So my team mate and chess friend Thomas Grzesik had sent me Edward Thorpe’s book on Black Jack. I read Tile about it and, realising that the rules were American or outdated, unceremoniously started to work it all out myself. That’s what the days were for. Of course, my fingers were itching. I wanted to apply the knowledge I had acquired as soon as possible. Especially since you can learn the “Basic Strategy” fairly quickly and thus almost feel equipped to go to the gambling table and at least not make a fool of yourself due to complete ignorance.
And a casino in particular clearly had a special appeal for me. Money gambling was not yet the central part of my life. The yamboss games did involve stakes, but rather only at “friendship rates”. The intention was to play as well as possible and to win, but not to “hurt” the other person, i.e. to take a lot from him. And even if the backgammon games I played in Freiburg occasionally went for 10 DM per point and even one day brought in 300 DM, I was still more of a chess player in terms of mentality. One plays, if at all, for small money. With the mastery of good moves, you can sometimes come out on top in a tournament and pick up a cash prize here and there. But of course only with “hard and honest work”, according to the chess player. Gambling, gambling, no thanks, that’s why we play chess, you could also say.
But I was on the threshold of realising that this mentality, however chivalrous it may sound, would not give you any profits and serious earning potential in the long run. That, in other words, a luck factor in the game is actually rather welcome, even if it can occasionally throw a spanner in the works of the better one. A chess player abhors such a thing, that’s his mentality. So I was in the phase of “shedding my skin”, if you want to put it that way. Away with the chess player skin.
What did I know about casinos until that day? Otto tells this nice little story. A man was walking somewhere when suddenly he heard a voice. The voice: “Stop.” The man stops and asks, “What now?” The voice: “Get out.” The man gets out. The voice: “Dig.” The man digs. He digs and digs and finds a box full of gold pieces! The voice: “To Travemünde, to the casino.” The man races off. He goes to the casino. Goes to the roulette table. The voice: “Everything on 17.” The man bets everything on 17, all his treasure, all his cash, his house, his farm, everything. The 12 wins. The voice: “Shit.”
That was it, otherwise I had the supposed knowledge that it had to be avoided at all costs. My mathematical skills were at least developed enough to calculate the bank advantage in roulette. And even my childish experiments with roulette, despite their almost reliable success, had not been able to persuade me otherwise.
But now there was a real reason to go there for once, wasn’t there? Black Jacj, and you could play it at an advantage if you played well. So there was justification. I don’t need to explain to you the fascination that comes from a casino. Everyone would like to, if they didn’t know…
What was closest to Freiburg? Of course, the most famous and oldest of all casinos, at least until then, the casino in Baden-Baden. I was not only a chess player, I was also a freak. A kind of hippie. Sure, Woodstock was already 15 years ago and I was only 11, but still, you breathed in some of the zeitgeist. Hippie, flower power, long hair, no drugs, no thanks. I once saw a boy on a campsite who had a horror trip. Not only did he run around the campsite screaming in despair (they like to say: as if stung by a tarantula), the next day he was expelled from school with his mate who had been caught together, whereupon the mate barricaded himself in the tent and turned on the gas cooker. However, he was pulled out just in time. That cured me for life.
But still, by now I had cut off my hippie mane and had also moved on to shaving. But these two features alone were not enough to gain access to such an exclusive place. But I had made a bet with a friend the summer before that I would appear in a suit and tie for one day during the chess tournament in Berlin. The confirmation suit didn’t fit me, and not just in terms of the measurements. So I had the mission to somehow get a suit, even if only for one day. When I casually asked my father if he might not have a suit that would fit, he surprised me with his version. “My boy, if you need a suit, of course I’ll buy you one.”
My father had practically only good qualities, one of which was called “thrift.” But he probably thought I was on a good track when I actually wanted to wear a suit and was willing to support me on it. I remember few shopping trips with my father (only the one to be exact). But still, that one we undertook. I, as a complete novice and in complete contempt of the establishment, which almost automatically included tastelessness (motto: what do appearances matter?), ended up in what I now consider a rather conservative outfit. Light blue shirt, dark blue jacket, grey trousers, black low shoes, red-white-blue tie. But at least: I had my suit. And I had the one use for it. I wasn’t even really embarrassed about my first appearance. Although I did cause quite a stir: at a chess tournament wearing a suit and tie? Where would you find something like that? Well, at Pauli’s.
And I had even taken this suit with me when I moved. And suddenly there was a use for it. I only had one small problem: how to tie a tie. But among my student acquaintances and friends there was indeed one who wore a tie symbol on his sleeve. I asked, “Hey, what does it actually mean when you wear a tie symbol on your sleeve?” He: “It means you know someone who wears two tie symbols on their sleeve.” That didn’t help me immediately, but nevertheless I followed the lead. He introduced me to the exotic with the two tie symbols. I asked the same question, only this time in the plural. The answer was absolutely astonishingly positive, but I had now also become quite confident: He knew someone who could tie a tie!
An appointment was quickly found, virtually the same afternoon, and I was already prepared for my first visit to the casino. In case you are still interested: The man had three tie symbols embroidered on him, just in case you should ever meet someone like that.
The journey from Feiburg to Baden-Baden was pretty much exactly 120 km. So a good hour, all motorway. I gave myself a budget of 150 DM (ok, probably it was just all I had). And it really was an experience. I fought desperately but unsuccessfully not to be immediately identified as a clueless person.
Of course, I appropriately disregarded the roulette tables and went straight through to the blackjack tables. I wanted to sit down at the first available seat. A croupier: “No, that seat is taken. The gentleman will be back in a moment. Here we only shuffle.” And so on. I put my foot in my mouth (you don’t “put your foot in your mouth”; my German teacher: “Bildbruch”), among other things, I took off my jacket, which was absolutely unacceptable at that time, forgot to place the bet, got mixed up with the chips, didn’t draw my winnings in time, didn’t know how to get another card or how to split. Once I even touched the playing cards, whereupon they had to be replaced immediately (poetic exaggeration; the exaggeration: in truth, the whole table had to be disinfected after my performance) and so on. So I made a fool of myself by every trick in the book.
But for that you always get a companion by your side as a little compensation. This companion is Fortuna, the goddess of luck. She always smiles at the completely new and clueless. That’s just how she is. With my absolutely ridiculous “strategy” I won 650 DM on that first evening.
You can imagine where I was the next evening? Exactly, there. With or without a comma. It wasn’t until the fifth evening that things started to get embarrassing again. This time, however, it was a different circumstance: tie, jacket, trousers could still have been tolerated. But by then at the latest, a light blue shirt began to scream audibly (ok, visibly, but you don’t scream there): “Wash me!”
But until then I was on the road to success. During the day, I at least tried to internalise the Basic Strategy, just as I then did my calculation activities. The evening was reserved exclusively for the casino. Naturally, my performance became more and more confident. Especially at the roulette tables…
What?? Yes, it was like that. Fortuna had smiled on me. That much I already knew. Still, of course, it seemed easy to me too. I had some hand, no idea which one, the dealer laid down some cards and afterwards there was even more money than before. That was my winning strategy. And quite honestly: there is no better one. Just win.
And what was the standard when you went to the casino in Baden-Baden? The Black Jack tables were full. Two tables of 10 players. But there was a waiting list. You signed up there. On the first evening I was able to cope with it because, firstly, the waiting time was quite short and, secondly, I tried to familiarise myself superficially with the game by observing it. That didn’t happen on the other days. So what do you do when you have to wait and you’re in a long wait? You stroll around like that. By the way, as God is my witness, I only ever had 200 DM with me every day. The tank was filled with 20 DM, the entrance fee was 5 DM, the rest was for playing. But I didn’t take any more. Otto’s story had impressed itself on me too much for that.
Strolling alone is one thing, curiosity is another. And if you’ve got money in your pocket just like that, quasi as a gift, why not just bet a 10 on black? Nothing can happen, right? Yes, it can. You win, that’s just the way it is. Oh, that was easy. You place another one a little later. Wow, another hit! “The gentleman at the back, your seat at the Black Jack table is free. You had a reservation, didn’t you?” All right, all the better, to the Black Jack table.
And so it went night after night. And the pastime of roulette became more and more important. Of course, there was a good reason why it was fun. Because I was winning. Only this story gradually took on a life of its own. Okay, I still didn’t deviate from my original policy of pocketing only 200 DM. Besides, I have done my “homework”. I calculated a little Black Jack every day. But I also knew one thing: playing Black Jack professionally and counting cards required a certain budget. I had always set it at around DM 25,000. Seriously, I can’t remember whether this figure had any mathematical basis or whether I had simply taken it from the book. Even now, as I write, there is no version of the two that I like better than the other.
But I had told two acquaintances from Freiburg about Black Jack. And I must have “infected” them a little. Anyway, we went to the casino together one evening. The two of them reserved their seats quite nicely. I, on the other hand, played my game, and that was roulette. I couldn’t hide it. The addiction had broken out. And I felt, as probably every addict does, that a) I was not at all, if at all, harmlessly ill and b) of course I had “everything under control”.
I was also able to show them the full effectiveness of my “system”. My “system” is quickly explained: I always played cheval, that is, two numbers adjacent to each other on the table (not in the bowl). My chosen “lucky numbers” were the chevals (ok, plural chevaux) 17/20, 26/27 and 28/29. There was a really good reason for this: 17 was Angie’s birthday and since then my “lucky number” anyway. In addition, it was black in the kettle, and the luck that the black numbers brought me I determined in the first set, the 20 lies under the 17 on the table and is also black. The 27 is red, but my own birthday, the one neighbour, the 26, is black again, the 29 was not only C.’s date of birth but also our house number in Lehener Straße and the 28 was also black and a neighbour of the 29. Besides, the numbers 26, 27, 28, 29 are all pretty as a picture, don’t you think?
That evening with the two acquaintances, I was lucky enough to hit one of these numbers three times in a row. But, in all modesty, I had only played 10 DM each time. For a cheval, the chance 2/37 was of course paid out minus the bank advantage (my system proved who had the advantage, hehe), so 18:1, that is 180 DM. My bet was 30 DM, so per hit 150 DM profit. I presented them with the pile of chips. “You guys play some Black Jack. I have a better system.” The two of them just shook their heads. Hadn’t I told them about Black Jack and that I would win every day? Instead, I play roulette. But such lucky winners as I am, they always come up with some hair-raising theory. Love makes you blind, winning makes you stupid.
It wasn’t as if I made a few sets every night and won them and went home again, no. The game developed a life of its own. I suddenly experienced the ups and downs. I won one after the other, got to 600 DM, suddenly it went down to 100. Then I ran after the money again. Only I was just lucky in those days. I experienced it twice in one evening that I only had 10 DM left. Both times I went to the same gambling table, bet these 10 DM on the 17 (yes, Otto, you can do that!) and both times the 17 came! I also remember one night where it went back and forth but before the last game called by the casino I still had 230 DM (yes, by now it could happen that I stayed until the end). I bet 220 DM on black, the other 10 DM on the 0. What was really going on in my head at those moments is hard to describe. But I had covered the bank number with it. What’s the point of that? You don’t know. It could be that you can find out in the self-help groups for gambling addicts. But it came up black! Another good day, for no apparent reason. Blind chickens or whatever….
I really did win every day. But it was right at the turn of the year 1983/84. And I still remember exactly the New Year’s Eve party I was at. And how I told the girl I met there that we would see each other again tomorrow. Only I was going to Berlin for the next weekend. Not only was Berlin still my home, there were two dates there: the Berlin Blitz Championship, which I was still playing in after all (after all: I was also the defending champion), and a Bundesliga match the weekend after. In addition, and most importantly, there was also a casino in Berlin.
So I set off for Berlin on 1.1.84. It was quite a wintry day. The night before was short and the journey was quite long. 800 km for Freiburg – Berlin. On top of that there was this unspeakable transit route. Coming via Hof, one had to drive 300 km on a very bad motorway at a maximum speed of 100 km/h. I arrived in Hof late at night. When I arrived in Hof late at night, I made up my mind: Spend the night in Hof. This was remarkable insofar as all superfluous monetary expenditures were typically avoided for a chess player. With me it was different now: I was rich. I had 2000 DM with me. Four 500 notes. All money won in the game, but most of it in roulette.
But the night was both cheap and short. Already at 6 o’clock I set off again and took up the fight against the transit line. Successfully. I reached Berlin late in the morning. A late breakfast (thus late breakfast), a little sleep, and then I had my mission. Berlin was quite different from Baden-Baden. You could go to the casino in the afternoon, why not? You could go out again and come back later. No more 120 km journey. Besides, the casino was in the Europacenter, a short walk from the Belmont, the Berlin chess café I so often visit. Besides, certain success makes one not only megalomaniac but also reckless. As a precaution, I left one half of the 500 at home, but took the other two with me.
All right, I left the one in the strict discipline still assigned to me, but this time I took 500 DM with me. After all, I only had 500s, was my “excuse” (I had specially changed in Freiburg). Ok, that took about 20 minutes. Then the 500 were all gone. Not a single depositor. All sets gone. The car was parked at the Belmont, which is where I wanted to go later. Five minutes there, five minutes back. Another 20 minutes and the next 500 was used up. Strange feelings you get then. It must have been the casino? What happened all of a sudden?
Well, the ground of reality on which I had landed. Hard, as usual. I still had 1000 DM. But my gambling addiction was suddenly cured. Somehow, the small pile of remaining sanity soon told me that I had simply been very lucky before and that I could be happy to still be ahead. The thousand was not touched, not today and not in the next few days. Not to play roulette, anyway.
I often went to the casino later, of course. I also played roulette there. But I only experienced this strange trance state once, when I thought everything would work out by itself, I would just win and be done with it, probabilities wouldn’t matter. Does this section belong more to the chapter on “gambling addiction”?