Gambling with My Grandmother: From the Philippines to America
"The Odds are Against Us, but That’s Never Stopped us from Betting."
Dad says no, but we play anyway, Lola and I. In the afternoon, my grandmother awaits my return from elementary school. She wears a peach cardigan and a gambling habit tempered by a soft smile and wrinkles. I greet her with a kiss, and Lola’s words are both a question and an exclamation, “Oh! You want to play?” She speaks as if she has been waiting all day, though I know she has been tending her garden, watching soap operas, preparing dinner. Lola, like me, cannot wait for the fix of slippery cards between her fingers. She and I share a gambling mania, only her mania is tempered by decades of games, decades of dollars, decades of winning. While Lola has learned to tame her inner gambler, I am like a young dog, ready to soil itself and roll in the glossy rectangles.
Because it strains her back to sit at a table for long, Lola sits at one end of the sofa, and I at the other. A piece of square laminate board serves as our improvised card table. We play Crazy Eights, Kings in the Corner, Paris Paris. We play uninterrupted for hours, Lola sometimes shifting her heavy thighs, careful not to disturb the cards. We play without words, and I don’t know then what Lola is trying to teach me, but I feel possibility in the cards, and that possibility is electric.
Dad grumbles that I am too young to learn such habits, to play cards like a man. He says I should exercise, write my times tables. Dad has greater plans for me. He wants me to go to college, get a good job, and make good money. To play is a small act of defiance, but I am small, just nine years old. As the youngest girl in our family, I must do as I am told without question, but because Lola is the matriarch of our family, Dad will not tell her no. With Lola at my side, I am powerful. With Lola at my side, even the youngest daughter can upset the hierarchy of a household.
Before she came to the states, Lola was a teacher in the Philippines. Now, she teaches me. The deck is her chalk, the card table her chalkboard. I learn the vocabulary of winning: mano, bunot, escalera, secret, panalo. I learn game theory, strategy. Lola teaches me to play each card to its utmost advantage, to measure my hand against my opponent’s. I learn restraint, planning, to pull, to discard, to envision turn, after turn. My brown wrists flick. My fingers dance. Shuffle. Deal. Fan. My fine motor skills are sharpened on the edge of a card. While my friends shape Play Doh and mud pies, my hands work the deck. Dexterity is the hallmark of skill, an offering to Lady Luck.
Under my Lola’s tutelage, I establish a set of rules that will shape every relationship of my life. I choose my partners with care, and set parameters for those with whom I share a table. I avoid players without skill, without rationale—if I cannot predict their moves, I cannot plan for my own. I walk away from players with nothing to lose, or worse, privileged nonchalance. I learn to downplay the merit of my cards, learn when to grimace, smile, learn to read other’s faces knowing our endgame is the same—the ultimate hand, the ultimate pot, the ultimate win. I learn sportsmanship, to tolerate losing, to laugh off dozens of dollars, and deal again. Sore losers are coolers who bring down the table, and we like it hot, we like it loud, and we are bringing down the house.
My schooling advances at the Circus Circus Las Vegas Midway Arcade. Sheltered from the desert heat, in this dark womb, I feed on flashing lights, side scrolling play, and continuous background soundtracks. Armed with a bucket of quarters, my brother and I play beat ‘em ups like The Simpsons, but make time for Title Fight, Virtua Cop 2, and Area 51. Games like skee-ball, Wheel ‘Em In, and Wack-A-Gator pay out tickets, and the machines go tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk. We are in sync, these machines and my heart. The sound in the arcade is winning—the bling bling bling of sirens when someone hits a jackpot, the thunk of styrofoam hammers, the pop of balloons exploding in clowns’ mouths—all of this is winning. Play a quarter. Win tickets. Redeem prizes. The reward is Pavlovian, my training deliberate. I am primed for gambling, ready to sacrifice any number of quarters, tokens, chips, in the name of winning.
If gambling had taught us anything, it was that we had little hope of ever beating the house, but for the moment, America was a steady bet, and one that we let ride.
When we run out of quarters, my brother and I drift from the arcade and troll the casino from the sidelines, hovering near a sign that reads: NO ONE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE IS ALLOWED IN GAMING AREAS. We search the casino floor for our heroes: Mom at the craps table, Dad at the Sports Book, Lola playing slots. I breathe in the smoke, relish the sounds. There is rhapsody in gambling, and the music is always with me. The casino floor is a chorus that never slows to inhale. Sopranos! Clanging sirens and jackpot bells. Altos! Waitresses in bodysuits and stockings, chanting their unending refrain: drinks, drinks, drinks, and keno, keno, keno. Tenors! Bass! Baritones! Laughing card players and yelling drunks. At the tables, the sounds are softer, though no less enchanting: the tantalizing ripple of cards being shuffled, and the slip-slip-slip as they are dealt. The click-click-click-click-click of chips dancing across green felt. A ball skipping along the roulette wheel in hypnotic tympani. Even the lights flicker and dazzle in a smoky synchronized show.
When we tire of loitering, we sit outside our hotel room, or rest down the hall, in the nook beneath the staircase, debating whether we ought to watch free circus acts at the midway, or continue to wait—minutes, sometimes hours, for someone to return and unlock the door. Later, I huddle in stiff sheets next to Lola, my chest pressing against her back. In the darkness, I know she feels my heart pounding, and the beat is tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk, like the sound of coins falling from a slot machine when you hit the jackpot. My fingers tap. My feet jitter. Even in my sleep, my body wants to count numbers, to push buttons, to throw dice. Lola has written a story of risk on my body, and it cannot be unwritten.
On the drive home, my parents replay all the games, all the hands, each throw of the dice. They say, had we stopped this time, or that time, we would have been up this amount or that amount. They never stop. Here, I learn the vocabulary of losing: mala suerte, mawalan, pagkatalo. Mom says she loses more than she wins, but that when she plays, she forgets all her worries—with a full-time hospital job and five children, the forgetting is deserved. By the time we get home, Lola’s feet are swollen from poor circulation, her stiff flesh bubbling over the tops of her shoes. We cook rice. We prepare for Monday. Whatever daring I had in the arcade seems to have dissipated on the drive through the desert. At home, I am again, only the youngest daughter, only a brown girl in a white suburb. But possibility is waiting with Lola and a deck of a cards.
When I am ten, we travel to the Philippines, and Dad takes me to watch the cockfights in Candelaria. He asks, Are you thirsty? Do you have to go the bathroom? Then he leaves me to join men gathered in the cockpit at the center of the arena, where the chickens will fight. Kristos! Kristos! the men call the bookie. Kristos, they call him for how he spreads his arms in the air like Jesus, when acknowledging wagers, as if to say, Blessings upon this bet! Blessings upon this sabong!
Alone in the stands, I can’t see the metal gaffs tied to the roosters’ legs, or even hear the dull tap of their heads being hit together, but I am close enough to see two men and the orange scarlet blurs that burst from their hands and deflate on impact. If Dad didn’t want me to gamble, he shouldn’t have let me see them fly at each other, let me witness how they flopped dead onto the mats. He shouldn’t have left me among strange men, let me hear them cheer, see how they waved their tickets and threw them to the floor. Had he left me at a cousin’s house to play, instead of bringing me to that arena of mutilated chickens and boisterous men, I would never have witnessed how alive and splendid they were in those moments just before the kill.
The Sundays we don’t wake in Vegas, we go to church. Away from the tables, we remember gambling is frivolous, sinful, greedy. We know this, but still we pray to win a big hand, to come into money. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines, they brought Catholicism. If gambling teased riches on Earth, prayer offered paradise in the afterlife, and we thought it best to hedge our bets. At church, I force my fluttering to still. Here is a place for paying attention, not jittering, tapping, or counting coins. But the Bible is filled with stories of gambling—wagers for land, for greatness, and for souls—that are mythical, epic, and I am rapt.
When Eve dared to defy God’s command and picked fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, her consequences were severe: expulsion from Eden, Original Sin, painful childbirth. Her sad consolation prize—matching his and hers fig leaves. Eve’s gamble is one of the most difficult to comprehend. Why risk losing paradise? Could it be that Eve was dissatisfied? Of the three figures inhabiting Eden—God, Adam, and Eve—she was the lowliest of the three, and like me, the youngest daughter. And maybe, she, like me, was dissatisfied with the hierarchy of her paradise.
In the Old Testament, God and Satan enter a wager. God is certain that Job, a devout follower, will always remain faithful to Him, while Satan claims that Job only remains so because he has been blessed by God’s good will. After a great many sheep, camels, oxen, and asses are slain, and Job’s sons, daughters, and servants are smite, God wins, and Job, the unwitting participant of this wager, is rewarded with greater wealth, returned health, and new offspring. By biblical standards, Job’s compensation far outweighs his loss—at least he doesn’t get leprosy. God, on the other hand, wins a single, though important, tally mark in the unending battle between good and evil, and moreover, bragging rights.
When Judas Iscariot saw odds were not in Jesus’s favor, and bet with the house, the cost was a single kiss, and his payoff, a meager thirty pieces of silver, well below the worth of a soul. Later, Judas threw his money into the temple and hanged himself, his name forever synonymous with betrayal. That is what we call a bad beat.
When Magellan and his men reached our islands, they brandished metal shields and swords. We sent our bravest warriors with spears. From the beginning, the odds were against us. In exchange for our islands, and our freedom, Spanish missionaries promised eternal life. Newly named, Las Islas Filipinas, and newly devout, we learned to pray when we gambled. We crossed ourselves. Dear God, Mother Mary, please let me win. And when we lost, Susmaryosef. The Spanish remained in power for almost four hundred years. Susmaryosef.
Following a hard-fought revolution, the Philippines cast off one colonizer for another. In exchange for our islands and for our freedom, the United States promised education, opportunity, and riches. If gambling had taught us anything, it was that we had little hope of beating this house, but America was a seemingly steady bet, and one that my parents wanted to let ride.
As much as my father protests, he and my mother are great gamblers. If my parents were a Texas Hold ‘Em hand when they first came to the United States, they might have been mistaken for a deuce-seven, a throwaway. But they weren’t. They were English speaking college graduates. Still, they were brown immigrants with accents. A low pair. Maybe fours. Someone else might have chosen to fold this hand, to stay in the Philippines, to set aside dreams of the mythical land of milk and honey. But my parents recognized a gamble worth taking.
They bet big and went all in, hoping the flop would be kind. It was. A small Baltimore apartment shared with my aunt. Decent jobs. Unexpected friends. Two children born in the states. The turn helped. Citizenship and a relocation to southern California. Enough money for a house and three more children. And then the river was low. Times were tight, but they were rich in children. Family was their investment. Their children understood utang na loob, a debt that could never be repaid. And that was enough. That was plenty.
Dad says no, but we play anyway, Lola and I. Anything, Dad says. You can do and be anything here in America. You can attend the best schools—Harvard, Annapolis, Stanford. You can become a lawyer, a doctor, travel the world. I understand he wants me to live well, and not by the roll of the dice or a deal of the cards. Still, he tells me: Keep your head down. Don’t sit with boys. Stay out of trouble. Don’t talk back. His desire to prepare me for greatness, wars with his desire to prepare me for a world in which I will always be othered.
I understand, but do not accept my place in the hierarchy. Every game is an attempt to disrupt the odds that are stacked against me. Bet on me, Dad, I tell him. I have learned on the knees of my grandmother to live a life that defies odds. Our survival has depended on it. Soon, they will learn to fear us at the table. Maybe I won’t own mutual funds, or blue-chip stocks, but I will break the bank. Meet me at the cashier, and I will be waiting, my pockets overflowing with the wins of many progressive jackpots. My fine house will be made of cards and mahjong tiles, my 401K—all four kings. The odds are against us, but that’s never stopped us from betting. This is our legacy, to risk, perchance to win. My Lola has written a story of risk on my body, and her grandmother on hers. And all of this, this card play, this calling Kristos, this rhapsody—all of this is winning.