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Blackjack rookie's experience offers lessons for all players

| Friday, May 25, 2012, 3:52 p.m.

The black-haired woman nervously fumbled for her money as she situated herself at the third-base seat of the blackjack table.

This was her first time playing, she told the dealer as he counted out a dozen red chips for her three $20 bills.

"No problem," he assured her. This was a friendly table, and he or the other players would be happy to help a novice.

She put out the $10 minimum bet, and was dealt a two-card 20 for her first hand. Her blackjack fling started with a victory.

"You know what you should do now?" the dealer asked as she and other winners pulled in their payoffs. "Run! Run for the hills while you're ahead."

Sage advice, but no one stops after just one hand. The woman's second hand was an ugly 14, but the dealer's up-card was a six. He correctly told her the best play was to stand, because he almost assuredly would have to take a hit and, thus, had a good chance of busting.

She wasn't completely sold on the idea but decided to stand regardless. The dealer had a face card in the hole, then drew a four for a total of 20 and collected everybody's bets.

As it turned out, the woman at third base would have been better off after the dealer's joking suggestion to take her money and run after the first hand. She never got ahead again, and soon left with nothing more than a too-fast $60 lesson that blackjack can be a cruel game.

Here's hoping she gives blackjack another shot. It's fun, and, with a little work, players can cut the house edge to less the 0.4 percent -- about one-20th of the advantage built into slot machines and better than any other casino-banked game.

The first thing to do at home is to learn the game. Studying pays off in a casino and in school.

Players should understand the rules, and, at least, the elementary strategy for the game. Learn the definitions of "double," "split" and "insurance."

You can memorize the most basic guidelines for blackjack strategy in a few minutes:

• Never take insurance.

• When you have 12 through 16, stay if the dealer's up-card is two through six and hit if it's seven through Ace.

• When you have 17 or more, stay. (One exception: always hit a soft 17, or Ace-six).

• Always double on 11.

• Always split Aces and 8s.

• If you have a two-card total of 10, double if the dealer's up-card is a nine or less.

After you've mastered those simple six, you can advance to the finer points of basic strategy. Head to the blackjack-strategy calculator at , or get books such as "Knock-Out Blackjack" by Olaf Vancura and Ken Fuchs, "Basic Blackjack" by Stanford Wong and "Blackbelt in Blackjack" by Arnold Snyder. Practice at home or on the computer before committing real money.

The second lesson, good for novices and veterans alike, involves how much of your hard-earned money you're willing to risk. You must be able to withstand losing everything you budget for your casino trip. Remember: Even though you can reduce the house edge by adhering to basic strategy, you're not going to win all the time.

The casino still has the advantage.

Instead of looking at how many dollars you're taking, think in terms of how many bets you have. The woman with the $60 buy-in had six bets at the $10 table. If she could have found a seat at a $5 table, she would have had 12 bets -- and a better, though still not good, chance of outlasting a losing streak.

Experts suggest having enough money to cover 30 to 50 average bets for a two- to three-hour session. That means a bankroll of $300 to $500 for a $10 average bet; with a $25 average bet, the recommended bankroll climbs to $750 to $1,250 for a single session.

You don't have to buy in for all of it, but you should have that much available to minimize what pros call "the risk of ruin."

Shuffle up and deal!

The 43rd annual World Series of Poker officially starts Sunday with the Casino Employees No Limit Hold 'Em Tournament. The first event open to the public will be Monday, a No Limit Hold 'Em Tournament with a $1,500 buy-in.

This year's WSOP, at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, will last six weeks and feature 61 tournaments in a variety of games. Organizers expect as many as 80,000 participants.

More than 100 Western Pennsylvania pros and amateurs trekked to Las Vegas for last year's WSOP.

Money trail

Slot players lost $46.8 million in Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending May 20, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $45.8 million in the comparable week last year, when the Valley Forge Resort Casino was not open.

The state gets 55 percent of that gross slot revenue, or what's left of players' bets after jackpots are paid.

Statewide, slots have paid out at a 90.04 percent rate since the fiscal year started in July. For every $100 bet, the machines returned an average of $90.04. Highest rate: 90.6 percent, Parx in Philadelphia; lowest rate: 89.64 percent, Harrah's Philadelphia and SugarHouse in Philadelphia. Payout rates for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

89.85%: Rivers; slot revenue last week was $5.1 million, down from $5.35 million last year.

89.74%: Meadows; slot revenue last week was $4.82 million, up from $4.79 million last year.

90.42%: Presque Isle in Erie; slot revenue last week was $2.68 million, down from $3.25 million last year.

Question of the week

How's the new Revel casino in Atlantic City doing?

The $2.4 billion Revel opened April 2 and brought in $13.46 million in gambling revenue in its first month -- $9.89 million from slots, $3.57 million from table games. That ranked eighth among Atlantic City's 12 casinos. Its official grand opening is this weekend, with Beyonce headlining the entertainment. Executives said revenue will improve through the summer.

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