Everyone Has a System. The True Story Behind: DEALER WINS

You wanna know the secret of how I kept my hundreds so crisp and flat? I’d take 5 or 6 bills and place them in the middle of a Bible commentary, then stack those commentaries on the floor, Romans on top of Matthew, on top of John, on top of Exodus, and so forth. After a day or so: crisp, flat bills.

Just about every day I brought home a new stack—I worried I might run out of commentaries! Every day I’d wake up, eat an egg sandwich, grab $400, then drive to Mystic Lake Casino. The valets knew me by name and parked my truck with a smile and a “good luck, buddy.”

Then I’d go in, find my table, take my coat off, then lay my money down for the dealer. He’d gather my cash then push my chips across that green felt table top.

The dealers knew me, the pit bosses knew me, and some of the gambling addicts began to know me, though they tended to collapse into themselves as soon as the dealer dealt. They’d stare at their cards, then check the dealer’s card, then consider the cards all around them. They calculated their play according to complicated systems, and I watched as those systems chewed at their minds.

I had a system, too, but those folks never seemed to leave winners, and I never seemed to lose. They hated me.

My girlfriend had just dumped me and my good friend had just fired me from his company—both of them with good reason: she was not the gal for me, and that corporate work suffocated lungs inside of me I didn’t even know I had.

Beating the Casino

Anyway, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I liked blackjack and set my mind to it for a while. Most of these gamblers had a system, usually amounting to probability and “playing the numbers,” which of course matters a great deal.

Maybe some day, when we know each other better, I will share my system. But for now I’ll just say that, when I watched dealers sharing probability tips with players, well, I immediately suspected that probability cannot be all there is to beating this game. If winning at blackjack was possible, I assumed it would require more than simply “playing the odds.”

Here are two of the building blocks I used in my system:

(1) Blackjack is a probability game, but it’s more of an epistemic trap. The game forces players to make decisions with inadequate information. The game hinges not only on probability, but on the upside-down card that creates the probability to begin with. Free choices made with poor knowledge, or inadequate data, will always lead to ruin, just as free will, as an end in itself, always destroys the self.

(2) Most of these players used systems that had rules for playing, but no rules for stopping. In a game statistically tilted against players, not having a plan for quitting will inevitably result in losing. I mean, you know when you’ve lost: you run out of money!

But when have you won? The casino leverages this nebulous dilemma against players all day long. Losing sucks. But so many times I watched folks endure something so much worse: winning big, and then losing it all back.

Anyway, after about six weeks of this, I left and didn’t come back. I enjoyed the game some, and i liked the stacks of cash, but I really didn’t enjoy the other players, and the pit bosses creeped me out with how much they monitored me and over-friendlied me.

Plus, as much fun as it was to win, the game occupied my brain in an empty sort of way. Once I figured out the system, well, I just sort of stared into various abysses as the cards were dealt. I could feel my cognitive capacity deteriorate as I swiveled on the stool and stacked, then re-stacked, my chips.

There’s a bigger game out there, and getting consumed by small games, even when you win, can sabotage your play at those far more important contests.
. . .


at the blackjack table
everyone has
a system

card counting
cutting thin
chip stacking
progressive betting
cutting thick
riding streaks

the dealer flicks the cards
one card up for each of us
and one card up
for the house
another card up for each of us
then one card hidden
upside down
for the house

thwip thwip thwip

the hands are dealt
aces and small cards
kings and queens
and jacks
“split it”
“hit that”
colorful cards all around
while one card sits
resting hidden before
the dealer

everyone has a system
at the blackjack table
“I have a system”
they say
then go on and on
telling us all about it

they WIN a hand
“see it works,” they say
then they lose
one or two
“that’s to be expected”
and then a WIN
then they lose
“it works over time”
until they’ve lost
down to a point
where they stop promoting
their system

they are whittled down
to their last

and they push it in

the dealer deals
Two Kings!
the player grins

the dealer winks
and shows a ten
then flips his hidden card
and it’s an Ace


the dealer wins
then takes the player’s
final chip
who nods and stands
dabs his cigarette
in a tray of ash
pushes in his stool
whispers away
I presume
out of the casino
and into that much larger
where I hope he has a better
in that game
all the dealer’s cards
are hidden

. . .

From my second collection of poetry: “The Fundamentals of Skywriting.” Available here for a short while longer:

Dan Kent