The only promise Chance offers is continuous change. The gambler is but passive recipient of such changes, yet it may be demonstrated that a talent for sensing them can be developed through the close practice of concentration, and an advantage mastered.
— Les Caprices du Hasard
For the practiced gambler, Chance can feel profoundly, convincingly intuitive. At certain times, we believe we can sense its rhythms and ebbs, its flow. We can even measure and assess its movement, albeit crudely. In regulated gambling of the type offered in casinos, each game serves as a primitive form of digitization, in which our experience of Chance’s flow is distilled into a series of unmistakable, discordant notes: win, lose, lose, win, etc. It is perhaps one of the critical social functions of these hallowed (yet obscene) institutions — many of which, such as the Aviation Club in Paris, are as ancient and revered as civic monuments — to enable so-called “acolytes of the green felt” to practice and develop their senses of feel and intuition, psychic territory which for the most part remains vast and untapped outside a casino’s walls.
Most of us can hear the most jarring notes of luck — narrowly avoiding a catastrophe, say, or bumping into a friend long lost — how can we not? To willingly ignore these signs seems folly — yet few can detect the rich texture of melody underneath. The history of gambling, however, is punctuated by the breathless accounts of those who could harness this sensitivity, often deploying it to prodigious financial advantage.
To this day, perhaps the most legendary of all players remains the Count of Saint Germain (d. 1784), a “queer old man,” Pushkin
writes, “about whom so many marvelous stories are told.” The Count’s success at the game of Faro — he was reputed to have won over ten million roubles in his lifetime — was ascribed to mystical means, with one contemporary admirer describing him as “certainly the greatest Adept Europe has seen.” After the Count, other outsized individuals roamed the world seeking the biggest games, including players such as Doña Maria Gertrudis Barceló, Alice Ivers, Lottie Deno, and Nick Dandalos — professional gamblers who embarked on long, extensive heaters, sometimes lasting several years, during which they were rarely seen losing a hand.
If Chance is a form of flow, these players must have mastered sensitivity to its transitional moments, points of inflection, like the high and low tides of the ocean, that serve as potential signals for the observant that their luck is in the process of changing. The accompanying sensation is peculiar to the individual — some feel a tingling in the spine, others goose pimples on the back of the neck. For me, it is a sudden calmness, a physical clarity of vision, when everything appears vividly three-dimensional. Typically, these signals are faint, and often misread, ignored, or missed entirely by the impatient and oblivious. It is not unusual to hear long-suffering regulars grumbling they are “long overdue” for a win. They negotiate Chance like a fish struggling upstream, aware only of a karmic righteousness to which they feel entitled. Unfortunately, this thinking does not bear out — unlike God and humans, Chance keeps no accounts.
The most basic Strategy a gambler must first acquire is what is commonly referred to as Pressing One’s Luck. When one is winning, one must make larger bets and more frequently. On the other hand, when one is losing, one should reduce the size and number of bets, and, depending on the severity of the losses, should consider stopping altogether. In his classic treatise How To Win
, Mike Goodman goes so far as to describe this basic strategy as “the secret of gambling.” It is an unfortunate consequence of human psychology that the majority of players in a casino do not subscribe to this simple pattern of play. In fact, one hardly has to be a dealer to recognize an opposing, self-defeating strategy is more often employed!
Rather than betting more, many gamblers grow too easily satisfied at the first signs of good fortune. They may sit on their stack, placing progressively fewer wagers, and instead spend their time kibitzing with the other players and the staff; often, they will leave the table earlier than originally intended, in order to “lock in” a rare win in some ledger of accounts kept by their bedside. This is to say that rather than take advantage of a potentially rich vein of luck, many players choose to shun it. However, the rest of the week, the same hapless player will stay until morning “chasing losses,” either betting in a wild, unrestrained fashion, or — what is worse — betting the dreaded Martingale.1
Unfortunately, this thinking does not bear out — unlike God and humans, Chance keeps no accounts.
An informal study I conducted over a period of six months at a previous casino of employ suggested that approximately 80 percent of gamblers at both low- and high-limit tables play in an oblivious, self-defeating fashion. The remaining one-fifth are those Goodman calls "Players." Despite wildly varying styles — some play many hands and some only a few — these gamblers consistently press at every opportunity. They will often acquire reputations for being “streaky” — it is because their betting style refuses to spurn good fortune. Even players at the $5 tables may go on impressive rushes in a single session. During my first week as a dealer in Seattle, one of our regulars began the evening playing in the pit at $5 per hand, and over the course of three hours, drastically increasing her wagers, managed to accumulate over $27,000 by night’s end.
Beyond the pressing players, however, are those whose skill and verve suggest something more sophisticated, even preternatural. These gamblers have the knack, it seems, for knowing what comes next, what Goodman describes as a kind of “sixth sense.” Their expertise may be restricted to just a single game or two (though they may play many more, to no great effect). I believe their skill lies in the advanced development of the human capacity for uncertainty — a negative capability— a psychic turning inward and tuning outward at the same time. Usually, the ephemeral stimuli of Chance are excreted by our psyche as irrational excess, but intuitive players seem to be able to appropriate these signals to their advantage — or at least they can when they are hot.
We know that Chance does not reflect karmic righteousness — it is oblivious, as a river is oblivious to the actions of its inhabitants: all are inundated just the same. When we “feel lucky,” we are really sensing (or hoping) that we are entering this flow at the proper moment in which to take advantage of it. But I believe it can be demonstrated that psychic cleanliness can affect our ability to sense these inflection points. From a psychological point of view, this is almost certainly so. Most technical playing manuals, such as Brunson’s magisterial Super System
, contain warnings not to gamble when one is troubled in mind, or directing negative energy toward others — these mental and emotional distractions can only cloud or obfuscate our sense of awareness that something is changing in our immediate and present surroundings.
The next time you are about to embark upon a gambling session, consider what negative energy may be out there — both emanating from you toward others and toward you from others. Imagine these energies as fields in a network, impinging upon and clogging the sensory pathways that lead to intuition and imagination: many of us have felt at one time or another the weight of burdensome and ungenerous judgments imposed upon us by others, and the foulness we feel when we do the same — be it fairly or unfairly, it matters not. Some call these sensations a guilty conscience, others bad karma or bad mojo.
Watch in particular for grievances against friends and family that have grown, unchecked, into resentment and even enmity. Often, pride prevents us from reaching out to dispel this action — we feel we are in the right, that it is the other’s fault and their responsibility to reconcile. Who is “right,” however, is as irrelevant as whether or not you are “due” in your impending chances at the tables. Both are based on self-righteousness, perhaps the most debilitating and detrimental human capacity. This circuit, so practiced in our society, must be circumvented through careful, intentional practice; it has no place in a gambler’s repertoire.
1 In a Martingale, the player establishes a betting unit ($5), and continues to bet this unit (and no higher) following every winning hand. However, when a hand is lost, the wager is doubled on the next hand, and so forth, with no limit other than that established by the house for how large the eventual bet can become. Originally developed in France in the 19th century, Alexandre Dumas famously wrote about the Martingale: “An old man, who had spent his life looking for a winning formula, spent the last days of his life putting it into practice, and his last pennies to see it fail. The Martingale is as elusive as the soul.”
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Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Michael Shou-Yung Shum
eventually found himself dealing poker in a dead-end casino in Lake Stevens, Washington. Two doctorates bookend this strange turn of events: the first in Psychology from Northwestern, and the second in English from the University of Tennessee. Along the way, Michael spent a dozen years in Chicago, touring the country as a rave DJ, and three years in Corvallis, Oregon, where he received his MFA in Fiction Writing. He currently resides in Astoria, New York, with Jaclyn Watterson and three cats. Queen of Spades
is his first novel.