“Winner! Winner! We have a winner!”
The ebullient sound of victory could be heard above the constant drone of the casino. In fact, the level of noise tempered slightly as gamers paused to take in the sight of a bald man at the roulette table with both arms raised in victory. His jaw dropped as he surveyed the enormity of the winnings before him – knowing this event completely changed his future. With tears in his eyes, he watched as stack after stack of chips were raked toward him by a portly croupier who seemed a sour fellow.
Several employees were summoned to help the bald man collect his good fortune so he could cash out. Each was tipped handily by the generous winner, none so much as the hand that had spun the wheel. The croupier’s attitude improved as his pockets bulged under the weight of the gift.
When the tally was exchanged for legal tender, the winner searched out a quiet place to rejoice and contemplate his haul. Beyond the rows of gaming tables sat an open bar that looked somewhat removed from the madness. The buzz of the casino resumed and seemed to have forgotten the interruption that had occurred just moments before. Aside from a few congratulations on his way to the bar, most of the gamers had already moved on from his win as they gave their concentration wholly over to chips, dice, and cards.
“Nice haul,” said the bartender as he wiped the bar in front of his new customer.
“Thanks!” crowed the winner as he took a stool.
“What can I get for ya?”
“Just a draft.”
“No champagne?” asked the bartender, lifting a penknife from his apron. “I’ve got a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon just waiting for a lucky guy like you. I can pop the cork in two shakes.”
“No, thanks. I’m really not the champagne type.”
The disappointed bartender put his knife away. “I love popping bottles because I can find the cheapest guy in the bar and aim at him. I’ve corked a few stiffs.”
The winner laughed, “Sorry, I can’t stay long. I’ve gotta get home and surprise my wife.”
“Yeah? She’s gonna be pretty excited, I’d say,” smiled the bartender as he pulled the tap and settled a foamy glass in front of the man.
“For sure. This changes everything!” Then in a newfound spirit of generosity, he raised his voice and cried, “In fact, a round of drinks on me!”
The nearby patrons raised their glasses in his honor with a cheer of thanks then slowly went back to their conversations while the drinks were poured and delivered.
The winner sipped his draft and surveyed the bar. His attention settled on an unfortunate man at the far end who sat alone hunkered down over his pint glass, obviously in poor spirits.
“What’s the matter with that guy?”
“I’m not sure, I suppose he lost,” replied the bartender. “We get more of him around here than we get of you. If everyone won big, there’d be no money left and I’d be out of a job.”
“Did you give him a free beer? Did it seem to help?”
“I tried, but he just waved me off.”
In his joyous mood, the winner hopped off his stool and approached the dour man in the hopes of spreading his good cheer.
“Hey there. Can I buy you a beer?” he asked.
“Thanks, but I’m done,” the man replied casually as he raised a cigar to his lips.
Searching for something to say to lift the spirits of the man, the winner settled on small-talk and said, “I don’t understand how people smoke in here and you can barely smell it.”
“It’s the air filtration systems they have now. They’re amazing.”
“That looks like a good cigar,” he added awkwardly, hoping to prolong the conversation.
“It’s okay. I’m not much of a cigar aficionado. Somebody shoved this one in my hand a while back and I saved it until now. This seemed as good a time as any to light it up.”
“I don’t smoke anymore,” the winner said, happy to have engaged the man. “My wife hated it so I started vaping.”
“Funny, a cigar is fine in here, but they don’t seem to like those things. A guy at my table was showing off with big puffs and the dealer told him to put it away or he’d call security.”
“So you’re a card player?”
“Not so lucky today?”
The man set his cigar aside and looked deep into the eyes of the winner for the first time. “I lost it all,” he said softly.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sorry you lost.”
“It’s not your fault. I was winning for a long time. The loss kind of snuck up on me, I didn’t expect it.”
“Don’t you have to be prepared for the loss whenever you put chips on the table?”
“Sure you do,” replied the loser. “But you can never be prepared to lose it all. That kind of loss bites you with no warning.”
“That’s why you put some in reserve, don’t play everything you have. You have to keep a safety net,” he said, then added jovially, “My daddy used to tell me to hide tomorrow’s lunch money in my shoe so I wouldn’t spend it.”
The loser snubbed his cigar in the ashtray and pulled a long drink then said, “Safety is an illusion. To believe in a safety net you have to believe that you have some element of control. I’ve come to learn that no matter how much we think we hold the cards; the dealer is always in control.”
“That’s a cynical outlook on life,” said the winner. “After all, sometimes people win and win big.”
“Sure they do, but winning is out of our hands just like losing is; Neither is in our control. Take you, for instance. You won on a roulette wheel, right? For a jackpot that big, I’m guessing you put it all on a single number with the odds of winning at 37 to 1.”
The winner nodded his agreement.
“Me, I went all in with a nineteen. Do you know what my odds were with that?”
“Not exactly,” replied the winner. “Maybe seventy-five percent?”
“Eighty-five percent – and still I lost! I had everything in my favor and I lost it all. You just picked a number out of the air and won big. Who was controlling that? Certainly not you. Just out of curiosity, what number did you pick?”
“Lucky number five.”
“Because my little girl just had her fifth birthday,” replied the winner.
Talk of a daughter seemed to brighten the dark countenance of the loser. “A daughter? Tell me about your little girl.”
Even with the misfortune of the loser before him, the thought of his daughter brought a smile to the winner’s face. “Oh, she’s beautiful. She’s got brown, curly hair and a nose that crinkles when she smiles. She sees the world through these great big eyes of wonder. Everything she runs across is amazing to her – like whatever it is, she is experiencing it for the first time.”
“Sounds great. Really great.”
“Yeah, and this changes it all. We’ve had it tough for the past three years. But now… now we are going to live a whole new life.”
“I’m sure you are, and I’m happy for you.”
The two men contemplated each other’s fortune until the winner finally spoke somberly as he stared down into his glass, “This might sound strange, but even though part of me wants to run through the streets celebrating, part of me wants to curl up in the corner and cry when I think about what we’ve been through.”
“That doesn’t sound strange at all. You haven’t had time for this to settle in. Your win is brand new and your mind can’t let you believe that the hard years are over and now things are going to be different.”
“Exactly!” cried the winner. “Some part of me can’t believe that the hell of the past few years is really over.”
“You want my advice?”
Surprisingly, the winner found that he actually did want to hear what this man had to say. “Yeah, I do?”
“Celebrate!” charged the loser. “You run in the streets, hold that little girl up in the air – scream, holler, and laugh until you’re breathing too hard to run or your legs give out. If something bad happens down the road, you deal with it as it comes when you’re smarter and more prepared. But right now, you celebrate and you keep celebrating.”
The winner recognized this as sound advice and began to feel bad because of the extreme difference in their states. “I’m sorry. I feel awful. All this time I’ve been gloating about my winning while you’ve lost.”
“It isn’t like there are a certain number of winners and you took the last spot at my expense,” said the loser with a grin. “Our states aren’t dependent on each other.”
“I know. It’s just that I feel bad.”
“Well I can’t change how you feel. But I can be happy for your win even while I mourn my own loss.”
“I guess that’s true,” said the winner unconvinced. Then a brilliant plan entered his mind. He liked this fellow and truly wanted to lift him out of his circumstance. “I just had a great idea! I’ve got more than enough. Maybe I could help you. I’m sure it would be okay with my wife!”
“Thank you. That’s very generous. But you keep your winnings,” answered the loser gratefully.
“But I really don’t mind. I hate to see you so sad when I have the means to help.”
The loser gave his companion a most serious look. “You still think we’re talking about money here? I lost it all. All of it… I had a daughter once, too.”
“I’m sorry,” said the winner sadly.
“Isn’t there anything I can do for you?”
“Just one thing,” answered the loser as a warm smile of better days came over his face. “You take care of that little girl like I wish I could have taken care of mine. You hold her. You love her. And celebrate this win. Don’t look back. Don’t you dare look back!”
“I’ll do that,” said the winner resolutely.
“And when I say I’m happy for you, I really am. Even though I lost, I want nothing more than for you to win big. In fact, I don’t want anyone to join me at this end of the bar. Can you believe me on that?”
“I suppose I can.”
“Then get out of here and grab that little girl because if you don’t parade her down main street, I will.”
The winner patted his new friend on the back, settled his tab and left the casino for good.
For my friend, OJ on the occasion of his beautiful daughter, Peyton ringing the bell that signifies the end of her cancer treatment. Brother, I know you fear the future and are worried about your friends who have lost, celebrate anyway!
Casino photo: Ralf Roletschek – CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons