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When I was first taught how to play blackjack, the rules were something like this: each player is dealt a card, face down. You do a round of betting. Then each player is dealt another card, face up. You do another round of betting. Then each player in turn has the option of taking additional cards, face up, if they want to. You say "hit" if you want another card, and "stay" if you don't want another card. You never say "hit" if your cards already add up to seventeen or more. If at any point your cards add up to more than twenty-one, you're out. At the end, the person whose card total is closest to twenty-one without going over wins the pot.

Discerning readers will note that these are not, in fact, the standard rules for blackjack.

My excuse? I learned the game when I was nine years old and my grandmother was trying to keep a gaggle of cousins occupied for a long Saturday afternoon. In her place, I probably would have done something similar—the oldest of us playing couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen, the youngest playing was young enough to need help with the math sometimes, and explaining the concept of the dealer to a group of kids that age? Not worth it. So grandma taught us "blackjack," gave us a big jar of pennies to use for betting money, and I think that was probably the most fun we ever had while being babysat. Playing blackjack (even this strange nonstandard blackjack, because, you know, we didn't know the difference) was way better than, like, tag or Go Fish or whatever it was that the cousins played when we all got together.

The first time I ever visited a casino was two years ago, when Matt and I scheduled a short stop in Las Vegas on our cross-country drive. It was pretty easy to translate my childhood blackjack game to actual blackjack: each player gets two cards, face up, and the dealer has two, one up and one down. Each player is competing with the dealer, not with the other players. Most people don't actually say "hit" and "stay," they just use hand gestures. But you're still trying to get as close to twenty-one as you can without going over, and you still shouldn't take another card if you're already at seventeen. Well, usually.

We were in Las Vegas for about eighteen hours, I think, and the time we didn't spend sleeping was mostly spent walking around looking at the enormous spectacle of the major hotels on the Strip. But we did put in a few hours in a casino, a few hours in which I managed to lose my entire (very small) gambling budget at the blackjack tables without, I think, winning a single hand. Blackjack, it turns out, is more complicated than it looks.


I went to Las Vegas again, about a year after the first trip. On the flight there, Matt tried to explain to me how to play blackjack. It turns out there's this whole other set of rules, ones that make you less likely to lose all the time, but I had trouble paying attention. He kept talking about weak hands and strong hands and the probability of drawing a ten, and I kept zoning out, thinking, whatever, I learned this game when I was nine, I'll be fine.

And I was fine, if your definition of "fine" can be stretched to include "still lost money at blackjack, but not as much, and far more slowly than the last time." I want to pause here for a moment to address the difficulty I'm having in writing about this, because there's a little mental alarm going off, saying something like "you do realize people are going to wonder if you have a gambling problem." (Perhaps this is because I know my mother is reading. Hi Mom! I don't have a gambling problem!) I want to make this very clear: I do not actually like gambling. I hate losing money, and I know that if I go into a casino I'm a lot more likely to lose money than I am to win it. What I was surprised to find in Las Vegas, though, was that even though I hate gambling, I kind of like casinos. I like watching the dealers, for one thing; I always like watching people who do relatively complex manual tasks with visible elegance and grace. Bartenders, short order cooks, lace knitters, and casino dealers. There's a whole set of routines and motions that are clearly designed to showcase transparency in the process, make it clear to both the players and the security cameras that no cheating is taking place. The way they lay out money that's been handed to them, the way they stack chips, the way they turn cards, the fact that every time a dealer leaves a table she holds her hands out so that everyone can see she's not walking away with anything.

I also liked the social atmosphere at the blackjack tables—since everyone is playing against the dealer, and not against each other, you can get a good sense of collegiality at the table. It helped that we stuck exclusively to the tables with five-dollar-minimum bets. These are pretty universally understood to be the beginners' tables; anyone with real money will go somewhere with a higher minimum. The five-dollar tables tend to be populated by, well, people a lot more like myself. People who are there for entertainment and free drinks, as opposed to people who have any expectation of making money. (There are, as always, exceptions. One evening Matt and I were playing at a five-dollar blackjack table, sitting with these three college seniors, frat brothers who'd driven to Vegas for the weekend on a whim, and the five of us were having a great time when suddenly a new guy showed up at the table, an older man with a very nervous-looking wife in tow. The guy exchanged six hundred dollars for chips, lost it all in six hands, exchanged another six hundred, lost that in six more hands, then walked away without having said a single word the whole time. It's really difficult to enjoy yourself at the five-dollar tables when the guy sitting next to you is betting a hundred dollars a hand and losing approximately your monthly rent every ten minutes. It's even more difficult when he's doing it all in a kind of grim silence and the woman standing behind him looks like she's about to cry.)

As much of a good time as I had with the blackjack, I had more fun elsewhere, doing things that didn't give me the tiny behind-the-eyes headache that comes with the persistent sense that there's a right way to play this game and I'm playing it the wrong way. And besides, craps tables have blackjack tables beat hands-down for social atmosphere and collegiality—all the tossing around of chips, rolling dice, and everyone's cheering all the time.


This year, around Christmastime, I found myself spending time in a casino again, this time on a cruise ship. It was an exciting holiday season for us, having the chance to spend a few days on a ship sailing around the Caribbean, but the seas were a little stormier than expected and it wasn't possible to spend much time lolling about in the sun with trashy novels. The shipboard casino was open rain or shine, though, and this time I finally learned how to play blackjack.

I'm not going to go into the details of it here, partly because I don't want the responsibility of being your gambling tutor, but mostly because I'm not sure I can explain it coherently and concisely. It starts with assuming that any given unknown card is likely to be a ten, moves on to deciding whether the dealer has a strong hand or a weak hand, often involves doing things (like staying on a twelve, or hitting on a seventeen) that I find deeply unnatural and counterintuitive, and sometimes ends up with you losing even though you've done everything right. (In that respect, if in no other, it's not a bad life lesson.) Once I got the basics down, I stopped losing money every time I sat down, and even finished slightly up for the trip. There's a strangely mechanical nature to the gameplay once you've got the strategy set, though, to the point where other players get visibly agitated when people deviate from the rules. (This too can work in your favor—if it is late in the evening and you have perhaps had one rum punch too many, the shocked gasps from your tablemates can sometimes serve as a warning that you've done the math incorrectly and that you're about to double down on a thirteen. Not that this happened to me, mind you. I'm just throwing it out there as a hypothetical.)

I tested out my newfound blackjack skills by entering the ship's tournament. The preliminary rounds went on all afternoon; a twenty-dollar entry fee bought a thousand dollars' worth of chips, and each entrant had seven hands (with a hundred-dollar minimum bet per hand) to turn that thousand dollars into as much money as possible. The top seven players from the preliminary rounds would meet that night, in the final round, where they would start again with the thousand (imaginary) dollars and the seven hands. Tournament play involves a whole other set of rules for blackjack, rules about betting strategy that I can't even begin to understand, but I figured out pretty quickly that I'd have to bet really aggressively in order to get anywhere in the tournament. When I'm playing with my own money, I wouldn't even dream of betting aggressively. Tournament money, though, is a whole other thing, which is how I found myself doing things like betting seven or eight hundred (imaginary) dollars on a single hand of cards. Between the aggressive betting and a remarkable streak of luck, I did well enough to land myself in the final round.

That was a scene that I think my grandmother might have liked to see, back when she taught us all to play with pennies and her strange kid-friendly rules: one of her grandchildren playing cards at a table surrounded by a crowd of cheering spectators, and doing pretty well. And not to brag or anything, but I kicked some ass in the blackjack tournament, right up until the final hand. I started the final hand with a nine and a six, and the dealer had a seven showing, and I took another card, which turned out to be a four. So I held with my nineteen, feeling pretty hopeful, but the dealer's other card was a three, and then he drew a face card, and so my nineteen lost out to his twenty, and the tournament winner was some other guy who had drawn to twenty-one. And that's what I meant earlier about a good life lesson: sometimes you play your hand just right and still all you walk away with is a souvenir keychain.




Susan Marie Groppi is a historian, writer, and editor. She was a fiction editor at Strange Horizons from 2001 to 2010, and Editor-in-Chief from January 2004 to December 2010.
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