My favorite Vegas hangout for blackjack is the Barbary Coast. Small, smoke-filled, rundown and brassy, it really reminds you of a tenderloin dive in San Francisco, a throwback to the Las Vegas of Bugsy, Meyer and men of that ilk. My wife Pat hates the joint, but humors me when I want to go there. I mean, how can you dislike a casino that, in honor of my late colleague at the Los Angeles Times, has an Allen Malamud Memorial Urinal in the men's room?
In a weak moment, I once was at third base at the Barbary and waved the dealer off with a total of 10. The dealer busted and the entire table won. "Do you stay on 10 very often, sir?" the young man with the cards asked. "Sometimes," I said. "I'm always afraid I'm going to draw a 12."
Worse than that was the player who sat down on my left, at third base, the other night at the Barbary. He stuck a pudgy hand into a pants pocket and produced nine wadded-up $100 bills. After he tossed them on the table and asked for nine black chips, the dealer all but needed an iron to straighten them out.
One of the bills had a corner slightly torn off.
"Sorry," the dealer said, holding the c-note up to the light. "I'm not allowed to accept a bill like that. But it's probably good at a restaurant, or the bank."
The third baseman re-wadded the bill and tossed it backward, over his right shoulder. The other players were too stunned to look to see where it landed. And we all had too much class to battle over it. There was a rumor later that a Barbary porter had caught the missive on the fly, and continued on with it.
The $800 man started out by betting $200. He turned to me, where I was playing the minimum of $15, and said: "Mind if I make a few bets with your hand?"
Foolishly, I gave him the green light, and he stuck two $100 chips under my three red ones. So now the hand was worth $215, only $15 of it my money.
I hadn't had a blackjack in a day and a half, but just like that my cards came up ace and jack, and we both won.
In a perfect world, we would have continued winning, become lifelong friends and started vacationing together. But several hands later, the $800 man was tapped out. I was holding my own while betting his money, but with his own cards he couldn't pair up anything for squat. He said something about needing to cash a check, and headed off in the same direction as the porter. I never saw him again. The rest of us looked longingly over our shoulders, as though the unwanted $100 with the torn corner was still on the carpet.
Next at third base was an avuncular type, probably in his 60s. I wouldn't have guessed him for a roue. The scantily clad cocktail waitress came by and he said: "Could I rub one of my cards on your dress for good luck?"
"You know," she said, "I've been working in this place for 26 years, and that's the first time I've ever heard that line.
"And that's a no," she added.
After she left, another player said: "Just great. Now she'll be spitting in our drinks the rest of the night."
After a while, the next third baseman took the seat and asked the same waitress for a Guinness. The beverage, not the actor.
"We don't serve Guinness here," she said.
He ordered something else, and after she left I said: "If you like Guinness, you ought to go over to O'Shea's."
"You mean this isn't O'Shea's?" he said sincerely.
Blackjack third basemen are the left-handed pitchers of cards. I could identify with the Guinness guy. He wasn't the only one in the game who didn't know where he was.