Macau, city of dreams. Well, The Venetian, actually. City of Dreams is across the road.
The world has turned and left me with a free afternoon to wander around Macau, and for the first time in life I’ve taken the trip across the bay to see the Cotai Strip, a broad avenue that is supposed to be the oriental version of Las Vegas Boulevard. I’ve brought a fellow traveller on this journey: a Partagás Serie D Especial, Edición Limitada 2010. In my article on the PSD4 I explained at length the significance of the letters and numbers in the Partagás serie cigars: well, this stick is as good an example of today’s Habanos S.A. disrespecting their own ancient traditions as anything. It has the ring gauge of a Serie D, and a length that falls somewhere between a No. 2 and a No. 3. By rights it should be a Serie D. No. 2.4. I suppose Especial is punchier.
Smoking is allowed on the gaming floors in Macau, so ideally I would be bringing this dusky beauty to you from behind a few feet of green felt, tasting notes coloured by the dizzying highs and terrifying lows that come in a couple of hours of baccarat. Unfortunately though, while they’re fine with smoking, the powers that be tend to take a dim view of note taking and a dimmer one of photograph taking, and such is my dedication to internet journalism that I have exiled myself to the forecourts outside the casinos, the strip itself, and its more or less abandoned footpaths.
There’s really not a lot to this Cotai Strip: just four mega casinos (The Venetian, The Sands, The Plaza, and the City of Dreams across the way), and a lot of huge construction sites. At the very tip is an old school Stalinist gothic concrete archway, a remnant of days gone by. In the distance is the Galaxy, the first of the big casinos on this side of the bay, but it’s not on the strip per-se. When I first came to this place in 2001 it was more or less a Portuguese fishing village, but it sure isn’t one any more. Long gone are the days when a cockfight was the best action in Macau on a Friday night.
I light up outside The Venetian, looking over the canals. St. Mark’s Square is indoors, near the McDonalds. I passed it earlier. The cigar begins excellently, with a good nose of cream, and a fruity tang on the back of the tongue that reminds me of dragon fruit.
I had a spinster great aunt when I was a boy, my grandmother’s sister, a stoic Christian solider who never married and never moved out of her parent’s house. A child of the depression she didn’t mind a little hardship, showering every day with cold water in an outhouse, and believed that her place on this earth was to serve her fellow man. She delivered meals on wheels nightly well into her eighties (by which time many of the meals’ recipients were a decade or two her junior). She passed away when I was about nineteen, and when she did she left behind the fruits of a lifetime of tireless labour and frugal living: an estate of several million dollars. Having no children of her own, and her siblings having preceded her in death, the estate was divided amongst her nieces and nephews, and as one of the fifteen or so members of the third generation, my father gave me a little taste.
One thousand dollars. It was my first experience with inherited wealth. At nineteen I was a university student and living with my parents. I worked in a bookstore a couple of days a month and fixed the odd computer here and there, my total lifetime earnings and net worth was probably somewhat less than five thousand dollars. That four figured cheque represented a lot to me. It represented an opportunity, and I had a plan.
My friend Niles and I had figured it out together one afternoon about six months prior: a new Blackjack strategy, one so flawless that we could hardly believe that nobody had thought of it before. The odds of winning at Blackjack fall pretty close to 50%, with a slight advantage to the house only because if you bust yourself they don’t have to play out the hand. With odds like that, we reasoned, why not simply double your bet each time? Sure, it won’t take long for the amount of money you have on the table to escalate out of hand, but the odds are so narrow surely it’s almost impossible to lose more than a few times in a row. You start at say $1, and when you lose you bet $2, then $4, $8, $16, until you win. Your $16 income offsets the cost of all the lost bets, and nets you the amount of the original wager as profit. It was so simple, so mathematically perfect. We went so far as to go to the casino and investigate where we discovered about minimum bets and table limits, and were foiled for just a minute before I refined the plan for online casinos. The bets need to be sequential, but nothing says they need to take place on the same table. With online casinos you can play on many tables simultaneously – heck, you can play in many casinos simultaneously, and you can sit there staring at a perfect strategy guide while you do it. It might even help a bit in preventing anyone from figuring out our genius plan. All we needed to put it into action was a little seed money… not much… just $1000 or so.
I’m smoking this cigar way too fast, and the mild tropical breeze isn’t helping it. It’s doing pretty well nonetheless: very light and creamy throughout, with some cedar notes, a trace of walnuts, and a little espresso on the back.
The first online casino I chose had an optional practice mode, and I ran that for a while. It worked. A few hours went by and I had made more than a thousand fake dollars. My plan was fool proof. It was working so well, in fact, that I decided a $1 starting wager (and therefore $1 per run profit) was for chumps, and after a few calculations on the back of an envelope set my starting wager at $7, which would allow seven consecutive losses in my $1000. Who loses blackjack seven times in a row? It’s just not possible. I made a deposit and began to play for real.
I played for a few hours every night for about a week. Even though there was literally nothing to my game – for each bet I was following my system, for each action I was following a strategy guide – this was still one of the most exciting things I had ever done. Every now and again I’d have a little run of losses and the bets would get up to $450 sort of territory, and I’d have to leave the room for a few minutes and collect myself before playing it out.
I had more than doubled my money, peaking at around $2200, when the inevitable happened: I lost seven bets in a row. I needed to wager $896 on a single hand, but it turns out that even online casinos have table limits, and without jumping through a few hoops to get a VIP membership, mine was $500. I put down two $448 wagers simultaneously and watched the dealer hit blackjack. With more than $1700 sunk into this run, and less than $500 left to play with, I was done. I agonised about it for a few days before going back in, restarting my system from $7. In the back of my mind I promised myself I’d play out the run I’d lost as soon as I had made back the money, place a single $1700 bet and get it all back. Gamblers are idiots, though, and pretty soon my system fell apart. It seemed like such a chump move to go back to $7 bets right after winning a $200 one, and before long I was betting whatever I felt like on any given hand, following runs, chasing dreams, and within a week I had lost it all.
A few weeks later I did the Google search I should have done on day one: “gambling systems.” Not far down the page I discovered the Martingale System, the well-known gambler’s fallacy that I had conceived and implemented. From the long winded explanation of chance and exponential mathematics I took just a few concepts: long runs of losses are far more likely in reality than intuition would have you believe, and a catastrophic loss will always eventually swallow the early winnings.
I take the cigar into the last inch as the sun sets over the Galaxy Casino. In the bitter tar of the last few puffs I’m sure I taste a little breadfruit. I turf the nub into some nearby bushes. Well folks, that’s it. A fine smoke. Better than a PSD4.
I’m off to hit the tables.