The queen of green

When it comes to risk-taking, I’ve gone from hot dogger to weenie. I blame it on advancing age and that dormant synapse that starts firing shortly after having children. You know, the one that nags you to triplecheck that the stove is off, always carry a spare, never paddle or ski alone, and stop at that second martini.

Of course, being a weenie has its advantages – after all, people depend on me. If I was gone, who would sort the laundry into neat, color-coded piles, check the expiration date on the milk carton or go around turning off all the lights?

Granted, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, there was a time when I threw caution to the wind, daring to head alone into the wild beyond, go for that third martini, ride without a spare, and yes, even mix colors and darks. And while, nowadays, this gambling girl is pretty much MIA, there are rare glimpses.

See, I don’t openly admit this, but I am a closet casino queen (with apologies to Jeff Tweedy). There’s just something about the lights, the sounds, the action, the free cocktails, the lack of windows or any perception of time. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I have a problem. I can quit anytime I want. And I stick mostly to the light stuff: the $5 tables and occasional spin on the slots.

It all started several years ago on the Cal-Neva border, where I financed an entire bridesmaid stint – Laura Ashley dress and died-to-match pumps included – in just a few hours bellied up to the green felt. For a dirt bag ski bum who never won anything, not even the rock-paper-scissors game on the inside of the beer caps, this was like dying and going to free happy hour heaven.

Of course, as the years wore on, trips to America’s free dough and booze basket became less frequent. That is until a recent foray brought me back into Sin City’s fold. OK, so I was a little rusty and required some coaching, but I still managed to walk away with $65 – enough to partially pay for the traffic violation incurred en route. (Who knew Mancos was such a speed trap?)

Anyway, upon return to La Plata County, I figured just because the dice had quit rolling, the good times didn’t need to, and I made my maiden voyage to the Sky Ute Casino. OK, so technically, I was making a pilgrimage to the only bowling alley within a 40-mile radius (a story for another day). But apparently, so was everyone else in the Four Corners. Anyway, as we settled in for a two-hour layover for a lane, I couldn’t resist the siren call of the Queen of Hearts.

I sought out a table with an empty seat and promptly wedged myself between a wisecracking, gaming veteran named Benny and a seasoned couple straight out of the Flamingo’s glory days. These were old school card players hailing from that bridge-playing heyday of yesteryear, complete with dangling gold jewelry and a pack of Benson & Hedges firmly stuffed in a small, rhinestone-encrusted case. They were the types with strong, no-nonsense names like Blanche and Harvey, who used the word “honey” and could shuffle a deck with one hand tied behind their backs.

I slapped down my $20 with the swagger of a pro, after all, I had just come off a big win in Vegas. Which I managed to slip in several times, just

to impress the table and let them know I meant business.

Needless to say, the cards were barely cold before I was hit with my first plexiglass gavel on the knuckles. “One hand on the cards,” I was reprimanded by my dealer, Ardell, who was about to enter a long night of greenhorn faux pas. Over the course of the next few minutes, Ardell would go for her gavel several more times, before finally instructing me to sit on one hand.

With my free hand, I picked up the cards and slyly showed them to Benny, who had graciously taken me on as his apprentice. I soon realized this wasn’t the sloppy, drunken game of years past. Old Benny had quit the bottle 12 years ago, trading in the drink for the deck, and the rest sat quietly, soberly, sipping fruit juice and sodas. This was a blackjack player’s game.

I followed Benny’s instructions intently, for fear of a quick and merciless death. And for a while it worked, as I struggled against the odds to keep my bottom line above water. However, as I was lulled into believing I was actually holding my own, I gave into that old, uncontrollable urge to scream “black jack” at the top of my lungs across a crowded casino.

So with the dealer showing a soft 17, and everyone else holding, I took a gamble on my 14. “Give me a lucky seven, Ardell,” I said assuredly, as my tablemates shook their heads in pity. They obviously were unaware of my invincible winning streak.

Which, thanks to an eight of spades, came to a screeching halt.

Instead of a jubilant “blackjack,” I was now only able to mutter a dejected “poop.”

But the poop was about to get deeper. Ardell now hit, producing a perfect 21, leaving everyone else in the doo-doo pile as well. “You gotta know when to hold ’em,” she chided as she smugly raked in the chips, effectively cleaning me out.

The silence was thicker than the smoke at Harrah’s on a Saturday night.

“You took her card,” Blanche turned to me, addressing me for the first – and last – time that night. “She woulda busted if it weren’t for you.”

True, I may not know when to hold ’em, but I do know when to walk away. Or in this case, cowardly slither.

“Sorry,” I quietly apologized as I slid off my stool. I handed Benny my last $1 chip as a token of gratitude, bid everyone good luck, and returned to the relatively low-stakes confines of the bowling alley (where, incidentally, I also got spanked.)

Sure, the sting of such a humiliating defeat, not to mention the waste of a perfectly good $20 bill, hurt, but I knew it wouldn’t last long. Because in the end, whether baby gets a new pair of shoes, or you lose them along with your shirt, pants and dignity, there’s no shame in giving Lady Luck a whirl. And best of all, whatever happens in Ignacio, stays in Ignacio.

– Missy Votel