The Experiment

The Experiment
Doug S. Haines

It was as if Caesar’s Palace had joined forces with Fisher-Price to create the ultimate in toddler gaming, Tori thought. My First Little Casino hummed under the florescent lights inside the otherwise nondescript flat-white lab room. Tiny but brightly colored slot machines and roulette wheels covered in Sesame Street stickers surrounded the little moon- shaped tables where it was clear the card games would be played.

“So, I’m a blackjack dealer?”

“More or less,” said Dr. Pearce. “First, you will teach them the system and the corresponding strategies. Then you will deal blackjack while they practice what they’ve learned and we observe their behavior.”

A tall bearded man, easily six-seven, maybe more, the psychologist towered over Tori’s petite frame. It was a little intimidating. She could only imagine how he made the children feel—looming over them and scribbling in his notebook.

Tori had signed up for the experiment without knowing what it was all about. All she knew was that it had something to do with kids, would look good on a resume, and paid well. Nineteen hundred dollars to be exact—a little more than half of what she currently owed the university for spring tuition. She was so close to graduating, and she’d already sold off her car and everything else of value that she owned in order to pay for her previous semesters and living expenses. Reaching out to her parents was out of the question. They were part of the problem. Her father was sick and in some serious financial trouble. Her mother filing for divorce made things worse. It was so selfish the way her mother abandoned him at his lowest point—leaving him dangling there to be picked apart by the hovering vultures—the banks, the credit cards, the casinos. The fucking casinos.

A former investment banker, her father was a gambler by trade. Risk and reward his life’s blood. And if he’d had the money, he would’ve paid her tuition no questions asked. But he didn’t, and to make matters worse, his money troubles had become Tori’s. He had borrowed against her name in order to invest in a string of strip malls that went belly-up before ground was ever broken and now even student loans were no longer an option for Tori. Her credit was as bad as his. Broke, unemployed, unhireable, and in desperate need of a brain surgery he couldn’t afford, even if he still had health insurance, the short, fat, red-faced man camped out on Tori’s secondhand couch had been there since her mother had thrown him out over eight months ago.

To the casinos, her father was an easy mark. It was not uncommon for him to receive calls, letters, and brochures from the various hosts around the country trying to entice him back through their doors. The calls Tori could do nothing about, but she always tried to intercept the mail before he got a chance to see what they were offering. And they were always offering something.

“Come on, it’s Eddie Money,” he’d tell her. “‘Two Tickets to Paradise,’ you love that song, and it’s free. We’ll make a father-daughter weekend of it.”

“It’s not free, Dad. You and I both know that they only want you there so you’ll gamble. Haven’t you given them enough already?”

Her father would slump, defeated, and nod like a scolded child. It was as if he had to be reminded each time that he had a problem and that the casinos were just trying to exploit him. Tori knew he was helpless, and she did everything she could to protect him.

Now, as Dr. Pearce led her past the craps tables in the laboratory, she asked, “Isn’t all this a bit advanced for kids this age? I mean, what’s the point?”

“We’re studying the effects of gambling on the brain—games of chance. You see these kinds of goal-related stimuli cause the blood flow to the brain to change in ways not unlike that seen in those taking euphoria-inducing drugs. It’s what causes the addiction.”

Tori knew all about this. Despite whatever her mother said, her father wasn’t a bad man, just an addict with a brain tumor.

“So, like neurons and stuff?” she said. “Like how the ones in the reward-seeking part of the brain can override a person’s rationale and that sort of thing?”

“Basically,” he said and turned away as if the conversation was over.

“But why kids?” she asked, curiosity getting the best of her. “And why are we teaching them to cheat?”

“Card counting is not cheating. It’s frowned upon, but it’s not illegal or even against the rules. It’s merely a way that the player might shift the odds away from the house and into his or her favor.” He stopped abruptly and turned to her. “I’m sorry, Miss…. What was your name?”

“Tori. Tori Martin.”

Afraid she’d stepped over the line, Tori reached her hand out to make the introduction official, but he let it hang there, awkwardly, until she drew it back. He cleared his throat.

“Yes, Miss Martin,” he said. “I believe your job is to work with the children, deal blackjack, and supervise them during said activity. Why don’t you leave the details of the experiment to my colleagues and I.”

“Colleagues and me,” she said.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing.”

***

“It’s not fair. Why can’t you help me?” she asked her mother one
evening over the phone. “I can’t afford him.”

“Honey, I have my own bills to pay. And believe me lawyers aren’t
cheap. They bill by the hour, you know.”

“He has a brain tumor. It’s not like all that erratic behavior was
really him.”

“That doesn’t excuse anything.”

“You heard Dr. Grossman. The tumor is pushing on his brain and disrupting his filters. He can’t help himself. He doesn’t know what’s right or wrong.”

“And that’s my problem? I haven’t been in love with your father for a very long time—way before any of this started. Sometimes I wonder if I ever loved him.” Tori’s mother paused for what seemed like an excessive amount of time before letting out a long, dramatic sigh and continuing.

“You’re a big girl now. It’s time you start figuring these things out on your own. You can’t be dependent on others for the rest of your life, Victoria. Why do you think I went back to work as soon as you were old enough to drive?”

Tori had heard this speech before. It was well-rehearsed, and she could even tell where her mother had refined certain parts, perfecting her delivery.

“I don’t know, probably because you were already planning on leaving Dad. Or, was it because you wanted to fuck your new boss, Mark Hadlow?” Tori heard her mother scoff on the other end of the line. “Oh, I’m sorry. Did I offend you? I just can’t remember which came first. Remind me again how all that went down?”

Again, her mother paused and the silence felt thick and heavy. Tori knew she wasn’t helping her case, but she was so angry she couldn’t keep the words from coming out of her mouth.

“I won’t have you speak to me this way. I feel bad for your father. I do. But I will not let his problems ruin my life. This is not what I signed up for.”

“Not what you signed up for? To have and to hold, till death do you part. It’s exactly what you signed up for. Don’t you see that? God, you’re such a fucking hypocrite.”

“Maybe when you get older, you’ll understand,” her mother said, and ended the call.

Her mother’s words lingered as the line went dead. Her voice cold enough that it gave Tori chills. Her entire life had been a lie—every birthday, every holiday, every second of every day.

***

Counting cards is easy. A six-year-old can do it. This is because they’re not really counting cards. They’re just keeping a running tally of what’s been dealt and assigning a value. It’s called the Hi-Lo Method. Cards two through six are given the point value of positive one, seven through nine equal zero, and tens, face cards, and aces all get assigned a negative one. As the cards are dealt, the counter either adds or subtracts one to the overall running tally, or true count, unless the card dealt is a seven, eight, or nine, then the counter leaves the total tally alone. The higher the count, the more face cards there are still floating in the deck. That’s it. That’s all there is to it—mostly. There’s also a lot of strategy involved. This is where the six-year-olds struggle.

The children in Tori’s group were chosen because they excelled at basic math. It was Tori’s job to teach them blackjack, which turned out to be easier said than done. Blackjack at its root is a simple game—get as close to twenty-one as you can without going over. But Dr. Pearce and his crew were not pushing the standard hit on sixteen, stand on seventeen kind of game Tori remembered her father teaching her as a child. Pearce’s strategy was much more complex. Tori had to learn the material herself before she could even begin to devise a lesson plan that the children could follow. She’d been given charts that illustrated things like pair splitting and what to do with various hard and soft totals. She didn’t know what any of it meant, and was afraid to admit she was in over her head. She needed this money. At the end of her second day, she knew she had to ask for help. That evening, after clearing all the plates from the dinner table, against her better judgment, she spoke to her father.

“Oh, honey, blackjack’s my game,” he told her. “Always has been.”

“Dad, we’re not playing blackjack. I just have to teach these kids about all this stuff. Come on, focus. What’s a soft total?”

“Whether a hand is hard or soft depends on the ace and its flexibility. Soft just means that the hand is flexible.” He dealt a two, a four, and an ace out on the coffee table to demonstrate. “Now, see, that there’s a soft seventeen. Do you know why?”

Tori shook her head. She noticed her father’s right knee was bouncing like a crackhead’s on a cop show.

“Because the ace can be a one or an eleven, so really we’ve got a choice between seven and seventeen. In other words, if we hit, we don’t have to worry about busting because we can just call the ace a one and go from there. Is this making any sense?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Tori pieced it together in her head. “And a hard hand just means that the cards are what they are, right?”

“Exactly.”

He then taught her how to split pairs and the theory behind it, and together they developed a color-coded learning block system for teaching the children the various strategic charts on betting. After a while, Tori began to yawn.

“Jesus, it’s almost three,” she said. “I’ve gotta get some sleep.”

“Don’t you wanna play a few hands before you call it a night? You know, try it out?”

“No. I’m going to bed and you should to.”

“I’m not really that tired,” he said, and began shuffling the cards— his knee still bouncing.

“Go to bed, Dad.”

***

Over the days that followed, Tori found herself surprised by how quickly the kids caught on. Their natural competitive spirits fueled their desire to learn, and before long they were ready to play actual hands using candy and treats as poker chips. And the better they got, the better she got. It was fun. She even downloaded a blackjack app to her phone and count- ed cards in much the same way that most girls her age played Words with Friends. It was easy to see how people got addicted, and she wondered about the long term effects on the children.

One afternoon, a few weeks into the experiment, as Tori dealt out several hands to her tiny gamblers, she could feel Dr. Pearce standing behind her. Between hands, she stole a glance over her right shoulder. He smiled and gave a quick nod. Tori returned the smile and continued to deal.

When she got relieved an hour later, Dr. Pearce cornered her by the snack machine in the break room.

“Miss Martin, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

He peered at her over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses and began to scratch his beard. The room was so white, so bright, that Tori could see the specks of dandruff gently floating down from his chin. It reminded her of an Eiffel Tower snow globe she’d received one Christmas as a child. Or was it the Empire State Building?

“You’re making excellent progress with your group,” he said. “They’re two stages ahead of where we expected them to be by now and three stages ahead of any of the other groups. You seem to have quite the knack for this.”

Tori shrugged. “I guess. I still don’t understand what it is we’re doing here.”

“I assure you that these children are well-taken care of, Miss Martin. In fact, they’re paid much more handsomely than you’ll be, if that makes a difference.”

“I just don’t see the point.”

“I hate to keep coming back to this, but it’s not your job to see the point. Do you understand?”

Tori said nothing. Instead, she tilted her head and looked curiously up at the giant man in the lab coat.

He continued. “Please know that we have the children’s best interests at heart and that during the experiment they’ll be learning valuable cognitive skills that will surely benefit each and every one of them as they go on in life.”

Tori nodded as if she understood. His speech sounded like one of her mother’s rehearsed responses, but she reminded herself not to push her luck. She needed the money, and so she let it go. After all, they weren’t her children.

***

By the time the check from the experiment arrived, the university had already begun adding late fees to Tori’s outstanding balance. The nineteen-hundred would barely make a dent, but it would keep her from getting dropped.

“And it’s not just that,” she told her mother. “I have to pay rent. I have to pay bills. What the hell am I going to do?”

“Of course, your father can’t help at all, can he? He’s such a sponge,” her mother said in that know-it-all way she had.

“Mom, don’t start. He’s doing better. The therapy and the meds are helping.”

“Sure they are.”

“They are. Why do you have to always be like this?”

“A temporary fix, Tori. That’s all. He can’t be trusted. Don’t fool yourself.”

“I know. And if he doesn’t get the surgery, he’ll die anyways.” Tori paused to get her breath. “Of course, you don’t care about that, do you?”

“That’s not fair. I have my own life to live.”

“Whatever,” Tori said, and ended the call in a huff.

***

Two weeks later, Tori opened a letter addressed to her father from the Eldorado congratulating him on his “recent success.” She felt like she was going to explode.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“I’ve been meaning to tell you about that,” her father said. “And?”

“I promise I haven’t been gambling.”

“Really? ‘Cause that’s not what it says right here.” She held the letter within a few inches of his face and pointed at the text.

“I know, right? I’ve been on a streak. But that’s the thing. I’m not gambling.” He walked to the couch and unzipped one of the back cushions and pulled out a large wad of bills. He held it up and handed it all to Tori. “There should be enough for rent and bills there, maybe even a little left over for school.”

“I don’t understand.” She stood frozen, staring at the money in one hand and holding the letter in the other.

“You know what? I’m glad this happened. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you, honey.” He became excited, pacing as he spoke. “I’ve been using your system. It works. It really works. I mean, I’ve known about card counting my whole life, but I never took the time to learn it.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“I’ve only tried it on a small scale. You know, taking a quick day trip on the Greyhound over to Shreveport on the days when I know you’re working late. I just play the five dollar hands—nothing big.”

“I can’t believe you’re counting cards.”

“Yeah, but it’s not really gambling.”

Tori stared at her father. He spoke like a man who’d been saved by Jesus himself. It was clear he believed every word he said.

“I mean, the reason blackjack is so popular is because it’s the only game where the odds of the house are about even with that of the player’s. And when I know the count, then it’s like I’m the house. The odds are in my favor.”

“It’s still gambling.”

“Technically, yeah, but the odds are in my favor, so it’s just barely gambling.”

Tori ran her fingers through her hair and tried to think of what to say.

“You know, together, we could really clean house,” he told her.

“Jesus, Dad. How can you say that?”

“I’m just sayin’. Think about it, hon’. I know you’ve been playing blackjack on your phone. Heck, I bet you’re better at it than I am by now. The two of us, we could turn things around.”

“Dad,” she said. “It’s not right.”

“Not right?” He threw up his hands. “Look at that money in your hand. That’s our money. I took it back from the casinos. They took it from me, and I took it back. Now it’s ours again.”

“I don’t know what to say to you right now.” Tori stared at the money and sighed.

“Tell me you’re in,” he said.

She looked up at him and felt like she might cry. Her grip tightened on the wad of cash.

“Think about it,” he said. “One weekend and we can make enough to pay off your tuition and then some. A few more weekends and maybe we can start saving towards my surgery. We’ll never know, Tori, if we don’t try.” His eyes were beady with intensity. They dug inside of her. He pointed at the letter in her other hand. “What are they offering?”

“Two nights and fifteen hundred in chips.”

He smiled. “I think God’s trying to tell us something.” He pressed 86 his hands together as if to pray.

“I seriously doubt it’s God,” she said.

***

They hardly spoke a word on the bus. Tori tried to sleep but her father’s excitement—his vibrating knee, his incessant finger-tapping—made it impossible. She pulled out her phone and began to practice in silence, while the bus droned on toward Shreveport.

At the casino, a few hours later, Tori saw a familiar look on her father’s face, but it wasn’t his look. It was the look she herself had in that old picture from Disney World, when she was eight and got to meet Mickey Mouse. Her eyes were glassy with wonderment, just like his now. It made her uneasy.

“Snap out of it, or we turn around right now,” she told him. He father nodded and took a deep breath.

“Are you good?” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s do this.”

As they walked through the brash lobby, Tori couldn’t help but think of that scene from Rainman where Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman walk through the casino in their matching suits. She looked over at her rainman and shook her head. She grabbed his arm when they reached the floor, and led the way over the red carpet.

The place was brighter than she’d expected, almost as bright as Pearce’s lab but not as florescent. The ceilings were high and the chandeliers were practically stacked on top of each other across it. Even the room’s support columns lit up at the top. It was as if they’d stuck a bulb into every space they could fit one.

“If awfully bright in here, isn’t it?”

“That’s so you don’t get sleepy.”

“Of course it is,” she said. Then she stopped and turned to her father, squaring him at the shoulders. “Blackjack, nothing else. Remember?”

“Tori, I’m not a damn child.”

She gave him a look that, she believed, said everything—but just in case, she reiterated: “No roulette, no craps, no Texas Hold’em, and absolutely no slots.”

“You don’t have to remind me. I’m only playing the sure thing from now on, sweetie. I promise.”

“All right,” she said, walking again. “Let’s get the chips.”

***

Playing at a real table with real competition and a real dealer rattled her. This was where the big kids played. Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were nowhere to be found. She struggled to think, much less count or bet properly. She quickly lost two hundred, excused herself from the table, and walked over to where her father was playing. A small crowd had begun to form around him. He was in the zone and people love a winner. Tori tried to get his attention but had no luck. She headed to the bar instead, hoping to settle her nerves with a few stiff drinks.

By the time she returned, a few casino employees and a large man she assumed to be the pit boss had taken an interest her father’s skill. With each hand he won, the men grew closer. Tori’s heart raced. She tried to catch his attention without being too obvious, but he never looked in her direction. She pushed her way through the crowd, but just as she reached her father, he excused himself from the game and took his winnings with him.

He smiled and winked as he brushed by her and whispered, “Not a bad start. I think I’ll take a break and see to our accommodations.”

Tori nodded and took a moment before making her way to another table. This time she chose the one with the oldest, most gentle looking grandfather type dealing. She looked back to see if she could find her father, but he was gone.

Again, she started off rough, losing the first few hands and stumbling over her words when she tried to say hit or stand. And then it happened. Blackjack. She started playing multiple hands, doubling down, and splitting her pairs just as she’d taught the children to do. And as her true count rose, so did her bets and vice versa. She barely noticed that her father had come back down to the gaming floor. She saw him briefly, watching her play, but she was afraid she might lose her concentration and returned her focus to the game—to the count. The next time she looked up, he was nowhere to be seen.

Tori’s success had begun to draw some attention from a few of the casino staff, but she was so close to her goal of five thousand dollars that she hated to quit. Rather than walking away like her father had done, she chose to fake a minor slump until the crowd began to lose interest. She lost a few hands outright and surrendered a few others. She played up her I’m just a cute college girl having fun persona and flirted with the men around her. And as soon as she felt it was safe again, she began to rebuild her fortune.

Hours went by, hand after hand, table after table, and Tori rode the streak—knowing when to let off the throttle and when to go for the throat. She was surrounded by a small kingdom of multi-colored chips when she decided it was time to call it a night. The deck steamed it was so hot, overflowing with high cards, but she reminded herself not to get greedy. One more hand she told herself. One more hand and I’m done.

When the dealer called for bets, Tori anted up the table’s maxi- mum of four hundred dollars. The dealer then made his rounds, presenting Tori with a ten of spades and a queen of diamonds—two tens. She split the pair and doubled down, an unusual deviation for anyone not counting cards, but no one seemed to notice. No one except the dealer, who shot her a curious look. She smiled and gave a slight shrug. He returned the gesture and continued dealing. Tori’s next card was an ace—BLACKJACK.

“YES!” she screamed, jumping up and down.

The people around her cheered. Strangers congratulated her. “Whoa! Look at that, boys. That’s all she wrote for this ol’ gal. I think I’m gonna stop while I’m ahead,” she said, and began gathering up her winnings. She tipped the dealer several hundred and snuck off through the crowd to cash in. On her way, she passed her father at the five dollar slots, drinking a scotch and feeding bills into the machine. He reminded her of the children from Pearce’s experiment, hunched over, eyes glued to the screen.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I got banned from the tables.”

“But why are you at the slots. We had a deal.”

“I know, honey, I tried waiting for you.” He hung his head and looked pathetic. “I guess I figured five dollars at a time’s better than losing it all on one game of craps.”

“How much have you lost?”

“Maybe five or six hundred?”

“Jesus, Dad. How much do you still have?”

He smiled up at her. “A couple thousand easy. You?”

“A little over ten,” she said.

Her father’s face lit up. He jumped to his feet and threw his arms
around her. She stiffened and pulled away, careful not to spill her tray of chips.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Aren’t you happy?”
“I’m not sure.”

They cashed in her chips, and she made her father hand over his winnings as well before heading upstairs to their suite.

“Wait till you see this place, honey, it’s gonna blow your mind. There’s a flat-screen and a jacuzzi in every room,” he said, as he swiped the room key and the light blinked green.

“Good, I could use a bath.”

“It takes a lot out of you, doesn’t it? Anyone who thinks it isn’t work has never tried it.”

She turned and faced her father, looking him in eye. “Can I trust you if I take a bath? Will you promise me you’ll stay here in the room?”

“Of course, sweetie. I’m not that bad, am I?”

“Dad, we both know you are. This was a one-time thing. We’re not doing this again. Do you understand?”

“Well, we’re certainly not doing it again here,” he said. “They’ll probably never have us back.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“I know.” He sat on the couch, his knee bouncing. “I guess I got caught up in the moment is all.”

“That’s the problem. You always do.”

He nodded. “Why don’t you pour yourself a glass of wine and draw yourself a nice warm bath? I’ll order us up some room service—filet mignon for my little girl.” He smiled.

“That sounds good, but I think I’ll have the salmon—something light.” She walked to the bar and grabbed the complimentary bottle of merlot, the corkscrew, and a wine glass.

“Sure. Whatever you want,” he said.

“Thanks, Daddy.”

She made her way into her room and shut the door behind her. It really was nice—amazing, even. The bathroom was almost bigger than her entire apartment, and the low-hanging glass chandelier danced and sparkled in the reflection off the mirror. She turned the water on and adjusted the temperature until it felt right, and then plugged the tub and began to undress. She opened the wine and poured a tall glass as the water began to rise. She wrapped herself in the robe that hung from door and went back to check on her father. He was on the phone ordering their dinner and joking with the person on the other end. He looked happy, almost playful, and when he saw her standing there, his smile widened. She tried to smile back but couldn’t. All she could think about were her mother’s words: Don’t fool yourself. He can’t be trusted. Her heart sank. She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and quietly closed the door and began to cry.

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