grandchild.

My mother was shocked by her father-in-law’s terrible cough. Concerned the children had been exposed to tuberculosis, she insisted on taking him, by bus, to be checked at a hospital where they admitted him. He remained hospitalized for three weeks before dying from what the doctors concluded was a fungus, not TB. My father showed no emotion at the news.

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My father demonstrably loved his grandchildren and burst with pride at his own children’s accomplishments. He warmly welcomed a step-grandchild into the family. Friends and business associates found him engaging. So what happened with his family?

I can only speculate. The most plausible theory is that a rupture occurred when my father’s father came to America from Kiev before World War I. The plan was that he would quickly send the means for the rest of the family to follow.

Instead, nearly a decade passed before my father’s mother and the four children arrived. After several years in Cuba awaiting visas, they reached Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. My grandmother chose to live separately from her husband. My father lived with her until her death in the mid-1930s. Harry apparently lived with his father when he first arrived. Nathan and Shelley, in their late-teens or early twenties, settled in New York City.

Had my father’s father failed to provide as promised? If he did fail, was it his fault, or did World War I and the Russian revolution make it impossible? Did the siblings divide over their parents’ split?  Asked to explain, both before my time and in my presence, my father always declined. “It’s not important,” he said.

In the late 1960s, my father made a tape describing his emigration from Kiev. In it, he relates with gusto the time he slept in a safe house somewhere in Poland. Several ultra-Orthodox smugglers had charged a vast sum to shepherd my father’s family through the area. Feeling overcharged, my father awoke in the middle of the night, found a scissors, and cut off the forelocks of the sleeping men before fleeing. What priceless passive-aggression! I listened to the tape several times, smiling each time at the thought of the smugglers’ fury; he never mentions the roles of his other family members, though they must have taken part in the adventure. Why not?

I’ve fundamentally failed to solve the mystery.   When my son was born, it seemed natural to make “Nathan” his middle name, after my father’s favorite brother. Characteristically, when I told my father on the telephone, he didn’t react. I choose to believe he was pleased.