Casino Morongo Redux

“I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.” If you think about that quote from 1998’s Ronin, it doesn’t make much sense. But literal implications aside, the point is taken, and can be applied to the rules of casino gaming thusly. Know how to walk away. Know when to walk away. To be honest, I should have walked away from Casino Morongo forever. A 30 dollar profit, a free chili dog, and a symbolic victory over the sovereign Indian nation residing 90 miles east from the heart of Los Angeles. But like the white man that had come to this continent 500 years before, I wanted more. I had taken maize from the natives and I wanted a second Thanksgiving, to not only steal their land but to introduce malaria and smallpox to them while I was at it. Why? Because, dammit, I could. My arrogance would be my demise.

It’s never a good omen when you nearly drive past the casino to begin with. It wasn’t my fault – the sign said “Casino Morongo: next two exits.” I took the second one, which entailed getting back on the freeway in the opposite direction to return to the first. What the fuck? Todd and I settled quickly at a blackjack table and went to work. More accurately, the table went to work on me. Sitting at the far end was not a fun job. Every card I took was one that otherwise would have gone to the dealer, every action I took had repercussions for everybody else. After I busted once, the dealer hit and also ended up busting. That earned me a “hey, you saved the table” remark from the dealer, a less than enthusiastic response from everyone else… but most importantly, no compensation for my noble act. The Indians had struck first blood, and soon I was down $20. I moved over to a pai-gow table – and that’s when things got ugly. Fast.

Pai-gow. Seven cards. You make a five-card and a two-card hand (poker rules). You then compare the sets to the dealer’s – winning if both beat the dealer’s, pushing if only one does, and being shit out of luck if both your sets lose. I got acclimated with the last option. When I finally got a decent hand, I was so excited that I fucked up and invalidated both my sets. The only people at the table were me and this other guy, and when a third guy joined and promptly lost his first few hands, the dealer apologetically said to him, “I’ve been doing this to them for the last fifteen minutes.” It was that ugly. An estimated hour and a half after arrival, I was down $85. At that point I figured that pai-gow was Indian for ass-rape. Either way, I decided to take De Niro’s advice. Sort of. I got up, took a breather… and promptly sat down at another table. So much for sage advice. And this, as they say, is where the plot thickens.

The tomahawks were out. The war paint was on. The Indians smelled blood. And if the first golden rule of casino gaming is to never play a game you don’t understand, then I violated the second. Never buy-in twice. Cut your losses. But I couldn’t do it. It had only been an hour and a half, which meant that the time it took me to lose nearly all my money didn’t even exceed the time it took to drive out to the damn casino. “Now, the one thing he can’t do is walk away.” So I slapped down $40 for extra capital, and I went to work once more. I actually won a hand or two… and then it all fell apart again, like a house of cards. A house of cards making up crappy, crappy pai-gow hands. Even the dealer started saying stuff like, “Man, I thought you would win THAT one.” I had the ‘suicide impending’ look going long enough to have her say, “Now there’s a Kodak moment.” Yeah, I’ll Kodak you, bitch.

I was down to my last $15 (out of $140) when I decided to put it all on one hand… and the strangest thing happened. I won. A new dealer symbolically came in then. I pushed at times, but I don’t think I had more than two losing hands in that period. That dealer eventually left in the midst of my hot streak, but I stayed, and won some more. I even stepped out correctly when I didn’t like the atmosphere anymore. It was approaching three hours after arrival, and suddenly, I found myself with $110, a mere $30 less than what I started out with, and a $100 rebound. I should have quit. I should have cut my losses. I should have walked away. But at that point, confidence kicks in. You think to yourself, “$30? I can make that up in no time and come out even!”

I joined Todd at the blackjack table again, essentially digging my own grave. Three dealers. The first efficiently whittled me down to about $70. I should have taken it as a sign when I got three aces (off two splits) and ended up not winning any of them. But gambling is about false hope, and when the second dealer left me afloat, it kept me at the table. And then they went to David. Ah, David. David was an unassuming fellow, a guy who just wanted to deal. Like Custer at Little Big Horn, I never saw it coming. He killed the entire table. Todd exasperatedly yelled “Jesus Christ” several times, three people left at the same time after a particularly bad beat, and everyone started expecting to lose… it was just a matter of how. It was surreal. I was mesmerized, hypnotized, unable to lift myself from that table. By the time it was said and done, I had $25. $115 down for the day, and $85 less than what I had when I sat down for the final time at that blackjack table. A massacre. Morongo had taken its revenge, and it was a horrible revenge. But this is just the beginning.


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