I was that girl in the back of an art gallery, surrounded by white walls, bright lights, and expensive things on a boring Monday. I worked there alone, with no boss and no coworkers. Peter was from out of town, and wandered into the gallery, as most people do, to kill time before his next appointment.
He was in his early-thirties but looked younger, and he wore an untucked polo shirt with khaki shorts and flip-flops. His hair was dark and freshly cut, but still messy.
I gave him my standard greeting of, "Let me know if you have any questions." He gave me a head nod, and walked from piece to piece, eventually coming over to my desk. We started talking. At first it was a cordial, typical conversation. Then the conversation evolved.
Lips became looser, the barrier of awkward small talk demolished. We were getting along like long-lost best friends who had been divinely reunited. We talked about our families, our pasts, and our dreams, trading intimate details about our lives like baseball cards.
Talking to Peter was so easy, and I hate small talk. I meet a lot of people at my job, and spend a lot of time talking to strangers, but talking to Peter was different. We had a genuine connection I can only describe as friendship at first sight.
He expressed interest in a piece of art, but said he would have to see how work went first before he made a purchase.
Then he confessed: "I'm a professional gambler."
His game was blackjack. Twenty-one. Whatever you want to call it.
He matter-of-factly, but not arrogantly, explained that he was a math genius a la Rain Man (his words), able to see patterns and compute complex equations in milliseconds. He had attended prestigious programs at Ivy League schools, and he used his talent to make money for himself and other people.
He was a professional card counter. A genius gone rogue.
And he wanted me to go to the casino with him.
The deal would be that I would put up the money, and he would turn that money into more money. A lot more money. I would get my initial "investment" back, and we would split the profit. He told me stories of turning $1,000 into $15,000 within two hours at the blackjack table.
I'm a natural-born skeptic, and I couldn't tell if I was being had or if this guy was the real deal. But the thought of some extra cash was appealing.
He thumbed through pictures of himself with celebrities in penthouses and at private parties. He talked of nights in Monte Carlo making million-dollar bets with entertainment moguls. He showed me text messages, screenshots, and photos of stacks of chips that corroborated the insanity of his stories. It all seemed legit.
So the question remained: Would I meet him at the casino after work? I told him I needed time to decide, so we exchanged numbers, and he left.
"Spontaneous" is not a word I often use, let alone as a descriptor for myself. I'm an overthinker, and I began to overthink the hell out of what had just happened.
We had known each other for three hours. Why would he do this for me? Well, he would make money, too, so it wasn't completely altruistic. What could be the worst thing that could happen? I could lose thousands, I could get mugged, or worse.
But then, what if I didn't go? I would never know if he was for real or not. I would be left wondering, what if? That was a feeling I was all too familiar with. I could count beyond my fingers and toes all of the "shoulda, coulda, wouldas" I had accumulated in life so far.
I couldn't let this opportunity be another one. I turned off my rational brain off. This cat was curious.
At 10:30 that night, I rode the escalator down to the casino floor. Peter stood there waiting, like Jack waiting for Rose before they go to the third-class party. He was about to take me to the real party. The air was thick with that choking but exciting smell of cigarette smoke and booze. I could feel my heart thumping in my chest.
We walked through rows of slot machines flashing their lights and sounding alarms as he briefed me on the plan. We were a couple. I would sit down at the table first. He would "coach me," and I would screw up. Then he would take over. I withdrew $2000 from my account, my go-big-or-go-home amount. Though it wasn't something I wanted to lose, I was in a fortunate enough financial position to be able to lose this amount and still be just fine. Work hard, play harder, they say.
I was fully committed, and I was here to make the most of this. This guy better be for real.
I took my seat at the blackjack table, forking over the first thousand for colored chips in denominations I had never played with before. I smiled at the dealer, pulling my shaky hands underneath the table as Peter leaned on the back of my chair.
The dealer dealt out the first cards.
For the next few hands, Peter whispered when to stay, when to hit, and when to throw the cards in. He would tell me when to bet $100, $200, or $400 a hand. I wasn't that familiar with the game, so my uncertainty and inexperience enhanced the ruse. All I knew was that my cards needed to add up to 21, or the dealer had to bust to get paid out.
Poof! The first thousand was gone. I could have lost that on my own just fine!
"Babe, why don't we switch," he said.
I was relieved to be out of the hot seat.
"Do you trust me?" he whispered as we swapped seats. I nodded, and I meant it. "OK, good. Get ready." He gave me a wink.
Now he sat at the table. He had been mentally recording all of the previous hands.
He started with hundred-dollar bets each hand. Soon we were below $500.
I thought that the whole thing was over. There was no coming back from this. He was a degenerate gambler that scammed people into giving them money so he didn't have to lose his own, and I was Sucker of the Year. This was the costliest 20 minutes of my life. This was exactly why I didn't do things like this.
But then everything changed.
He put $200 on the actual bet, and $100 on the match the dealer. If you match one of the dealer's cards, it pays out 5:1, and if you match the dealer's suit and card, it pays out 10:1.
The dealer busted, so Peter won on the actual bet. He also matched the suit and card of the dealer.
Now, he was in it. He started playing aggressively, betting about $400 a hand on the next few hands.
He knew when to fold his cards. He knew when to put extra chips on the match the dealer. I could not believe my eyes. I watched our stack of chips grow larger and larger in front of him, new colored chips being added with each hand.
He matched the dealer. Again and again. He hit 21. Again and again. Everything else on the casino floor seemed to fade to black; all my focus on what was happening in front of me. It was unreal.
When you look at some people, you can tell when they are thinking or processing something heavy. Not Peter. His face never revealed the computations going on in his head. From the outside, he was an average guy with his average girl getting lucky at the table on a Monday night.
But this was his ship, he was the captain, and I was the passenger along for the ride. If he started getting on too hot of a streak, he would sink the ship and play a bad hand. And then he would right the ship by beating the dealer and betting high on a match he knew he would win.
A pit boss came over and watched our table. We celebrated like this hadn't been the plan all along. He continued to match the dealer and increase our winnings. We high-fived, we hugged. Another casino manager came over to watch us. He matched again.
Peter looked at me and told me it was time to go. He was right. While card-counting isn't illegal, it is frowned upon. It was best that we left on our own, before any inquiry.
My hands were full of chips. We were up over $10,000.
We were amped up from our big take, and we didn't want to quit. So we went to the next best casino in the area.
We played in high-roller rooms at high-stake tables into the early morning hours, riding the highs and the lows all night. I walked through the casino with an electric swagger I had never felt before. I stood behind Peter at the table, watching as he took down the house with calculated aggression. I tried to look calm, indifferent to Peter's antics, but inside my stomach did loops.
What we finally cashed in doesn't matter. All I can say is that Peter was some kind of savant, who had provided me with a rush I had never known before.
We parted ways on good terms as the sun rose, but after that night, I never saw him again.
Sometimes, when I'm sitting alone at work, I wonder if he will come into the gallery again on some random day when I least expect it. I wonder if he is helping some celebrity pay back their gambling debt, or if he is bouncing from casino to casino in Europe. I wonder if he ever thinks of me.
Peter might not have even been his name. I will probably never see him again. I am thankful for that night, though. Not for the money, but for that little push outside of myself, that little push outside of my white-walled and brightly-lit box.
The mysterious stranger showed me that sometimes taking a huge chance and being spontaneous is a lot better than being left with the burden of "what if?" And I will never forget him for that.