»  The Straggler, No. 71

September 29, 2008

   Over the Boardwalk

Sixty-three … single … 62 … single … 61 … triple … Ching! Yes! Fifteen credits! So … 76 … single … 75 … single …

That is your columnist playing Triple Cherry. Let me back up a little for some scene-setting.

My daughter was away in England, my wife and son both at loose ends. I decided to take them with me to Atlantic City, where I had a couple of hours' worth of minor business to transact. We made a two-day trip of it. There is beach, after all, and boardwalk, and casinos, and the place is only a three-hour drive from Straggler Hall. So off we went.

Results were mixed. The beach was crowded, the sea murky and much colder than it had any right to be in August. I had forgotten, too, what a slum the city mostly is. Wander a couple of hundred yards away from the casino area and you are among narrow, ill-kept houses from whose yards obese people stare at you with dull hostility, apparently having nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon. (Although I should say that when I posted some remarks to this effect online, I got indignant e-mails from Atlantic Citizens telling me that the city has plenty of pleasant neighborhoods populated by people who work, diet, and look after their houses. No doubt I just wandered in the wrong direction.)

On the other hand, my son was fascinated by the pier. ("A disappointed bridge" — James Joyce.) He roamed happily among the sideshows, and begged, successfully, to be shot up in the air by the bungee-cord contraption. After due cautions about talking to strangers and counting his change, we left him there and headed for a casino. Neither of us is a gambler in any but the most occasional sense, but this was Atlantic City, home to 43,096 slot machines, according to the World Casino Directory.

What an astonishing sight these places are! The slot machines appear, when seen en masse, to be uniform — hundreds of replicas, as in some vision out of oriental mysticism — like the massed ranks of carved, gilded Buddha figures in a Burmese temple, or the angels imagined by a Taoist poet:

Ah! Clothed in rainbows, riding on winds,
Sallies out the host of heaven!
With tigers for musicians, phoenix as charioteers —
Oh, numberless are their ranks!
My spirit cowers, my soul trembles!

Or like the buried army of the first Chinese emperor, for that matter; though in fact each of those soldier-statues is slightly different from every other. The slots hall at Trump Taj Mahal does not attain that level of individuality, but there are different types of machine. My own choice is the Triple Cherry. The bet on Triple Cherry — the unit of credit — is a quarter, which seems to me the right amount. The number of cylinders is three, which seems to me the right number. And there is some modest optional variation in play: You may bet one credit, or three (with, of course, triple rewards). There is also, in a gesture to tradition that should gladden the heart of any conservative, a lever you can pull in lieu of pressing the button.

Naturally I have a system. I feed a $20 bill into the slot, causing 80 to appear on the credits display. I then proceed according to the following rule: If the number in the display is prime, I bet three credits; otherwise, only one. This gives an agreeable length of playing time, together with the mild mental exercise of spotting primes up to 200 or so. A wise player would of course cash in his winnings when his bonus credits have piled up to that point. Amateur gamblers are rarely wise, though. There is always the flickering hope of that jackpot payout — a thousand dollars on Triple Cherry.

Mrs. Straggler's system must be inferior to mine. We begin with equal stakes, but she always exhausts hers first. Perhaps she is just a more reckless player. Gambling is, after all, proverbially the national vice of the Chinese. Our very first excursion to this city, back in the 1980s, was on the free bus from New York's Chinatown. The bus was actually better than free: They used to hand out $20 casino coupons as you disembarked.

And the bus was for small fry. Back then my wife worked for a Chinatown jeweler who took only cash for his wares, stuffing the money bills into a back-office safe until the safe's door would no longer close. (A Chinatown merchant would think himself a fool if he paid more than nominal tax on his revenues.) At that point the jeweler would pack the boodle into a suitcase and phone a certain number. A limousine would arrive to take him and his wife to their suite at one of the Atlantic City casino hotels. Limo and suite were of course gratis. Our merchant was, as they say in casino-land, "comped up to the eyeballs."

Possibly this national trait is related somehow to the fact, which I was told by a social-worker friend, and which the relevant websites seem to confirm, that while most twelve-step addiction cures call on a higher power for assistance, Gamblers Anonymous makes a point of welcoming atheists and agnostics. "Which is what most gambling addicts are," explained my friend. Have not the Chinese been called the world's least religious people, and its most superstitious? That long string of lucky 8s in the date and time of the Olympics opening ceremony … Well, I am only speculating.

As I drive us home along the Garden State Parkway, the resourceful Mrs. Straggler produces fresh fruit that she purchased and washed earlier in the day. She cuts up a peach and feeds the pieces to me as I drive. "Can't cut up pear for you, sorry." In Chinese, "divide a pear" sounds just like the verb "to separate," so that for wife to cut up a pear for her husband would be unlucky. With so much attention to what is and is not lucky (I tease) why didn't she do better on the slots? She ripostes with her language's precise equivalent of "Man proposes, heaven disposes."** Some insights are universal.

** 謀事在人、成事在天