07/29/2011 7:38PM

Gambler plays last hand with flair

Golden Pahrump Nugget Casino
Sheldon Finkelstein is hoping to claim a place in the National Handicapping Championship next year.

After devoting much of his life to gambling on horses and poker, Sheldon Finkelstein is accustomed to dealing with the vicissitudes of fortune. He understands that bad breaks are part of life. But nothing could have prepared him for the jolt he received in May.

Finkelstein was discussing the prognosis for his pancreatic cancer with his doctor, who told him straightforwardly: "There’s a very good chance you will not live through June. And there’s a chance you will not make it through next week."

The 62-year-old patient responded: "But I wanted to go to opening day at Del Mar." Since he had been diagnosed with the disease last summer, Finkelstein had already come to terms with his mortality and planned some of the last things he wanted to do in his life. With the Del Mar season starting on July 20, he was running out of time.

Unlike the Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman characters in the movie "The Bucket List," who aspired to sky-dive, climb mountains, and see the Pyramids before they kicked the bucket, Finkelstein had compiled a bucket list well within his comfort zone. He visited old friends in New York. He went to a Mets game. And he wanted to be at Del Mar for the most glamorous day on the Southern California racing calendar. Otherwise, he was content to spend most of his time at the Pahrump Nugget casino, in Pahrump, Nev. "This is where my friends are, and this is what I enjoy doing," he said.

Finkelstein had been playing horses and poker on an almost daily basis since he moved to Nevada 22 years ago. When I asked him what he had done previously, in real life, he replied, "I never really had a real life." He had served in the Army for six years, until a truck accident at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1970 left him disabled with serious back, spine, and head injuries. He went back home to Queens, where Aqueduct racetrack is located and where Friday-night poker is an entrenched part of the local culture, and he got hooked on both games.

After he moved to Las Vegas to become a full-time gambler, he managed to make a profit because of poker. He was a judicious player who knew how to pick his spots – ideally at tables populated by tourists. He played regularly in both poker and handicapping contests, because he understood the strategies that are most effective in a tournament setting. He was thoroughly content with his life – until August 2010.

When his skin and eyes began to turn yellow, Finkelstein thought he had a liver ailment. But the truth was even worse, for pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Doctors told him that he would have a slim chance for survival – no better than 5 percent – if he underwent an operation. But the surgery was too late. On May  12 his doctor told Finkelstein that the "aggressive, ugly cancer" had spread to his lymph nodes and delivered him his grim prognosis.

Finkelstein stuck to his usual routine – he would play in a daily 11 a.m. poker tournament at the Pahrump Nugget and then take his seat in the race book for an afternoon of Thoroughbred simulcasts. He was playing well – he won three small poker tournaments in a row, earning $3,000 – and confirming one of the timeless truths of gambling. When you desperately need to win, you never do, but when you’re indifferent to the money, you can do no wrong.

Not only was Finkelstein’s luck holding up, so was his body. Though he was often fatigued and sometimes in pain, he lived out the month of May, and then he lived through all of June, and he began to plan hopefully for his long-anticipated trip to Del Mar. Before the track’s season began, the Surfside Race Place, the next-door simulcast facility, was holding three days of handicapping contests. Finkelstein decided to go for a week and play all the contests before enjoying a day of live racing.

In the first of the tournaments, against a field of 40 savvy handicappers, he took an early lead, relinquished it, and then picked the winner in the final race of the contest, catapulting him to a first-place finish. The top prize was one any horseplayer would covet: a berth in the National Handicapping Championship. That event, sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Daily Racing Form, offers a $1 million prize to the winner, who also gets recognized as the "Handicapper of the Year" at the Eclipse Awards ceremonies.

When he won the Del Mar tournament, Finkelstein was euphoric, and his joy was tempered only slightly by the realization that the National Handicapping Championship will be held in Las Vegas on Jan. 27 and 28. "I’ve got to make it," he said. "I could care less about a million dollars," he said. "I just want to make it to January." The odds are against him, but if spirit and will power have anything to do with it, he’ll be there.

© 2011, The Washington Post