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Counting Cards at Graton Casino 

Wednesday, Jul 29 2015
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I have just wormed my way onto a big red apple of a bus headed to Graton Casino, a gambling mecca on the outskirts of Rohnert Park about an hour north of San Francisco. Next to me sits a battle-worn senior wearing a military cap. He's silent and motionless now, but moments earlier he and I had chased this bus down Mission Street, darting past crates of fresh papaya and watermelon, sidestepping hipsters, natives, and the homeless.

The other long, weathered faces on the bus remain similarly silent, except for Darwin, our increasingly hostile driver who shouts in the face of a woman old enough to be my grandmother for not having exact change for her bus fare. He begins in Mandarin, then English, then a little bit of both. "Hurry," he barks, motioning to the rest of the bus. "You waste our time!"

Two and a half hours later (it took longer than advertised) I'm stepping onto the gambling floor of Graton, an $825 million chunk of Las Vegas that opened in 2013 with 340,000 square feet of Wheel of Fortune-themed slot machines. I find the casino's only $5 blackjack table and claim a seat after waiting for a woman drinking a light beer to blow her last couple of chips.

Everyone at the table is old enough to be my parent, grandparent, or even great-grandparent. Directly across the felt, two Asian women are chatting; to their left is an extremely drunk man in the process of getting drunker; and to my right is a wobbly woman who wears a bright red sweatshirt and seems to know every dealer personally.

"I've been drinking for 24 hours," she shares. "Haven't slept."

Her face caves in around the mouth due to a lack of teeth, but the woman has an endearing personality, often congratulating other players for their victories or sharing in their post-bust misery. The table, it seems, is family to her.

"Iguana," the drunk man slurs, pointing at me and chuckling. "Iguana."

"There's no iguanas here, you gotta go to a pet store," the dealer, a bubbly young woman, interjects in my defense before turning to me. "I like you. You're adorable, and you've got some smarts. Do you have a secret you want to share with the rest of us?"

She's referring to my growing stack of chips, varying bet sizes, and maybe the man who has been standing behind me for the last 15 minutes calling me "winner winner" and asking me to bet his money for him.

The secret: I'm counting cards. Now, I'm no rain man, but this game is only being played with one deck, and as a former online poker kid who's spent countless hours doing calculations relating to cards, I know this setup is ripe for card counting. So I decide to give it a whirl for the first time because — why not? It's not illegal. Sometimes the casino kicks you out — or in rare, hopefully movie-scene-only cases, breaks your legs. But this is a low-limit table and I'm assuming I won't exactly nail the strategy on first try, so the pit bosses probably won't even notice.

I had bought in for $60 and, one quick movie montage later, will leave with $375. In the meantime, the dealer's "What's your secret?" joke changes to, "You're up a decent bit of money — you should leave."

By that time, with more than $300 in my pocket, I take my money and run.


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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