“Scared money don’t make no money.”
It’s a lesson I’ll never forget, not least because of the circumstances: Chris and I were playing blackjack at a Las Vegas casino last week, betting about $15 a hand. A young black guy walked over and — staying standing the whole time — put down a black chip (that’s $100 for the newbies) on the space between my bet and Chris’ bet…and promptly won. He yelled something which I didn’t quite catch, picked up his winnings, and walked back to the nearby roulette table where his friend was playing.
He came back a couple of minutes later, did the same thing with the same results, and we got to talking a bit. He looked like a football player — a defensive back, I thought; turned out he played wide receiver at West Virginia before transferring to another college that I won’t name but which he repeatedly insulted, even after our exceptionally pleasant if slightly verbose dealer, Marion, mentioned that the other college was also her alma mater. I figured he made it into the NFL, at least a practice squad or maybe the CFL, based on the amounts he was risking at the tables. Instead he and his friend worked construction, specializing in concrete, for his friend’s father’s company somewhere in the Rust Belt.
When I asked him why he was betting so much, he responded with the opening line of this article. He was demonstrating what he perceived to be a lack of fear, but I think there’s something else going on — something that is permeating not just other aspects of Las Vegas but far more important parts of our daily lives, especially the lives of young adults and children. That something else is an attention span so short that you wonder how Americans under the age of 30 handle even their most basic responsibilities.
Let’s stick with Vegas for a minute. If you venture into the more well-known casinos on “The Strip” (technically South Las Vegas Boulevard) and if you’ve spent any time there in years past playing blackjack, you’ll notice a couple of glaring rule changes.
First, at almost every table the dealers now “must hit soft 17” (“hit” means take another card; “soft 17” mean an ace combined with one or more cards totaling six) whereas in the past the dealer stayed on any seventeen. Second, and more importantly, blackjack (an ace combined with a 10 or a face card) now pays 6-to-5 whereas it has, throughout the recorded history of homo aleator, paid 3-to-2. In other words, if you bet $10 and get blackjack — and if the dealer does not also have blackjack — the player is now paid $12 instead of the long-standing payout of $15. (Although I’ve never seen it, I’m told that in the past a few casinos paid 2-to-1, which could actually have given a good player a small advantage over the house!)
For purposes of simplicity, assume that the most blackjack games in the big Las Vegas casinos use six or eight decks and most have a fairly standard set of other rules of play. On average, if a player is making the correct decisions (based on his cards and the “up card” of the dealer) the casino has an advantage of about 0.3 to 0.35 percent. If you think that’s a low number, you’re right; blackjack is one of the best casino games in terms of likely outcome for the player.
The rule change regarding hitting soft seventeen adds 0.2 percent to the house edge thus increasing it by about 60 percent of its original level. But that’s nothing compared to the damage that the change in blackjack payout does to the player: that single modification adds about 1.4 percent to the house’s advantage, roughly quintupling it (in a stand-on-any-17 game, or nearly quadrupling it in a hit-soft-17 game).
Most Strip casinos still have some 3-to-2 tables but they’re not around the perimeter of the gaming area. You have to ask a dealer and then search until you find them. Some aren’t even labeled with the 3-to-2 payout. Very few of the big casinos have games where the dealer stays on all 17s — except in their high-stakes rooms where tables often have $500 and rarely lower than $100 minimum bets. 3-to-2 on blackjack is the norm in the high-stakes rooms because those gamblers have choices and understand the game. For those of us who don’t want to lose a few thousand dollars in one sitting at a table, the Strip’s big casinos have become decidedly less friendly.
If you go off-Strip, however, the old/traditional/favorable rules are much easier to find. Why is this?
Because, I submit, today’s tourists to Sin City’s nice hotels are not there to gamble, at least not to the degree that prior generations were. Instead, Vegas is today a city of great shows and entertainment and remarkably high-end shopping and fabulous food purveyed by celebrity chefs. It’s not just old-school grunge and strip clubs and “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” and nights that can make The Hangover seem plausible, though there’s still plenty of that.
Instead, it’s competing with Manhattan and Los Angeles and Paris and perhaps even Disneyworld. In the first half of 2015, Las Vegas welcomed more than 21 million visitors. Instead of the Mob, it’s run by accountants and restauranteurs guided by a handful of visionaries and movers-and-shakers like Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson (who owns the Palazzo, where we stayed and would gladly return).
Today’s young adults grew up with video games. They’re tethered to their iPhones and can’t wait for the next alert of a tweet or Instagram or Pinterest post. They don’t watch the news, they don’t read newspapers, and most of them couldn’t have read this far in an article, even one about them. They are, in today’s psychological terminology, “high novelty-seeking,” which, like most personality traits, has both benefits and pitfalls. They are easily bored risk-takers. They have the shortest attention spans that have ever existed in an adult human and care little for anything that doesn’t offer at least a brief rush of dopamine, adrenaline, or endorphin.
And it shows in how they gamble. Off-strip, you find locals and older folks (which is to say born before 1980) playing cards for an hour or three at a time, enjoying the game for its own sake. A long, slow enjoyment — the gambling equivalent of a seduction — versus “kids today” who gamble the same way they treat romantic encounters: quickly and superficially, and with high stakes since they’re risking the same amount in ten minutes that I’d risk in an hour or two if not the whole weekend.
What does this mean for the casino? The house’s advantage in blackjack is, as noted above, very small if a player knows what he’s doing. The way the house wins — the reason that Caesar’s Palace and Bally’s and the Tropicana and other great names of Las Vegas’ past were able to be built and to survive to this day (though many other legendary properties such as the Desert Inn and the Dunes are long gone) — is by players sitting down for an extended period of time.
Today’s young adults — at least those who patronize the big hotels on the Strip — don’t have the patience for that; they gamble more money per hand for a much shorter time period. It is an unintentionally sound gambling strategy. So in order for casinos to retain an ROI justifying the use of millions of square feet of expensive real estate, they have to change the rules to increase their advantage.
Most of these millennial gamblers probably haven’t thought much about the odds in casino games nor the impact of a rule change like the blackjack payout that turns “twenty-one” from one of the best games (for the gambler) into a game that’s average at best.
The 30-year old who’s happy to risk a few bucks probably thinks of his getting a blackjack as so rare an occurrence that it hardly matters. In fact, you should get a blackjack around 5 percent of the time, depending on the number of decks being used. On one hand, this means that cutting the payout from 150 percent of your bet to 120 percent of your bet is a dramatic advantage for the house. On the other hand, if you only plan on gambling for 15 minutes, who really cares?
I realize that some of your kids’ or grandkids’ short attention spans have infiltrated your lifestyle so I need to end this note soon, but it bears mentioning that the impact of the easily bored minds of today’s children and young adults goes far beyond the rules of blackjack.
Think about how (or whether) students learn today, about how “screen time” is making it nearly impossible for young (and not so young) children to focus on a task or read a book or play outdoors for more than a few minutes without losing interest, about how “news” is digested by the Jon Stewart crowd, about Hillary Clinton’s bragging over a new “Snapchat” account — the purpose of which, separate from her bad jokes, is for messages to disappear forever within moments after being sent.
This is what passes for awesome, or as my 9-year old daughter would say, “epic,” among today’s youth and young adults: Forget about the value of something built to last, forget about classics, forget about eternal truths or even the ability to hold on to a really funny joke or insightful quip. All that matters is the fleeting, the temporary, the it-makes-me-feel-good-at-the-moment, the hook-up, the latest upgrade.
I do find some strange wisdom in the utterance “scared money don’t make no money.” But when the young people of today can only enjoy life in brief moments of unnatural intensity it makes me wonder, “Am I old?” To which I respond, “For perhaps the first time, I hope so.”