Page 30 of Ford County

After two weeks of lackluster activity, Bobby Carl decided it was time to cheat. He found an old girlfriend, one willing to have her face splashed across the newspapers, and rigged the slots so she would win an astounding $14,000 with a $1 chip. Another mole, one from Polk County, won $8,000 at the "luckiest slots this side of Vegas." The two winners posed for photos with Chief Larry as he ceremoniously handed over greatly enlarged checks, and Bobby Carl paid for full-page ads in eight weekly newspapers, including the Ford County Times.

The lure of instant riches •was overwhelming. Business doubled, then tripled. After six weeks, the Lucky Jack was breaking even. The hotel offered free rooms with weekend packages, and often had no vacancies. RVs began arriving from other states. Billboards all over north Mississippi advertised the good life at the Lucky Jack.

The good life was passing Stella by. She was forty-eight, the mother of one fully grown daughter, and the wife of a man she no longer loved. When she had married Sidney decades earlier, she had known he was dull, quiet, and not particularly handsome and lacked ambition, and now as she approached the age of fifty she could not remember why or how he had attracted her. The romance and lust didn't last long, and by the time their daughter was born, they were simply going through the motions. On Stella's thirtieth birthday she confided to a sister that she really wasn't happy. Her sister, once divorced with another one in the works, advised her to unload Sidney and find a man with a personality, someone who enjoyed life, someone with assets preferably. Instead, Stella doted on her daughter and secretly began taking birth control pills. The thought of another child with even a few of Sidney's genes was not appealing.

Eighteen years had passed now, and the daughter was gone. Sidney had put on a few pounds and was graying and sedentary and duller than ever. He worked as a data collector for a midsize life insurance company, and was content to put in his years and dream of some glorious retirement that he, for some reason, believed would be far more exciting than the first sixty-five years of his life. Stella knew better. She knew that Sidney, whether working or retired, would be the same insufferable mouse of a man whose silly little daily rituals would never change and would eventually drive her crazy.

She wanted out.

She knew he still loved her, adored her even, but she could not return the affection. She tried for years to convince herself that their marriage was still anchored in love, that of the long' lasting, non-romantic, deeply embedded type that survives decade after decade. But she finally gave up this fatal notion.

She hated to break his heart, but he would eventually get over it.

She dropped twenty pounds, darkened her hair, went a bit heavier with the makeup, and flirted with the idea of some new breasts. Sidney watched this with amusement. His cute wife now looked ten years younger. What a lucky man he was!

His luck ran out, though, when he came home one night to an empty house. Most of the furniture was still there, but his wife was not. Her closets were empty. She had taken some linens and kitchen accessories but had not been greedy about it. Truth was, Stella wanted nothing from Sidney but a divorce.

The paperwork was on the kitchen table - a joint petition for a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Prepared by a lawyer already! It was an ambush. He wept as he read it, then cried even harder as he read her rather terse two-page farewell. For a week or so they bickered on the phone, back and forth, back and forth. He begged her to come home. She declined, said it was over, so please just sign the paperwork and stop crying.

They had lived for years on the outskirts of the small town of Karraway, a desolate little place, well suited for a man like Sidney. Stella, however, had had enough. She was now in Clanton, the county seat, a larger town with a country club and a few lounges. She was living with an old girlfriend, sleeping in the basement, looking for a job. Sidney tried to find her, but she avoided him. Their daughter called from Texas and quickly sided with her mother.

The house, always on the quiet side, was now like a tomb, and Sidney couldn't stand it. He developed the ritual of waiting until dark, then driving to Clanton, around the square, up and down the streets of the town, eyes moving from side to side, hoping fervently that he would see his wife, and that she would see him, and that her cruel heart would melt and life would be good again. He never saw her, and he kept driving, out of the town and into the countryside.

One night he passed Chief Larry's store and down the road turned in to the crowded parking lot of the Lucky Jack Casino. Maybe she'd be there. Maybe she was so desperate for the bright lights and the fast life that she would stoop to hang out in such a trashy place. It was just a thought, just an excuse to see the action that everyone had been talking about. Who would have ever dreamed that a casino would exist in the hidebound rural outback of Ford County? Sidney roamed the tacky carpet, spoke to Chief Larry, •watched a group of drunk rednecks lose their paychecks shooting craps, sneered at the pathetic geezers stuffing their sav' ings into rigged slot machines, and listened briefly to a dreadful country crooner trying to imitate Hank Williams on a small stage in the rear. A few middle-aged and very overweight swingers wobbled and shifted listlessly on the dance floor in front of the band. Some real hell-raisers. Stella wasn't there. She wasn't in the bar, nor the buffet cafeteria, nor the poker room. Sidney was somewhat relieved, but his heart was still broken.

He hadn't played cards in years, but he remembered the basic rules of twenty-one, a game his father had taught him. After circling the blackjack tables for half an hour, he finally mustered the courage to slide into a seat at the $5 table and get change for a $20 bill. He played for an hour and won $85. He spent the next day studying the rules of blackjack - the basic odds, doubling down, splitting pairs, the ins and outs of buying insurance - and returned to the same table the following night and won over $400. He studied some more, and the third night he played for three hours, drank nothing but black coffee, and walked away •with $1,750. He found the game to be simple and straightforward. There was a perfect way to play each hand, based on what the dealer was showing, and following the standard odds, a player can win six hands out of ten. Add the two-for-one payout for hitting a blackjack, and the game provided the best odds against the house. Why, then, did so many people lose? Sidney was appalled at the other players1 lack of knowledge and their foolish bets. The nonstop alcohol didn't help, and in a land where drinking was repressed and still considered a major sin, the free flow of booze at the Lucky Jack was irresistible for many.

Sidney studied, played, drank free black coffee brought in by the cocktail waitresses, and played some more. He bought books and self-help videos and taught himself to count cards, a difficult strategy that often worked beautifully but would also get a gambler thrown out of most casinos. And, most important, he taught himself the discipline necessary to play the odds, to quit when he was losing, and to radically change his bets as the deck grew smaller.

He stopped driving to Clanton to look for his wife and instead drove straight to the Lucky Jack, where, on most nights, he would play for an hour or two and take home at least $1,000. The more he won, the more he noticed the hard frowns from the pit bosses. The beefy young men in cheap suits - security, he guessed - seemed to watch him a bit closer. He continually refused to be rated - the process of signing up for the "club membership" that gave all sorts of freebies to those regulars who gambled hard. He refused to register in any way. His favorite book was How to Break the Casino, and the author, an ex-gambler turned writer, preached the message of disguise and deceit. Never wear the same clothes, jewelry, hats, caps, glasses. Never play at the same table for more than an hour. Never give them your name. Take a friend and tell him to call you Frank or Charlie or something. Make a stupid bet occasionally. Change your drink routine, but stay away from alcohol. The reason was simple. The law allowed any casino in the country to simply ask a gambler to leave. If they suspect you're counting cards, or cheating, or if you're winning too much and they're just tired of it, they can give you the boot. No reason is necessary. An assortment of identities keeps them guessing.