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HEALTHY BLACKJACK:

Five Tips to Help You Play Better by Feeling Better

by Basil Nestor

Basil Nestor is author of "The Smarter Bet Guide to Craps," "The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack," and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.

Life is strange, and itís often ironic.

True storyÖ A mountain climber with no legs climbs to the top of Mount Everest; his name is Mark Inglis. On the way up, Inglis passes another climber with two perfectly good legs, David Sharp. Sharp is dying because he didnít bring enough oxygen with him. Inglis survives and beats the mountain despite his disability. Sharp perishes. A poignant tragedy and an unusual triumph occur on the same day.

Itís easy to assume that gambling is safer than mountain climbing, that the two activities have nothing in common. However, in fact, gambling can be a health-stressing sport just like mountain climbing, or sky diving, car racing, scuba diving, weight lifting, and so forth.

Whatís the big challenge about sitting in a chair and pushing a few chips around?

AhhhÖ If only it were that simple. We call tables "live" games because, by definition, tables require specific physical interactions on a schedule. When you play live, there is a flow to the contest that includes buying chips, betting at the right times, collecting bets, making strategic choices on cue, coloring up, and so forth. Itís like a dance. When a player falls out of rhythm, other players react as if someone is stepping on toes. Sure, you can pause for a moment to ponder a move, or walk away from the table between hands. However, you canít play the game at your own speed as you would play a slot machine.

The result of this constant dance is that fatigue and discomfort tend to increase over time, and they can affect performance, and your health. Just like doing curls with a dumbbell, the first ones are easy. The later ones can be impossibly hard. Players (including many successful professionals) who sit in contests for a long time can get hungry, tired, cramped, crabby, frustrated, or otherwise distracted, and thus become prone to playing incorrectly and losing when they could have been winning. Sometimes the stress can make you sick, and occasionally can even be fatal. One particularly unfortunate example is famed poker player Jack "Treetop" Straus, who died of a heart attack while playing at the Bicycle Casino.

The best way to play a good game is to care for your body along with your mind, to thoroughly prep yourself for the climb up the mountain.

Therefore, here are my personal rules of gambling. I think of them like gloves, a helmet, a harness, an ice axe, and such. These are important items and procedures. Remember, these are my rules. Yours may be different, but it never hurts to compare lists from time to time.

1. Know how long you will play.

First and most important, when you sit down, you should have an idea about the length of the session. Is this just a casual stop to kill time for half an hour while the spouse is shopping, or is this a full-blown sit-down that will last many hours? Is this a cash game that you can leave, or a tournament where you may play for a while?

Typically, the basic milestones of endurance are at 30 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, and 6 hours or beyond. Your prep depends on which of these milestones you choose.

30 minutes: This is just a short pit stop, so a player doesnít need a lot of physical prep. The only absolute requirement is a good mood, or at least an even temper, and my personal very-strict rule of no alcohol (more about that below).

2 hours: All of the above, plus you should be rested when you begin, well fed (but not necessarily full from a meal), and well watered. Yes, there is table service to keep you liquefied. However, donít count on that completely because a server may leave you thirsty for a while. Drink liquids before sitting, or bring them along. Arrive in equilibrium. Wear comfortable clothes. Take at least one bathroom break during the session, and you donít necessarily have to visit the bathroom. Just walk around for five minutes and get the blood circulating through your legs and into your chest.

4 hours: This is a typical session for most dedicated table players. Do all of the above, plus you need to have a plan for liquids and snacks. Find out if servers will bring food to the table. Otherwise, find a nearby snack shop or restaurant before you sit down. Itís a drag to search for food when the "away-from-the-table" clock is ticking. Some players break a long session into one-hour chunks separated by 10-minute intervals for food, bathroom, and walking.

6 hours and beyond: Do all of the above plus you need to begin the session early in your wake cycle (the equivalent of your morning or afternoon). Donít play late. Donít play sleepy.

2. No alcohol.

Drinks are free in many casinos when playing at the tables and machines. Gee, arenít those casino guys nice? Letís toast them with a complimentary coffee or a soda.

Inebriating drinks make you distracted and tired, and that makes optimal strategies difficult to follow. The result is that a "free" drink worth $5 often costs a player many times that amount. Donít surrender your edge. Stick to your strategy, win some money, and buy your drink later.

3. Avoid unnecessary stress.

Losing is stressful and tiring, and sometimes you will lose; that canít be avoided. Nevertheless, you can prevent further stress by not taking losses personally. Did you follow optimal strategies? Did you play well? If you can answer yes to both questions, unequivocally, then the gambling gods simply embraced your opponent. It happens. Bothering your head with guilt or shame will only distract you and increase fatigue. Forget the last hand. Concentrate on the next one.

4. Be nice to casino staff.

Dealers, floor people, and supervisors canít change your luck, but they can make your gaming experience easier and less stressful. For example, casino staff can give you favorable decisions when the choices are borderline. Generally, these choices involve correcting errors in the game, giving you time away from the table, or rule-bending where one interpretation of the rules means you lose, and the other gives you a win or push. So be nice to the staff. It may save you some money, or bring you another benefit or comp that a churlish person will not receive.

5. Know when youíre done.

Remember, even though you can eat, go the bathroom, walk around, and so forth, you still cannot recuperate at a table. All you can do is slow down the process of fatigue. When youíre at the end of your endurance, the reasonable end, color up and leave. Sleep, nourishment, and calm reflection are the only true tactics for getting back to 100%.

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© copyright 2013 Basil Nestor

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