The Blog

War: What is it good for?

More tales from the tables of Las Vegas.

12:00 AM, Aug 27, 2004 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Las Vegas, Saturday afternoon

"DON'T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN'T DO" are the parting words of our cabdriver as he drops me and two other friends off at the MGM Grand. "Is that a lot or a little?" I ask. The old man pauses, his sun-wrinkled face forming a smile: "It gives you a lot of leeway." And with that, we enter the city's largest hotel and casino: The MGM Grand boasts over 3,000 slot machines, more than 145 gaming tables, and a staggering 5,034 guest rooms. If you spent every day in a different room at the MGM, it would take you more than 13 years.

It would probably take less time to run through the "gaming" tables ("gambling" is considered to have negative connotations). There's blackjack, roulette, craps, Pai Gow poker, and for those who have hit rock bottom, Casino War. My personal favorite is blackjack, which is where I find myself two hours after check in. Three of my other buddies are now hunkered around the table, ready to become high-rollers. Our first dealer is a woman named Marie, and initially things seem promising. The pace then picks up along with our winnings. At which point Marie starts chatting us up and throwing us off.

While we enjoyed Marie's friendliness, we were slowly getting pummeled by her cards: 14's, 15's, and 16's, one after another after another. She, on the other hand, is cruising. In one instance, Marie beat my 20 with six cards totaling 21. Soon the table is hemorrhaging. My friend Buck, hoping to win big, is down almost $300 in a matter of minutes. Eventually a Chinese fellow named Robert comes in to relieve Marie. We are also joined by a man named Keith, who bears an uncanny resemblance to comedian Steve Harvey. A genial sort of guy, Keith boosts our spirits, singing to us the words, "Don't get that glue in your seat" (as in, know when to walk away), and then does the unthinkable: He splits 10's.

One of the most unforgivable acts in blackjack, splitting 10's can lead to walk outs, nasty comments, or worse. When Keith does it, it's as if the entire casino falls silent. Why? Keith is sitting on a 20. There's an extremely good chance he will win this hand. Splitting his 10's means taking more cards--cards that might help the dealer bust, or cards another player could use. In addition, Robert asks Keith if he's keeping chips in his pockets. Keith dodges the question, prompting our dealer to stop the game and ask him more directly, "Could you leave your chips on the table?" Keith produces a few, but he clearly has a dozen more hidden. There is no crime in keeping them in your pocket--but if the dealer is running low on a certain color (normally the chips worth $5), he will exchange your pile for a few chips of higher value (called "coloring up"). If the pit boss comes around and notices a table low on chips and someone like Keith has left the table with his pockets stuffed, the dealer might be suspected of having taken the chips himself.

A grimacing female pit boss comes over and asks, "You got chips in your pocket? Let's see them. All of them." The dealer also tells her that Keith split 10's, making her glower. "Are you crazy?" she asks. Not long after, Keith gets up and leaves. I guess he finally got unglued from his seat.

Sunday night

IT'S 2:00 AM AND I'M SITTING at the Casino War table inside the MGM Grand. That's right, War. It's one of the first games you learn as a child since there's not much mental effort required. If you can count to 10 and remember the sequence of jacks through aces, you can play. The dealer hands out a single card to every player at the table and deals himself one too. If yours is higher in value than his, you win. That simple. But if you and the dealer have the same card, it officially becomes "War." You must then match your ante and face off with the dealer again (each of you taking the third card from the shuffler). If this repeats a third time, you "push" and win.

Among serious gamers, Casino War is viewed with disdain. Explains Vegas aficionado Jeremy Kraybill, "There is no player choice, other than the decision to add more money in the event of War. Even baccarat and roulette offer the player some upfront choice on how they gamble their money; and in craps where you are allowed to add on money, you do so at more favorable--not less favorable--odds." Kraybill, who runs the website Love and Casino War adds that "unlike baccarat and roulette . . . there is no intrigue surrounding the final event--no addition, no waiting for the ball to drop or the coin to stop rolling, or even adding the numbers on the cards." Aside from that are the odds. Kraybill says they aren't the worst in the casino, "but [it] rivals the worst games with none of the 'benefits.'" (And still he admits that each time he's in Vegas, he plays a few hands of War, "because it's funny.")