March Madness at Covid Casino

For years, I’ve thought about posting a real-time account of March Madness. The highs, the lows. The buzzer beaters. The “why the fuck are you trying to win the game if you already covered the spread”s.

You see, I usually spend March Madness in Nevada. You’ve never truly experienced a basketball game until you’ve been in a room full of three hundred people absolutely losing their shit at a team dribbling out the remaining seconds of a twelve-point game, the winner of whom was obvious by halftime. 

Shoot the ball, motherfucker!

Or, if I’ve bet the underdog, don’t! 

For the uninitiated, March Madness is the college basketball championship, wherein 68 teams vie for the title. Those 68 (or at least 64 of them) play all their intro games in two days. Thirty-two games, spread out over 36 hours or so. And you can bet on every single one!

I had this grand plan. I would precede the Madness with a general post about gambling, then, as with Camptathalon, I’d tabulate all the craziness. The fifteen-seed Davids beating the two-seed Goliath that nobody cares about because they covered the spread by halftime. Or the meaningless eight-versus-nine-seed game, the winner of whom will most likely be destroyed against a number-one seed in the next round, that has the entire sports book on pins and needles because a two-and-a-half point spread brings all the boys to the yard.

But don’t worry. This post isn’t about college basketball. It’s only tangentially related to sports.

I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m a degenerate gambler, but when the casinos closed, I started playing the stock market. One of the stocks I bought was Draft Kings, meaning I’m now gambling on gambling becoming more prevalent. 

Whenever my friends and I find one of those “signs you are a problem gambler,” we make bets about how many of the checklist items we’ll mark. Even if those lists are bogus. One checkmark is getting upset about losing a bet. Doesn’t that mean we don’t have a problem? You become a problem gambler when you shrug off one loss because you’ve made ten others.

I have the same issue with the alcoholic checklist. Do any of my stories start with, “I was drinking one time and…”? Um, yeah. Do you want good stories? I can start out my stories with “One time I was sitting on my couch rewatching a Marvel movie,” but it’s not gonna get much more exciting than that.

The reason I never got around to that projected March Madness post is how ephemeral it is. When it takes me six months to transcribe my Camptathalon journal, the hilarity still stands. Whether it’s June or January, fart and dick jokes work. But reminiscing about the eighteen-year-old who shanks a free throw and now will never realize his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA has got a shelf life.

So unless I plan on carrying a notebook throughout the casino (which I assume they would frown upon), then transcribing that shit while still blowing a .12, a March Madness post is gonna be tough.

But if I can combine a little bit of sports gambling with my first trip to a casino in the COVID-era? Make my observations more  observational than transactional? Just maybe…

But seriously, University of California at Santa Barbara, how the fuck do you lose by one point when I bet you on the money line? Wide open layup to win the game and you brick?

Okay, with that off my chest, how bout them COVID-restrictions?

As with every other stripe of life, Nevada seems more concerned with appearance than efficacy. Like the TSA guy who pulls me aside for a ham sandwich in my backpack while three terrorists walk through. It’s to make me feel better.

We’re supposed to wear masks, except for when we’re eating or drinking or smoking. Not sure if you’ve ever been in a Nevada casino, but the amount of time you’re not doing one of those three activities is maybe ten percent. I don’t even smoke, but I think it’s state law that we have a cigarette in our mouth fifty percent of the time. Just ask every numbnut sitting next to me at every fucking table, going through a pack an hour. And those new partitions aren’t as good at blocking cigarette smoke as they are (hopefully) at blocking viruses.

Hey, speaking of the numbnuts always at my blackjack tables, one sticks out as the worst of the worst, and that’s saying something. The numbest of the nuts. 

It was at the Tropicana in Vegas, not where one expects to run into high rollers. He was making stupid moves as soon as he sat down, like doubling down on a thirteen and splitting face cards. It was shortly after the book and movie about the MIT card counters, so numbnuts the world over thought they’d figured out how to beat the system. What’s worse is he was sitting in the last spot before the dealer, where a bad move can fuck over the entire table. To wit:

Dealer was showing a five. Fuck Face gets two sixes. The book says you stay on your twelve and wait for the dealer to bust. This guy splits. He hits his first six, gets a ten. Now he’s got a sixteen and he’s hmming and huhing. He finally decides to stay, then hits the other six and, wouldn’t you know it, another ten! 

“Two sixteens!” he exclaims. “What are the odds?”

Umm… those are the exact fucking odds! Literally the entire blackjack playbook is based on one rule: always assume the next card is a ten. 

What made it worse was that after Mr. Fucknozzle takes two bust cards away from the dealer, who now turns over the fifteen we all assumed he had, then hits a five (instead of either of the two tens Einstein took) and takes all our money. 

Casinos don’t discourage you from card counting, because most people make a phenomenal mess of it. Now if you care count well, then they’re taking you out to the desert.  

At least if that jackwagon were still at that table today, he’d have this nice visual of how one drinks or smokes while wearing a mask. 

Whew. Glad they laid that out. As if that weren’t enough Idiocracy, this sign was posted multiple times in each bathroom:

To quote Whitney Houston, I believe the children are our future. Cause if it’s up to us adults, we are well and truly fucked.

Oh, and did I mention that Florida State was favored by 10.5, meaning they had to win by 11 for me to win my bet? Guess how much they won by: Ten. Which matched the number of seconds left in the game when they got the ball back for the final time. And what did they do? Just dribble it around, never even looking at the basket. Come on, people, don’t you know what the spread is? There are people out there who had confidence in you, and you’re rewarding us by standing there for ten seconds instead of piling on two meaningless points that are anything but meaningless.

Why bother winning the game if you aren’t going to cover the spread?

So how are the casinos adjusting to the pandemic, aside from instructions on how to smoke cigarettes and what not to flush down the toilet?

They’ve put up Plexiglass barriers everywhere. Just in case you weren’t feeling lonely playing slot machines before, you’ve now got a three-sided cone of silence. No high-fiving each other after getting that big cherry combo that pays out a thousand credits before remembering thata thousand pennies is less than your initial twenty-dollar deposit. 

Not that there are legitimate penny slots anymore. They say they’re penny slots, but then it costs a minimum of 60 or 80 or 125 credits for one spin. What’s worse is they don’t pay out in those increments. So you bet 60, you win back 17. Then there reaches a point where you’ve got, say, 58 cents left in the machine but you can’t do anything with it. So you cash out and now you’ve got a slip of paper “worth” 58 cents. One machine had the last four “victims” left behind, four printouts of various small denominations. I added my fifth. Perhaps someday in the distant future, someone will be able to combine enough to make one spin, get twelve cents back, and begin the stack anew.

I understand the way inflation works in the casinos. They can’t make legitimate penny slots anymore, because pennies aren’t worth shit, It’s not so much the sixty cent minimum that piss me off so much as the partial payoffs. I’m a completionist. If I’ve blown the twenty I put in then, dammit, I want to be down twenty bucks, not down nineteen dollars and change. And they’re not fooling anyone. Is there anybody who bets sixty, wins back ten and thinks, “Huzzah! Finally able to retire!”

You know who’s really been screwed by inflation? The cocktail waitresses. Back in the nineties, I sat down at a two-dollar blackjack table and, when my “free drink” came around, I tipped the cocktail server a dollar. Nowadays, I sit down at a ten-dollar blackjack table and, when my “free drink” comes around, I tip the cocktail server a dollar. I went from tipping her fifty percent of a hand’s value to ten percent. But it would feel somehow wrong to tip five dollars for a free drink. That’s almost as much as the drink might cost if I paid for it.

Are strippers experiencing the same diminishing returns?

The cocktail servers can’t be hurting too much, though. I see the same ones year after year at March Madness. There are a couple of them who have worked the same portion of the sportsbook at the same time of the day as they were a decade ago. They must not be hurting, even if they do seem a tad slower than they once were, not turning in their orders until they have pre-orders filling every centimeter of their tray. 

Maybe I should up the tip to two bucks, as awkward as that would feel. Although in my defense, I still tip more than some of the people I’m at the table with. I tip my dealer, too. If I was an asshole like the Maker’s Mark fucktards, I might not walk away down forty bucks all the time. Damn my service industry background!

In addition to the partitions up at the slots and tables, you’re not allowed to touch your cards. That took some getting used to. My hand was slapped away three or four times before I adjusted to the new normal. Even after I figured it out, it was friggin hard to keep my hands to myself as my two cards sat there screaming at me. 

I’ve played at blackjack tables where everybody is dealt face up, but this wasn’t that. Your cards are dealt face down, then the dealer comes around to turn up one set of cards at a time. That player then decides what to do and it’s on to the next. It leads to shorter decision times. Not like it’s difficult to add two single digit numbers, but it goes beyond that. If the dealer’s showing an eight, I have to think ahead of time what I’m going to do if it’s a twelve or a fourteen or a sixteen. Normally I can think about those permutations ahead of time. 

The weirdest action was when asking for/buying insurance. If the dealer is showing an ace, they try to take more money in the suckerest of all sucker bets. If you “win” an insurance bet, that means the dealer has a blackjack and you’re getting your money back instead of losing your bet. Still not winning anything, though. And if the dealer doesn’t have a blackjack, you “lose” the insurance bet, but then play the hand normally, which means you can still lose and now you’re out 150% of your initial bet. Even if you win, you’ve lost 50% of the win because you lost it to “insure” the hand. 

Obviously, the insurance bet isn’t going away, just like the extended warranty on cars. But they have to show us our cards to see if we want to insure it. Who would insure a sixteen, after all? Heck, who would insure a nineteen? So when the dealer has an ace showing, she goes one by one, holding up our cards to the plexiglass at eye level like Jim Carrey at the jailhouse in Cable Guy. You nod or shake your head, then she puts your cards back on the table, face down. At least then I get a few extra seconds to decide what I’m going to do with those cards. Just in time for her to reveal she did, in fact, have that blackjack, so maybe I should’ve insured my sixteen?

But as with the TSA, the “what you can touch and what you can’t touch” rule seems arbitrary. For instance, after the dealer shuffles the cards, one of the players still cuts the deck. The dealer hands a plastic divider card to the player doing the cut. First it’s my turn, then with the next shuffling, it’s the guy next to me’s turn. This being single-deck, it’s only a few minutes between my grubby hands and the next guy’s. Not saying he’s going to get any viruses I’m carrying. Didn’t we determine many moons ago that it’s not traveling via touched surfaces, but water globules? Hence the masks and partitions. I mean, maybe if I spit in my hand before cutting the deck, he’d be in trouble. I’ve seen a lot of strange superstitions at blackjack tables over the years, but none have involved bodily fluids.

Then I went to the pai gow table. In pai gow, you’re given seven cards that you divide into two hands: a standard 5-card poker “high hand” and a 2-card “low hand”. The dealer doesn’t turn over his cards until everybody has made their hands. In fact, most beginning pai gow players ask the dealer or other players for advice as they learn. For instance, if you have two pair, do you put one pair in the high hand and one in the low, or do you make the high hand a much stronger two pair, leaving the low hand crappy and all but insuring a push?

So it can totally be done the same way as COVID blackjack. The dealer could turn over my cards, I could instruct him to put the jack of hearts and seven of diamonds into the low hand, then on to the next player. There might also be some difficulties of communication, but pointing works fine, and again, I’ve seen plenty of conversations between player and dealer about which cards should go where and never noticed a communication problem. The real issue is the amount of time it would take. If there are five players at the table and each one takes thirty seconds, you’re looking at five minutes gone by the time the dealer’s done his own and paid out winnings and collected losings. Even worse is that pai gow is a game where the casino doesn’t make money every hand. There are a lot of pushes. I often play it when I need my money to last longer. So if they don’t accumulate money as quickly as possible, and then they add to that the time it takes to play each of the six hands one-by-one, those drinks ain’t gonna be free much longer. But if we all use our thirty seconds simultaneously…

So it should come as little surprise that, in pai gow, we’re allowed to pick up our cards. They’re the exact same cards being used at the table next door. Technically, they go through a shuffling machine, but I’m almost certain they aren’t sanitized inside there. They don’t come out dripping with antibacterial residue or anything like that. They feel like regular cards. Or at least what I remember regular cards feeling like. I couldn’t confirm on the blackjack table. 

Because the casino might say they’re concerned about our safety, but in reality they’re really just “interested in” our safety. What they’re “concerned with” is making profit. And if the two of those can go hand-in-hand, then so much the better. Partitions help remind us we’re all making sacrifices. No blackjack touchie for you!

Just don’t let those sacrifices go too far. 

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