When to hold ’em and when to fold ’em

4 01 2011

On a transatlantic flight recently, I decided to test the aircraft entertainment system’s electronic poker game. Within about 20 minutes, I turned 200 units (call them dollars, francs, dirhams or rupees) into 12,100 units. Not much thinking and equally little effort and I was rich.

So…Why doesn’t this ever happen in real life?

In a real casino two days later, I burned through $300 (real dollars) in the same amount of time.

And here I always thought I was perfect. I don’t smoke, I drink in moderation only and I exercise regularly. But unfortunately, I do have one vice – Black Jack. I blame my husband though, he is a casino fiend himself, and the one who encourages this demonic recessive trait of mine out into the open.

R. has all the accouterments at home – purchased in a casino supply store in Fabulous Las Vegas: His own green Black Jack table layout, semi-professional chips of various denominations, and a shoe full of used (real) casino playing cards. I think our current set is from Circus Circus, after we played five decks from Caesar’s Palace into the ground.

What is wrong with this picture?* (Answer below.)

Though technically illegal in this country, we hold regular Black Jack tournaments in our home behind closed doors and curtains, for money. Little money, but still. We are hoping that someday the bank will have collected enough winnings to sponsor a nice meal out for the two of us.

Someday. Because in the meantime our customers have actually been doing quite well at the table. On every game night in the last couple of weeks the amount in the pot has shrunk ever so slightly. Call it beginners’ luck or shrewd gambling. Or maybe R. and I just haven’t stacked the deck(s) well enough in our favor.

One recent gaming round over the holidays included friends of ours who will travel with us to Sin City next May to make their debut at the Luxor. We are teaching them how to play the game by the book, so that they will hopefully make a decent impression, and won’t be run out of town. In a best-case scenario they’ll be able to finance their hotel stay with the winnings. That means following a strategy which mathematically increases one’s probability of beating the house by as little as 0.1 percent – even if the book’s “rules” are occasionally rather counter-intuitive. This is the part that’s sometimes tough to wrap one’s head around.

Contrary to popular opinion, there really is a lot the beginner can do (“wrong”) that will attract the consternation of seasoned gamblers. Fortunately though, there are also enough tables in Las Vegas to accommodate the greenhorn just out having fun as well as the hardened desperado focused on making enough to pay next month’s rent.

Only practice makes perfect, and we have just five more short months to practice. Knowing when to hold ‘em and knowing when to fold ‘em is certainly integral. But any player will tell you that knowing when to walk away is the toughest part of the game.


* It took six cards for the dealer  (top) to hit 21 – against every probablilty calculation in Black Jack. That means all four players (bottom) lose the hand, despite themselves holding cards that would be considered pretty good under normal circumstances.