[19 September 2006]
Televising blackjack, as CBS is planning to do, has got to be one of the more desperate attempts to cash in on the poker craze; the thinking seem to be that because they are both gambling games involving cards, audiences will embrace them both with equal fervency. (I guess that’s why we aren’t seeing World’s Ultimate Keno Championship). But playing blackjack isn’t all that exciting; watching it even less so. What’s the pitch? “You’ll thrill as player A contemplates hitting a soft 17. You’ll gasp when player B steals the dealer’s bust card. You’ll writhe in envy as player C splits eights with the dealer showing 6. You’ll marvel as drunk tourists pass out at the table while trying to figure out what his cards add up to. Watch in amazement as player D doubles his initial betting increment after achieving a favorable count!” As this article in today’s WSJ points out (buried in the last paragraph), quoting a LV Hilton gambling boss, “Blackjack is what it is; the game itself is strategy and if you know basic strategy, you either hit or you stand.” Though CBS has likely tried to add the semblance of show-downs and drama, blackjack’s not really a competition against other players so much as it is a feat of mathematics, of counting the deck and hedging one’s bets accordingly. There are no bluffs, no betting ruses—no psychology involved whatsoever if its being played at the highest level. The only suspense is to see whether an audacious better turns out to be unlucky.
When I lived in Vegas, blackjack was what you’d play when you wanted to chill out from the gambling games that are actually exciting and move quickly (craps) or involve multiple levels of analysis and courage (poker). There is no need for assessing personalities in blackjack as there is in poker, and there is no infectious excitement or momentum to sweep you up into gambling euphoria, as there is at a craps table, when a hot roller is visibly multiplying chip stacks all around you and creating mountains of wagers before your eyes on the green felt and the dealers’ patter becomes more animated, as they get cut in on all the action, and the bettors cheer like its the world series and total strangers start slapping high-fives with each other. At the blackjack table, a much more muted camaraderie develops, one that revolved around how frequently the cocktail waitress returned. The pace, with the frequent reshufflings to stifle card counters, can be glacial, and because it requires no time to make decisions about play (every choice about whether to hit or double down can be determined in advance—some players bring a chart with them to the table), every pause by another player feels excruciating. When you can see the cards of your tablemates, as with some games, you want to shout out what they should do and get on with it. Really, blackjack is an extremely inefficient slot machine, with lots of room for human error (or crooked deck mechanics).
So I’m guessing TV blackjack will fail. You can’t really learn anything from watching it, and it lacks drama because the outcomes seem almost entirely random. But maybe people watch gambling for some other reason, for a vicarious thrill at seeing money treated as points. No longer a matter of survival, money becomes merely a means of keeping score, in gambling games, and perhaps there’s something liberating in that.