I stood there, using my supreme will power to stop my hands from trembling; even still my palms were so sweaty I rubbed them repeatedly on the thighs of my khaki shorts. I arrived early for the four o'clock Blackjack Tournament. I needed to walk off some excess energy and get comfortable in this slot machine jungle. Bells, flashing lights and bright colors put me on sensory overload. I had to calm down, and I wanted to scope out the competition before they knew I was in the game. Late afternoon is usually a dead time in a casino on a cruise ship but the cool inviting air conditioning was starting to suck my rivals in. I tried to be unobtrusive (as unobtrusive as a long-legged redhead can be) as I watched the men and women approach the cashier's cage to sign up.
My daddy taught me Blackjack as a counting game when I was a little girl. I liked it. I had played in the tournament on the last cruise and gotten good cards but had been eliminated pretty quickly because I was betting conservatively. So on this cruise, I played the computer version of the game in the casino every night. The computer never let me get ahead and that kept me humble, but I could see patterns of probability.
When they announced that the tournament was about to begin, I left the computer to watch. I stood frozen as the eager beavers rushed to the table and parked their tails on the red leather bar stools. The dealer set $1,000 in chips in front of each player and fixed the maximum bet at $500. The bettors at the table were all conservative and the dealer was wiping them out left and right. At the end of seven hands, this group was still only in the $1,000 range.
This sent my confidence soaring and I sat down in the second group. I remembered that he guy who won on the last cruise bet the limit every time and doubled as often as he could. My mantra became "Bet the limit - don't bust." I took a deep breath to calm myself but the thick cigarette smoke had the opposite effect. I looked down at my lucky rings sparkling in the bright casino lights and picked up my chips. I fingered my little stack and asked the dealer, "What's the maximum bet?"
He looked a little shocked. I could tell he didn't figure me for a high roller. I was too nervous.
He hesitated ever so slightly and answered, "$500."
I slapped a red $500 chip on the table in front of me. A little gasp went up from the spectators behind me.
The dealer kept busting, so everybody at the table did well. At the end of seven hands I had $4,500 and was $1,000 ahead of anybody else. Through the next ten tables of seven people, I remained perched like a vulture, watching the other players from behind, kneeling on a bar stool for a better view of the cards, trying to get a feel for the way the cards were falling, delighted that no one was getting even close to my total.
For the final round, the top seven money winners sat back down at the table. I was still on top going in so I got to choose my seat first. Without hesitation, I sat in the number 5 chair, even though everyone around me was babbling about how the last chair was the best. I'd sat in chair number five the first time and had no intentions of messing with the karma that had gotten me this far. The cards had fallen very well for me. If they continued to fall that well I knew I could win. The top three winners would get a cash prize. I wanted to be number one.
We all started out with $1,000 in chips again. The dealer wiped out the table pretty fast. There were just three of us for the last two hands and we were all very close in money totals. Mr. Miami Beach sat next to me. A tan, well-fed gentleman with white hair and lots of gold chains, he was gnawing on an expensive smelling cigar and had the confidence of a pro. Next to him was an Australian gentleman with a silky voice I could have listened to all day. He had sandy brown hair and looked ruggedly ageless and self-assured. Everyone else in the casino gathered around to watch the action. I felt the heat of their bodies pressing in behind me as we played one hand after another.
It all came down to the final hand. The dealer had an eight showing. With the way he'd been hitting this go round, I had a strong feeling that he had a face card under there. He always got the best cards. It seemed uncanny.
The Aussie hunk had a nine and a face card showing for 19, and stayed on his $500 bet.
Mr. Miami took quite a bit of time to calculate his move. He had two face cards showing for 20, probably a winner. He could split them and take a hit on each face card and hope for two winners, betting the limit on each of them to maximize his money. After carefully counting the chips in front of me and the pile in front of the bloke on his right, he decided to stay.
I had an ace and a six, for seven or seventeen. Not a great hand but still most people would stay. After all, the dealer had an eight showing. Odds were good I already had the dealer beat, but not great. The dealer was incredibly lucky but he might have to take a hit and bust. I also knew I was in the money regardless of the outcome of this hand. When the gentleman next to me was doing his calculations, I had been doing a few of my own. I knew if Mr. Miami didn't split, I could double down and win enough money to be in first place.
So I pried my tongue off the roof of my mouth and went for the glory. The dealer turned and locked his eyes with mine, challenging me. I licked my lipstick lips and picked up a $500 chip and laid it on the table in front of me and said without flinching, "Double down."
A collective gasp was audible across the room. I smiled a confident smile because I knew. I couldn't believe they couldn't see it. If I got a high card I added seven, if I got a low card I added 17. I would take third place if the bet failed and first place if I succeeded. It's not as if I got to keep the money on the table in front of me. We were only playing for a share of the prize money. I wanted first prize.
Now it was showdown time. My mouth tasted like I'd been sucking on pennies. The dealer slid one card out of the shoe; this was it, my one card, face down for double the money. One thousand dollars rode on this one card. Since I was the last player, he paused only slightly for dramatic effect and then flipped it over. Every eye in the place was glued to that card - except mine. I couldn't look. I stared into the dealer's intense blue eyes for my answer. Shock registered in his eyes.
"I don't believe it," echoed from behind me.
I finally looked down and saw the four of hearts. I felt as if my heart would leap out of my chest and join it there on the green felt.
"Twenty-one," the dealer shouted. He flipped his face card over for 18. I had won.
Looking down at the cards, the dealer asked, "How did you know?"
I smiled a crooked little smile as I rubbed the lucky crystal that hung around my neck and said, "The card Gods told me so."
© Pamela Frost
Pamela Frost is a 48-year-old landlord who is currently working on a book about her humorous adventures in landlord land.
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