How can I keep from looking like a big dummy at the blackjack table?
March 23, 2010 1:43 PM   Subscribe

In a few months, I'm heading to Las Vegas for a conference. I am absolutely not a gambler, but figure I'll spend an hour or two checking out some of the gaudiest casinos and maybe playing some slots. But, for some reason, I also have an urge to try playing blackjack. My question is twofold: 1. What can I expect from the blackjack-playing experience? I've only played slots before and have never interacted with anyone at a casino. How can I keep from looking like an idiot? 2. Any recommended resources for basic blackjack strategy?
posted by laze to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
You could do worse than read Rands on Vegas.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:46 PM on March 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Basic strategy here:
posted by Perplexity at 1:46 PM on March 23, 2010

Basics: tapping the table with your fingertip means, "Hit me." Side-to-side swipe with the hand, palm down, means, "I'll stand."

The dealer MUST stand on 17 and draw on 16 in most casinos. Some make an exception for "soft" 17's (where an ace is used). Assume that the dealer's hole card, the one you can't see, is a 10. It's the most common card (10, J, Q, K of each suit), so that's the most strategic assumption you can make when you play your own cards.

Split a pair of Aces. Just place the second bet side-by-side with the first. Also a good time to double down.

Don't hit emotionally. Play the odds.
posted by misha at 1:54 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Forget the glitsy strip where you'll have $10 or more minimums per hands and go down to the old Vegas strip on Fremont Steet and play someplace like El Cortez, where you can get $2-5 minimums and actually afford to learn while you play.
posted by Pressed Rat at 1:55 PM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I'd also add some etiquette. Learning when it's okay to touch your cards and chips will save you being chided by the dealer. Don't ask me how I know this.
posted by stufflebean at 1:55 PM on March 23, 2010

About the cheapest blackjack table you'll find on the strip is going to be $5 per hand, so it's quite a bit more expensive than slots if you don't play well. Of course if you're adhering closely to basic strategy, you'll win something like 48% of the time on average so your expected loss on 100 hands would only be like $10. Of course there are wild swings; it's possible (though by no means assured) that you could get a good run and quit while you're ahead.

As for the basic strategy: there are zillions of pages online, but you can also buy a card from many street vendors or convenience stores for $5-10 that you can take with you to the table. Also, it is entirely acceptable to ask the dealer what to do in any given situation: they have the basic strategy memorized cold and will be happy to fill you in. The house still has its edge even if you play perfectly.
posted by rkent at 1:57 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dealers can help you - they will let you know how to play a hand if you ask them. There's nothing in it for them if the casino wins, and you're more likely to tip if you do.
posted by askmehow at 1:57 PM on March 23, 2010

Best answer: A lot of casinos, particularly in the afternoon, have a beginners table. The action's a little slower, and the other players are much less likely to give you crap for making what they think is a mistake.
posted by Marky at 2:00 PM on March 23, 2010

I've only been to Vegas a couple of times, but both times the casinos offered special beginner lessons for all the table games. They were advertised on the in-room TV menus, but you could probably just ask anyone working there.
posted by pocams at 2:01 PM on March 23, 2010

Best answer: Lots more here at wizard of odds, including a simplified basic strategy that is indeed way simpler and is only a small fraction worse. Pretty neat for your situation if you ask me.
posted by Perplexity at 2:07 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best advice I ever heard about casino blackjack:

I was at a blackjack table in Biloxi, MS. At the end of the table was an older guy who looked like he'd come to the casino fresh off his tractor. He was drinking beer, telling jokes, laughing with the waitress and the dealer. He hit on 17 and busted. The guy next to him muttered, "That's no way to make money playing blackjack." The farmer looked at him and said, "if I wanted to make money, I'd be at work. I'm at this casino to have fun."

Good advice, I thought.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 2:09 PM on March 23, 2010 [12 favorites]

The dealer can't take your money from your hands. You have to set it on the table and they'll give you chips.

You are required to always have your hands above the table. (Or only when holding cards? I forget, but they'll remind you.)

Tip your dealer.
posted by lore at 2:09 PM on March 23, 2010

Touching your cards tends to be a no-no. As has been mentioned, learned the hand singnals. Tap the table for a hit. I don't suggest pointing at the card as I've seen that misconstrued by the dealer as a stand. It doesn't hurt to also say your intention to be clear- but most tables require the hand action, too, for video camera verification.

Most casinos I've played at, it is very easy and not unusual to stand around the table and watch the action. The first few times I played, I watched table action for a while to learn what the etiquette and rules of tables. Part of this is figuring out how to get chips. First time I played, I had no idea where the cashier was. Turns out you sit down and put money on the table (just in front of you) and the dealer will change you.

Remember that you don't need to tip a full chip (ie, $5). You can get smaller denominations.

The entire deck of cards the dealer uses is called The Shoe. Some people think it's rude to join a blackjack game in the middle of a shoe. Most of my gambling experience comes from Minnesota where it's never been a big issue save the occasional snide comment, but it could become an issue at high scale Vegas casino?
posted by jmd82 at 2:16 PM on March 23, 2010

Always assume the dealer's down card is a 10:
-If you have 5-8, hit
-If you have 9-11, double (unless you have 9 and the dealer has >16)
-If you have 12-16 and the dealer has <> -If you have 12-16 and the dealer has >16, hit
-If you have 17-20, stand

These are basic rules of thumb. There is more nuance, but if you're just looking to have fun and you don't want to concern yourself with memorizing the entire basic strategy, these rules are the best bang for your buck.
posted by jckll at 2:22 PM on March 23, 2010

Sorry, HTML parser got me:

-If you have 12-16 and the dealer has 16 or less, stand
-If you have 12-16 and the dealer has >16, hit
posted by jckll at 2:23 PM on March 23, 2010

Jeesh, the comments here make it sound like the most stressful thing ever. It's supposed to be fun! Just hold when you get to 17, enjoy your complimentary beverage (they still do that, right?), and have a good time. You'll get the hang of it in 10 minutes just watching the other people. If you do something you're not supposed to, they'll tell you. No big deal.
posted by scottatdrake at 2:24 PM on March 23, 2010

I just played quite a bit while in Vegas for a conference. I would say... don't worry about it. The $5 or $10 tables will frequently have very friendly dealers, and they tend to try to help you out. As will other people at the table - the nice thing about blackjack is that the dealer is playing by simple rules, and everyone is playing against the dealer. So no one but luck is against you at the table! Dealers will frequently be frustrated at winning too much - which makes sense since people are going to tip more when they're winning.

I tend to tip the bonus from hitting natural 21... it's not that much money, and the dealers certainly appreciate the tips.
posted by flaterik at 2:34 PM on March 23, 2010

Smile, be friendly with the dealer and they will help you out. Honest. Have a good time and don't stress out over this.
posted by mmascolino at 2:36 PM on March 23, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far. I already feel more comfortable that I'll be able to get by and not look/act like an idiot!
posted by laze at 2:42 PM on March 23, 2010

For a quick primer on what not to do, see the “Double Down” scene in Swingers. You won’t be that guy, of course, but I couldn’t help but post the link :)
posted by Garak at 3:34 PM on March 23, 2010

Remember that the dealers are mostly on your side. There are rules they need you to follow, but they're not trying to embarrass you or slap you on the hand or anything. Don't be afraid to ask questions. You can even ask them how you should play your hand. They're there to protect the casino *and* to help you play.
posted by chrchr at 4:55 PM on March 23, 2010

If you want to avoid the same first-timer's mistake that I made, make sure you bet at least the table minimum for your first hand.

There was a reason that table was so empty, I'll tell ya.
posted by hwyengr at 5:32 PM on March 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

How much do you tip? And when? Always at the end of a game or do you tip between hands?
posted by amanda at 6:13 PM on March 23, 2010

Usually you tip (which isn't required or even really expected) when you leave. But also usually only if you've done very well.

Don't be afraid to ask the dealer "what the book says" for your hand and they'll usually tell you what you're "supposed to do" with a hand.
posted by bitdamaged at 6:21 PM on March 23, 2010

How much money are you willing to lose? Bet it all on the first hand. Win or lose, walk away.
posted by bam at 6:41 PM on March 23, 2010

A note on budget - the rule of thumb is that when you play basic strategy (the guides everyone else has linked to), you should sit down with 20x your unit bet. E.g. at a $5 table, sit down with $100. The reason being that it should help you ride out a loosing streak.

Be prepared to lose the money you sit down with. Be prepared to be ok with yourself if/when you lose that money. You're there to have fun and enjoy yourself. Sometimes that money will last for hours. Sometimes it lasts 15 minutes. And sometimes, when you're really lucky, you get paid to drink and have a good time.

A note on tables to look for - the biggest development in Vegas lately, especially for low-limit tables, is tables that pay 6-5 on a 'natural' 21 (e.g. ten + ace). AVOID THESE TABLES LIKE THE PLAGUE.

Sit down at a table that reads, either on the card that displays the table limits, or on the felt "Blackjack pays 3-2".

What this means is that if you're betting $10/hand, and you get 21, you'll win $15 rather than $12. It doesn't sound like much, but the math swings the odds massively in the house's favor on 6-5.


My personal tipping etiquette:

* I usually begin to tip once I've been there for 10 hands or so (what usually starts it is when I ask the dealer to make change so I can tip the waitress for my drink).

* I usually play $5-10 tables, so my tips are usually $1.

* Generally, I play for the dealer, rather than tip directly (e.g. put the dealer's $1 next to mine).

* If I'm increasing my bet (e.g. a split or double down), I will match the dealer bet as well.

* My rate of tipping/betting for the dealer is generally contingent on:
* How I'm doing at the table
* Whether I like the dealer (e.g. if you're a grumpy puss, what fun is it for me?)
* How helpful the dealer is being.

You're a newbie to all of this, you're not taking this seriously, you're there to have fun. Find a table with betting limits within your budget, with 3-2 blackjacks, and a dealer who's fun (maybe even people who are fun!), and enjoy! Ask questions, the dealers will be happy to help, especially if it's during a slow period (e.g. not Saturday night at 10pm).

FWIW, I've found lately that the Hard Rock has been a good balance of fair play and decent table stakes, but I don't think you'll find a $5 game there - $10 is more or less the minimum.

Highly recommend for all information about casinos, the experience, and table rules. They're a good source of information when you're figuring out where to go.

posted by swngnmonk at 6:46 PM on March 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

One clarification on tipping - once I begin tipping, I tip when I feel like it. Tip when *you* feel like it. I've tipped for the following:

* Because the dealer just paid me big-time on the last hand.
* Because I'm having a bad run of luck, and clearly a tip right now will get me a better hand.
* Because the dealer just told an awesome joke, and I'm still laughing.
* Because the dealer just pointed out some awesome drunken behavior for me to watch.
* Because the dealer just pointed out an only-in-Vegas occurrence right behind me.
* Because the dealer just corrected me on the last hand with "are you *really* sure you want to hit that, sir?"
* Because I felt like tipping the dealer.

You'll find your way through it. Dealers, like bartenders, really work for tips. They fully understand that their tips are generally contingent on how much you like them, and how much you're winning. If you're getting clobbered, they're not expecting much. But if you win big, don't be a jerk, they helped you get there. Take care of them, they'll take care of you.
posted by swngnmonk at 6:52 PM on March 23, 2010

Play the odds at first while you get a feel.

Spend some time watching other players to get a feel.

Don't play too drunk, but a cheeky one to warm you up does no harm. YMMV. If you can't add up the value of your cards in an instant, it's time to stop.

Don't get overexcited. This is supposed to be fun. If it's not, stop.

Set a budget. Then add 20% as a reserve. Go no further than this under any circumstances.

If you're winning and the dealer changes and you start losing, walk away.

For God's sake, unless you have an unnatural urge to literally burn money, do not take either your winnings or what's left of your cash to the roulette table.

If you win, spend it on something you enjoy there quickly. Enjoy it, don't sink it back into the household finances.

By the way, the first couple of times I played blackjack I was blind drunk, having been dragged into a casino by friends. I got on OK. If you're not a total ass it's not hard to play at an average level.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:38 AM on March 24, 2010

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