Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Best Story I Never Wrote

by Scott Adlerberg

For three and a half weeks in December and January of 1985, I belonged to a five man blackjack team that lived in Atlantic City. Through months of trial and error, we had devised a system that targeted specific ace and picture card clumps in the deck.  The targeting depended on sitting through entire multi-deck shoes, placing five dollar bets at tables ninety nine per cent of the time, watching for patterns, and then, anticipating, based on the dealer's shuffle, where those clumps in our favor would come out during the next shoe.  For hands we anticipated being in our favor, we'd raise our bet substantially.  This may sound farfetched, but believe me, we thought highly of our system and each of us, five guys in their twenties, one in his thirties, put all the money we had into the venture - a total of about $7,000.  

The cash in our pockets, suitcases in hand, we took the bus from New York City to Atlantic City. Two of our group were wearing wigs; one of these two had a phony beard on his face.  We'd hired a professional movie make up artist to devise disguises for the pair because they were already known as counters in Atlantic City, and the pit bosses at the casinos we intended to play in - Bally's and Sands - knew them well and would give them a hard time if they showed up as themselves. The pit bosses would know that these two had some system they were using, and even if they didn't recognize our system immediately, they'd be watching that pair closely.  The other three of us, myself included, were unknown in Atlantic City so we figured we'd be able to play under the radar. Or, I should say, we'd be under the radar for awhile; at some point, the pit bosses would notice that we were up to something because of our odd betting patterns.  Once they knew we were playing a system, they wouldn't rough us up or anything that dramatic, but they'd definitely try to intimidate us and break our rhythms by ordering the dealers to shuffle up every time we sat down at a table. This is not something they want to do - it costs them time and time is money, and constant shuffling annoys the other people playing at that table - but it's the casinos way of letting you know they're onto you and won't let you get over on them.  Of course, casinos have been known to escalate matters to the violent level, but we were confident that the amounts we were betting wouldn't piss them off enough for them to take that recourse.  

So we're set with our money, system, and disguises.  We moved into a motel with two adjoining rooms off the Atlantic City boardwalk. That's five guys in two rooms with four beds.  One person slept on the floor. Though actually, it never transpired that all five of us were in the rooms together. Since Atlantic City went 24 hours a day, we worked in shifts, with two or three guys out in the casinos playing and the others in the room idling, watching television, waiting till one of the team came back at his appointed time so that - no time to waste - he could give what money he had, more or less than he'd left the room with, to the next guy to go out and play.  

As I say, we liked our system.  Our main concern was that, as with any system, great as it might be, it could take time to work.  All systems depend on how they will work in the long run, and you need enough money to absorb losing streaks. What if we had a losing streak the first week and went through our $7,000? We had very strict rules about how much each person could bet at any one time (depending on the odds of winning that bet), but play it as conservative as we might, we could still go broke and head back home to New York City in no time.  We had, it should be pointed out, bought open return bus tickets before leaving Manhattan. 

Our hope was to double our bankroll, get to $15,000, so that we could take our system west. We'd go to Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, where there are a lot more casinos to play in.  Moving around through different casinos out there would reduce the chances of pit bosses catching on to us, we figured, but first, we absolutely needed to get to that $15,000 mark in Atlantic City. And we needed to reach that amount before the pit bosses did get wise to us and start making our lives miserable.

In a nutshell, we never got to Tahoe or Vegas. But not because our system didn't work.  Within a week our bankroll dropped to as low as $1,500 dollars, and only one person at a time could go out and play while the other four hung around the rooms in sweats and underwear. How thrilling. But eventually our system did start to kick in, and we got our bankroll up to about $13,000.  The pit bosses, by now, had seen through the disguises of the two notorious guys on our team, and they'd connected the three neophytes to the two veterans.  We knew our days in Atlantic City were numbered, and we were just about to toast ourselves as successes and head west when...human vanity and ego spoiled everything.  One member of our team lost his cool and made a series of over bets that halved our bankroll in ten minutes and left the team riven with dissension.  We split the money we had and went our separate ways.  There was no five guys riding on a bus together after that. I wound up coming home with a few hundred dollars less than when I'd left New York, which means we made money when you consider the motel costs and the meals we bought over three weeks. Still, what a disappointment.  Now it was back to finding a job...

There's more to this story, lots more.  And I took extensive notes on the entire adventure while we were in Atlantic City. And I think I can pretty much say that as far as noir goes, albeit humorous noir, this is the most noir experience I've ever been part of.  I write crime.  Here's a story made to order.  Not even much embellishment is needed.  And yet, in 30 years, I have never written a story or novel or much of anything about the Atlantic City blackjack team adventure. I have told the story to many friends (in much greater detail than I told it here), and nearly everyone has said, "You have to write that. How can you not write that?"  My current publisher asked me the same thing.  Indeed, there's no story idea I've ever told anyone that has engendered the enthusiasm the Atlantic City story does.  So...what's keeping me? After all this time, why don't I just write the damn thing?

Simple.  I've talked about the story so many times over the years that I have no desire to write it.  I've regaled friends and acquaintances with the tale, making them laugh and shake their heads, and each time I spun the yarn, verbalized it, I lost yet a little more desire to sit down at a desk and tell it as a written narrative. "What's the point?" I think to myself.  I've told this story countless times. I know what happens, know the people, know the jokes and every twist.  

I get bored just thinking about writing it.

Well, maybe I blew it with this story, but I learned something.  At least something that works for me.  When I have a story in mind, based on actual events or things I made up, I say virtually nothing about it.  For me, now, reticence has become the better part of creativity. Everyone is different, but I'm always a bit puzzled by those writers who tell you all about the book they're writing or planning to write.  Whatever works. Everyone is different, obviously.  But through the blackjack team story I never wrote, but told too many times, I've come to understand that for me a potential story, or a work in progress, has a kind of energy in it, and every time I talk about it, I'm releasing some of that energy. Wasting that energy.  Losing that feeling of excitement that says, "You really want to tell this story." So if anyone asks what I'm working on now, I keep my description as bare bones as possible and make sure we start talking about something else. Hell, if they don't know the blackjack team story, I start talking about that:
Me: "You know, I'll tell you about the story I should write."
Them: "And? Why don't you?"
Me: "I talked about it too many times?"
Them: "Then stop talking about it and write it."
Me: "Ok. Ok. When I'm done with the story I'm working on now."

Yes, the blackjack team story will always be the story I should write. Meanwhile, I'll keep writing other stories. But even unwritten, the blackjack story serves an odd kind of motivating purpose. It says, "I'm the one you let get away. Over talkative schmuck. Put your focus where it needs to be."

Into the writing, onto the pages, till the story's done.


Dana King said...

Don't write the story you keep telling. Find a different angle for it and write that. Story ideas that good and with the level of detail only you can provide don't come along so often they can be thrown away.

scott adlerberg said...

That is good advice, Dana. You're probably right about the different angle being the key. I'm thinking on it....