About me, in general
My lawsuit against CompUSA
Bo, the canine opera singer
31 (En og tredive)
The Fed-Up New Yorker's Guide to Transportation Etiquette
Three or four times a year, I get a craving for blackjack and hie myself to Atlantic City on the 7:30 a.m. Academy bus to Claridge. (Atlantic City pedantry: It's Claridge, not Claridge's. Now back to our game.) I head back to New York on one of the late-evening buses, exhausted and high from an exhilarating 10-hour battle against the casinos. Here's what happens in the interim.
As I read somewhere (and I'll post a credit if I figure out where "somewhere" is), the object of blackjack isn't to get as close to 21 without going over. The object is to make money.
To do that, it is essential to know basic strategy, and I'm embarrassed that I ever made a wager without looking at a basic-strategy chart. Somehow my three pre-basic-strategy sessions left me with a net profit of $2.50, but it's still better to know how to play.
Basic strategy is a system of playing that tells you what to do depending on your cards and the dealer's. I won't include a basic-strategy chart or the rules of play here (there are good ones on-line, such as at the Wizard of Odds), but I'll sum up the chart in a few easy-to-learn tenets, which take into account your cards and the dealer's likelihood of busting (going over 21).
Most of the tenets are intuitive if you assume that the dealer's hole card is a 10. The tenets also tend to divide into two categories: what to do if the dealer has a probable bust hand (2 to 6 showing; that is, an assumed 12 to 16) and what to do if the dealer has a probable pat hand (7 to ace showing; that is, an assumed 17 to 21). If the dealer has an ace showing and a 10 underneath, you won't even get to play (you'll be offered insurance, which you should never take), but you can assume that the dealer is very unlikely to bust.
So here's the basic strategy. For free on-line practice, visit the basic-strategy trainer at http://www.blackjackinfo.com/bst.
Without an ace or a pair:
With an ace:
With a pair:
If you assume that you'll add a 10 to each hand when you split, the following guidelines are pretty intuitive.
When my (then-) girlfriend and I visited Las Vegas in February 2001, we discovered Spanish 21. It's quite a different animal from blackjack, but once you're familiar with the differences, you can play it quite sensibly.
The main differences are as follows:
Most Spanish 21 tables also offer "match the dealer," which is a sucker bet. If the dealer's upcard matches the rank of either of your first two cards, you get three times your match-the-dealer bet; if it's also the same suit, you get 12 times that bet.
The Wizard of Odds has a basic-strategy chart for Spanish 21. It's a monster, but most of the guidelines make sense, and the tough-to-remember ones don't crop up very often anyway. Despite the fact that I haven't memorized the chart enough to follow it rigidly, I tend to do well at this game - by the time all was said and done in Las Vegas, I was up $5 at Spanish 21 (after being down $250 a couple of days into the trip, before I'd figured out its nuances).
Unless I'm going there with someone else, I visit Atlantic City solely to play blackjack and Spanish 21. I leave my apartment at 7:08 in the morning and withdraw $300 from the Citibank at 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue; this ensures that I don't lose more than $300 plus whatever's already in my wallet (I'm too cheap to pay fees to withdraw from the non-Citibank ATMs inside the casinos). I buy my ticket for the Academy bus at gate 1 at Port Authority ($24 or $27 depending on the day of the week, about $15 of which is reimbursed by whatever casino the bus is going to), and at 7:30 I'm off. I get to Atlantic City at around 9:50, which leaves me time to play before the early-afternoon table-minimum hikes.
It's hard to describe the rush I feel throughout one of these days. I'm always freezing when I start at Claridge, partially because the air conditioning is on full blast, but mostly because I'm a little nervous: What kind of day will it be?
But then I settle in, and I'm comfortable. Most players and dealers are friendly, though there are a few players whose personalities deem them worthy of losing a quick $500. Usually they are people who don't understand basic strategy - people who chastise me for hitting 12 against a 3 or for splitting eights against a 10. They're more likely to mouth off if I'm at third base (last to play) and take the dealer's bust card. Remember, folks: A wrong play is just as likely to save the other players as it is to make them lose. And these are the correct plays you're criticizing.
Then there was the player at Tropicana who placed wagers at two betting positions, having not seen me arrive, and practically blamed me for the entire Holocaust because I disturbed the flow of the cards by starting to play. "I didn't see him come in - the fucker," he complained, with a flick of the hand in my direction. I calmly pointed out, two hands later, that since I'd arrived he'd been dealt a blackjack and a winning 20.
But enough of other players, and back to my escalating high. My mind is entirely focused on the cards and the conversation (for gambling is a social affair), and I am constantly shifting my chips into stacks of $50 and $100, always aware of how far ahead or behind I am. I don't count cards, but I jack up my bet if a lot of low cards have just come out, and I reduce it or sit out a hand if a lot of tens and aces have just come out. I don't drink, and I'd guess I have about an average balance of stinginess and generosity when it comes to tipping dealers.
My toughest problem is learning when to go to a different table or casino. There are times I'll sit down, win three $15 hands in a row with two blackjacks, and be up $55 - but am I really going to get up after only three hands? And if I'm down $50 after only three hands, can't I expect that the odds will favor me for the fourth?
Sometimes it's hard to leave a table simply because I find the dealer or the other players especially friendly. It's not that I'm expecting to develop long-lasting associations with them, but it's nice to continue a pleasant conversation. Sometimes, too, having fought for a rare $10-minimum seat on a weekend night, it's hard to give it up after just a few minutes. But I am slowly figuring out when it's time to move on.
By around 2:00, I'm starting to get hungry, and within the next couple of hours I'll have lunch. This is another reason I'm inclined to stay at the same place for a while: I'm more likely to earn a buffet comp. Lunch is a quick event, especially if it's a buffet. Then it's back to the tables.
I usually play until well after dark, either because I'm doing especially well and want to keep the streak going, or because I'm doing especially poorly and want to give another table one more shot before I head home. Once I pre-empted further losses by going home at 4:00, down $195 - but this is rare.
The bus ride home is never pleasant. If I'm ahead, I can't sleep because I want to get home and revel outside the boundaries imposed by the confines of a bus. If I'm far behind, I can't sleep because I'm thinking about all the better things I could have done with the day and how foolish I feel to have lost so much, though, once, all it took the next day was a look at a show about Rwanda, a thought toward the situation in Israel's West Bank, and a few minutes of a Lifetime movie to remind me that I'm a heck of a lot better off than most people.
So how have I made out? I tend to break about even, usually by being deep in the red over multiple sessions and then making it back. In 2001, I dropped $281.50 and $320 on two spring days, and then I won $622.50 in a single day in August. On that auspicious day, I would have left in the early evening, $300 ahead, but I still had a coupon for a match play at Showboat, and all I could find there were $15 tables, so I kept playing - and kept winning. Other players were getting 13s and 14s; I was getting 19s and 20s. When I used my match-play coupon (which made a $25 bet count as $50), I was dealt a king and a four against a dealer ten, and I prepared myself to face the jaws of Murphy's Law. I hit and got a seven, and I won $50. This is why you follow basic strategy rigidly.
Weekend evenings year-round, blackjack tables are almost filled to capacity, the minimum bet is at least $10 (often $15), and a lot of people are playing more than the minimum - sometimes several times the minimum.
I'm not the richest person in the U.S., but I'd guess that I'm probably at least as well off as 80% of the population. And there I am fretting over a $10 bet when dozens around me are betting $25 or $50 or $200 per hand. And a lot of them are playing stupidly, hitting 16s against a dealer 6, doubling down with 7 or 8 (or even 12), and splitting everything in sight. And while I hit the casinos only a few times a year, many of them probably visit weekly or monthly. Surely, a lot of people are losing several hundred - or several thousand - dollars a month.
Where does their money come from? How do they afford losing these outrageous sums? I would guess that most of them live in places where the cost of living is less than in midtown Manhattan, so perhaps they're able to save a bit more than I do. But even if I were saving $2000 a month, I'm sure I'd feel awfully silly squandering half of that at a game that I'm not playing properly.
I'm certainly in no position to imply that others are throwing away fortunes at the expense of their families, but I really wonder how many of them are ignoring the essential maxim advertised on just about every piece of gambling literature produced in Atlantic City: Bet with your head, not over it.
Much as I marvel at the massive sums that other players lose, I'm sure my non-gambling friends wonder how I can mentally and financially withstand dropping $200 in a day at the casinos. But I don't consider it ridiculous to lose $200 every few months at cards: That's my entertainment. (Well, after music and theatre and travel.) True, it is a lot to lose in a day, but when I lose that much, I significantly cut back on my expenses for the several following weeks. Consider what else $200 might buy you in Manhattan over the course of two or three months:
And the next time I hit the tables, I at least have a shot at getting my $200 back.