17 blackjack beginner boo-boos, part one

Hey, you didn’t know you could make as many as 17 mistakes at the blackjack table, did you? Read on, dear BJ neophyte, and you’ll be able to sidestep all of them.

Error #1: Being intimidated.

You’ve flown to Vegas to have some fun. Even if you’re there for business, you’ll probably want to blow off a little steam at your hotel’s casino. Blackjack sounds like a good idea, but you’re intimidated by the prospect of sitting down with other players. Maybe you actually did play one time and had your decision-making impugned by someone at the table who used words like “Why did you take a hit?” The snarky tone of voice implied the addition of the word “moron” at the sentence’s end.

Are you going to take the easy way out and park yourself in front of a slot machine?

Please don’t.

Everyone starts somewhere. Everyone was or is a newbie. Two suggestions. Numero uno: Be pals with the dealer; many of them will love to help you. Number two: Do a little research—perhaps beginning with the steps that follow—before you head off to Las Vegas or your local casino.

Error #2: Not knowing the rules.

The version of blackjack that you play in a casino does bear a resemblance to the game you played in your dorm room or at the kitchen table. The casino’s rules, however, are different and if you don’t know what those rules are… well, dumb luck will carry you just so far.

Prior to setting out to gamble, take a few minutes to review the rules online or in a book. Some casino websites post those rules.

Then when you’re at the casino, before placing your chips on the table, familiarize yourself with your particular casino’s version of the game. Yes, there are variations. These are usually spelled out on the green felt and on the printed signs near the dealer. Rules can (and very often do) differ from table to table on the casino floor. Or from country to country. Don’t get me started about London or Venice

Read the felt...
Read the felt…


Error #3: Accepting poor odds on blackjack payouts.

If you’re lucky enough to be dealt blackjack (an ace plus a card valued at 10) and the dealer does not, you automatically win. Traditionally the payoff has been 3:2, which means on a $10.00 bet, you win $15.00. It’s one of the advantages that you as a player have at the blackjack table. However, a dismaying number of casinos are paying out at 6:5, so you’d only get $12.00 on a $10.00 bet. This repellant variation of the rules should be clearly displayed at the table. If you see it, run away screaming!

Error #4: Accepting even money on blackjack.

Here’s the situation: You have blackjack; the dealer has a face-up ace. Before checking his hole card, the dealer offers you even money, for example $10 on a $10 bet. Trust me on this: Even in the short term—even if you sit at the table for just an hour—this is a bad idea. Most times the dealer will not have blackjack. By accepting even money, you are compromising one of the only advantages you have at the casino.

Yes, there are specific conditions under which you would take insurance, but these involve card counting and you’re not at that stage in your illustrious career as a player of the game.

I implore you, do not accept even money when you have blackjack.

Error #5: Buying insurance.

This is a close relative to #4.

Here’s how it works. The dealer has a face-up ace. You don’t have blackjack. The dealer asks “Insurance?” as he arcs his hand in a semicircle across the table. If you were to take him up on this generous offer, you’d place an additional chip on the table—up to half of the amount you’ve wagered– in front of your original bet. Let’s say you’ve got $10.00 out there; you’d place a five-dollar chip on the table. If the dealer has blackjack, he pays you 2:1 or $10.00 on your insurance bet, but takes your original ten bucks. It’s a wash.

If the dealer does not have blackjack—and he probably won’t—he takes the insurance chip and you’re out $5.00 and you haven’t even played out the hand yet! This is a terrible bet and you’re a chicken if you do it. Just don’t.

Error #6: Playing “Lucky Ladies” or other side bets.

This is another way for the casino to extract money from you. Playing these side games is so tempting because the minimum bet is just one buck and it requires no skill or decision making at all. Yes, the payouts are large, but the odds against winning are larger. Much larger. If you have money that you’d just like to throw away, this is a wonderful bet. Otherwise it would probably be more fun to stuff your greenbacks into a bong and smoke them.

More beginners’ errors in the next post…

Oh happy gambling films, where art thou, part two 

or, Gambling with the facts

“Based on a true story.”

These words, appearing in movie advertisements or in opening credits, are supposed to confer verisimilitude upon a film, and a hey-this-really-happened kind of expectation on the part of the prospective viewer. But when you get right down to it, it’s the same thing as an ingredient label that reads “may contain artificial ingredients.”

gdcgraphics [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Jim Sturgess, of “21.” MIT student by day… bane of blackjack tables by night.
Case in point: “21, the 2008 film starring Jim Sturgess and Kevin Spacey, and based on the “nonfiction” book, “Bringing Down the House,” by Ben Mezrich. It’s the tale of a card-counting team comprised of MIT students. It gains (supposedly) its impact because it’s true. However, if you were to peruse the book’s copyright page, this is what you’d read:

“The names of the characters and locations in this book have been changed, as have certain physical characteristics and other details. Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.”

In other words, it’s not true. And I think it’s fair to surmise that the film based on the book is even less true; after all, that’s what big-studio movies do, right? They use books as fodder, as starting points to weave a cinematic web that may or may not bear any resemblance to the source material.  In the case of “21,” what we’re left with is a series of serious-faced casino hijinks in which bad things happen to stupid people.

Rating: One Nut (on a one- to five-nut scale)

Truer, in the sense that it presents authentic characters and emotions, is “Rounders, the 1998 Matt Damon/Edward Norton poker drama that’s a thriller-diller to those of us who gamble and (I’m guessing) pretty much a snooze to everybody else. This antipathy on the part of the civilian population is probably due to the downbeat storyline as well as to the dialogue, which is ultra-thick with poker lingo. They should distribute glossaries with this film. Or display Poker to English subtitles.

By David Shankbone (David Shankbone) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Norton as Mr. Bad Influence in “Rounders.”
The movie works grandly (right, fellow poker players?) because Damon and Norton seem to have absorbed the essence of the game and its lifestyle. And then there’s John Malkovich chewing away at the scenery as a malevolent, Oreo-eating Russian named Teddy KGB.

The climactic scene (a scene a faire, if ever there were one) pits Damon versus Malkovich in a two-handed game of hold ’em that’s got to rank with filmdom’s best-ever card scenes. Extra points go to writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman who, along with director John Dahl, crafted a conclusion that’s not a total downer.

Rating: 4 Nuts


Casino buffet

Can you trust your local video poker machine?

If you’ve played video poker, you know that following the initial deal, the machine typically suggests which cards to keep, which to discard. Personally I’ve found that, on the casino floor, this advice is often useful. In fact, I’d estimate that 90% of the time the machines are correct in their recommendations. Beware the ubiquitous Oregon Lottery machines, however, because evidently they’ve been programmed to screw you.

A story in Willamette Week explores a suit filed by a disgruntled player named Justin Curzi who contends that, after being dealt an open-ended straight draw, a video poker machine in Northwest Portland advised him to toss away the wrong card, cutting in half his chances of completing the straight. Repeated tries yielded the same kind of results. (For what it’s worth, while I no longer play the Oregon Lottery machines, my past experiences tell me that Curzi’s claims have real merit.)

This kind of rigging has cost players $134 million, says Curzi. So not only is he pissed off; using his own funds, he’s actually suing the state to recoup players’ losses and says he has internal Lottery communications that back him up. You’ve gotta applaud the guy’s gumption, which you can read about at the WW site.

The Wacky World of the Wynns

Steve Wynn then: A spot for the Golden Nugget with a cameo appearance by the Chairman of the Board.

Steve and Elaine now: Bye-bye to a Member of the Board.


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