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October 24, 2013

I was born 51 years ago today.  According to the traditional way of counting ages in Japan, where I live, I am 52.  The idea of someone being “zero” age didn’t make any sense in old Japan.  So when a baby was born, she was 1 years old.  I like this idea, even though it makes us all one year “older.”

I like numbers.  51 is 3X17. But 52 is the number of cards in a deck without jokers in it.  It is 4X13.

13 is one of my favorite numbers.  It is a prime. It was my number as a baseball player.  I chose to wear that number because it symbolizes bad luck.  While many would choose to avoid it – for the same reason – I prefer to wear it.  I’d rather have my fair share of bad luck close to me, knowing it intimately, rather than have it creep up on me suddenly.

4 is a number indicating bad luck in Japan.  One of the ways in which 4 is read is “shi.”  This sound is the same as a word meaning “death”.  So I suppose this can mean that I am starting a year in which I should be very careful, as it is the crossing of bad luck in both cultures I’ve made my own.

I am not, by nature, a gambler. So a deck of cards is something I seldom think of as anything more than a device for playing a wide range of games or magical tricks. It is a wonderful and flexible set, but not more or less than a tool.

But on this day, I am reminded of a game, usually played in a gambling setting, that has ironic lessons for life – Blackjack. Blackjack is played against the House – not other players, as in Poker. Over time, the House always wins.  Play is in some sense, cumulative, meaning that he deck is not shuffled or changed with each hand.

Life is like this in many ways.  I think we play against the House and not each other.  Many people tend to compete as in Poker, but in Blackjack, as in life, this focus plays into the hand of the House, usually to everyone’s disadvantage.

Against the House, I’ve had my fair share of gains and losses. Against the other players, I have no idea.  I only see that they, like me, have gained and lost chips to the House. Whether we are ahead or behind, in life and with respect to each other, is only appearance, a charade, the chips we see may be borrowed, loaned, stolen, gifted, or earned and only the House knoweth.

But as we play this game together, with our cards revealed, we are each given some very useful hints.  We also are entrusted with the gift of counting.  It is good to keep track of the number of Aces and Face Cards played. This is obvious.  But it is also very useful, and effective, to keep track of the Twos and Threes.

Many people think that the key to Blackjack (and life) is in the Big Numbers.  You hope to score the occasional 21, but frequent 20s are good enough.  An occasional 9 with a Face Card – sigh of relief – can mean Lady Luck is on your side.

Exactly. The two Face Cards, an occasional Blackjack or a two-card 19 – this is luck – the same luck played by the House.  In fact, having the same luck as the House means the odds are not in your favor; when a player pushes with the House, the House wins.

The key to winning occasionally against the House, then. In Blackjack is in counting cards.  The few times when you have an edge is when you have the power of numbers at your disposal.

I like to think that right now I have more chips than not, because I have been keeping good track of the numbers played in the deck.  In a year’s time, the cards will be reshuffled and I must play a new set of hands. But I think I’ll do all right this year.  I’ll keep counting the numbers played and I’m not going to take any unwise risks.  I’m looking forward to another year – older and, hopefully, wiser.

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