King of Keno

Jason Olsen


I decided early that I wanted to be a professional gambler. I saw a James Bond movie as a kid and watched Bond at a card table. He was so smooth, so confident. When I was nine, I told my parents that I wanted to be a card player when I grew up. It was logical enough—I mean, we lived in Las Vegas. I chose my words carefully—wrote them down on an index card and held that card closely while I walked into our living room to find my parents and break the news.

I held the card up to my face and read the words slowly to my parents. They sat there, quiet and patient. They nodded and smiled, but didn’t take me very seriously. Who could blame them?

There was nothing that would make anyone think that I could step into James Bond’s shoes. Unless, of course, they decided to make a James Bond movie where he was shy, incapable of functioning in public, and prone to throwing up when stressed. Do you want James Bond to lose control of his bowels at inappropriate times? I’m your guy.

My parents died in a car crash five years ago. Another driver fell asleep at the wheel and my father, not as alert as he should have been, let that other car hit him head on. The accident was so horrible it made the evening news. When I watched the footage on TV, I noticed our car was a third of the size it used to be, crushed and smashed into a useless smaller mess of metal. They didn’t show my parents on TV, their bodies covered in white sheets. I was grateful for that.

I miss them very much, but I never know how to actually explain the feelings of that loss. With the exception of the occasional attempt in print, I never try. They left me enough money to get by. Mostly, I play keno.

Keno is a terrible game. For a gambler, it’s a stupid game to play. It’s near impossible to win consistently and only a fool would attempt to play regularly. The house has a 25% edge and, even if I play smart and bring that edge down to 23-24%, I’m still at a solid disadvantage. But I play it constantly.

             I have a strategy.  I watch for areas that don’t receive any hits over several games and then mark those regions the next time around. It’s hardly foolproof, but it is relatively effective and, if nothing else, it often allows me to play for long periods of time without losing as much—as long as I keep my bets low. It’s not the most effective game plan for a professional gambler, but it’s a game I can play without having to interact with people.

            Most casinos have keno lounges—the Green Diamond Resort and Casino, just a six-minute walk from my house, certainly does—but I don’t play in the lounges. There are keno runners and the people at the desks and even the people sitting in the lounge with you. I don’t want to interact.  I play video keno instead.

I don’t interact with anyone, really. Sometimes I try. I say hello to people, occasionally, but I always leave quickly so it’s rare I hear what they tell me in response. It’s usually a “hello” from me with my eyes looking toward the ground and then a quick dash away from the scene. I’m too afraid to really connect with a human being because words fail me when they’re coming out of my mouth. To most people, exchanging a couple of pleasantries doesn’t entail “connecting” with another person, but it does to me. I’d love to do it, but I can’t.

I love gambling, but I’m terrified to win. This is why keno is the perfect game for me.  When I say “win,” I’m not terrified of winning some. I like winning some. If I’m playing video keno and I hit five out of five numbers, it’s awesome. I win a few bucks, can print out a ticket, casually go to the electronic ATM/change machine/ticket claim machines they’ve got set up, scan my tickets, and collect my winnings. Then I can deposit them into my bank’s ATM and buy stuff online. It’s very enjoyable when that happens and it does happen occasionally.

I know I couldn’t have been a gambler in the earlier eras—where you had to go to the cashiers’ window to collect your winnings or trade your coin in for bills. I imagine myself as a professional gambler in the 1980’s or earlier—with giant containers of nickels scattered all over my house because I was too afraid to take my winnings to the change desk to be counted. Now most amounts are printed on tickets. I can scan the ticket into a machine to get my money. No people involved.

            So when I say I’m terrified to win, I mean I’m terrified of winning a lot. If I ever won over $1200, I’d have to claim taxes, and I am absolutely terrified of attendants who would have to come to verify the machine and pit bosses who would come over to congratulate me and people with tax forms for me to fill out.  They’d shove papers in my face. I’d be expected to give tips and smile. I can’t imagine being faced with it.

            So I play keno, and I never play so many numbers at once or bet so much that I’d have to deal with my nightmare scenario. I want to be a professional gambler, but I’m one who sneaks in, sneaks out and then gets on with his day alone. 

            I loved a girl. We met on-line, and we dated that way for several months. We talked on the phone once, and I could barely speak a sentence to her because my anxiety became so crippling. I told her I had a cold, and, while I don’t think she bought that excuse (usually a cold doesn’t make you stutter), she realized things well enough to never suggest the phone call idea again.

            We chatted on-line for hours a night. We had terrific conversations about my parents and loneliness and coping with those times when the world turns on you. It wasn’t long after my parents died, and I was nervous about everything and talking to Lila helped me through it. I thought we might get married. We talked about it enough to make me think it might happen. We pretended to have sex with each other through instant messages. It went something like this:

KingofKeno: *touching your left breast with my left hand while

softly kissing your lips*

Lila3432: *trembling and kissing you back, lost in your touch*

I told her I loved her, and she said the same to me. I meant it and I think she did too. When I typed out the words “I love you” and then saw the exact same words appear next to her name several seconds later, it felt like everything in my world had changed. I felt capable of speaking and singing and shouting to everyone, anyone.

But one day, Lila completely disappeared. Her online profile vanished. Her email address was no longer valid. There was no indication she had ever existed. I didn’t eat for three days.

Fortunately, my aunt Silvia checked in on me and saw me in my state of depression and made me some of my mom’s creamy potato soup. While her version of the soup wasn’t nearly as good as my mom’s, it did help me. I was healthy and nourished, but Lila was still gone.

I never discovered what happened to her—if she was really a man or some imposter who was just messing with me or if she was just a girl who got sick of me and decided to move on. I figured that must have been it—she was interested in me for a while and then realized I was too much work and she didn’t want to deal with it. She knew I wasn’t even mentally capable of dealing with a breakup, so she had to disappear.

After a while, I thanked Lila for sparing me the stress of confrontation. I loved her truly and absolutely, but we were simply not meant to be. It took a long time (and a lot of potato soup) to realize this.

            Love confuses me because I’m not sure what it is or when I’m supposed to know it’s happening to me, but I believe I am in love again, this time with a woman who works in the offices near the banquet area of the Green Diamond casino. She works upstairs, across from the Bingo lounge. I would never play Bingo, of course. (The winner has to scream out loud in a room full of people? No thanks.)  I used to rarely go to that area upstairs where the Bingo room and the banquet halls are located, but I once overheard someone talking about a “hot” machine they found upstairs, so I decided to check it out.

            What I found was an area in-between the banquet hall offices and the Bingo room that was filled with machines—keno, poker, and slot—and the room was quieter and emptier than downstairs. It was not completely empty. There were often other people playing, especially right before or after a Bingo session, but it was still quieter and more peaceful than downstairs. That sometimes has its drawbacks because when there aren’t a lot of people around, sometimes someone will use that as cue that it’s alright to talk to the person next to them even if the person next to them is me. So I think there’s an odd protection to a larger crowd, and I split my time between the two areas.

            What brings me back to the upstairs/bingo/banquet area more than the peacefulness is that girl. I think about her all the time. One night as I fell asleep, I realized I had to be in love with her because I couldn’t stop imagining what it would feel like to kiss her. I felt for her the same way I felt for Lila, and this was even more real because I actually saw her in person. Lila was just words on a screen, but this girl was living and breathing and sometimes just inches away from me.

            Of course, she is only inches away from me for a second or two as she passes me on her way to her office. Whenever I play upstairs, I sit at the machine closest to her office and watch her from afar.

            Her hair is long and red and curly and bounces when she walks past my machine. She smells like grape soda and red licorice, and she wears a lot of clothes that are dynamically blue—certainly more blue than I have ever seen on anyone else.

            She doesn’t wear a nametag very often, but I’ve heard her co-workers talking to her enough to figure out her name is Terrie. I’m guessing on the spelling.

            When I’m upstairs near her office, I sit at my machine and wait for her to walk by. Then, I smell her grape soda and red licorice for a little while each day and wonder what I would say to her if we ever talked.

What I would say is a mystery to me. “I love you,” seems too forward, though I could imagine a better looking and more confident guy saying it to a woman upon meeting her.    

            I was playing keno on the machine near Terrie’s office on a Tuesday morning when it happened. She walked out of the hallway where her office is located (I have never searched for her specific office, so I’m only assuming there’s a hallway) and toward me to pass into another area of the casino. So she walked toward me, and I looked up from my machine, and she looked over at me.

            I smiled. I forced all of the muscles in my face to do something they weren’t used to doing—smile for the purposes of making an emotional connection with another person. But I did it. I smiled, and she saw me, and, as she passed by, she smiled back.

            The world around me sang and danced that Tuesday. Music always plays in the casino, but I was usually too focused on either my machine or avoiding social interaction to hear it, but the cheery 60’s pop music was raining upon me that Tuesday. There wasn’t another person in the upstairs casino area with me, but I could still feel an energy, like people were aware of my accomplishment and what it meant in the grand scheme of my life.

            I sat alone, still smiling, playing my keno game—sitting alone, smiling like a guy who had finally mustered the strength to say hello to the girl of his dreams, which I could argue I had, just without the words part. Words are overrated Smiles can be enough between the right two people.

            I was also suddenly hot on the keno machine. I hit four out of four and won $55. I pumped my fist. It was likely an awkward gesture. (I am well aware that most of my gestures would be perceived as awkward. I rarely allow myself public displays of emotion, but by God, I had smiled, and she had smiled, and four out of four on a keno machine on a day like this was reason enough for an awkward fist pump.)

            I thought, what the hell, and increased the bet and the amount of numbers I was choosing. I stayed away from the danger zone of betting too much and risking too much reward, but I stayed a bit above my normal range.

            After a few minutes, I hit 6 numbers out of 7. I looked around the casino area and it was still empty. I stood up and clenched my fist. There was no one around, and I sat down again quickly. I was as happy and comfortable as I had ever been in my life.

            I pushed the “max bet” button again and increased the numbers I was playing. Usually I looked at keno as the terrible game I was forced to play because of my anxieties, but today it was a beautiful game, and the more numbers I played, the more numbers I hit, and even when I was playing too many numbers to realistically win much, I enjoyed watching those numbers light up. When I played ten numbers, hitting five of them meant nothing, but I could watch them dance across the screen like they were pirouetting for my pleasure.

            I hit max bet again and watched four of those numbers light up. I didn’t win a dime, but it was beautiful.

            I hit max bet again and watched three numbers light up.

            I felt someone walking behind me, but I stayed focused. I heard a voice, and I thought it was someone talking to me, but I couldn’t make out the actual words. I turned slightly to my right and I saw Terrie and she was smiling and this time I was too numbed and shocked to do anything about it, but she said something and I didn’t hear what it was and I didn’t react to it. She didn’t merely acknowledge my existence when she smiled—she was setting up a form of real communication. My mind raced through what she might have just said.

            I hit max bet and watched five numbers light up.

            I kicked myself for not listening and for freezing up when she spoke, but I couldn’t help it.

            I hit max bet and watched two numbers light up.

            She had to be talking to me. There was not a single other person within sight. She might have been on her phone but when I turned around and looked at her, I didn’t see a phone. It might have been one of those Bluetooths, I thought, and that cascade of beautiful red hair would hide anything in her ears, but I knew the truth. There was no other mysterious person or Bluetooth in her ear. She was talking to me.

            I hit max bet and watched six numbers light up.

            I should have said something like “Boy, they’ve got you running around this place,” but that’s what a cool, smooth person would say and I’d probably only say, “Hi,” but how wonderful it would feel to deliver that “hi” from my mouth to her ears. Not even her beautiful hair would prevent my words from finding her ears. It would be monumental.

            I hit max bet and watched three numbers light up.

            I thought about my next move and if I should talk to her when she emerged and then I started to panic about what to say and how I’d look and what my words would sound like and if she would regret smiling at me and talking to me once she realized what a sad guy I was.

            I hit max bet and watched all ten numbers light up.

            I thought about Terrie and how I’d love to go into her office and take her hand and tell her what I’ve been thinking and how long I’ve wanted to take her out.

            The machine was beeping in a way I’ve never heard before.

            I looked at it more carefully. I had hit ten numbers out of ten.

            I looked up at the electronic sign above me that showed the world the progressive jackpot prize for hitting ten out of ten with the maximum number of credits bet.

            I had won $44,543 dollars.

            I expected to soil my pants at this moment, but I was too stunned to even do that.

            I looked around me. The room was empty. There were no other gamblers or employees in the area. No one saw me hit this jackpot.

            No one would even know it was me. I’d avoid the fate I had been dreading for years—the paperwork, the attention, the people who would want to take my picture and post it on the giant electronic sign in the parking lot. The money would be nice, but I wasn’t ready. I still had enough money from my parent’s death to live on.  So I didn’t need the money enough for this nightmare. I was only thinking of Terrie and the make-believe conversations we could have. I never meant to win big.

            The machine flashed but nobody knew it but me. To claim this prize, I had to press the “Call Attendant” button to notify the attendant to come up and look at the machine and start that process of talking and paperwork that made me want to hide and cry. I thought about Terrie and how I could walk away and leave that machine and just go and how she was the only person who was around this otherwise empty area all morning, and she could find it and know it was from me and take that money and live the life she’s always wanted.

            And then I realized that she couldn’t take it because she’s working, and the casino would never allow that, and the only way she could enjoy this money is if I claimed it and bought her something nice and beautiful with it. I looked at the screen and its promise, and I stared at the call attendant button, and I realized that whatever I did next was going to pave the way for the rest of my life.

            I had the choice in front of me. I could run away and hope someone who needed this jackpot found it or hope Terrie found the machine and realized I had left it because I loved her (which didn’t make any actual sense, but I was somehow hoping that to her it did). Or I could press the call attendant button and embrace the possibilities.

            I stood up and felt Terrie walking down the hall. I couldn’t be sure if it was her or somebody else, but I could sense it was her. I looked at the escalator some thirty feet to my left.

            I held my breath for a moment and thought again of the line I would say to Terrie given the opportunity: “Boy, they’ve got you running around this place.”

I pressed the call attendant button. I sat back down in the chair. I closed my eyes, heard the chatter of people behind me before such chatter had even actually started, and I realized that I had pushed the button that would start the beginning of the rest of my life.

        return to fiction

Jason Olsen is originally from Los Angeles and Las Vegas and now lives in Price, Utah, with his wife and young daughter. He teaches writing and literature at Utah State University Eastern. His manuscript of short stories, Robot Action Pinball, won first place in the “Book-length Collection of Short Stories” category in the 2013 Utah Division of Arts and Museums Original Writing Competition Awards. His work has appeared in Rattle, Mid-American Review and North American Review, among other places.