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Frank Scoblete - Hitchcock, Blackjack and Suspense

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  • Frank ScobleteThe great film director Alfred Hitchcock made a fine distinction between a great thrill and great suspense when it came to matters of entertainment.

    Here, by analogy, was his definition of ?a thrill?: On the screen is a man standing at a podium droning on to his board of directors about this and that business enterprise, how much they made in this quarter, what to expect in the future, when all of a sudden the podium explodes into a million pieces, as does the man, and everyone in the room is either killed or maimed.

    The movie audience jumps out of its collective seat; popcorn hits the floor, as does various sodas, diet and otherwise. That was a thrill. Hearts are thumping like crazy. No one expected that bomb. Wow!

    But Hitch (as we film aficionados refer to him) was not a purveyor of cheap thrills, oh, no. He was the master of something far more savory for your entertainment dollar.

    Suspense is light years away from a thrill; it is a different experience altogether, and goes like this: Now, the same scene as above is shown on the screen, but this time there is no one in the conference room. A moment passes and a mysterious, black-draped figure enters, goes to the podium, and places a bomb in it. Then he sets the timer on the bomb for ten minutes. Then he leaves. A few moments later, the board of directors enters the room and so does the speaker who takes his place at the podium. Now the speaker begins his droning speech.

    However, since the movie audience knows there is a bomb in that podium -- as the camera keeps flashing to the timer (5 minutes, 4 minutes, 1 minute) -- the speaker?s speech becomes unbearable. When the speaker says: ?I wonder what that ticking is? Hmmm. Probably nothing,? and then continues, the audience?s collective stomachs cramp. Why doesn?t the speaker just stop, realize there?s a ticking bomb not twelve inches from his body, and get out of there, pronto? Suddenly the speaker says: ?Well, that?s it.? The board starts to rise (30 seconds on the bomb -- they might just escape!) but then: ?Oh, wait,? says the speaker, ?just one more thing. We?ve ordered new lavatory paper. It?s really very soft and clean and?.? KABOOOOMMM!!!

    Obviously suspense is the far more interesting and enjoyable experience, and if it ends in a thrill as well, then so much the better.

    Looked at from a Hitchcockian perspective, all gambling games can be divided into games dominated by a ?thrill? or games dominated by ?suspense.? Granted suspense does make up a portion of the thrill games? thrills, since all players are hopeful of winning the next decision and hang in anticipation as the decision is about to be rendered. That is suspense. But it is suspense with a small ?s.? Still when the roulette wheel spins, and ball goes round and round, we just wait for the result; we can do nothing. It?s a straight line: ball spins, ball drops, decision is rendered. You haveno control. You can?t walk out of the room. Roulette decisions are primarily thrills. Next spin!

    Craps has the same underpinning, although it is a much more thrilling game than roulette, since the individual players get to roll the dice. That puts an element of control, be it real or imagined, into the hands of the players. Still, once the dice are released, that?s all she wrote. Short of grabbing the dice in mid-flight and putting them down on the number you want, you just wait for the result. Dice release, players wait, decision is rendered. Thrill. Next roll!

    Slots are the same, although the thrill is monumental if a big jackpot is hit. You put your coin in, spin the reels, and discover what fortune has in store for you. Thrill. Next spin.

    Blackjack, on the other hand, is a game of drawn-out suspense. At each and every step of the way we hang in anticipation. Picture a typical blackjack scenario:

    The dealer finishes the shuffle and puts the cards in the shoe. Now, he buries a card. You wonder what that card was? Now, he deals. First base gets a card, second base, then you, then the guy on third base (I?m making this a four-handed game). You have a six as your first card. Now, you are rooting for a five to hit that six so you can double down. First base gets a card, a three (suspense is building), now second base gets a ten (stomach tightens), now you get -- yes! - a five! (Thrill!) You have 11 and the dealer now turns over (suspense), a 10.

    Ugh! You hate to double down on an 11 against a dealer?s 10 but it must be done. You put out another bet equal to the previous bet. Now, first base asks for a hit on his 14 (suspense), he pulls a four. Good. No ten. You want that ten! Now, second base stands with his 17. (Suspense.) The dealer reaches over to the shoe and drags out your card. (Agonizing suspense.) Oh, no, the worst, the very worst, an ace. Your heart sinks. Third base has a 19 and is standing.

    Now, the dealer flips over his hole card -- you?re expecting a 7 or more and doom for your double down. But wait. The dealer?s hole card is a six! He has 16! Your heart is in your throat. You still have a chance to win that double down of yours. The dealer is in the worst possible draw position -- 16! (Suspense!) The dealer reaches for the shoe (your heart thumps, thumps) and out comes the card -- a seven, he busts! You win your double down! Hooray! Thrill.

    As you can see from that little example above, blackjack is a step-by-step-by-step exercise in sustained suspense, whereas the other games mentioned are basically two steps -- launch and decision. The thrill of blackjack is overshadowed by the suspense; whereas in the other games, the suspense is overshadowed by the thrill. Thus, blackjack is Hitchcockian in its parameters. And that?s one of the reasons it has come to dominate the table games in the casino world.

    Some of Frank's most popular books can be purchased by clicking one of the image links below:

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