MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

The kid who got about as lucky as you can hope to get in Vegas

JON RUDDY July 1 1968
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

The kid who got about as lucky as you can hope to get in Vegas

JON RUDDY July 1 1968

The kid who got about as lucky as you can hope to get in Vegas

WHEN THE KID from Toronto went to Las Vegas on business he was drawn toward the big casinos as inexorably as the sun sets on the Mojave Desert. He was, after all, a born gambler. The first and last time he played bingo, on the midway at the Canadian National Exhibition in August, 1963, he won — and walked off with a deep-fat fryer. Much earlier, in the late forties, he consistently won quantities of bubble-gum cards in the oldest established permanent floating bubblegum-card-flipping game at Maywood Public School, St. Catharines, Ont.

So the kid had been to all the right schools. Now, chewing a pencil-thin cigar, he entered the Stardust casino and the big time. He saw hundreds of matrons with Dixie cups full of nickels playing the slots. Vacant and obese, they didn’t even look at the oranges, lemons, plums, cherries, bells, bars and Lucky Sevens clattering up in their machines. When somebody else won a jackpot and all hell broke loose they’d look around, all right, but they’d keep cranking away the whole time. The kid put a nickel in a machine and cranked reflectively. The machine made a beautiful noise, a noise like a cash register before the bell rings and the drawer shoots out. A bunch of cherries came up in the left window and the machine offered three nickels. The kid left them there and walked away. It was a commitment. The slot machines were already

forgotten and he was thinking of other things.

The kid knew that blackjack is the best game in Vegas. He had read it somewhere and he had heard somebody tell it to Johnny Carson on the Tonight show. He knew that the house percentage varies in every hand. He knew that the game differs from craps and roulette in its human element — gambler vs. dealer, eyeball to eyeball — and that it attracts a more thoughtful kind of player than the antic types who play craps. Some highly refined brains have pondered the apparently simple object of developing a higher card total, not exceeding 21, than the dealer. In 1964 a New Mexico State university professor named Thorp wrote a whole book about it called Beat the Dealer in which he explained a complex system of cardcounting. It’s hard to say how effective Thorp's system was, since hardly anybody was brainy enough to implement it. But the casino executives were impressed enough to institute two minor changes in the rules to give the house a better edge. But after a couple of weeks, these changes were abandoned as a needless hedge.

The kid found an empty place at a blackjack table and passed $20 to the dealer. The dealer gave him some chips and used a clear plastic device to push the bill through a narrow' slot on the table. The kid put a $1 chip in the betting square. The

dealer went around the table with the deck incredibly fast. The kid had an eight and a six. The dealer had a six showing. The kid noticed that the players did not talk to the dealer. Instead of saying “Hit me” they flicked their cards inward, almost imperceptibly. When they wanted to stay they pushed their cards under their bets. The big time, right? The kid took another card. It was a six, and the dealer went over 21 and the kid won $1. Later he learned that he should have stood with 14 when the dealer had a six showing, but that night he was ignorant and happy. On the next hand he said “Hit me” and the dealer gave him a funny look, a very cool, disparaging look, but the card gave the kid a score of 21. He won $20 and the third night, playing hunches in a kind of partnership with an elderly lady from Philadelphia, and drinking too many rum-and-Cokes (drinks are free in the casinos) he won $50 and went to bed feeling that gambling was profitable enough but really rather a bore. He wondered when he would be mobbed by eager starlets.

The next day the kid made the acquaintance of one of.his dealers, and they had a drink together when the dealer went off his eight-hour shift. The dealer turned out to be from Vancouver and he said to the kid. “You sure are one lucky Cana-

dian.” He told the kid he was doing everything wrong and proceeded to explain the mysteries of blackjack. Some of what he said follows. Double up on your bets after a winning hand, not after you lose. That way you'll be gambling on the house's money and riding with the cards. Whenever you lose, pull back to a basic $1 bet and stay with it until you start to win. Take advantage of a dealer’s vulnerability by “doubling down” on your bet when you have a count of 10 or 11 and the dealer’s top card is eight or under. When the dealer’s top card is a five or six he is in real trouble. Always hit a soft 17 (a six and an ace), never a hard 17 (seven and face card). Hit a 16 when the dealer has a face card showing, but stay with a 15 when he has a lower top card. Always hit a 12. If you’ve drawn a pair, always split aces, sixes or sevens. Never split fives or 10s.

All these suggestions made a great deal of sense to the kid and that night, his fourth in Vegas, cold sober, playing against the Canadian dealer, he implemented them and slowly lost $90.

“You sure are one lucky Canadian.” said the dealer. “If you'd kept playing hunches you would have dropped a bundle. Go home and tell your wife you were a big winner in Vegas — you broke even!”

And I did.

JON RUDDY