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How blackjack helped a card player cope with vision loss

FILE ART - Players check their hands at the Blackjack table.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>FILE ART</em></div>Players check their hands at the Blackjack table.
MARK BREWER - Mark Brewer illustration
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>MARK BREWER</em></div>Mark Brewer illustration

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Vision forecast

More than 38 million Americans age 40 and older are blind, visually impaired or have an age-related eye disease, according to the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind. That number is expected to grow as the population ages.

Those who are concerned about vision loss should contact the National Federation for the Blind at or the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind at

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By Mark Gruetze
Monday, Oct. 28, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

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

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