Monday, January 04, 2010

If at First You Do Succeed

'The Twilight Zone'Had a hot first day of online play on New Year’s Day, ending a big winner. Then not so good over the weekend. Have to admit there were a couple of reasons why I almost expected to stumble following that quick start to the year.

For one, over the break I had just read an Ed Miller article from a recent Card Player titled “The Pitfalls of Running Good” (in the November 24, 2009 issue). The article discusses how a hot streak can in fact be dangerous insofar as it can create unrealistic expectations and -- perhaps more significantly -- can reinforce bad habits. Say you make a bad call and get lucky. Then, later, when in a similar spot, the memory of the reward and the extra cabbage in your stack might well encourage you again to make a bad call. And, chances are, you won’t keep getting lucky.

Miller describes other bad habits that sometimes result from running good (e.g., attacking strong players, trying bad bluffs), but you can read the article yourself. (Miller has a follow up there, too, on “The Pitfalls of Running Bad.”)

There was another reason why I felt a little bit of trepidation about the hot start. Over the New Year’s holiday they were running a “Twilight Zone” marathon on the SyFy channel -- that’s the “SciFi” channel, recently redubbed -- which I believe they do every year. On New Year’s Eve I searched through the list of 80-plus episodes they planned to show and couldn’t find the one I was looking for, called “The Fever.” Finally just went over to YouTube and watched it. You might have seen this one before. If not, as I explain the plot you’ll see how it could reinforce that idea of “the pitfalls of running good” from Miller’s article.

The episode first aired almost 50 years ago on January 29, 1960. It was one penned by Rod Serling, the iconic host and narrator of the show. This one features a couple, Franklin and Flora Gibbs, who have won a short trip to Las Vegas thanks to Flora having won a contest.

Opening Vegas montage in 'The Fever'However, as Serling ominously intones over an opening montage of Vegas sights and sounds, “there’s a prize in their package neither expected nor bargained for,” namely, “an illness worse than any virus can produce, a most inoperative, deadly, life-shattering affliction known as the fever.”

The episode follows a somewhat predictable trajectory, although there’s some real suspense in there and a couple of especially creepy elements that probably made it memorable for many. Like I say, it’s on YouTube, so if you want to watch rather than read my spoiler-filled discussion head on over there before going any further.

Soon after they arrive, Flora (Viv Janiss) wants to stick a nickel in a slot machine, but Franklin (Everett Sloane) sternly objects, calling gambling a “miserable, terrible waste of time.” She’s already inserted the coin, though, and so pulls the lever and loses. They are leaving the casino when a drunk accosts Franklin, gives him a dollar coin, and forces him to put it in another slot machine. The drunk leaves, Franklin reluctantly pulls the lever, and hits for a small win. He then continues his lecturing to Flora, saying how unlike the other “baboons” in the place who would “compulsively” feed their winnings back into the machines, they are going back to their room immediately.

Before they exit the casino, Franklin thinks he hears his name being called. Then, later, as the couple tries to sleep (in separate beds, natch), Franklin thinks he hears his name being called again, the garbled audio sounding like coins falling -- one of those creepy, memorable elements of the episode I was mentioning. Finally he gets up, and when Flora asks him what he is doing he explains his intention to go put the winnings back in the machine. He tells wife that is it necessary for him to do so, again citing his moral code as guiding his actions.

“If there’s one thing I know, Flora, it’s morality,” he explains. “I will not have this tainted money smelling up our pockets.” Franklin’s argument seems to reduce morality to some sort of weird superstition, but Flora certainly can’t stop him.

Franklin has the FeverCut to three hours later. Franklin has lost the winnings, plus he’s cashed three checks’ worth and fed all that money into the machine, too. Flora is highly agitated, but he’s not listening to her pleas for him to stop, saying he’s only interested in how the “inhuman” machine “lets you win a little, then takes it all back.”

The losing continues -- he ends up there all night and into the morning. The sequence is in fact a bit upsetting to watch, especially for those us who have been around such behavior (or perhaps experienced it ourselves). Finally he puts in his last dollar, and the lever gets stuck, sending Franklin into a tirade that results in his knocking the machine over and getting forcibly carried out.

Back in the hotel room, he no longer thinks the machine is “inhuman.” Rather, “it's an entity, a thing, a mind with a will of its own... it deliberately broke down, that thing, that monster, that thief!” Strongly recalls the “rigtards” (as Bill Rini calls them) who believe the online poker games are purposely set up for them to lose.

It's an entity, a thing, a mind with a will of its own!The episode’s sad finale is foreseeable, but still pretty dramatic. Back in the hotel room, Franklin further hallucinates the machine is in the room with them, chillingly calling his name, beckoning him to play. Out the window he goes, plummeting to his death below. A single dollar coin rolls across the pavement and rests next to his corpse, and the machine triumphantly sits in the parking lot, the light on its front resembling a smile.

I remember at least one other gambling-related episode of “The Twilight Zone,” one with Buddy Ebsen (of “Beverly Hillbillies” fame) and involving telekinesis. That one’s called “The Prime Mover” (not seeing it on YouTube). If I recall, that one, too, offers the same sort of overt censure of human greed.

Always curious to see any television show or film depicting the still-relatively-early days of Vegas. In this case the show also gives us an idea what the idea of “Vegas” perhaps represented to the rest of the country -- a kind of “Twilight Zone” in and of itself where seemingly normal people go and, the usual restrictions on their behavior being momentarily lifted, transform into nightmarish, uncontrollable versions of themselves. I guess “Vegas” still means that to a lot of folks, as does the availability of gambling anywhere -- that is, a worrisome temptation to catch “the fever.”

Interesting stuff. I would say more about it, but an online poker site is calling my name.

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Anonymous BJ Nemeth said...

How could you forget the Twilight Zone classic, "A Nice Place to Visit"?

A sleazy burglar dies while committing a crime and wakes up in what he thinks is heaven -- he always wins when he gambles, and food and women are plentiful.

But when he never loses, there is no risk, and he quickly bores of the lifestyle. He demands that he was a rotten guy who doesn't belong in heaven, and he should have been sent to the "other place."

His "guardian angel" tells him ... this IS the other place.

1/04/2010 3:52 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Yes, yes... I was thinking of that one, actually, when I looked up "The Prime Mover." I knew I remembered one in which the gambler never lost! Thanks, B.J.

1/04/2010 3:55 PM  
Blogger Kevin Mathers said...

Slightly off-topic, but there's a Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode that deals with poker. You may have seen it before, but it's still worth watching:

1/04/2010 9:47 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

I am remembering the Poker Grump recommending that Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode some time back. Thanks for that reminder, Kevmath -- gonna have to check that out.

1/06/2010 2:03 PM  

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