Cheap, Yet Doubling Down On A Gambling Habit

by Jesse Hergert

When you say you’re going to Las Vegas, people have a lot of questions. For me, it usually starts with, “Really??”

Apparently I don’t seem the type.

Then they usually ask about shows, buffets, nightclubs. Nope, nope, and nope. I’m not going for any of those things. I’m going to play cards, and the $100 I’d spend to go see Cirque du Soleil is much better spent at a blackjack table, in my opinion.

You wouldn’t think I would be a gambler, looking at my general lifestyle. I always boggle when I read those lady-mag grooming product rundowns, because everything in my bathroom is from the drug store, and most of it is generic brand. I buy most of my clothes on sale, if not at the Goodwill. I am cheap, when it comes to the day-to-day. But once or twice a year, I think nothing of dropping several hundred dollars in a weekend playing cards. Of course I’d rather win, but I definitely budget to lose.

“Budget” may be overstating things; I’ve never really been much of a budgeter. But I take out four or five hundred dollars in cash before I leave, and that’s what I can spend gambling. I play some slots for a break, but mostly it’s blackjack.

I grew up playing cards with both grandmothers, and I took to gambling the first time I encountered it, on a 12-hour ferry to Nova Scotia when I was 11. They had slot machines and betting games in the ballroom, and I immediately loved it, to the dismay of my parents. So I shouldn’t have been that surprised that I loved Las Vegas from the first time I went.

I like knowing the rules, even though anyone can play “by the book” and still lose money. I like talking to the dealer about what “the book” says, even though I’ve never seen an actual book with the odds for each scenario. More often, it’s a card a nervous gambler pulls out of his shirt pocket.

I’ve got the rules in my head at this point: I’ve got sixteen, but the dealer is showing a five? Stay. I’ve got the same sixteen, but the dealer has nine? Hit. Always hit on 17. Always double down on 11. Split Aces and eights. Never touch your cards, except at a table where you do. Tap the felt table for another card, wave your hand over your cards if you’re done, so the cameras can see. Tip your dealer. I’ll tip when I’m winning and feeling generous, and when I’m losing to try to draw some better luck. Always tip the waitress, no matter how you’re doing.

Every year, I go with the same group of friends, and we spend hours and hours in casinos. We like low-stakes games at decent casinos, which usually means off-strip, and off-hours. Weekdays, mornings, off the Strip? Perfect.

It’s hard to find a $5 or even $10 minimum bet table on a Saturday night. Some friends might peel off to go shopping or to the movies, but K and I will spend all day at a blackjack table. We talk to each other, to the dealer, to the other people at the table. Some strangers are more fun than others. A young man with a woman standing behind him is likely to be a blowhard. Anyone who criticizes other people’s play is bad luck for the table, as is anyone with a negative attitude.

College boys may hit on us or ask for career advice. People playing alone might be too serious to chat, or looking for company. Some dealers are friendly, others are just doing their job. Some dealers are really enthusiastic about busting, which makes for a fun table: all of us playing together, against the casino.

Several times, I’ve ended up by myself at a table early in the day. Killing time before my flight, when my friends have already left, or rejecting a group trip to the gym. Somehow I always win at those times, and always find myself with good table-mates, like the woman whose husband was off watching the World Cup, or the early birds among a bachelor party group, up before the rest of their friends.

I am extremely loyal to a betting strategy I started using more or less randomly. One year on the annual trip, a friend printed out and brought a whole sheaf of strategies, and now I can only ever think of a $5 chip as a Unit.

The way the strategy goes, the Unit is the table minimum bet, and that’s where you start. Every time you lose a hand, you increase your bet one unit of the table minimum, so you’re covering some of your losses. Doubling your bet would fully cover the loss, but you have to have a really large bankroll to actually play that way. When you win a hand, you go back to the Unit bet. When things aren’t going well, I’ll play up to 8 Units a hand, which sounds much less scary inside my head than $40. Especially when you’re dealt a total of 11 in your first two cards.

When you have 11, the odds are good that your next card will be worth 10 (the ten card itself, or any face card), which gets you 21, and that almost always wins. So when you get 11, you have the chance to double your bet. But you only get one more card. Being on the losing streak that brings you to betting 8 Units a hand, you’re probably already down, but you have got to double down on 11! Which means 8 more Units on the next card. Which means, in real life, betting $80 on one card. That gets my heart racing in a way that doesn’t happen often in the rest of my life.

Ultimately, that’s what I love about gambling. It’s exciting! You can do everything “right” and still lose, and you can take crazy chances and win big. I’ve started a day with $40 and walked away with $300, but more often it’s the reverse. But it’s still well worth it to me to spend the time with my friends, drinking free cocktails, and playing cards.

Jesse Hergert lives in Somerville, MA, and thinks about money all day long.

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