No series on Las Vegas would be complete without addressing the monster that built the city. All you need to know about gambling is summed up by Robert DeNiro (as Ace Rothstein) in Casino:
“In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”
Personally, I’m not a big gambler. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, it’s that I can’t afford to lose a lot of money. My usual system is to walk into the casino with some amount–say, $100–and right off the bat I write that money off as lost. On occasion I get caught up in the possibility of winning (which is just about the most dangerous thing one can do) but in general I look for a game I can play for a long time at minimal losses, and I figure the free drinks (okay, $1 drinks if you count the tip) offset my losses.
I’m a fan of Blackjack, though I’m not quick enough at it yet to play at a table, so I stick to video machines. Beginners can pick up “win cards” at many shops in Vegas that instruct you on which bet to make to reduce the casino’s advantage to about 1%. The cards take some of the mystery out of the game, but for a beginner they can keep you playing longer on a small investment. Video poker is also a good way to play for a long time on a little bit of money, as long as you keep your bets small and you have a rough idea which cards to hold.
I have been known to employ the Martingale strategy, particularly when playing Blackjack. Martingale is simple – you start with a low bet, say a quarter or a dollar, and every time you lose, you double your previous bet. When you win, you go back to your original low bet. Theoretically, no matter how long a losing streak lasts, the first win recoups all losses. Playing this system in a game where you have approximately 50-50 odds, like Blackjack (played correctly) or Roulette when your bets are only red-black or odd-even, will often allow you to play longer. It is very important to note, however, that Martingale is not a guaranteed winning strategy. Quite to the contrary, in any Vegas casino it is a guaranteed loser, and the longer you play the worse your odds become. There are a number of reasons for this, but it takes far too long to explain, so either take my word for it or look elsewhere for explanations. Martingale is neither illegal nor discouraged in Vegas casinos, precisely because the casinos know what Ace Rothstein said: in the end, they get it all.
In general I avoid slot machines. I’ll do a few pulls here or there for entertainment. That feeling when you drop a dollar and the machine goes crazy and spits out $10 or $20 or $50 is an incredible rush, and I’ve had it happen enough times to send me back occasionally, but your odds are so bad at slots that I generally steer clear. I give nickel and penny slots a wide berth. No one, not the highest paid technician at NASA, not Steven Hawking if he were taking those clear pills from “Limitless,” could possibly figure out what the hell is going on when you spin the nickel slots. First of all, that name is a complete lie. Yes, you can bet a single nickel, but it’s impossible to win if you bet that low. Instead, you end up betting $5 on one spin, but you don’t know it because the machine calls it a credit instead of a nickel. Then you spin the wheel, the machine goes apeshit with bells and whistles and lights tells you you’re a BIG WINNER, only to reveal that you just won $1.25 on your $5 spin – in other words, you lost $3.75. Yet you’re a winner. I guess because it didn’t keep all your money, but gave you a tiny fraction back. I avoid those machines at all costs.
As for table games, I’m not there yet. I’ve seen what happens to blackjack players who make the wrong call. They become the pariah, responsible for everyone’s bad luck, and are made to sit in shame for the next ten minutes. Poker, the one game where the casino doesn’t care if you win or lose (because they get their cut anyway) has become the domain of the biggest douchebags America has ever manufactured. It’s the one thing dudes see on ESPN that requires absolutely no physical effort or athletic ability to attempt yourself – you simply drive to a casino, throw on a baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, and fix a grim stare across the table at a bunch of strangers like you’re played by Ron Perlman. Even if I could clean up at some of those tables – and maybe I could, I’m not a bad poker player – I don’t need the grief.
Then there’s craps, which seems like a simple enough game – you roll some dice, and the rules about winning and losing are simple enough. There’s a sense of community around a craps table. There’s a lot of cheering and back-slapping, and everyone seems to either win together or lose together. That’s very appealing – and then you look at the table itself, and you realize there is no way you will ever learn how to play this game. A craps table is demarcated into what appears to be a map of the Balkans, with each tribal zone dedicated to a different kind of bet. They have clear, self-explanatory names like “COME,” “DON’T PASS BAR,” and “DON’T COME.” Four or more dealers work the table together, and between them and the gamblers the stacks of chips move so fast it’s like watching the floor of a stock exchange. Craps is likely the most intimidating game on the casino floor.
The one table I do occasionally approach is roulette. Once or twice a trip, usually after a few too many free drinks, I start to feel lucky and I put a big bet (which to me means like $20) on one color, either red or black. The result, invariably, looks like this:
In the end, my best advice about gambling is to kiss that money goodbye before it ever hits the casino floor. Think of the free drinks as offsetting your bets, and remember that no way, no how, can you beat the casino – at least, not without cheating, and I’d discourage anyone who likes having thumbs from doing that. If you somehow manage to find yourself up by a significant margin, that’s when it’s time to push back from the table and call it a day. Remember that they didn’t build those billion-dollar casinos by letting people walk out with money in their pockets, and remember what Ace Rothstein said: The longer you play, the more you lose, and in the end, the casino gets it all.