Sports Books, Poker, & Blackjack

Going out on a limb here, but I'm bettin' you're gonna wager in Vegas. Follow this advice: Don't lose more than you can afford. Do learn the rules and nuances before you play, wager, whatever. Don't gamble when you're lit up more than the city itself. Do have fun; after all, it should be entertainment, not ulcer-inducing.

There are dozens of sports books in Vegas. Like Damone in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the books provide a service and the service costs money. That would be the house's take (their cut, vigorish, or juice). If that's Greek to you, do a little reading up on how the wonderful world of sports betting turns. Get to know the money line, embrace (or curse) the spread, become pals with parlays, and revel in the pleasure of propositions (settle down; we're still talking gambling). Here's a good link: http://sportsgambling.about.com/od/sportsgamblingbasics/a/Bet_Types.htm

The nice thing about sports books is they don't care, really, whether you're a big bettor or five-dollar Phil. Your money's good there, and they'll treat you well and take your action.

Just ask MGM Mirage race and sports book director Robert Walker. He's been in the business 20 years and at his current position the last nine.

Sure he's partial to the sports books he oversees (Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Mirage, and MGM Grand are the big four) but having been to most of 'em myself, those are four of the nicest ones in the city. Bellagio is the most comfy (snag one of those soft leather commander's chairs); Mandalay Bay the biggest (300 seats, 84 televisions, 17 big screens) and most fun; Mirage's book is gorgeous just to look at; and MGM's is, well, grand. To be fair, Walker also likes the books at Caesars Palace (classic old-school), Wynn (new-school and plush), and The Venetian (classy as they come).

Walker says, "It doesn't matter how ritzy a sports books looks. All of us cater to high- and low-rollers. Most of the time you can't tell a guy who's betting ten bucks from a guy betting $10,000."

That's especially true during the Super Bowl and March Madness. During those two events every sports book, all of them, are jam-packed. Walker calls the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament "the best four days of the year. It starts at 9 a.m. on Thursday and doesn't end until 7 p.m. on Sunday. It's just a whirlwind. It looks like a frat party from morning 'til night. Those are special days."

The Super Bowl is the single biggest betting day ("by far," Walker says) and The Kentucky Derby and The Breeders' Cup also are huge draws.

But there's limited seating at sports books and chairs are prized commodities. Want to get a seat? Set the alarm for early or pull an all-nighter (not uncommon). Walker says you better get your butt to the book by 6 a.m., if not earlier, if you want a seat for said butt. There are no reservations, although Walker admits a few high-rollers have seats secured. "But 95 percent of the time, it's first come, first serve."

Walker loves the camaraderie ("We never have any problems or fights, unlike say, fans at a Browns-Steelers game.") and the enthusiasm. "People from all over the country, rooting for their team... it's an adrenaline rush for us as well as the bettors."

Walker says the single biggest mistake novice bettors make is "parlaying too many teams; picking six winners on one ticket is tough, but the payoff is big."

Finally, while Walker says today's sports fans are as savvy as ever and astute when it comes to the point spread, he warns, "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is."

Is there anyone who doesn't play poker? I mean maybe your priest but... OK, so you watch Texas Hold 'Em on cable (isn't it only a matter of time before a States version of the U.K.'s 24-hour Poker Channel arrives?), you play with friends, and you win frequently. Fine. This is Vegas. Welcome to the majors, punk. Can ya handle it?

If you think so, then the best place to test your mettle is Bellagio's sweet state-of-the-art poker room. You'll often find pros littered about the 30 tables, as well as the carcasses of sheepish lads devoured by wolves.

You say you prefer the term sharks? As one local put it, "They're everywhere here." But they're more aggressive and prevalent at certain casinos. Generally, the sharpest players can be found at the fanciest poker rooms (Bellagio, The Mirage, Mandalay Bay, Wynn, and Rio). Exception: The Stardust.

Still, with so many people involved, both newbies and vets, easy money can still be had. Most Vegas players are well-versed and experienced, but then there are those who aren't.

To give yourself a fighting chance, read at least a book or two (Doyle Brunson's Super System is revered as the bible of poker books), play online (dozens of sites offer real- and play-money tables), and watch the pros on TV.

Completely clueless but itching to play? The Palms, Stratosphere, and Luxor, among others, offer free lessons, no reservations needed.

If you're still learning, stick with low-limit games. Low-limits equate to limited experience, usually. Most casinos have tables for low-, mid-, and high-limit and no-limit games.

If you're neither a rookie nor a pro, plop down at the rooms at MGM and The Palms, both infused with collegiate atmospheres and challenging, but not wallet- or spirit-crushing, competitors.

The Rio is the new home to the World Series of Poker. Just hearing the phrase makes some salivate, as they imagine being televised wearing a mustard-stained Hawaiian shirt, sports cap, and '80s sunglasses. Alright, not everyone.

Anyway, the WSOP has exploded in the past five years. Each year a new record is set for both the number of players (last year 5,619 ponied up 10 g's for the main event) and prize money (in 2005: $56 million total; $7.5 mil -- gasp! -- to the winner, Joe Hachem).

According to WSOP spokesperson Dave Curley this year's main event (July 28-Aug. 10 or 11th) will be no different. Curley wouldn't speculate as to how many players will partake in poker's granddaddy-of-them-all event, but said Harrah's, which owns the Rio, can accommodate 8,000 players.

If you want in, you can either pre-register online (http://www.worldseriesofpoker.com), or fill out the paperwork and wire the money (or send a cashier's check via certified mail). You receive your table/seat assignment after you show up (must be present to win), and present a valid I.D. stating you're 21.

Many, though, choose to wait until the tourney begins and simply register in person, often not until hours before the event starts. The last-minute surge of sign-ups makes things hectic. Organizers, Curley says, are prepared and lines will be manageable.
If you'd rather sit this one out, watch safely from the sidelines, and keep your 10 grand, the event is free for curious onlookers. Spectators can choose their vantage point on an I-got-here-first basis.

Shuffle up and deal: The Sports Guy gets ready for the WSOP

It remains the most popular game in the casinos. This is because it's easy to learn. (And, judging from the take-the-dealer's-bust-card bozos I've had the misfortune to play with, a game easy to screw up -- folks, stay somewhat sober when you play and know the basic strategy for God's sake!) Again, there are plenty of web sites and books out there.

Blackjack with your buddies all on the same table laughing and joking and taking it to the dealer is one of life's great experiences. Doesn't happen often (the taking it to the dealer part), and recently Vegas has tried to take the fun (and money) out of another pleasure: the payout for a two-card 21, or a natural. The automatic winner was once always paid 3:2 (time and a half; e.g. you bet $5, hit blackjack, and you're paid $7.50). But in 2003 some casinos started paying only 6:5 on blackjacks (bet $5, hit blackjack, you're paid only $6). Blackjack purists wailed, and rightfully so. That $1.50 (or $11.50 or $111.50) adds up.

As a general rule if a table states, or the dealer says, "naturals pay 6-5," walk away. The same goes for "Super Fun 21" (even money on all blackjacks).

Here are some other bits about playing blackjack in Las Vegas:

• Single-deck blackjack (giving the house the smallest advantage), paying 3-2 on 21, is going the way of the dodo bird. It can still be found at a few places, including Binion's in old downtown Las Vegas.

• If single-deck or double-deck blackjack is paying 6-5 on naturals, stick with "shoes." (Most casinos offer two, four, six, or eight-deck shoes, meaning how many decks of cards in rotation. Your chances of winning decreases as the number of decks increases.)

• These rules don't help you: The dealer hits on soft seventeen (ace, six); you can only double down on 10 or 11 (instead of any two cards); you can split cards (making two hands) only once.

• The more posh the casino, the higher the minimums. At Wynn tables don't go below $15 and most are $25.

• At other casinos, ten-dollar tables are the most common and toughest to get on.

• The two best environments for playing 21: The Hard Rock Hotel and The Palms. Friendly clientele, cordial dealers, cool music, good people watching. Win or lose, that makes for an entertaining few hours.

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Ty Bronicel is a freelance writer and a former ESPN.com editor.