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BLIND LUCK: HOW BLACKJACK HELPED A PLAYER

COPE WITH VISION LOSS

by Mark Gruetze

Mark Gruetze has been a skilled recreational casino player for more than 30 years, focusing on blackjack, video poker, and poker.

Anybody who played cards with Ray Brown got the six-word lecture sooner or later.

"This ainít no blind manís game!" my wifeís late stepfather would grumble whenever someone dared to ask what a player had discarded or picked up in a family game of euchre or 31.

While Rayís saying applies to almost anything involving cards, I can vouch that blackjack is a blind manís game. And maybe itís something more: a measure of hope, confidence, and recovery.

Rayís gruff voice reverberated in my mind throughout the summer as I tried to cope with serious vision problems. A series of torn and detached retinas in both eyes required eight surgeries in less than three months. I lost sight in the right eye. On the day I was to return from medical leave and begin work as a one-eyed newspaper editor, doctors diagnosed a detached retina in my good eye and arranged surgery for the next day. Despite the surgeonís confidence, I couldnít be sure when, or whether, my left eye would work again.

Living with little to no vision challenged my wife and me. She administered medicine in between cleaning up my dining room messes, guiding me from one place to another while I stepped on her heels, and protecting me from curbs that jumped in front of me. My progress seemed maddeningly slow. At my one-week checkup, I couldnít see a K that filled the video screen eye chart. I was still getting lost in my home a week later; one day, I knew I was in the kitchen but had no idea where to find the stove or refrigerator.

We still laugh about the excursion when I kicked over three "wet floor" signs and then walked into a wall when I was determined to use a public menís room on my own. The easiest way for me to tell time was to figure out how many episodes of "Pawn Stars" I had listened to.

Being able to read was a distant memory; the fear of not resuming to my 40-year newspaper career ate at me.

During one of my "woe is me" moments, my wife suggested a blackjack session to break the monotony. She could tell me my cards and the dealerís up card, and I could decide what play to make. A few days later, we were in The Meadows casino south of Pittsburgh, my hand on her shoulder as we walked single-file toward a $10 game with a six-deck shoe. As we played, I could see two fuzzy rectangles in my spot, but not their value Ė not even their color. Relying on my wifeís announcing of the cards and my faith in basic strategy, I posted a $5 profit for the session.

Soon it mattered less that I had trouble picking out matching clothes or that I sometimes missed the glass when pouring milk. I had played blackjack and won, even when I couldnít see.

On a blackjack trip a week or so later, I could make out my cards if I leaned directly over them, my face a few inches from the table. I could see my cards from a sitting position on a subsequent visit. And then I was able to make out the dealerís card, too.

I didnít need a professional exam to know my sight was improving. The distance from the playerís seat to the dealerís up card doesnít change. Each blackjack trip was concrete evidence my vision was returning. So was self-confidence.

Losing sight in one eye reduces depth perception; in a parking lot, I couldnít readily tell whether I was about to step on a painted yellow line or walk into a yellow concrete post. But I had learned how to differentiate between a green chip and the felt on the blackjack table. Although I literally blind-sided someone walking next to me a couple of times, I could see when I had a pair of nines against a dealerís eight. I was getting by on a Short Term Disability payment that amounted to 60 percent of salary, but by God, I had made money at the blackjack table.

Time and excellent medical care led to my physical healing. Playing blackjack was a vital prescription for my mental recovery.

In early October, doctors wrote an eyeglass prescription that will give me 20/20 vision in the left eye. That ensures Iíll be able to work, drive and live a normal life for years to come.

My wife and I celebrated by playing blackjack.

Editorís Note: Back in the glory days of the Million Dollar Blackjack Tournaments at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, I met a blind blackjack player that played in tournaments as well as a sighted-person (they allowed another person to tell her what cards she had and the dealerís up card). I once remember the head boss at the LVH invited her and three friends (I was one of them) to call out the cards to her while she played blackjack in the high limit room during a filming for a TV show. (She was one of the featured players on the show.) She often flew alone from the mid-west to Las Vegas to play blackjack and play in tournaments . Even though she was blind, she was a very remarkable person.

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