Yes or no? True or false? Right or wrong?
Humankind has toiled with these questions eternally. Yet, the answers to each share a common theme, deriving from the simplest of equations. A choice between two things,
One, or the other?
In the Garden of Eden with an apple in hand, a ‘yes’ as opposed to a ‘no’ cursed humans with hard labour and painful childbirth for eternity. In the gladiatorial arena, a thumb pointing ‘up’ or ‘down’ decided the life of a defeated warrior. And for Hamlet ‘to be’ or ‘not to be?’ represents the greatest written conundrum of our time.
Nowadays, the choices we make have slightly less impact on civilisation as a whole. Salt or Pepper? Blonde or Brunette? Scrambled or fried?
How times have changed.
However, there is still one question cast from the same die as those asked of divine beings, gladiators, and royalty. Again, its answer, intricately simple;
Black or Red?
Albert Einstein once claimed, “You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal from it”
Of course, Albert is entitled to his opinion. He is responsible after all for the Theory of Relativity. But relatively speaking, surely the chance of successfully winning a 50-50 bet within a casino, far outweighs the likelihood of successfully stealing from one. Those truly are short odds.
What is certain however is that just like the devious Einstein, I too have always been enchanted by the notion of a ‘Black’ or ‘Red’ gamble. Who hasn’t?
Why? I’m not sure. I’ve never been a gambler. Never have I slipped anymore than loose change in the direction of a casino or poker machine. The thought of losing money always scares me more so than the thought of winning it.
Perhaps then, this gambling desire stems from something far deeper, a subliminal psychological issue I’m not qualified to diagnose? But more likely, it’s the simplicity; the risk of losing everything, based purely on nothing. Chance. A human-friendly version of Russian Roulette, if you will. The outcome as final as death, dealt with the impact of a bullet. Immediate and Final.
Black, or Red.
I had to choose.
“I just lost me a thousand dollars, man!” my ears perked up.
Sitting on a numberless bus, next to a nameless man, at a time unknown; these words had found me in a place where I was otherwise lost.
We were presently travelling Southbound on the most famous road in Vegas ‘The Strip’, but neither of us could tell you exactly where we were.
The only thing of significance was that I had just met a man who had encountered first hand, the very question that I had come to answer; Black or Red?
His short military-style haircut made him an intimidating figure. But his slouched posture also made him a broken one; short on money, reason and hair. He looked about twenty-eight, going on fifty. This man had succumbed to his fate. He did not choose to be in Vegas, he just was in Vegas. We were no different.
“Shit!” he snapped again, glaring down at his clasped hands, as if they were individually responsible for losing his money. His situation made no sense to him. He was desperately seeking an answer, and looked up at me as if I could help.
“I lost five consecutive games in a row!” His tone was demanding, yet I was in awe of his statement. I couldn’t contain my curiosity,
“Five in a row? That’s impossible!” But it wasn’t. The man’s grave face told me this. He was stretching at the seams from his boiling anger inside.
“Shit!” he exploded, again.
The man reached for his pocket and produced a wallet. Due to a lack of explanation, I could only assume that this was his. No words were spoken. Purposefully, he prised it open, and presented it to me. Sure enough, it was empty. I didn’t need to lean forward to double-check this, but I found that I couldn’t help it.
To then emphasise the point, he tipped the wallet upside down and shook it violently, as if he were a student proving to a teacher that the school bully had stolen all of his lunch money.
It was confirmed; the school bully certainly had stolen all of his lunch money. Unfortunately however, this was not a schoolyard and this was certainly no ordinary bully. This was a casino, a roulette table to be specific. This bully had struck again. The schoolboy shook his wallet one last time, still no money.
“Two hundred dollars a pop! Five times in a row! A different casino each time! One thousand dollars!” He seemed to be arguing with himself at this stage, running figures of chance through his head. The math of probability was beyond me, but admittedly this did seem particularly unlucky,
“You moved casino’s?” I selfishly interrupted, having never considered this an option for my own betting strategy,
“Yeah, I figured if I kept moving, I would definitely win once” I couldn’t help but agree. I also couldn’t help but feel sorry at the thought of this poor guy placing two hundred dollars on a random roulette table, losing it within seconds, then marching for ten minutes to the next roulette table only to have the same transaction occur again. This man had replicated this 5 times!
Words of comfort failed me. There was nothing I could say. This man’s fate had been dealt, and now it was he, who needed to pick up the cards.
“Well I’m actually going to place a one thousand dollars on roulette tomorrow”
The man’s eyes immediately darted at me. His posture corrected. Life had been breathed back into him. It was as if he had caught a glimpse of a note in his wallet (which was still in his hand).
“Don’t do it all at once! You’ll lose it straight away!” he warned, as if he had forgotten about the story that he had just told me “They know!”
This last comment caught my attention,
“They know?” I echoed, “Who knows?” Had this man lost his mind? Was he making reference to some kind of make-believe fraternity of Roulette Gods? Gods who take pleasure from making a man walk through Las Vegas shedding two hundred dollars every ten minutes, driving him to schoolboy madness? The same Gods no less, who drove Einstein to theft?
“They just know” His tone was cold and his answer, final. I actually felt silly for questioning him. Roulette Gods? I now questioned myself.
“And if you do lose your money, just get a haircut”
His advice took me by surprise,
“If I’m ever in a bad mood, or something goes wrong and pisses me off, I just get my haircut”
I thought about this intensely for a moment, but could reach only one conclusion; to avoid men with short hair.
Suddenly, we jolted forward as the sound of compression brakes brought our bus to an immediate stand still. Outside my window lurked he MGM Grand. The anonymous man, who still remained nameless, leapt to his feet and with the energy of someone who had just won one thousand dollars, ran down the stairs so quickly that I couldn’t say goodbye.
I was alone. Searching through the crowd of disembarking passengers, I wondered whether this strange meeting was some kind of sign. Had the Roulette Gods sent this man down to warn me? Well, if they had, it didn’t work. My heart now pounded with the energy of a bouncing ball and my blood rushed at the speed of a spinning wheel.
Moments later, the compression brakes lifted, and the bus pulled away in a cloud of smoke.
Red or Black?
Deep within the infamous Bellagio Casino, high-class hookers paraded around betting tables. Their male prey, frantic, as they gambled for their shot at late night intimacy. Slot floors morphed into betting arenas while poker rooms escalated into high-limit lounges.
It was the perfect setting for a silly bet.
Hidden discreetly in the corner of this gambling chaos, sat a modest roulette table. Around the table stood an unlikely bunch of people. A female croupier towered dominantly on one side of this table. I sat on the other. Beside me crowded not prostitutes, but instead a group of familiar onlookers, all aware of what was about to take place.
A velvety green surface lay in front of us. To the left hand-side stood a large roulette wheel. At the base and stretching across to the right sprawled a numbered grid. The grid was divided into thirty-six squares, and just below that were two larger rectangles.
Under one of the rectangle was word Black, under the other, the word Red.
In my hands was a stack of green bank notes. They totalled one thousand dollars. All I had to do was make a decision, the simplest decision of all.
Black or Red?
Although within the spin of a wheel and the drop of a ball, my fate would be revealed, this urge, this quest, started a long way away from where I currently sat.
Invariably, what happens in Vegas rarely stays in Vegas. Dave’s tattoo is testament to this. Dave is a close friend of mine in Sydney. He now sports an animated beach scene on his lower back courtesy of a drunken night in a Vegas tattoo parlour. On the surface, Dave’s tattoo is horrific, if not offensive. A dangerous mixture of unskilled art work and unbridled stupidity. But below the surface, it tells a beautiful story of youth, excitement and fulfilment. In fact, Dave’s tattoo has always inspired me. Every time I see it, I think of the great times that must have surrounded its conception into this world.
Dave is now receiving laser treatment to remove the tattoo (it really is ugly) but his experience will never be erased. After all, that is why people go to Vegas, right?
Now, years on, I needed to experience something similar.
One afternoon, at the height of a Sydney summer, I asked if Dave had any desire to return to Vegas, with me. My proposal involved flying to Vancouver and then hitch hiking to Vegas, where I would then attempt to get married (a story of its own). Immediately he agreed, and our pact was formed.
We decided to enjoy the rest of the Sydney summer and travel to Vegas in the winter. We joked of gambling, drinking and marriage among various other expensive past-times. I shared with Dave my curiosity of roulette, and more so my urge to place a large sum on either Black or Red. The figure itself was not settled then and there, I decided that later on whilst sat on a bus, but a nice even figure was crucial. An amount big enough that it would sorely be missed if lost.
We agreed that this would be a highlight of our trip, and immediately I started saving.
However as time went on, Dave’s career offered great opportunity needing closer attention in Sydney and my business aspirations took me to Canada. Ultimately, by the time winter came about, neither of us was in a position to fulfil our pact.
This grim realisation was further supported when towards the end of winter, my business venture in Canada took a colourful turn for the worse, consequently leaving me with no money and an overdrawn credit card account. I had no other choice than to return to Sydney. Vegas definitely had to wait.
As the Canadian Winter melted away, all I could do was plan a flight home. I was all but on the plane to Sydney, when strange run of insignificant events led me to ring my bank in Australia. As if tipped-off by the Roulette Gods themselves, I was inexplicably offered a three and half thousand-dollar extension to my credit card, on the spot! Immediately, Dave’s tattoo popped into my thoughts. I accepted the kind offer and rang Dave. Perhaps at this late stage we could still realise our pact?
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that Dave still had a job. A job he could not leave no less. He was doing very well! But, from seemingly being on the brink of no hope, I suddenly found myself with two options available to me. Sydney or Vegas?
Although unaware at the time, I’m almost positive that at that very same moment, somewhere in the world, a nameless American gentleman sporting a short military-style haircut faced a similar scenario.
Like him, I did not choose to go to Vegas, I just went to Vegas. We were no different.
The Bellagio Casino reeked of money. As we walked up the stairs leading to it’s main entrance, this smell became more prominent. Through the main doors awaited a foyer so lavish and splendid, I could hardly believe that we were allowed in. But we were.
I was currently with a group of people I had only known for one day. We had all just been to a drive-thru wedding. Mine, in fact. Two and half thousand dollars stretches a long way if you put your mind to it!
With that now accomplished, and my flight home already booked, I had only one thing left to achieve. I had a pact to fulfil. I decided that my last thousand dollars would be put to the mercy of the roulette table.
I had always wanted to bet this amount, and since telling everyone at the wedding my ambition, it seemed that they had always wanted to see someone bet this amount. It was a win-win situation.
We boisterously strolled into the magnificent foyer and immediately I asked for the nearest cash point. Here I would get my final cash advance. My worn credit card habitually slid into the machine and I waited for my remaining balance to be displayed on the screen.
Eight hundred dollars!
My heart missed a beat. I was two hundred dollars short of my dream bet and I had no more money available to me. I stared at the screen in disbelief. The discomfort on my face so obvious, that silence fell on our group. My card was coldly ejected, but I couldn’t bring myself grab it. I had eight hundred dollars available, but it may as well have been nothing.
“I’ll lend it to you!” I spun around, to see Sharna, the bridesmaid from the wedding! A girl I had only known for a day or two, but who had already shown to be selfless. Although my pride argued with me not to accept the money, my heart spoke louder. I was here to experience something special, and on loan, I could at least pay back this money at a later stage.
I left that cash machine with one thousand dollars in my hand. This bet was truly unique. Eighty percent of the bet read as debt in my bank book, and the remaining twenty percent was indebted to a beautiful stranger. I was not spending the last money I had, I was actually spending the last money I didn’t have!
Together, we started to look for a quiet table.
Black or Red?
“Bet, sir?” asked the female croupier as she stood suggestively across from me at the table. She could see my hand was full of money.
An answer was needed, but I wasn’t ready.
To my left sat my brand new wife and to my right, my best man. Surrounding the three of us stood the remainder of the wedding party, but still, I felt alone. I was exactly where I wanted to be, but something was missing. Dave! I had promised I would ring him if I made it to this point! I had almost forgotten.
“I just need to ring someone quickly” I declared to everyone. The response was one of no words, but instead a collective look of doubt.
In one motion, I left my seat and began to dial Dave’s Australian number.
I also valued his opinion on which colour to choose. He had long hair you see, so I trusted him.
With a phone in one hand and a thousand dollars in the other, a dial tone ensued
“Mate it’s me guess where I am?” The words raced out of my mouth without comprehension or punctuation. His laugh told me that he knew exactly where I was. “I’m at the bloody Bellagio! Just about to bet a thousand dollars!”
This time we both laughed, but I could sense that he was a little sad for not being there next to me. Instead, he was working. There was only one fitting question to ask,
“Mate, do you want to go halves with me?” The pause was brief but the reply even briefer
Again we laughed.
The table of onlookers began glancing at me now, realising surely how silly they looked crowded around a roulette table with no player.
Unlike seasoned roulette players, I have no concept of tactics or probability. Inside bets, Outside bets, Six Line, Trios and Straight Ups mean nothing to me. Don’t even ask me about the Fibonacci Sequence!
The only thing that I knew at this point was that unlike the man from the bus, I was going to risk everything on one spin. All or nothing, Russian Roulette.
“Go Black!” yelled Dave, presumably drawing confused looks from nearby work colleagues in his Sydney office, “Black for sure!” .
“I was thinking Red though!” I objected. Our great betting minds had reached a stand-off.
“Well do that then!”
I returned to the table after our intellectual debate, and reclaimed my seat.
Clearing my throat, I looked first at the group, and then at the croupier.
“Black!” I yelled, feeling almost heroic, although a little stupid for forgetting what colour I had actually chosen.
“You’re going to have to place your money on the table if you want to make a bet, sir” replied the smiling croupier. Of course!
I extended my right arm over the green playing surface, my sweaty fist gripping fifty crisp twenty-dollar notes. Everyone around the table started to cheer, and suddenly I became quite nervous. Not only for the imminent gamble, but also the fact that I hadn’t hung the phone up on Dave. The phone was hidden in my left hand and he could hear every thing that I could. We were colluding.
I opened my clenched fist, which now hovered directly above the black rectangle and one thousand dollars dropped onto the table.
Instantly waving her hands above the deposited pile of money, the croupier signalled that there were no more bets,
Our bet was placed.
The group fell silent.
There was nothing I could do now, and in that I took solace. We were now in the hands of fate. Everyone was transfixed on what was about to happen.
Black or Red?
The croupier turned towards the wheel. In unison, we did the same. Placing a hand on its edge, she pulled quickly and propelled it at pace in a clockwise direction. Thirty-six black and red segments immediately blurred into one, spinning too quickly for the eye to separate. She then picked up a small shiny silver ball, and placed it on the diameter of the spinning wheel. One slight flicking motion sent it shooting around the wheel in the opposite direction at a great rate, the sound mirroring a rolling coin on a table. The crowd erupted again.
“It’s on the wheel!” I yelled, trying to relay messages to Dave.
Amongst the intense atmosphere, the ball and the wheel circled each other silently, like two boxers in the first seconds of a title fight. Time and sound had momentarily stopped.
Soon, the wheels momentum slowed, and the ball became tired. It had put up a brave fight but inevitably, it was losing a battle with gravity. Gradually, it left the comfort of the high side of the wheel and began its slow decent down the sloping surface, towards the ravenous coloured segments waiting at the bottom. The hum of the ball on the smooth surface rudely broke as it hit its first groove in the slope, prompting a reactive cheer from everyone. The ball flew into air, but only for a moment, as again gravity flexed its muscle. It hit another groove immediately, and then another. Every skip slowed the ball a little more, and the tapping noise it made with each jump became quicker. The allure of the coloured segments was too great to deny. With each revolution, black and red segments became less blurred as they each competed for the balls attention. Every second drew us in closer to the action. Every eye traced the balls movement. Every moment relayed to Sydney. The ball had almost come to a stand still. It was exhausted. It could hold out no more. One last revolution around the wheel and it kissed the lip of a red segment. The result was one last valiant attempt to stay afloat. It failed and dropped into the waiting jaws of the lucky segment. The balls fate had been exposed.
“Ohhhhhhh!” a collective groan from the crowd told the story, but the croupier insisted on rubbing the news in,
“Red thirty two”
I picked up the phone and placed it to my ear,
“Shit” he replied, and hung up.
The croupier leant over the table and claimed her winnings. The bully had struck again. Dragging the money towards a large hole on her side of the table, I watched as one thousand dollars disappeared.
I resisted the urge to tip my wallet upside down but it was clear that the Roulette Gods had had the last word. I wasn’t angry, just helpless. My fate dealt to me with the impact of a bullet.
Perhaps I should have listened to Einstein? Perhaps it was time for a haircut?