My first blackjack experience came as a newly minted college grad. It was my inaugural visit to Las Vegas in the summer of 1975. Blessed with beginner's luck, I won about $55 at some dumpy casino, and immediately spent it on a show (and two-drink minimum) at the Stardust. (In those days, the Stardust was one of the city’s neon princesses. Having become an aging relic in a city blooming with luxury mega-resorts, it was demolished on March 13, 2007.)
Walking on the Strip later that steamy desert night — intoxicated by a mere whiff of Vegas nightlife subsidized by a friendly run of cards — I was hooked on the game right there and then.
Blackjack may be my vice of choice, but I don't harbor any illusions. It isn't the most glamorous casino game. It doesn't deliver the high-energy frenzy of a hot craps table. It offers little of the mano-a-mano grit of poker so evident on the 63 cable channels airing Texas hold ’em tournaments.
In fact, the greatest blackjack player in pop-culture history happened to be an autistic savant — Dustin Hoffman's Raymond in the 1988 film Rain Man. But if you can't count cards like Raymond, one of blackjack's great attractions is that you don't have to be a serious or even good card player to hold your own. Take it from someone with no innate card sense who was the house fish during the weekend poker games in high school. There were always too many moving parts in poker to concentrate on. And I've never played bridge or gin or hearts, either.
Blackjack, at its core, is a simple game that an alert fourth-grader can master. You have to be able to add fairly quickly — but only up to 21. You adhere to a few basic rules like never split 10s, always split aces and eights (even though I'm convinced the latter is a sucker bet), and assume the dealer's hole card is a 10. And don't play at the "third base" corner seat unless you have a thick skin, because your table mates will invariably blame you for taking the dealer's bust card.
Blackjack is also a wonderful experience when you get the good-table vibe. Now, in all honesty, that doesn't always happen. Blackjack gods often smile down unevenly, so that some players are building big stacks of chips while their neighbors are searching frantically for the cocktail waitress. There are also those tables where the dealer can't lose and everyone is moaning and groaning, although truth be told, that shared self-pity is a pretty good bonding tool too.
But if you play long or often enough, you're bound to hit that smoothly purring table where the players are competent and the cards are benevolent. That usually requires the dealer to be on a busting streak, which, of course, is the common goal that makes brothers of everyone at the table. In those settings, the naturally steady pacing of the game, and a good dealer's rhythmic dishing of the cards (avoid those who spit cards out like projectile vomiting), can create an atmosphere of fellowship akin to ’60s Kumbaya communalism.
In other words, you find yourself treating the guy next to you like a long-lost high-school chum — despite his BRANSON IS HEAVEN T-shirt and phlegm-filled cough. You're surprisingly happy after a few hours at a table like that.
Emerson said "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Blackjack offers the marvelously vexing choice of that foolish consistency or even worse, haphazard hunch playing. Type A is the guy who always sticks on 16, always doubles down on 11, and always hits a 12 against a two. Type B can play every hand by a new set of rules depending on general karma and, of course, how the cards are running.
The most perversely addictive thing about blackjack is that it inevitably ends up creating Type A-minuses or B-pluses. So you always hit 16s against a picture card until you get so fed up with busting that you don't. Or you never hit 16s against a picture card until you get so sick of the dealer taking all those fours that you do.
House odds are that by the time you're playing that way, your bankroll is lighter, your spirits are darker, and your head is beginning to ache. Your judgment is wobbly, your confidence shaky, and your self-discipline a distant memory.
Then you catch that ace-king and the game is new again.
Mark Jurkowitz, a former Phoenix media columnist, is associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, DC.