Playing the Odds - by John Sealander


Playing the Odds

I'm sitting in the Hard Rock Hotel playing nickel slots when I stumble on the secret of life. It's certainly no epiphany. In fact, the secret that is revealed to me is rather depressing. I guess I knew it all along. If you already have what you need, you will get more. If you desperately want something to happen, it never will. Most importantly, when you choose to quit is far more important than when or what you begin.

It's hard to say why I've been sitting here so long. Slots are boring. Even table games are boring after this many hours. I would have left a long time ago except that it's 110 degrees outside, the beer is free and it's hard to run out of money when you're playing nickels. I keep feeding coins into the machine as fast as I can. I start to notice patterns. The patterns are probably completely imaginary, but it is human nature to want to create an orderly universe. I see abrupt random jackpots are followed by long predictable periods when you watch your accumulated winnings diminish with almost mathematical precision. It occurs to me that craps, roulette, every single game of chance in Vegas more or less follows the same predictable patterns I am seeing here. I'd just never noticed them before. When you are playing table games with chips instead of nickels, you usually run out of money long before any discernible patterns emerge. When the stakes are higher, you are forced to rely on luck. The more nickels I feed into the machine, the clearer it becomes that although a stroke of good luck can be dramatic, it does not come your way frequently. If you don't have the resources to wait patiently, it probably doesn't come at all.

Every so often, my machine hits a jackpot. Sometimes it's big, sometimes small. I imagine I am playing with dollars instead of nickels. I imagine I'm playing in one of those high-roller slot arcades where every pull of the handle costs a hundred dollars. Hey, if these weren't nickels I think, I could buy a new car with this stack of coins in the till. I start to see that it doesn't really matter what game you play or when you start. The only thing that matters is when you decide to leave the game. If you have limited resources, this moment is always chosen for you. You run out of money. If you can't keep playing indefinitely, you automatically lose. Only those with sufficient means will ever have the luxury of choosing their own moment to exit the game. This is why it is almost axiomatic that the rich get richer. They just keep feeding in coins, quietly waiting for the next jackpot to hit. They buy property in a run-down part of town, waiting quietly until someone decides to build an airport nearby and property values triple. They don't sell their Southwest Airlines stock to pay for the kids college education and wait instead, watching as it continues to split and multiply in value.

There is a strange sort of paradox here. If you don't need something, you will automatically get more. Just look around. If you already have a great job, other employers immediately start crawling through the woodwork, trying to tempt you with even more lucrative offers. If you are unemployed and actually need a job however, you quickly become a pariah and potential employers won't even give you the time of day. If you are already in a stable relationship, you are often more desirable to the opposite sex than if you are completely alone and available to all. Everyone wants a winner. As long as you can keep putting nickels in the machine indefinitely, you're home free. Eventually a jackpot will hit that will erase your losses and allow you to exit the game on your own terms.

It all seems so clear as I watch the wheels continue to spin. There's plenty of good luck to go around. It's just a matter of timing. Unfortunately, most of us grossly overestimate our chances of being on lucks receiving end. We try to play the game with insufficient funds and we inevitably lose. What are the odds of a lasting relationship when one person continually clings to the other for emotional support? What are the odds of job satisfaction if your boss knows you desperately need the job to meet the next mortgage payment? What are the odds of making a killing in the stock market if you're investing money you already know you will need next year? If you need something, you will lose it. Codependency seldom works because if your partner ever quits feeding in emotional nickels, you are ruined. Credit cards don't work because you never have the luxury of getting ahead of the game. In the nickel slot theory of life, you can only win if you can afford to lose over and over again.

I can't say that I've always played by these rules, but they seem to make a lot of sense now. Good luck is erratic and unpredictable. If you aren't prepared to seize the moment when it comes your way, your fleeting opportunity will quickly vanish. In the course of an afternoon, I had at least five opportunities to walk away from the nickel machine with ten times as many coins as I had fed into it. These were isolated moments though. For the most part, I was feeding in more coins than I was taking out. I keep thinking that if the coins weren't nickels, I would have cashed in the first of the periodic jackpots and walked away feeling like a huge winner. I wouldn't have seen the patterns however. I wouldn't have noticed that winning at anything depends almost entirely on when you quit playing the game.

It doesn't matter at all when you start dating or how long you keep dating. It matters quite a bit when you quit, because the person you end up with at this moment is often the person you marry. If you leave a job at exactly the right time, you walk away with stock options, a good pension and a better job offer from another company. If you leave at the wrong time however, you end up in disgrace and virtually unemployable for the next year and a half. Of course, hindsight is everything. It's is hard to know these things in advance. I left the ad agency world to start my own company at exactly the right time. It was an accident. I left Seattle at the wrong time. The move was planned well in advance. Go figure. I'm wondering when the right time will come to begin whatever comes next. If my theories are correct, I just need to remember to have plenty of nickels in my pocket before I make my next move.

I keep feeding in nickels in my machine and somehow start thinking about the idea of sustainable fantasies. Fantasy seems to be big these days. Especially in Vegas. Television and media have conditioned people to think they can have it all. Hey, if you don't have the money, just put it on your Visa card. That's the way you do it, isn't it? If you don't have the talent, you can still pretend. Legions of middle-aged men who had high school fantasies about being race car drivers or big league ball players now go to fantasy camps where they get to drive a genuine NASCAR race car around an empty track at 180 miles an hour. They go to baseball camps where they get to play trumped up ball games with the same aging heroes they used to collect on baseball cards. As I sit here in the Hard Rock Hotel, I'm seeing a huge opportunity for fantasy rock 'n roll camps. Middle aged men and women get to jam with Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Bob Dylan or whatever dim light from the past still floats their boat. I've never gone to a fantasy camp. It's not that I disapprove of fantasy. Hell, I played in a silly, wannabe rock band for five years. I love fantasies. I just want them to last longer than a week. Actually, I don't want them to end at all. Where are the sustainable fantasies? As I keep feeding nickels into the machine, I begin to realize that fantasies are only sustainable when you are living them already.

It's weird. Staring at the three wheels spinning in front of me, I become convinced that you must have the emotional, physical and financial resources at your disposal to lose and lose big, before you can ever expect to win. A quick look at the city's cultural icons seems to bear this out. Ironically, in a town built around luck and leisure, the locals who succeeded in Las Vegas often toiled for years in obscurity before a brief lucky moment allowed then to opt out and change the rules of the game. Hotel mogul Steve Wynn started as a blackjack dealer in a small downtown casino. David Copperfield did magic tricks at second-rate clubs for $25 a night. Sigfried and Roy were entertaining people in obscurity long before there were any mansions and white tigers. It is not surprising actually that there is a strong work ethic in Las Vegas. The locals know how things really are. Luck is nothing more than having the resources to choose your own moment to quit living on someone else's terms. I imagine a city of hard working and talented dancers, musicians, stand-up comedians and other artisans continuing to feed their metaphorical nickels into the machine until their personal jackpot hits. There have always been magicians in Las Vegas, but now magic is hot. There are elaborate magic stores in every shopping mall. Lance Burton isn't at the Hacienda anymore. He is following in the footsteps of Sigfried and Roy as a glittering new casino is built around his unique talent. Luck comes in many forms. Who would have thought that something as ethereal as Cirque Du Soleil would become a runaway sensation? Who would have though that fine, upstanding midwestern families would stand in line to take souvenir travel pictures in front of a huge brass statue of two gay guys and a tiger?

You've got to have a lot of staying power to keep playing until your own day in the sun arrives though. I'm thinking about the beer I had in this odd little bar at Debbie Reynolds ill-fated hotel on the day it went bankrupt. The dream was there. The desire was there. But the resources weren't. The ironies were everywhere. Debbie Reynolds had spent most of her career making movies for MGM. She has the original dress Dorothy wore and the real ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz in this little Hollywood museum she created in the now virtually empty hotel. Just a few miles down the road Japanese investors build the MGM Grand. Faux Oz paraphernalia is everywhere. Thousands of people are milling around looking for the ruby slippers, not even realizing how close they really are. Debbie Reynolds little museum with the ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe's white dress from 'The Seven Year Itch' is nice, but it used up all her nickels. The hotel bar is only open now from 2PM until 10:30PM. All the slot machines and gaming tables are gone. The staff looks like they belong in a geriatric center. An elderly security guard is talking to an unemployed carpenter at the bar. He says that years ago he used to own a successful restaurant in New York City. "I used to make $250,000 a year," he says. "And look at me now. I'm a fake cop in an empty hotel." Everyone is out of nickels here. It is a sobering experience.

Eventually it is time for dinner and I fill two big plastic Hard Rock Hotel cups full of nickels and cash them in. My winnings pay for a nice meal and some wine at Mortoni's. Of course, if I had been playing the dollar machines I could have paid for my entire trip. Or if I was a real high roller, my afternoon learning experience would have at the very least gotten me a new Harley.

That's not the way it works though. If I had been playing anything but nickels, I would have been out of the game in ten minutes. I know my limits. Mine is a low stakes game. No kids. No boss to please. No debts. No complications. No sharp edges anywhere. I've been feeding nickels into this machine of mine for a long time now. There have been good years. There have been bad years. There have even been a few jackpots. In a way it doesn't matter though. I know I will never win big in this life, but I won't run out of nickels either.


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copyrightę1995. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 36355 readers since 7/15/97