The Glory of $2 Blackjack in Las Vegas
by Margie Pignataro, for Great Bridge Links
While I was a child, I would spend weekends in Las Vegas several times a year. This was in the eighties, I was ten, and Las Vegas wasn’t the child friendly place it is today. Back then, we only had Circus Circus to entertain us. I remember walking through Caesars Palace, the Stardust, and the Golden Nugget and being very careful about where I walked. I couldn’t idle by slot machines. I couldn’t walk too close to the blackjack and real money craps tables. I couldn’t be seen to be interested in anything, but of course I was. I was fascinated by everything: the pit bosses in impeccable suits, the cocktail waitresses in very skimpy outfits and, at Caesars, wearing enormous cone shaped wigs. I yearned to be at the craps table were people shouted every few minutes when someone won. Then there were the older women clinging to slot machines and not reacting at all when coins fell in the tray. Yes, these were the days of coin operated slots and they were filthy. My godmother, who only played slots, would always have a plastic Circus Circus cup filled with those heavy casino silver dollars. I look back and wish I had collected one from every casino on the strip. I miss the coins in the casinos. The crashing sounds they made in the metal tray was thrilling. And I didn’t care how soiled my hands got as I pulled them out of those plastic cups by the handfuls. We went to Vegas because of my mother. My mother played blackjack. My mother didn’t just play blackjack: she played it very well. She’d play the entire trip and make enough money in order to pay for it. She said she preferred single deck $2 blackjack, and playing it one on one with a dealer. Stupid players would screw up a deck, she said. If someone sat down to play that didn’t know what they were doing, she would get up and leave.
She would play all night, returning to our hotel room at four in the morning. I had memories of her waking us up, the remains of a vodka gimlet in her hand, her purse in the other. She remove handful after handful of casino chips onto the bed and my brother and I would go through them. It was thrilling to find a $25 or a $50. Or the most rare $100.
We’d sleep a few hours more and then go to breakfast. My mother would have a Bloody Mary and my brother and I would play keno, using my godmother as the legal conduit. Then after breakfast, she’d go back to the tables. My mother didn’t count cards, but a few pit bosses assumed she did. She was banned from the MGM, I think. Of course, this made my mother a rock star in my eyes. She had great respect for the blackjack dealers. She feared the new hotels that were built (The Bellagio, Monte Carlo, The Mirage). She said that the casinos had to pay for their construction and that made them tip the odds in their favor. I don’t understand the logic, and I doubt there was any, really. She taught me how to play, and my brother. She also taught us craps and poker, cribbage and rummy and gin and solitaire (she said that playing solitaire in casinos was possible in Vegas!). She wanted to teach me bridge, but we didn’t know enough bridge players. But could she play bridge!
If my mother didn’t technically count cards, she did watch them carefully. She told me always to keep track of face cards and tens. Those were the ones that could do the most damage. She would only hit if she had less than eleven and stand if she had more than twelve. I couldn’t imagine standing $2 only twelve, but if there hadn’t been many face cards in a while, the odds of one coming up and busting were good. And it was better to let the house have it, because the house always had to hit until they reached seventeen. All of this was why playing single deck one on one with a dealer was best: she could glean more knowledge of the deck.
She said when she started winning a lot, the pit bosses would send over cocktail waitresses to ask if she wanted free drinks. She would always refuse: the worse time to drink was when she was winning.
Always tip the dealers. Always.
Of course, finding single deck $2 blackjack is an impossibility now in Las Vegas, on the strip or downtown.
My mother died before I turned 21. She had always wanted to take me to Vegas and play blackjack with me. I haven’t had the guts to play it on my own, even though when I walk past blackjack tables I feel a sad longing.
But this story has a promising ending: my new husband is a professional poker player, and he’s teaching me Texas Limit and No Limit Hold ’em. He thinks I can be good. He thinks I have a head for it, that I get the philosophy better than most people. My mother would be proud.