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as seen on phillyBurbs.com

Winners and losers
Know when to hold 'em, fold 'em and laugh.

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - The overcast February sky and wind-whipped surf look cold, gray and uninviting. White caps break high and the waves and spray crash angrily against the empty white sand.

So that's what blackjack looks like. I didn't see many of them this trip.

The ocean's a perfect mirror of my mood late Saturday morning as I stand on the same boardwalk I used to run around on as a kid. I'm almost as poor now as I was then. Two days of gambling and drinking with friends, some much needed R&R, have nearly emptied my wallet.

Despite the chilly wind whipping at my pant legs, it feels good to look at the sea, at something much larger than myself or my own immediate problems. It's an immortal moment. One that deftly underlines one's sense of impermanence.

I linger, pausing to remember that everything must change - even my luck - before I retreat to the warmth of the Tropicana casino's lounge.

My friends are already inside the nearby poker room, playing Texas Hold 'Em. It's a trendy game made popular by the movie "Rounders," ESPN's "World Series of Poker" and from Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown." We'd all come here feeling lucky and ready to compete in several tournaments the casinos hold weekly.

But I opted out.

Something soured me on the game. Maybe it was a lack of REM sleep, having made the two-hour trip after working my early morning shift Thursday. Or the two jerks I was sandwiched between that first afternoon in a cash game. Or that I didn't like taking money from strangers. Or the fact that I would have made more money in less time working. 

So I switched to my old reliable - blackjack - and promptly got smoked by dealers with an enviable talent from turning a 12 into a 21 in five cards or less - proudly serving their corporate masters and shareholders.

So a little before noon on this third day of our gambling jaunt, I sought refuge at Blanche's bar and ordered a pick me up - Red Bull energy drink and Captain Morgan spiced rum - a drink the bartenders in New Orleans call liquid cocaine. (There's nothing stranger than a wide-awake drunk.)

I spent part of Thursday night here, too, watching the Flyers take their third drubbing in a row on a silent TV and arguing sports with fellow patrons while a Canadian lounge act kept the strange small crowd entertained with disco music and pop. Unlike Vegas, or even at home on the Internet, I couldn't bet on the game. None of the casinos in A.C. have a sports book operation and never will, thanks to legislation passed 10 years ago, a bartender said.

Greeting me this time with a smile, a ballad and my drink is the bar's namesake, Blanche Morro, who wears a button on her black and sequined shirt that reads, "Yes, I am really singing!"

A minute later, I get a badly needed laugh as Morro belts out a karaoke version of Shania Twain's "Ka-ching." It opens:

We live in a greedy little world -
that teaches every little boy and girl
To earn as much as they can possibly -
then turn around and
Spend it foolishly
We've created us a credit card mess
We spend the money we don't possess
Our religion is to go and blow it all
So it's shoppin' every Sunday at the mall

"The lyrics are great," Morro, of Egg Harbor Township, explains between simultaneously mixing songs, drinks and hawking her first CD to patrons. 

She fell into this gig five years ago while serving drinks across the street at the Chelsea Pub. Dennis Gomes, president of resort operations for the Trop, wandered in, heard her sing and invited her to run the casino's bar.

Blanche Morro, a.k.a. The Singing Bartender.
(Photo by Claire Frankel).

Morro now lives off her tips and wouldn't even think of manning the lounge's empty stage in the afternoon because, "It doesn't pay." Meanwhile, the proceeds from her $16 CD, "Straight up with a twist," go straight into her kids' college fund.

Feeling a bit brighter, I wander into the casino and put $100 down on a $5 table alongside a group of ladies out on the town without their husbands. They're joking and laughing and trying hard not to take the gambling seriously as the minimum bet rises to $10 a few minutes later.  My luck changes and the chips begin to pile up in front of me.

I break a $5 chip and offer to put a dollar next to my own bet for the dealer, Bob. "I'd rather have it," he says. "I don't like to risk my money."

He's not the only one. Catherine, a pit boss, tells a friend waiting to get on the table that she put all of the $10,000 she won recently playing roulette into a bank and hasn't touched it since.  

I walk away from the table and cash out. I've got $50 more than I started the day with and head back to Blanche's. An hour later, I repeat the process and walk away with $85 more, but this time I notice that no one is tipping the dealer until after I break a $5 chip and start betting for her.

By 4 p.m., I'm sweating bullets on a $15 per hand table - the minimum available - and the dealer is winning every other hand. It's make or break time, and my friend, Bill, joins me after having gone all-in at the wrong time in the poker tournament. He's betting recklessly and quickly drops $80. He finally pushes in his last four chips, but this time he wins.

Bill raises the stakes to $25 for two more hands, until I turn and warn him it's time to retrench. He pulls back $10 from his bet, promptly hits blackjack and glares at me. I offer him two chips as compensation and he laughs.

1 can of Red Bull + 1 shot of Capt. Morgan = 1 wild ride.

Two casinos later, I'm still more than holding my own for the day despite the odds. At Trump's Taj Mahal, I quickly pick up another $50 at a $15 table and walk away. But with an hour still to go before I meet my friends, I foolishly wander back to the same table and lose $100 even quicker than I gained the $50.

The dealer changes and so does my luck once more. In one of the longest runs I can remember, I turned the small stack of red $5 chips on the table into a bulging pile of green $25 chips and black $100 chips that fall deep inside my sports coat seemingly after every hand.

When I finally exhaust my red chips, I giddily tip the dealer and stroll to the cashier. I'm up $500 for the day and only down $50 for the entire weekend, including food, lodging and drinks. That makes me a winner, I guess.

Dave Ralis' Pave The Grass column appears on Mondays. You can send him an e-mail at  or call him at 215-269-5051. To read his previous columns, click here.

Feb. 23, 2004