J. M. Pressley
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How to Win at the Tables Despite Yourself

Following up on the discoveries I made that spurred me to write That's Why They Call it Gambling, I had been waiting some time to try to put some of these hypotheses to more rigorous field testing. I have some good casino game programs on my computers. Those games are to casino gambling what infield practice is to a baseball team; it's a good way to teach yourself how to play, but you just can't simulate the game conditions. There's simply no way to simulate the cramped, smoky table in the middle of the pit, no way to simulate the feel of five or twenty-five dollar chips in front of you that came from your paycheck, and no way to simulate the constant barrage of sound, light, and distractions that tests your focus.

No, the only way to find out for certain how you're going to play at the casino tables is to play at the casino tables. What you hope is that you've gotten enough of the stupidity out of your system at home before you make that visit. For me and my usual casino buddy, Ethan, that would be a visit to the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana. After spending the better part of eight hours on the Horseshoe casino floor, I actually walked out of the casino—for the first time in years, and entirely due to sheer dumb luck—with more money than when I walked into it.

It would be mistaken to think that any of my carefully planned theorizing contributed one iota toward my success. The plan was to hit the Horseshoe just prior to lunch and scout out the $10 blackjack tables. I had a $400 bankroll, more than enough to cover a few shoes' worth of play, and I had every intention of combining a mastery of basic blackjack strategy with a resolved commitment to playing a 1-3-2-6 betting system. This was going to be the validation of my newly refined technique for winning blackjack. As I was to discover, the only thing our trip would prove is that it's evidently useless for me to visit a casino with anything resembling a coherent plan.

My Plan and I Head South

After enjoying Friday traffic on the Skyway, Ethan and I eventually made it to the Horseshoe in Hammond around noon. We ate a quick lunch at the Lake Michigan Deli Company and went in. The casino is a four-level boat that is primarily dedicated to slot machines. Over 2,000 of them, in fact. Table games number around 49, on the other hand, 37 of which are supposedly dedicated to blackjack. That could very well be. Upon entering the casino, however, Ethan and I did a full walkthrough that revealed less than a handful of $10 blackjack tables. And, as one might expect, every one of them was packed full of players. I began to fret. The two upper levels were virtually nothing but slots and video gambling. It looked like the best we would find would be a $15 table, but those too were full.

When we found ourselves tucked away near the Caribbean Stud tables discussing what exactly to do, we ran into Tony at the only empty table on the floor. He talked to us a bit about Caribbean Stud (he was running the $10 table and waiting on anyone to take a seat), and we had a couple of laughs with him before roaming some more. At this point, we'd been ambling about the boat for at least twenty minutes, and my plans were taking a nose dive. Shrugging, and because we were standing right in front of it, I suggested we try a hand at the other Caribbean Stud table where the minimum bet was only $5 to ante.

Welcome to the Island, Mon

First, let me explain a little about Caribbean Stud poker. It follows the basic rules of poker, with the players all trying to beat the dealer's hand after an ante and a round of betting. The dealer deals five cards to the players and five cards to himself, with the last dealer card dealt up. After viewing his own cards, the player has to either bet (by doubling his ante) or surrender (forfeiting his ante) prior to the dealer's flop. On the flop, the dealer has to have an ace and a king in hand to qualify for that round. If the dealer doesn't qualify, every player that bets receives a one-to-one payoff on their ante and keeps their bet. If the dealer has a qualifying hand, then it's the players against the dealer. If you lose, you lose both your ante and bet. If you win, you receive payoffs on both your ante and your bet based on the strength of your hand (the payoffs below are typical, but vary according to the house rules):

Your Hand Odds Payoff
Pair or less 1-1
Two Pair 2-1
Three of a Kind 3-1
Straight 4-1
Flush 5-1
Full House 7-1
Four of a Kind 20-1
Straight Flush 50-1
Royal Flush 100-1

It sounds fairly reasonable so far, doesn't it? Well, keep in mind that even a royal flush doesn't win if the dealer doesn't qualify; you would only receive that one-to-one payoff on your ante. Between basic odds, surrenders, and dealer disqualifications, a player is looking to overcome a typical house edge of roughly 4.4% overall, which leads one to wonder how on earth this game ever garnered its wide popularity.

Somewhere along the line, the casino marketing gurus (or weasels, if you prefer) came up with the idea of adding a progressive jackpot to Caribbean Stud. In addition to the odds payoffs based on a player's hand, for an extra dollar, the player can play the progressive jackpot on each hand as well that gets paid regardless of whether or not the dealer's hand qualifies. The odds generally look like this:

Your Hand Progressive Payoff Odds Against
Pair or less none -
Two Pair none -
Three of a Kind none -
Straight none -
Flush $50 508 to 1
Full House $75 693 to 1
Four of a Kind $100 4,164 to 1
Straight Flush 10% of Jackpot 64,973 to 1
Royal Flush Jackpot 649,740 to 1

Of course, the odds against winning a progressive payoff start with a flush and gets worse from there, which pretty much means you'd pay $508 to win $50, mathematically speaking. Most experts vary on their opinions about this, ranging from don't play it at all to only play if the jackpot is $150,000 or better (it was hovering around $49,000 all day there). More on this later.

There are really only two basic rules of strategy that apply to the game:

Mind you, I knew none of this before sitting down at the table. I just figured that a $5 minimum was too good to pass up, no matter what this game was. The next thing I knew, I was getting dealt my first hand.

Just Call Me the Caribbean Stud

There I was, sitting at a cheap-bet table with my best friend and without a significant crowd. We were right on the cocktail waitress circuit, we drew a personable dealer, and I had a C-note's worth in $5 chips stacked tidily in front of me. For the moment, I forgot about blackjack and tried to focus on a table game that, previous to this, I'd played once for a total of four hands. Due to the cosmic joke that the casino gods conspired to play that day, however, I was coming up roses.

In the first session, which lasted nearly three hours, I turned $100 into $280 by the time I got up to leave the table. I wish I could say that it was strategy, but the bulk of that winning came within the span of three hands. At this point, I'd like the reader to refer to the progressive jackpot odds outlined above; I was not, in fact, playing the dollar progressive in this session. On one of my hands, I got dealt a flush on a $5 ante/$10 bet. The dealer qualified with a pair, and I wound up winning $75. At this point, both the dealer and the nearby pit boss had a hearty laugh over my loss of an additional $50 on the progressive bet. I shrugged it off and kept at it. After folding on the subsequent hand, my next hand was a full house. Again, I refer the reader to the odds, and I missed out on yet another $75 on the progressive—what are the odds, after all, of hitting two progressive bets in the span of three hands—and settled for beating the dealer on another minimum bet for a cool $105 win.

Since I soon realized that I had nearly tripled my initial stake, I decided to take the casino's money off the table and find Ethan, who had gone off to play the Pai-Gow table on the next level. I sat in on his last couple of hands, losing $20 for the effort. Once done with a restroom and cigarette break, I scanned the $10 blackjack tables with Ethan again. They were still extremely crowded. Sighing, we spotted a wide open $15 table. I figured that since I was still betting with the house's money, I could give that a whack.

The End of the Progressive Era

Ethan and I sat down, and for the first few hands, it was just us and the dealer. Strategy was no problem. Progressive betting, however, suddenly became progressively less appealing. On a $10 table, the 1-3-2-6 system means that the highest possible bet (assuming a standard split or double-down) would be $120. On a $15 table, the cycle of bets would have run $15-$45-$30-$90, with a high-end potential of betting $180 on that fourth hand.

Essentially, the region of my brain that would normally kick in if I was looking over a cliff at a sheer drop of a few stories engaged at the first moment I considered running the 1-3-2-6 system on the $15 table. It simply refused to let my hand select more than three $5 chips at any time during our blackjack session. As I watched the dealer over the course of our session draw to a twenty-one on at least three occasions on which I held a twenty, perhaps the emergency brake my brain had applied was a good thing, all in all. I also saw more hard twelves and thirteens during that sitting than I ever care to see again.

To compound this frustration, the table had filled up rather quickly after the first few hands. Not only was the table getting pretty cramped, but the people cramping us wasted little time in annoying us with the whole "If you hadn't hit just then, that nine would have been mine" routine. Also, it seemed like some of their hands were straying a little too close to other people's chips on the table. When the latest player joined in and wouldn't shut up about what kinds of chips she wanted or didn't want on her payoffs, Ethan and I both decided that blackjack, for the time being at least, was done.

Logic Takes a Coffee Break

So, I'd done fairly well at Caribbean Stud and was discouraged by my blackjack experience. Three card poker seemed too much like Caribbean Stud, while baccarat and craps tables in the casino were not the places for me to learn the ropes of either game. Which left me with my favorite money-sucking device as my last table option, the roulette wheel.

The first time I ever played roulette was 1994 at the Grand Victoria while on a bachelor party excursion. It also marks the last time I walked off a casino floor with a profit. By generally playing red that night, I burned through my first $100 and then wound up doubling my next $100 with a few chips to spare. Ever since then, I've been waiting for a second winning session at the roulette wheel. I figured that based on my luck with Caribbean Stud, maybe today was the day. I cashed in my remaining $100 chip for fives and ones and proceeded to bet the wheel.

My strategy of covering a span of six numbers with $10 and plunking $5 each on 19 and 23 on each spin—those being my wife's birthday and my own, respectively—went nowhere fast. But, if nothing else, it just shows you what jokers the casino gods were. With my $5 riding on the 23, I watched the marble drop on both 24 and 22 in the same session. If even one of those hit 23, I'd have been walking away with $175. Instead, I begrudgingly forked over my $100 to the house and started wondering when I could find a blackjack table on the cheap without the jerks.

On the bright side, even with the blackjack and roulette losses, I was down only $70 of my own cash after a few hours on the floor. If nothing else, this whole make-the-sieve-smaller routine with the money seemed to be working just fine. Heck, if I hadn't been silly enough to try the roulette wheel in the first place, I'd have still been ahead. I found myself faced by the prospect of either throwing away more money in the slots, which I'd sworn earlier was the only game I was positively not going to visit, or...perhaps I could give the Caribbean Stud table another try. In discussing our options with Ethan, I ventured that if they were still offering a $5 minimum bet at our former table, we'd take another crack at it.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Yo-ho-ho, me mateys! Our $5 Caribbean Stud table was still at $5, and it was wide open. Ethan and I sat down, and I traded another Franklin for chips. Our dealer, Donnie, was a hoot. We had a great time during the second session, and we were soon joined by a handful of others. There was a good rapport between the dealer and players, and amongst the players themselves. There was Monica, a real estate agent from Rogers Park, who was a kind of card buddy throughout the rest of the night. Valerie and Lisa were two old hands at poker. There was also a young married couple that was a lot of fun sitting beside me and a Babe Ruth baseball league coach whose team was in Chicago for a tournament that weekend.

By this time, and against my better judgment, I was betting the dollar progressive on every hand, even though the odds told me that I'd be waiting a while to see another flush or better in my hands. I nearly played through the $100 as I hit a cold streak for the first round of hands. Finally, down to my last few chips, I cashed in a Grant for chips and said that was the last of my money I was going to spend that night. That's when my luck started to turn for the better.

While I never did see a progressive payoff that entire session, I kept playing with an effective combination of shrewd surrenders and wild-assed guesses. The best hand I saw the rest of the night was three of a kind, once. I did nearly draw four flushes during this new phase of my gambling career, getting dealt four of a suit with one frustrating oddball every time. Needless to say, the entire table kept joking with the relief dealers when they'd come in that management had told us the new guy was supposed to deal a royal flush that round.

Neither I nor anybody else ever saw that damned royal flush. I probably spent over $100 on the progressive side bet without seeing any return on it. But strangely enough, I seemed to start racking up $5 chips in front of me. Every once in a while, I'd either cash a couple in for dollar chips, or else I'd trade in five for a $25 chip. Then the pit boss stopped by to tell us that the table was getting ready to go to a $10 minimum bet. I shrugged it off and kept playing. Now and then, I'd up the ante (usually between $15 and $20). For the most part, I seemed to time those bets well enough that I'd burn a perfectly good two-pair hand on a dealer disqualification. But the chips kept seeming to pile up.

When Ethan stopped by again after a visit to the bar, he pointed out that I had amassed a fairly sizeable stack of chips. I nodded, because I hadn't really thought about it. When he told me that the stack of $25 chips alone was probably $300, it got my attention. After cashing in $150 to play, I had again more than doubled my initial stake. I played out two last hands (I still had two bucks in dollar chips to give back to the casino, after all), losing both, and bade everyone a fond farewell. It was 9:00, I'd been playing for nearly eight hours, and I knew that somehow, I was walking out with my initial stake and then some.

The Color of Money

So I stopped by the cashier's cage on our way out. I had $325 worth of chips in hand, which, when combined with the $130 still remaining in my wallet, came out to $455. I had walked in with $400. My winnings were due to a game that I'd never really played before with a reputation as a house profit-maker. Meanwhile, on the one game for which I'd meticulously planned and practiced—blackjack, the main reason I was at the Horseshoe in the first place—I was down a C-note. Although I played decent strategy, I in no way came close to playing as well or as long as I would have liked. To top it off, I couldn't field test the whole progressive betting strategy the way I'd hoped.

On the other hand, it was a successful night. I put a lot of dollars in play over an extended period of time, and I wound up beating the house for the first time in over a decade. And I would have come out at least another hundred ahead if I hadn't been dunking the dollar chip every hand during the second session of Caribbean Stud. Considering that all drinks and tips came out of the winnings before I cashed out, and I have to say that I left the Horseshoe reasonably happy. Pleasantly startled and perhaps even a touch confused, but happy nonetheless.

Once again, I marvel at the capriciousness of the gambling experience.

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