It’s one of the most perplexing existential questions of our time.
Let’s paraphrase it: why go to Reno?
Let’s personalize it: why did I go to Reno no less than four times in a five-year period?
When I first visited the city in 2001, it was in the middle of a civic downturn: grungy streets, boarded-up casinos in the center of downtown, free-range hookers working the casino floors, a general feeling of metropolitan malaise.
Reno is clearly not Las Vegas, where artifice is elevated to the level of art. In Las Vegas you’ve got your fake Venice, your fake Paris and your fake New York. You’ve got a fake sphinx and a fake pyramid. The Strip offers some piece of monumental fakery to dazzle you on every square city block. Vegas is (METAPHOR ALERT!) a piece of environmental theatre, a site-specific stage play complete with dazzling costumes and gaudy backdrops.
Which brings us to Reno: Fakery with less enthusiasm. Fakery on Quaaludes. The non-union, low-budget, road-show version of the extravaganza known as Las Vegas.
But somehow I enjoyed myself enough to return three more times, twice in the company of Evil George Taylor.
I know. Four trips to Reno seems a bit insane. So, again: why Reno?
It’s all about the table
The answer can be found in an unassailable truth about blackjack. To wit, all blackjack games are not created equal. It’s one of the first things you learn about the game.
For comparison, look at Texas Hold’em: the same rules apply, generally speaking, whether you’re playing at Foxwoods in Connecticut or at Chinook Winds in Oregon. But in blackjack the rules can vary not only from casino to casino, but from table to table within a casino.
There are lots of little tweaks that can raise or lower your chances of winning, but one of the most significant is the number of decks in play. The fewer the decks, the better your chances of winning. You’d be wise to stay clear of Atlantic City, for example, because, well… first of all because it’s Atlantic City. It’s a scary little place, a film-noirish slum without the film-noirish charm. My advice: stay near the boardwalk and pack a weapon if you wander away from the cluster of casinos on Pacific Avenue.
Safety concerns aside, a good reason to avoid AC is that they deal blackjack from a shoe containing eight decks, a version of the game that gives an enormous advantage to the house.
Six-deck shoes are marginally better. They seem to be the industry norm and are just about inescapable. But Reno… ahhh, Reno. That’s where you’ll find an abundance of two-deck and one-deck blackjack tables, tables that can offer you the best chances of winning, tables that can shave down the house advantage to almost zero.
The location of these tables, while not exactly a state secret, takes a bit of investigating to uncover. After I fell under blackjack’s spell in the spring of 2000, I scoured the web in search of playing strategies and came across Stanford Wong’s BJ21.com. That’s where I found Current Blackjack News, a monthly publication, which (as far as I can tell) is the most comprehensive source of playing conditions in the US and Canada.
Hey, what are the table conditions at the Isle of Capri Casino in Lake Charles, Louisiana?
I’m glad you asked. According to a recent issue of CBJN, they’ve got a two-decker with very liberal rules that shave the house advantage down to a miniscule .19%.
I’m packing my bags right now.
Getting knocked out
So, “discovering” Current Blackjack News was just what a semi-obsessed player needed. So were the rock-bottom package deals to Reno from Southwest Airlines. I mean, $149 for three days/two nights at the Atlantis? I’d be losing money if I didn’t go.
I flew into Reno armed with a version of the strategy called progressive betting. It’s simple: Raise your bet every time you win. Return to your initial bet size each time you lose.
This is a strategy that makes for blackjack sessions that are alternately thrilling and harrowing. In one long afternoon session at the Eldorado (SPOILER ALERT! This casino becomes a villain in a future post) I simply couldn’t lose and ended up about $700, a fair amount when you’re betting in increments of five dollars.
But these types of sessions were few and far between. The fun evaporates when the odds correct themselves and your precious chips are being sucked into the fiery maw of Mount Doom. I wasn’t really winning, but I really wasn’t losing. At first I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of the casino, but soon the pattern of winning, then giving it back, winning then giving it back became monotonous. It was time to step up my game. Amazon had a book that told me just what I had to do. It was a slim volume with big print, “Knock-Out Blackjack: The Easiest Card-Counting System Ever Devised.”
“Easiest.” I liked the sound of that.
Unfortunately, after I mastered the “K-O System” I also discovered how easy it was to get kicked out of a casino.