Seemingly from out of nowhere, Manila is emerging as one of Asia’s new gambling capitals, with the emergence of such new hotspots as Resorts World, Solaire, and City of Dreams in some of the city’s choicest locations. It’s too soon to claim success, but the hope clearly is that Manila will compete with and draw some business from Macau and Singapore, which bring in billions of dollars a year from gambling.
Of course, they never really call it “gambling,” which reeks of crumpled money and stale cigarettes, and of otherwise good people hocking their heirlooms for another shot at the winning combination. In these air-conditioned casinos where cards are dealt and drinks are served by long-tressed women who look like they’re temporarily out of work as movie stars, the term is “gaming,” a word with a softer, smoother edge that implies not agitation but amusement, a casual frolic rather than a desperate leap into the open maw of chance.
On the street outside, however, and on the gaming floor itself, there’s no doubt among the punters what they’ve come for. The coiffed ladies may be fun to look at and to nurture a fantasy or two about, but it’s the chips on the table that’s in every serious gambler’s sights. (And, these days, the ladies will just as likely be players themselves, who could smile while they slit your throat with a pocket pair of aces.)
I remember many such vexatious vixens from a long life spent at the tables. There was this one morning—the crack of dawn, actually—in the late 1970s, and we’d been playing blackjack all night at the casino in Zamboanga, where the mestiza dealers had a way of keeping you glued to your seat, and the Bee Gees were singing “Too Much Heaven” on the PA system as I told myself, “Okay, one last box” (meaning one last full box of playing cards for the dealer to finish), and naturally I lost everything I had on that last box. Or another night I lost my shirt at the Floating Casino, and had to sheepishly wake up my wife an hour later for the cab fare.
These stories are funnier now than when they happened, and they could have been a whole lot sadder as the chronicles of Gamblers Anonymous will attest to, but they’re the stories, you might say, of a war veteran who’s been down in the trenches and who crawled out of them, maybe just in time before the big bombardment.
To step back even farther for a minute, I grew up in a home where it was normal to be lulled to sleep by the soothing clicks of mahjong tiles. (And before you imagine things, we remained a happy and studious family, where all the children moved on to successful careers—you could say that my parents’ biggest gamble was on our education; but that’s another story.)
I sensibly gave up smoking decades ago and drink only socially these days, but I’ve never been able to shake off the gambling bug, having honed my skills in the manly arts of pusoy, blackjack, and Texas hold ’em poker, aside from betting on darts and billiards in my sprightlier years. My wife—a sweet girl who wouldn’t know a full house from a duplex if her life depended on it—understands the compulsion and indulges me, for as long as I don’t spend the baby’s milk money (it helps that our baby’s 40 years old now and happily married).
These days, my arena of choice is the poker table, where I spend one or two nights a week on 12- to 18-hour binges doing nothing but figuring out my chances against eight other guys and gals around a green felt oval. Some of those folks are professionals by day—one big guy named George has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the U.S., another’s a call center manager, and throw in a car dealer or two—and others are, uhm, professionals by night, among them a popular comedy club hostess who often comes and plays in drag after her shows (and wins, too, with a wicked shriek).
Interspersed are the “house players”—card sharps with names like “Itlog” and “Daga,” recruited by the establishment for their skill at looking dumb and getting you to make disastrous calls, just because you think some punk in flip-flops can’t possibly be smarter than you with your iPhone 6 and Omega Speedmaster.
I’ve won a few big games and have even finished highly in a major tournament or two, but have doubtlessly lost far more than I’ve won—which hasn’t stopped me from returning, like a stupid victim, to the scene of the crime, almost eager to get whacked over the head all over again. And I’m hardly alone. In my favorite poker room—a large warehouse-size operation (all legally sanctioned by Pagcor, mind you, and run as tightly as any medium-sized business) capable of seating 300 players—I’ve been playing with the same people for the past six years, and they know me as “The Professor,” doing a bit of moonlighting after his classes in the short story.
Why do we keep coming back for more of the same punishment?
The psychology of gambling is a fascinating study. One of my favorite quotations about gambling comes from the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, who once described the gambler as “a man who goes out for his daily dose of injustice.”
As a self-confessed gambler (or should I say gamer), I can certainly commiserate with that man and understand how, with one blithe motion of the dealer’s hand, veritable kingdoms and fortunes can be lost. Undeservedly, of course, because every gambler nurtures the conviction, deep in his heart, that he and only he is worthy of winning at the table, which is why he chases vainly after nothing less than final victory, sweet and just.
That’s one thing about gambling that non-gamblers don’t know: it’s never really about the money—which, even in those rare days when you win a lot of it, will even more surely stream back one way or the other into the coffers of the gambling house. It’s about the adrenalin rush, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as they used to say on TV, which, oddly enough, almost feels just as good when you’re losing as when you’re winning.
This article was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Entrepreneur magazine. To subscribe, click here.