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Practice Makes Perfect in Table Games

An effective (and cheap!) way to hone your table game skills at home


When a computer “dealer” nukes your theoretical bankroll, we have a subconscious tendency to think, “Well, this is all pretend. Computers lie. Real cards would be more…real.” This is why practicing with an actual deck can be an eye opener.

Let’s say you’re strolling through the casino and you see a new type of table game, or maybe an old table game that is unfamiliar to you. What’s your first reaction?

A lot of players will ease on over and check it out. But then comes the tough decision. Unless the new game is very easy to understand (such as Spanish 21 to a blackjack player), are you willing to burn through $50 or $100 learning how to play? How will you feel after losing several hands in a row, while feeling confused about the rules? As for the optimal playing strategy, there’s no way for you to know.

Table Games

The whole experience sounds expensive and not particularly inviting, which is why lot of players, rather than sitting down and exchanging their cash for chips, will just watch for a while and then move on to a game they know. That’s usually the smartest choice.

If the game intrigued you, you might buy a book and learn the rules, or read about it in a magazine like this one, or research it online. But how do you practice? Do you try to find a free version online? Do you buy a computer program? Going back to the casino is an expensive way to learn.

There is a better way, an excellent method to study a new game or practice an old one. This method uses a tool that hardly anyone considers anymore.

It’s called a pack of cards.

It may be low-tech and old school, but one of the best ways to learn a new game, or experiment with new strategies, is to deal the contest yourself.

Every Casino Game in One Neat Package

The beautiful thing about dealing for yourself is that you can play any game any time. You don’t need software, and you can change anything instantly without hunting through a computer menu. Want to do something extreme, like playing six spots? Do it. You can try “what if” scenarios, and go backwards in a hand to see how different moves can deliver different outcomes. Every dealer-versus-player casino game has standard dealer rules, so you can play the game against an imaginary opponent and receive the same outcomes you’d get in a live game.

And let’s be candid; there is something “honest” about real cards. When a computer “dealer” nukes your theoretical bankroll, we have a subconscious tendency to think, “Well, this is all pretend. Computers lie. Real cards would be more…real.”

This is why practicing with an actual deck can be an eye opener. A streak of eight losses, or eight wins…you can see this stuff really happens.

Another related advantage is the visceral experience of handling cards. For example, manually setting a pai gow hand exercises your brain in a different way than doing it on a computer screen. For some players, the physical activity lends added stimulation to the mental process.

“But wait!” you may say. “A casino dealer knows the game perfectly, and I don’t. I’ll make mistakes when dealing or paying out.” Au contraire! Casino dealers do make mistakes, and are much less reliable than computers, so dealing the game yourself can help you catch human errors. Sooner or later, you will save money monitoring a dealer’s payouts. Practice with penny payouts, or keep score on a notepad.

Also, while there is no doubt that a super-duper computer game can analyze your play for the last bazillion hands and tell you to the tenth decimal your theoretical advantage for a particular strategy, it probably won’t let you rabbit hunt through undealt cards to discover that you were going to lose the last hand however you played it. This kind of experimenting will give you confidence at the table when rabbit hunting is not an option.

Think of all the games you’ve never played or rarely played because you didn’t feel comfortable with all the nuances of strategy, or the intricacies of the contest’s volatility (calculating how much you may lose before hitting a good hand).

Really, you’ll learn more games and play them better if you abandon the computer mouse (at least occasionally) and break out the cards.

Free Cards!

Don’t have a pack of cards laying around? Want free or nearly-free cards? Even if you do have cards nearby and they’re the drugstore kind, you’ll have more fun playing with a real casino deck branded with the name of a casino. Casinos go through packs like IHOP goes through eggs. A typical deck is used for only about 8 hours, so it’s pretty easy to get your hands on cards that have been in actual play. When a casino is done with a deck, the cards are drilled with a hole, cut on the corners, or in some other way marked so they can be detected and excluded from live casino action. Then the casino sells the pack, gives it away, or destroys it.

At most casinos, you can ask a floorperson or at the service desk about how to get your hands on some used decks. Someone may hand cards to you right there, or send you to the gift shop. If you’re looking for cards from a particular property and you’re not at the casino, eBay has a pretty good selection.

They Said It…

“Being easily convinced, and, like other respectable creatures, satisfied with small reason, when it is in favor of what I have a mind to, I shuffle the cards again, and begin another game.”

– Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Mary Stevenson Hewson (1786)


Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit and drop him a line.

Practice Makes Perfect in Table Games.

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