15 rules and rituals they don’t teach you in the books
by Rob Wiser
I remember my first visit to Atlantic City, many years ago. It was on the Boardwalk that I stepped inside a casino for the first time, packing a pocketful of cash with visions of beating the house.
Blackjack was the game I wanted to play. I’d read about it in books and understood the basics, but, as I witnessed an actual game in progress, I grew nervous. Beyond the rules of play—hitting, standing, doubling down—the game seemed to have a set of silent rules and rituals that the books didn’t explain. The strange hand motions, the prohibition on touching the cards, the process of exchanging cash for chips…I was afraid that if I sat down and fumbled any of these unwritten laws, I would interrupt the flow of the game and look like a fool.
Too intimidated to sit down and play, I wound up sticking with the slot machines. It wasn’t until I moved to Las Vegas that I learned the etiquette of casino gambling. I also realized that a large number of players avoid the blackjack tables—which can be your best bet in the casino—because of the intimidation factor. So with this in mind, let’s run down some of the basics of gambling etiquette so you can play with the confidence of a pro.
Bear in mind, if you do accidentally break one of these rules, no one is going to scold you or kick you out of the casino. The dealer will simply remind you of the proper way to play.
1. Don’t hand your money to the dealer.
The overhead casino security cameras must be able to see all cash transactions. This is why you’re required to lay your cash down on the surface of the table. The dealer will spread out the money and count it so the cameras can see, then slide you their equivalent in chips. If you’re sitting down at a game in progress, wait until the current hand is completed before you lay your money down.
2. Don’t hold your cards with two hands.
In blackjack games where the cards are “pitched” to you and dealt face down (usually single- and two-deck games), you must pick the cards up with one hand, not with both. This rule is designed to prevent players from tampering with—or switching—their cards.
3. Never remove your cards from the table.
Your cards must always be in full view of the security cameras and the dealer. (Don’t, for example, hold them down by your lap.) Also…
4. Never touch your chips once the cards are being dealt.
Once you’ve placed your bet and the dealer begins to deal the cards, you are not allowed to touch your chips until the hand is played out. If you win or tie the hand, you are free to collect your chips or change your bet. If the dealer wins, he’s going to take your chips. Just remember, once the cards start being dealt, you cannot touch your wager until your hand is played out. (This prevents cheaters from changing their bet while the cards are in play.)
5. When the cards are dealt face up, don’t touch them.
In games that use four or more decks of cards, your cards are dealt face up. There is no reason for you to pick up or handle the cards, so just leave them alone. Which brings us to our next rule…
6. Signal your decision, don’t say it.
Again, for the security cameras, you must use hand signals to indicate to the dealer whether you want to hit or stand. Saying “hit” or “stand” isn’t enough. They need to see you make the signal. The dealer will show you the required signal if you’re new to the game. Or, just watch a hand as it’s being played out. A hit is a simple gesture that looks like “come here.” If you don’t want a hit, simply wave your hand, palm down, over your cards. To split or double down, place the required number of chips next to your original bet, and the dealer will do the rest. It’s intuitive.
7. It’s perfectly fine to ask the dealer’s advice.
Most dealers will be happy to tell you the mathematically correct play to make if you are unsure. The dealer’s job is not to beat you and relieve you of your money. His job is to run the game in a professional manner. Good dealers root for the players to win, since winners are much more likely to tip. Which brings us to the next point…
8. Don’t be stingy with tips.
There aren’t any set guidelines on how much or how often to tip your dealer. Just remember that dealers get paid a minimal hourly wage and live on tips. Contrary to popular belief, they derive no pleasure from seeing you lose (unless you’re being an obnoxious jerk). They don’t get a percentage of your losses. The dealer would much rather see you do well, enjoy yourself, and share the wealth a little. Once in a while (especially after winning a few hands in a row), tip the dealer the equivalent of your minimum bet—or more, if you’re feeling generous. You can simply slide a chip toward the dealer and say, “Here you go” or, “This is for you.” You can also place a bet for the dealer in front of your regular bet. This way, if you win the hand, the dealer wins the bet as well; a $5 tip becomes a much-appreciated $10 tip.
Realistically, if you’re getting your butt kicked, you’re not going to be inclined to tip the dealer who is wiping you out. This is understandable. But if you’re playing for an extended period of time, tip when you win a couple of hands or score a blackjack. It’s not required, but it does create a more pleasant playing environment (and may improve your blackjack karma).
9. Stack your chips correctly.
When you make a wager that includes two or more different denomination chips (for example, a $25 chip and two $5 chips), always place the higher denomination chip on the bottom of the stack and the lower ones on top. Otherwise, the dealer is going to have to stop and re-arrange them for you before he starts dealing the cards. It’s OK if you forget to do this once or twice, but some people can be downright annoying about it.
10. Don’t tell your fellow players how to play.
If the guy sitting next to you asks for your advice, feel free to tell him what you think. But it’s pretty bad form to tell other players what you think if they don’t ask. Sometimes you’ll find yourself playing alongside people who have no idea what they’re doing or make boneheaded decisions, such as splitting 10s. Resist the urge to groan. If it bothers you, either move to another table or remind yourself that the skill levels of your fellow players has no bearing on whether you ultimately win or lose. When the guy next to you keeps making dumb plays, it may seem like he’s “stealing” the cards you need and screwing up your hands, but in reality there’s just as good a chance that his bad plays will wind up helping you.
11. Cut the deck properly.
In six-deck games, after the dealer has finished shuffling the cards, he will ask one of the players to “cut” the deck. Insert the “cut card” at least a half-deck from either end of the stack. (In other words, aim near the middle of the deck.) If you try to cut the deck too close from either end, the dealer will ask you to cut it again, which holds the game up.
12. Check before you try to bet in the middle of a shoe.
Some casinos forbid you from sitting down and placing a wager when the game is midway through the shoe; you’re supposed to wait until the entire shoe is played out before you join the action. Check to see if the table has a sign that says, “No Mid-Shoe Entry.” If it does, and the shoe is in progress, you can go ahead and sit down, but don’t try to wager until the shoe is finished and the dealer starts reshuffling.
Finally, here are three more principles that might not fall under the category of “etiquette,” but they distinguish seasoned players from suckers:
13. Use basic strategy.
In blackjack, there is a mathematically correct way to play every possible hand. This playing strategy is readily available in books, on the Internet, and on strategy cards, which you can take with you when you play. (They are legal to use in a casino). Watch experts play blackjack, and very rarely will you see them pause to contemplate a move—it’s an automatic response. Memorize basic strategy, and you eliminate the guesswork. Occasionally, you might be tempted to deviate from it, and hit or stand because you’ve got a hunch, but basic strategy teaches the mathematically correct play in every situation. Hit that 16 against the dealer’s 10, as much as it may scare you, and, more often than not, you will win the hand.
14. Never play 6:5 games.
Veteran blackjack players despise this sneaky rule change that some casinos have instituted. Instead of paying the traditional 3:2 on untied blackjacks (when your first two cards total 21), you get paid 6:5. This means, on a $10 bet, you’d receive $12 instead of $15. This might not sound like a major difference, but it is. On average, you’ll receive a blackjack about four times per hour, and the diminished payout will cut significantly into your odds of walking away with a profit. The traditional 3:2 payout is one of the rules that make the game fair for players. You really shouldn’t play otherwise.
15. Avoid games that use a Continuous Shuffling Machine (CSM).
A “CSM” is a device that randomly shuffles the discards after every round has been played. This eliminates the need to reshuffle, which makes the game play much faster—about 20 percent more hands per hour. Since the math is on the casino’s side, this means that, in theory, you’ll lose 20 percent faster per hour. If you want to enjoy a good, long session at the table, avoid games where your hands-played-per-hour is going to be much higher than normal. This includes games with CSMs and/or extremely fast dealers. Instead, for a reasonably paced game, look at who’s playing. The more players sitting at your table, the slower the pace will be.