All In: Susanville


First Person

The first part of “All In,” by Brandon Hobson, ran yesterday.

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas 009904, 2008

Martin Hyers and William Mebane, Vegas 009904, 2008, color photograph.

For three humiliating months, I lived in a yoga studio behind my parents’ garage, in Los Angeles, while I was looking for work. The only job I could find was teaching developmental reading and writing in Susanville, California, a remote mountain town in the Eastern Sierra that is known, if it is known at all, for the state and federal prisons nearby. Classes began in just a few days, so I threw clothes and a few books into my car and began the long journey that took me through the mountains and high desert of Nevada and California. As I drove the desolate stretch of Highway 395 that carried me north out of Reno, I tried to convince myself the isolation would prove restorative.

It was a nice thought, and a brief one. When I arrived in Susanville, late at night, the sky was raining firebrands and ash from a massive wildfire. The fire had taken down the power lines that brought electricity through the mountains, and the town was completely dark. People were walking the streets with camping lanterns. I pulled into the parking lot of the first motel I saw to ask about a room. The desk clerk was registering guests—mostly firefighters from the state forestry department and from around the West—by candlelight. 

“We won’t have power tonight,” she said to me as she wrote down my credit card number. “The casino is the only place in town with power. They have a generator.”

The casino was the Diamond Mountain Casino, which looked a little like a roadside chain hotel. The subdued complex was perched on the ridge outside town, where the tall pine trees of the Sierra Nevada fade into the sagebrush of the high desert. “The casino has a generator” was something I would hear often during the year I lived in Susanville. People mentioned it whenever the power went out, as though Diamond Mountain were the only thing in town anyone could count on.

Well acquainted with addiction, I avoided the casino for the first few months I was in Susanville. But when a group of my new colleagues invited me to skip some orientation sessions and join them at Diamond Mountain’s diner for lunch, I could hardly say no.

To get to the diner, we had to pass through the cramped, dark casino floor, which was lit only by antler chandeliers and the slot machines’ relentless flashing. One of my lunch companions was a regular there. He had a year-round tan and wore a loose gold chain around his neck. He told us that he drove down to the sportsbook in Reno on weekends to wager on college and pro football. As we ate, he talked about dumping money into the slots at Diamond Mountain; his theory was the house had to pay out at some point. When the waitress dropped off the bill, he turned to a colleague and asked him to pick up the check. “I’m broke until the first,” he said.

Vegas 002405, 2008

Vegas 002405, 2008, color photograph.

After a few months, I learned that I didn’t have the psychological makeup to stay isolated in the mountains for long. I began driving down to Reno on the weekends, where it was easy to find fifty-nine-dollar room specials. Reno was once a major gambling destination, but Native American casinos in California—some large, like the Thunder Valley resort outside Sacramento, and others small, like Diamond Mountain—have devastated the Biggest Little City’s gambling industry. Large swaths of the city are now occupied by shuttered casinos and motels that date to the era of the quickie divorce.          

I didn’t plan to gamble in Reno, but the people who came up with the fifty-nine-dollar-room special were not idiots. During my second visit, I was nursing a beer at a bar inside a downtown casino when I looked up and caught the eye of a dealer at an unoccupied table nearby. She was one of the most arresting people I had ever seen, with long brown hair that flowed over her shoulders and a bright celebrity smile.

“Want to play?” she asked.

“I don’t gamble.”

“Everybody does.”

“I’m unlucky,” I said.

She insisted, so I peeled off a twenty and set it on the table. She tried to chat with me, but I was uneasy in her presence. I don’t even remember the game—it was some variation of poker—but I won sixty bucks on the first hand. She slid a stack of chips, along with my original wager, across the felt.

Without saying anything else, I retreated to the slot machines. I texted Brandon: “I’m up $60!”

He wrote back immediately. “Stay out of the casinos.”

Since then, I’ve played thousands of blackjack hands in Reno, convinced that I can summon that feeling again. I’ve played minimums on the two-dollar tables inside the Sands for ten hours, lost big in minutes at the high-roller tables inside the Silver Legacy. I’ve memorized the cards with the basic strategy chart, studied variations and odds on the local tables. I can tell you that single-deck blackjack at the Cal Neva gives you the best hope of winning in the city. I can tell you that you’ll lose everything when they’re dealing out of shoes at the Silver Legacy or Peppermill on busy weekends. I can tell you that sitting at a blackjack table gives you the ability to convince yourself that it’s just a matter of time before you figure everything out.

Vegas 000611, 2008

Vegas 000611, 2008, color photograph.

When my contract in Susanville was up, I found a job in Reno. I looked for an apartment close to downtown, where several large casino resorts occupy multiple city blocks. Downtown Reno hosts smaller casinos, too, such as the Club Cal Neva and the Little Nugget, which are punctuated by the city’s cautionary tales: boarded-up motels, pawn shops, and failed theme casinos. I leased an apartment in one of the converted high-rise casinos, a block away from the Reno arch. From the window, I could see the Eldorado, the National Bowling Stadium, the dead hotel tower of Fitzgerald’s, and the entrance to the Harrah’s casino floor. At night, the pulsing pink and yellow lights of the casinos flooded my apartment, which didn’t help my already unhealthy sleep habits. Around eleven every night, I slipped out of my building, drew a hundred dollars from the ATM, and hit the blackjack tables, half asleep.

I usually played at the Club Cal Neva, one of the few casinos in Reno that had never attempted modernize. I liked the Cal Neva’s resistance to the modern world, the illusion it offered of an uncomplicated analog era. The exterior of the casino is bathed in blinking light bulbs and advertisements for low-minimum blackjack tables, one-dollar domestic beers, and $4.99 steaks. Inside, the casino is divided between two levels. Upstairs is a sportsbook with a tall wall of flatscreens; regular poker and beer-pong tournaments; and the Pleasure Pit, where the blackjack dealers wear bikinis or leathers. If you walk through the upper level on a weekend, you’ll find crowds of young men with neck and face tattoos throwing down C-notes at the blackjack tables. Try to wager the minimum and you’ll likely get harassed until you retreat downstairs.

The lower level of the casino caters to the escapists. Players stay for hours, punching buttons on penny slots and video-poker machines. The lower level also has several craps and blackjack tables with low minimums, one of Cal Neva’s biggest draws. The dealers at these tables have years of experience, and their speed is matched only by the cocktail waitresses, who show up to take orders as soon as they see a player set a twenty on the table. (Most casinos in Reno are struggling, but at Cal Neva you can still get a comped drink.)

In the first three months I lived in Reno, before my job started, I went to the Cal Neva almost every night. I usually sat at one of the blackjack tables downstairs, where the felt on the tables is stretched and pilled and the cocktail waitresses don’t bother with coasters. I convinced myself I didn’t have a gambling problem by answering the twenty-question questionnaire in a pamphlet I found. According to the test, I was only 70 percent addicted. I slept through the heat of the day, went to the Eldorado for a twenty-four-hour bacon-and-eggs special, and headed over to Cal Neva around ten at night. When I walked out of the casino, the sun would be full.

Once the regulars trusted me to play strong hands, they began to sit at my table. I often played with a cook from a late-night restaurant. He would roll into the casino with a few hundred bucks, his T-shirt soaked through with sweat and stinking like the kitchen he’d just left. By the time he got to Cal Neva, I would usually be on my fifth vodka tonic and down fifty bucks, so I was lousy company. We shared the same rotten luck, but the cook tended to react to losses by pounding the table and knocking chairs around. After an hour or so of small bets, he inevitably pushed in all of his remaining chips. His head retracted into his body as the dealer dealt the hand. Almost without fail, the cook would lose the rest of his money and storm out of the casino.

“I don’t know why he does this to himself,” one of the dealers said to me once. I often wonder whether she thought the same thing about me.


Vegas 010422, 2008, color photograph.

I imagined my new job would naturally pull me away from the casinos. But you can’t get away from gambling in Nevada. Every grocery store or gas station has a row of slot machines occupied by shoppers whose groceries lie warming at their feet, and video-poker games blanket the bar tops at restaurants. A friend texts me with pictures of cash-out vouchers from these machines. The payouts on his vouchers are hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, though I’ve seen many such vouchers with zeros blowing through the gutters and alleys near my building. When I ask my friend how often he plays and how much he wagers, he ignores my questions and explains his strategy instead. “It’s all about the kicker,” he says.

No one seems to be winning. If you walk through the narrow hallway to my office, you’ll find another of my friends sitting in the dark, his face lit by his computer screen. Whenever I stop in to check on him, he pulls up articles about the local industry. “The state is broke,” he says. “We’re all going to have to work in the casinos.” After he closes the news, he stares at a slate of baseball games on the ESPN website. “Is Cleveland any good?” he asks. He doesn’t know anything about baseball, but he’s trying to recover the hit that he took on the Super Bowl. Baseball season allows for daily bets.

“They’re okay,” I say. “Don’t bet on baseball.”

On the nights I stay awake worrying about my career, I put on my shoes and coat and tell my partner I’m going for a walk. I stroll through the Eldorado, Silver Legacy, Circus Circus, and Harrah’s, avoiding the Cal Neva early on because I know that’s where I’m going to end up. When I finally get there, I walk a lap through the casino, searching for an empty table with a dealer who won’t sigh when I bet the table minimum. I pass college kids high-fiving and homeless guys arguing with the pit bosses. I find an unoccupied table, far away from everyone. Even when I believe the dealer is lousy and know the game is stacked against me, I play.

Eric Neuenfeldt’s collection of stories, Wild Horse, won the 2015 Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and will be published by University of Massachusetts Press in September. He lives in Reno, Nevada.