Wizard Of Odds Weekly Update April 4, 2019

For lack of a better idea, for this week's newsletter I'll tell you the story of my first visit to Vegas over the age of 21.

The year was 1986, I had just turned 21, and was eager for my first Las Vegas vacation. My friend Deron had recently turned 18 and fallen into $50,000 from a car accident that he was a victim from many years before. The money was frozen until the day he turned 18, when he got it all in a lump sum. He wasn't as enthusiastic for a Vegas trip as I was, but he had plenty of money and was eager to spend it. Being underage was not much of a deterrent back then as Las Vegas was especially liberal about letting minors drink and gamble and every kid in southern California knew it.

Western Airlines (the only way to fly) must have been running a special because I was both cheap and poor back in those days. In case you've never heard of them, Western merged with Delta in 1987 and their brand was dissolved. My choice of a hotel was the cheapest one on the Strip at the time, which was, of course, Circus Circus.

Shortly after arriving, it became clear that Deron and I had different ideas about what to do. My gambling budget was about $20 and I was eager to survey the Circus for something in my price range to play. Deron went straight to a liquor store and quickly went about getting drunk in our room, which was also his normal routine back home.

As I recall from 33 years ago (geez, I'm old) the minimums at the blackjack tables at the Circus were $2 or $3 at the time, which was outside of my budget. However, I did find a video blackjack machine that accepted bets as low as $0.25, which I was comfortable with. I was not the gambling wizard back then that you know today. Instead, I was just playing for fun with no knowledge of the fine points of the rules or correct strategy.

Wizard at Las Vegas
Me, posing in front of a limousine from the airport that was strangely the same price as a cab. My first limo ride!

That first time legally gambling went great! The blackjack went very well. Meanwhile free drinks were served right and left. As I recall, I ended up about $6 after about an hour. My bankroll was already up 30%! However, I felt guilty about abandoning Deron so quit while I was ahead to check on him.

When I got back to the room, Deron was quite drunk and a bit annoyed that I just left him there. In my defense, I gave him a chance to hit the casino with me, which he declined. Then I regaled him the story of my $6 in gambling winnings and all the free drinks from lovely cocktail waitresses, but he seemed unimpressed. He was already much drunker than me and my $6 was insignificant to the insurance windfall he recently came into.

The following morning I was eager to return to the same blackjack machine, which I did. This sitting did not go as well as I quickly gave back about half of my winnings the previous night. So I decided to cool down on the gambling and go for a walk down the Strip. I recall meandering around the Frontier (yes, I crossed picket line) and the Stardust before I found myself at the Fashion Show Mall. There I found myself in a book store where I wondered if maybe there was a book about blackjack. If so, perhaps it could shed some light on how to play properly and improve my odds.

The book I encountered, and I remember this clearly, was "Playing Blackjack as a Business" by Lawrence Revere. I had no idea a whole book could be written about the game. All the many chapters on card counting went right over my head, but there were conveniently some full color basic strategy charts near the beginning in chapter 3. To this day I use the same coloring scheme in my basic strategy charts as a tribute to Revere. The charts were absolutely perfect for my level at the time and what I was looking to accomplish. Did I mention I was a poor cheap bastard at the time? Instead of actually buying the book, I asked the cashier for a piece of paper and something to write with, which she kindly provided. I then sat there in the aisle copying one of the basic strategy charts on the back of some flyer the cashier fished out of the trash.

Although I had little idea how much this strategy would help, I was eager for round 3 with the Circus blackjack machine, armed with my hand-written basic strategy. After the long walk back to the Circus I went right to the machine and had at it. Round 3 went my way. As I recall, I won back the $3 I lost that morning and a few dollars beyond. I don't recall all the details, but I think there were a couple more rounds. By that evening I was up about $10, feeling great, but was getting bored playing against a machine for quarters. I was hungry for where the real fun seemed to be, at the tables.

Despite growing my bankroll from $20 to about $30, I was still too poor for the Circus tables. At the time, there was a small casino across the street called the Silver City. Their marquee mentioned in big letters $1 minimum blackjack. That was a price point I was comfortable with so crossed Las Vegas Blvd and looked for a seat at $1 minimum table. As I vaguely recall, only two or three tables were at this minimum and were completely full. I had to stand around for a while waiting for someone to leave.

After finally getting a seat, what followed was about four hours of non-stop play, strictly flat betting $1. The free drinks were flowing and my $20 buy-in was fluctuating between $20 and $30 almost the entire time. Meanwhile, I'm sure I was slowing down the full table checking my hand-written basic strategy frequently. I'm sure nobody was happy with a non-tipping slow-playing noob camping out at the table for hours. However, I didn't care about that at the time. For me, my maiden foray at a Las Vegas blackjack table was a complete success.

My friend Deron
Deron, with his memorable haircut, outbound at LAX.

Around midnight I figured it was time to check on Deron, who I spent almost no time with this trip. Crossing the street I encountered a creepy guy who was "looking for some action." I won't get into that bit of the story, but suffice it to say I made a stealthy escape from the situation. When I returned to the room, Deron was a bit angry about being abandoned, but was so drunk that the alcohol took the edge of it.

At some point during this trip I purchased 10 post cards for $1. Before calling it a night I wrote out the whole story of my experience on these ten post cards for my girlfriend at the time, Christin. As I recall, I decided against sending her the cards as she was a good girl and wouldn't have approved of so much debauchery. The following morning, I think we had breakfast at the infamous Circus Circus buffet, which I loved at the time, before heading off to the airport and back to Orange County.

Looking back, I think I was kind of a jerk for not spending enough time with Deron, not buying the blackjack book, and enjoying countless drinks and time at the table without ever tipping a dime. In my defense, I had no idea what tipping etiquette was. Nevertheless, it was a fun and memorable trip, for me at least.

As a postscript, Deron blew his entire $50,000 insurance settlement in less than a year and had only a car worth about $3,000 to show for it. Some 15 years later he died of alcohol cardiomyopathy, which is an enlarged heart due to many years of excessive drinking. I'm sure being a heavy smoker didn't help any. I tried in vain to stop him many times, but I'm sure to him it was just more nagging in addition to what he was getting from his mother and other friends. That is a sad story I could elaborate on, but won't, at least not today.

On another topic, I'd like to remind all my readers that the registration for the Burning Man ticket open sale is from noon Wednesday to noon Friday, Pacific time.