Why you should care

Because there are more ways than one to roll the dice.

The thought of getting back all that he has lost — that’s what fuels his fire. “Hit me again!” But the cards are always a day late and a dollar short.

Just one more time, Mr. Dealer Man. But this time, deal me the card of all cards. That perfect one that sets my soul on fire and makes my blood pump victory up in here!

I’ve gotta win, so make those cards be nice to me, Mr. Dealer Man!

Can’t go home with this lint in my pocket. Deal me the hand of all hands, so I never have to come back to this hell-hole again.

I was going on 19 when I went to stay with Uncle James while I attended a junior college in Las Vegas. My mother’s only sibling was the only man who ever seemed to truly love the boy that lived in me. When I reached out to him for help, without hesitation he sent for me by the end of the week. The man my uncle had sent to pick me up was a peculiar brotha who wore fancy clothes drove a red and white Cadillac convertible and walked with a confidence I had never seen. Pretty Ricky’s was the first face I saw when my plane touched down in Sin City. He had an air about him that was alluring to the common woman. When I sat down in the front seat across from him, he noticed me staring at a brand-new bottle of what had to be some high-price cologne.

“I keep it at arm’s reach, just because,” he said, reaching upwards and pulling down on the front of his Stetson brim with a smile. He was tall and handsome, and spoke to everyone as if he’d had never met a stranger. He exemplified Las Vegas. What was my uncle thinking when he ask this man of all people to transport me, his nephew … anywhere? Seeing Pretty Ricky made me wonder: Did my uncle somehow have a wild side my mother didn’t know about?

We got to my uncle’s — it had been years. He spoke of showing me the whole strip — “ain’t nothing like it in the world, all of the bright lights and beautiful women.” We spent some time together, but it took me a while to understand my uncle’s world. It struck perhaps for the first time one afternoon riding down the strip. We stopped at a McDonald’s, went through the drive-thru. My uncle paid and told the lady, “No, thanks,” when she went to get him his change.

“Unk, why did you do that?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“Give her a tip.” And he said to me, “Because they’re people too. They work hard just like us, and when they do something good, why not tip them?”

We didn’t grow up with money, but here my uncle was spending. I went with him to the card tables and watched him win money faster than I had seen Bob Hayes run a 100-yard dash — and lose it just as fast. I saw him sit down at a card table one night and lose as much as $60,000 in three hands as if it was nothing. I watched him attempt to tame the untamable demon inside a gambler’s soul. My uncle seemed to trust something in nature that only he could see.

One night, my uncle sat me down and told me that he had to go out of town for a while. He gave me telephone numbers of his friends just in case. I knew something was wrong. He had run out of money — and run out of favors. He did me the good deed of leaving me with a roof — but he’d left without paying the rent. So how could I make the bills while staying in school? After class each day, I took my meager cash down to the casino to bet on my survival.

The notices were coming on the door every day — the apartment was a floor above the renter’s office. One day I remember being down to my last 75 cents and I needed to win to eat my next meal and to ride the bus the next day. I closed my eyes and played my last. And then came the sweetest thing a gambler ever hopes for. A royal flush. There was relief — but there was also a moment, that rush. I knew what my uncle had been chasing all those years. My mother once told me, “When you kiss a fool, you kiss all of his lies.” I wasn’t immune to my uncle’s addiction.

But instead of the unknown, I learned to bet on my efforts, on myself. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to walk inside the complicated mind of a gambler. I’ll never take those sorts of risks. But my uncle took the biggest bet of them all that morning he left his nephew stranded in Las Vegas. He gambled my life, as if he knew that I had inside me what it would take to survive. So he doubled down on the 19-year-old kid from Texas, and to this day, he and that kid are both winning big.

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Good stories from around the globe. Essays and immersion, into the harrowing, the sweet, the surprising -- the human.