Table games can be quite tricky and intimidating for the unitiated, but are so much more fun than slots that it's worthwhile to take a little time to learn how to play. If you are confused by slot machines, then you really are a rube, and should just stay home and hang onto your money.

The rest of you, though, can read these lessons, mostly learned through my own time spent looking stupid at the tables. Avoid the mistakes I made by following the simple directions.

Blackjack: A good place to start your table game journey, because it's a pretty simple game, and a quick lesson in basic strategy will allow you to play without losing your shirt. Shirtless play is frowned upon except for the tables in the pools in fancy resorts and late at night in the Gold Spike.

Find a table with an empty seat. Before sitting down, make sure the table isn't empty due to the table minimum being $500. The minimums are typically displayed on little placards, along with various rules which I generally don't understand anyway, so don't worry about them too much.

Wait until the current hand is over, and then push your money suggestively toward the dealer, so he or she knows you want to join in the fun. The dealer will hand you chips in exchange for your money. Try not to fiddle too much with the chips, even though they're really cool and fun to fiddle with.

Separate at least the table minimum from your pile of chips and place your bet in the little circle in front of you. Make sure some old crank isn't playing two hands at once, one of which in your little circle, because he will scowl at you if you try to horn in on his territory.

The dealer will pass out cards, sometimes face up and sometimes face down. There's probably some reason why they don't always put them one way or the other, but I don't know what it is. Besides, you didn't even know about minimum bets a second ago, so don't act all superior. As you should know, the goal is for your cards to add up to 21. Check your cards to see how close you are. Also check the dealer's card. It's perfectly acceptable to look at other people's cards, and even to comment on them. My personal favorite comment is, "Oh boy, you're going to lose this hand! Shoulda quit while you were ahead."

The dealer will then go around the table, pointing at each person's hand in turn. By the time he gets to you, you better have decided whether you want to "hit" or "stay," or you will get scowls for slowing the game down. If you want to hit, either sweep the cards toward yourself (face down dealing), or make a sweeping motion toward yourself with your hand or finger. If you are happy with your hand, either slide your cards under your bet (face down dealing), or make a dismissive motion with your hand over your cards. You must do this or else the dealer will stand there glaring at you. Even if you say, "Hit me hard, friend," or "I'll just keep it right there, baby, right there," you must indicate your desire with your hands. The "eye in the sky," manned by surly casino managers watching you on cameras, needs to see what you want to do to be sure you aren't a rube who they should boot from their casino.

To split cards, take your pair, flip it over, and separate the cards. Then put down an amount equal to your original bet. Then you'll be playing two hands. Whee!

To double down, put down, next to your pile of chips, an amount equal to your original bet. You'll only get one more card, but you'll be playing for twice the stakes. Can you feel the excitement?

After a few hands, you should have the gist of the game and that's when the witty banter should start. Try to engage the dealer in conversation. They love to blather on and on about all the inside info they think they have about the casino or about their hometowns, which is often displayed on their nametags. If you are like Matt, you might want to pretend you are also from this town and ask them if they know so-and-so, you know, works at the A & P, has that scar under his left eye.

Roulette: While the Big Empire advises against playing this game, because we would rather you send your money directly to us instead of giving it to casinos, it's a very simple game that even a dullard can understand.

Take your spot at the table and give the dealer, or croupier as the French like to say, some of your hard-earned cash. He or she will give you some chip-like discs. These are not chips, so don't try to cash them in or else the woman at the cashier window will ask how things are in palookaville. They must be traded in with the croupier for regular chips after you're done playing, which can then be traded in for money. Alternatively, they can all be used up while playing, saving you the hassle. You might notice that your chips are not the same color as the other players'. This is not to brand you as a doofus, it is just to help the croupier keep track of who's betting what.

Place your chips on the numbers, combinations of numbers, or other spots on the table that have cryptic markings like "First 12," or "odd." Feel free to put your chips on top of other people's, but only if you are naturally ornery and don't mind being pushy.

The croupier will start that romantic wheel a-spinning, and then wave his or her hand over the table to indicate that no more bets may be placed. At this point, stop placing bets.

Once the little ball falls into its chosen slot on the wheel, the croupier will put a little plastic or glass (depending on the quality of casino you frequent) pyramid-thingy on the corresponding number on the table. Then he or she will take all of your chips and not give them back no matter how much you ask. Trust me, the game has bad odds.

Since roulette moves so slowly, you will need to provide some of your own entertainment in the form of hinting loudly that you want a cocktail. If a waitress falls for it, don't ask for the cheapest thing they've got, because it's free for players. So go nuts, but do tip the waitress, because that's how she makes her money and it's only fair. Usually a dollar should cover it, or less in the places with the plastic pyramid thingies.

Craps: This game is the holy grail of table game adventuredom, because it is the most fun and rowdy. Of course, it is also the most complicated and scary, because the casinos try to trick you with all the weird numbers and words printed on the felt. The craps table is an easy place to look dumb, but if you walk with a swagger and follow these guidlines, people might think you're an old crap-hound from the days when the mob ruled Vegas.

Find an open spot at a table and squeeze in there like you mean it. Wait until the dicer has finished a roll, and then place your money on the table. Take your chips and place them in the convenient slotted holder on the edge of the table.

When you're ready to go, which should be immediately, place your bet on the pass line directly in front of you. I don't recommend betting don't pass when starting out, because it's rude and might result in a scowl or two. The stickman will slide the dice to the roller, and he or she will toss them across the table. If the dice come up seven or eleven, jump up and down and yell loudly. If they come up two, three or twelve, shake your head and grumble. If they come up any other number, lay down your odds bet right behind your original bet, but outside of the pass area. Be sure to study the odds before going in, because if the dealer has to tell you that your odds bet doesn't add up to an even payout, everybody will laugh at you and you will feel terrible. Craps isn't about feeling terrible, it's about having fun. So do the math beforehand.

Once the dice get to you, the real excitement begins. As the roller, you have control over everybody's life at the table. The stickman must pass you the dice and collect them after you've thrown. The dealers have to dole out winnings or collect losses based on your roll. The pit boss has to reprimand you for going too slowly or too quickly or for your foul mouth. Best of all, the other bettors will lose or win money depending on what you do with them bones. This is pretty heady stuff, but stay calm, because you'll look like a sucker if you throw the dice off the table in your excitement.

The most important aspect of learning to roll is developing a personal style. Some dicers like to toss the dice in a high arc, seeing how high they can get them without a stern warning from the pit boss. For others, the hurl-and-smash strategy suits them just fine. Whatever you decide for yourself, though, keep a few rules in mind. First, the dice must reach the other end of the table and bounce off the back wall. Second, you must not take your hands outside of the table area while holding the dice, even though being able to throw overhand would allow for much more powerful rolling. Finally, be careful not to spill your drink on the felt while throwing. It makes a big mess.

Tipping: It is appropriate to tip the dealers when you are winning and they are being friendly. A lot of dealers like to be tipped with a bet, even though they could end up with nothing. To place a bet for the dealer in blackjack, put some chips down on the edge of your circle, closest to the dealer. To tip the crew at the craps table, toss a chip out and call your bet like so, "Twelve for the boys!" The "for the boys" part is essential, or else they will think you're just making a crazy bet for yourself. of course, you can always just give dealers some money, but that has no panache.

These simple tips ought to give even the dopiest gamblers the confidence to take their chances in the thrilling world of casino table action. And if you forget anything, you're really only going to look like a dork for a minute, and probably in front of people who are addicted to gambling anyway, so don't feel so bad.

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