I had just placed another $100 bet when the man in a dark suit, flanked by two larger men in darker suits, approached me from behind. I pretended not to see them coming, relaxing my posture against the plush back of the velvet chair. My heart raced, but I kept my breath even and my gaze focused on the ordered diagram of cards scattered across the red felt. It was my third month as a professional card counter, and I was about to be kicked out of a casino for the first time.
I could have been any young woman dressed for a Saturday night out in Las Vegas: makeup done, skin bronzed, little black dress, my grandmother's vintage fur shrug draped around my shoulders. But at least one of the men approaching had seen something in me — beyond my appearance. He knew who I really was.
Counting cards isn't illegal, but a casino, like any business, has the right to refuse service to anyone. I know players who have been handcuffed, searched, and dragged into windowless back rooms. More often, the countermeasures are subtler. A floorman will instruct the dealer to shuffle when a certain player raises his bets, or restrict every wager to the table minimum. Whatever their methods, most casinos do their best to ensure that long-term winners at the game of blackjack are never welcome for long.
As the men drew closer, I held out hope that this could be another false alarm. About a month earlier, I'd been at the table right next to one of my teammates, Carlo, when he was pulled away by a few security guards. Carlo had been showcasing a new act as the Big Player: Wearing his pink sequined blazer and top hat, he sauntered around the pit as if it were a catwalk. Our Big Players naturally drew attention with their wagers in the thousands. Carlo had a unique talent for distracting the floormen from his betting strategy with an outlandish look, audacious personality quirks, or in this case, both.
When Carlo got the tap on the shoulder, I resisted the urge to turn and watch the commotion behind me.
"Sir, we need you to come with us," a stern voice said.
"Darling, I'd love to but I do have dinner reservations, so…"
Carlo's voice blended with the cacophony of casino noise as he moved farther away, the befuddled guards trailing behind him. I stayed in my seat, clutching my club soda and mourning the absence of vodka in it. I played another 10 minutes, then left to join the rest of my crew at our meeting spot. I moved at a leisurely pace toward the main entrance, pausing once to ask a stranger for directions, and glancing quickly behind me for any followers.
After the initial wave of relief subsided, I felt a twinge of disappointment. Along with Carlo, the other two players in our session had been approached and "backed off" — meaning they were informed by management that they could no longer play blackjack at this casino. I was the only one who'd gotten out clean.
"I don't get it. I had three call-ins, and I was alone at the table for one of them. How could they miss me?" I complained.
We were in Carlo's car, finishing our post-session meeting. Carlo looked at me as if I were speaking another language.
"You know that a Spotter is supposed to blend in, right?" he reminded me. "Staying incognito is like your superpower."
He was right. I should have been grateful for my natural ability to be overlooked and underestimated. But as the youngest of three sisters, and the smallest among my peers, I had yet to overcome a lifetime of struggling to be seen. In high school, my sister was the captain of the cheerleaders, always surrounded by friends and admirers. I had spent my free time alone reading, or composing unsent letters to an unrequited crush. I daydreamed about a post-college future when popularity wouldn't matter anymore. But even as an adult, I was still known in my hometown as "Traci's little sister."
After college, I spent two years bouncing around temporary gigs before returning to the only thing in life that made sense: school. When I started the MFA program at the University of Arizona, I was happy to slow down and retreat from the fast-paced city life I'd tried and failed to build. But my first semester didn't go as smoothly as I'd planned. I spent hours in my favorite coffee shop, watching the sun set over the mountains and waiting for creative inspiration that never materialized. Finding my voice as a writer felt like treading through quicksand. I agonized over every word, revising and rewriting the same few stories that never felt complete.
When I wasn't chosen for a graduate teaching assistantship, which would have provided a boost to my résumé and a nice supplement to the student loans I lived on, I thought that maybe grad school had been a mistake. But if I didn't fit into the world of academia, I wasn't sure where I belonged.
During winter break I went to visit my close friend, Jo, in San Jose. After a few glasses of wine, she proposed a solution for my cash-flow problems.
"I've been working with some people who have a system for beating blackjack," she said.
"People don't beat blackjack," I insisted. "That's not how gambling works."
As she explained the basics of card counting, Jo's green eyes sparked with a familiar, contagious energy that inspired me to believe her.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.