Pitfalls of Probability

At the tender age of six I was convinced that I knew what was best and that it was time to take matters into my own hands. The centerpiece of family gatherings aside from the copious amounts of food was the even more copious amounts of gambling. Three mahjong tables ringing with the cacophony of faux ivory tiles clacking against each other served as the background to the main event; the post dinner blackjack game.

My father and uncles would gather around the long black dining table and break out six decks of cards which us kids were bestowed the ignominious  honor of shuffling. The game would always start out friendly with a couple of dollars in front of each spot, but it wouldn’t take long before compulsion, sibling rivalry and good old fashioned testosterone would start raging and Washington would quickly be replaced by Jackson, Grant and Franklin. Being the dealer or the house was a role reserved only for my father and my oldest uncle. Given that there would be up to 8 or more other players who could play 1-3 hands at will, things would escalate very quickly.

It was a dozen years before I would learn concepts like variance, bankroll, and probability (not that those concepts did me any damn good) all I saw was a big pile of cash getting pushed back and forth across the dinner table. It was the late 80’s and my family members by and large were beginning to achieve upper middle class success across the board. A pharmacist, an engineer, an HVAC owner, two accountants, a banker and my father. If this was Sesame Street we could play one of these is not like the other. He was the exception to the rule and unlike his brothers. My father was a serial entrepreneur decades before that was a thing. A licensed pilot, driving instructor, CDL driver, flight instructor, real estate agent, alarm technician, fire suppression installer, beeper distributor, pay phone franchisee, forklift distributor, rolling gate operator, master welder, sea cucumber fisherman. These are just the things i remember. Definitely a jack of all trades, what he lacked was financial results.

Quite the tangent I’ve gone on. The point is he had the appearance of a perennially successful businessman yet him and my mom would always be arguing fiercely about being broke. He would storm out and she would cry while hugging my sister and I and tell us we had no money. But being the proper Chinese family, our internal strife was always kept internal. At large family gatherings every body pretended not to know what the latest gossip was.

Back to blackjack. What is all of this prequel context have to do with friggin blackjack? So my father took his turn to be house and had a few hundred dollars in front of him to cover the action. Midway through the shoe he had already been tapped out and the uncles smelled blood in the water. As conventional gambling wisdom goes they raised their bets as the dealer was weak. The streak continued and my father fished into his pocket for even more money and continued to lose. I couldn’t take it anymore and I made my move.

With ferret like speed I scooped up all of the cash on the table and made a beeline for the the garage. I’d like to recall it as a deft display of reflexes and tenacity as I absconded with the loot, but the common recollection among all those present who are still very much alive, was that I ran screaming and crying with a bundle of bills cartoonishly cradled and locked myself in a bathroom. They eventually let me out and confiscated the money to resume their game, but left me with $100 for my troubles and to “buy something to eat.”

15 years later I sat at that same table with 9 faces staring tensely at me. All of their hands were dealt, 18 spots, all naturals 18 or better. An army of kings, queens and jacks mimicked their stares at my lone king. You didn’t have to be Phil Ivey to read the eager anticipation in their faces as they waited to educate me in the finer points of humility. 21 years old barely able to enter a casino on my own and I had the audacity to be the dealer. This is the same kid who in their minds would be running to the bathroom soon crying. I idly wondered how I would pay out the thousands of dollars in from of me as I slid my king under my hole card.

Those thoughts were extinguished as quickly as they formed as the Ace revealed itself to a table of unbelievers. The torch had been passed to the next generation and I would learn how to burn myself with it for years to come.



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