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How blackjack helped a card player cope with vision loss

| Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
FILE ART
Players check their hands at the Blackjack table.
MARK BREWER
Mark Brewer illustration

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

“This ain't no blind man's game!” my wife's stepfather would grumble whenever someone dared to ask what a player had discarded or picked up in a family game of euchre or 31.

Ray's saying applies to almost anything involving cards, but it's not universally true. From experience, I can vouch that blackjack is a blind man's game. And maybe it's something more: a measure of hope, a step toward regaining confidence, a tangible proof of healing.

Ray's 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 surgeon's confidence, I couldn't be sure when, or whether, my left eye would work again.

Living with little to no vision challenged me and my wife. 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 couldn't see a “K” that occupied the entire eye-chart video screen. 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 time I kicked over three “wet floor” signs and then walked into a wall when I was determined to use a public men's 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 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 dealer's up-card, and I could decide what play to make. A few days later, we were in The Meadows casino, 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 — not even their color. Relying on my wife's 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 couldn't see.

A week or so after that first trip, 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 dealer's card, too.

I didn't need a professional exam to know my sight was improving. The distance from the player's seat to the dealer's up-card doesn't change. Each blackjack trip was concrete evidence my vision was returning. So was self-confidence.

My loss of depth perception meant I couldn't 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 green felt of 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 dealer's 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 I'll be able to work, drive and live a normal life for years to come.

My wife and I celebrated by playing blackjack.

Mark Gruetze is the adminstrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or mgruetze@tribweb.com.

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