For the past few days, I have been immersed in the entertainment possibilities of Tunica, Mississippi, a place to which I have been traveling with my family and friends for many years. Quite a few people in these parts go to Tunica, but you may not know that it is the gambling capital of the South. It doesn’t have the glamor of Las Vegas or the boardwalk of Atlantic City, but it has all I need to escape from the stress and worries of life – Blackjack tables.
Dominated by cotton and other crops, Tunica County was the poorest area in the state. Then, the Mississippi legislature, ahead of other states, legalized riverboat gambling. Casino owners, wanting access to the growing population of the South, quickly searched for a willing municipal partner, and the leaders of Tunica were eager to take advantage of their vicinity to the Mississippi River. It wasn’t long before casinos and grand hotels were springing from the flat bottom lands. Imagine looking out of your hotel room and seeing cotton fields all around. That is Tunica.
Gambling hit northern Mississippi a few decades ago, and I have visited the area countless times since. Many of the trips have been lost from memory or have blurred together, but the first time always stands out. I went with a bunch of friends, and we spent the first night in Memphis. A member of our group had a friend that we were going to meet up with, and when we met I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. She was beautiful with jet black hair and dark eyes. Coincidentally, we had the same last name, and I started to think that will make things simple. We hit the town hard that night and headed the 30 miles south to the casinos the next day. I had just lost quite a bit of money in Las Vegas and began to brag that I was going to win all that back and more. Everybody was telling me that it was impossible and that I needed to shut up. However, she took it further. If I won more than I had lost, then she would take off all of her clothes and let me do a body shot off of her body – on any area I wanted. Game on.
When we walked into the casino, I picked out a Blackjack table and told them to get me there when they were ready to go. The table was packed with fun-loving people. We drank, laughed and gambled. I drank so much that I lost track of what I was betting (not a good idea generally). I was also distracted by the girl sitting next to me – Holly from Hope, Arkansas. We talked and flirted and bumped up against each other all night. She wanted my undivided attention, and I probably should have given it to her. But, I was on a mission. I don’t know how much time passed, but my good friend walked up and said everyone was ready. I said goodbye to Holly and went to the bank to cash in my chips without knowing exactly how much there was. With money in hand, I walked to where the group was sitting and pulled the cash out of my pocket. “Shot Girl” couldn’t believe that I had won double what I lost in Las Vegas. To her credit, she went through with our agreement, and a good time was had by all. Well, maybe not all, but I had a blast.
Through the years, my trips have calmed considerably. I have taken several girlfriends, but they didn’t grasp the enjoyment of gambling. My parents like to go, and I have taken them several times. The most fun was with my uncle. He loved Blackjack as much as me, and we spent many hours sitting at opposite ends of a table trying to break the bank. He passed away last year after a decade-long battle with cancer. Whenever we walked into a casino, he would say, “I’m getting well.”
This trip was just me and my parents. We stayed at Harrah’s and did most of our gambling there. I always start slowly and build up my pace. I played some video poker with my dad while my mom worked the penny slots. Then, I found my own penny machine based on “The Hangover” and won some money. By this time, we were getting hungry and hit Paula Deen’s Buffet. I am sure Paula’s real restaurant is a lot better, but this one is a great place to eat. Plus, gamblers get to eat for free, and it is easy to get into than her original locale – or so I hear. After dinner, I tried my first foray into Blackjack on a $5 table where the players were not too bad (more on that later). The conversation was fine, but I would rather not talk to anyone. The dealer should be a robot and the other players should just play. But, this was a chatty bunch.
I was at my usual 3rd base position (the last player before the dealer), and the guy at 1st base (the first player) was having a difficult time making decisions. On one hand, the guy asked for advice, and another player told him what “The Book” says. For serious Blackjack players, “The Book” is like the Holy Grail, as it charts every situation that you’ll face and tells you the play to make. Before sitting down at a table, I highly encourage you to memorize it. However, players have a love/hate relationship with it. They follow it but complain about it when they lose. The key is to play the percentages and get the best odds on your money while understanding that the house is still the favorite. That’s why they can build big buildings and provide free rooms, food and drinks.
Anyway, the player giving advice said that the only person to make money from the book was the guy who wrote it. It’s a common line with people who lose after making the right play. I hate it.
So, I interjected that I watched a documentary about him man who developed the Blackjack chart. He was a mathematician who was approached by a gambler about helping him win. After a weekend proving his theory worked, the math whiz quit Blackjack and used his formula to gain wealth in the stock market. In return, I received a smart remark about how it must have been a long time ago because nobody makes money in the stock market now. No shit, Sherlock. How long do you think “The Book” has been out? Another thing to remember, don’t try to bring an intelligent conversation to the table.
The next day we decided to get out of the casino for a while and check out the countryside. Most people who go to Tunica think they have actually gone to the city of Tunica, but they haven’t. The casinos sit in the Robinsonville community, and Tunica is several miles down the road. Riding through the city provides clues that the city fathers did not anticipate this. There is a History of Tunica Museum, and the town center has been turned into a park-like area surrounded by shops and small restaurants. Obviously, they expected an influx of tourists that did not show up in the expected numbers. And, the people who do not venture out are missing a lot. Tunica is a nice little town with a beautiful courthouse and interesting things to look at. Also, the Hollywood Cafe is closer to the casinos than Tunica. It was one of the great music clubs where many of the great Blues artists got their start. When Marc Cohn sings “Walking in Memphis”, he includes this line:
Now Murial plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
He is referencing this place. I wonder how many gamblers even know it’s there.
However, a more famous blues place is just south of Tunica on Highway 61. Clarksdale, Mississippi was also one of the great Blues locales, but one with more mysticism. According to legend, it is where Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the Devil in return for being a great Bluesman. Again, I wonder how many gamblers have ventured that far away from the slot machines.
When I returned to the tables, I realized how bad it can get. I sat at another $5 table and immediately knew that I had made a mistake. No one was playing by “The Book” except me. The man next to me even asked why I was making bad decisions. The guy at 1st base agonized over every decision. This is a bad sign because if someone knows “The Book”, then there is really no tough decision. You just do what you have trained yourself to do. Play the odds instead of hunches. In short, it was terrible, so I got up and went to a $25 table. Most people who are willing to bet a minimum of $25 and probably more know how to play the game. It was wonderful. No delayed decisions. Everything by “The Book”. Splits. Double downs. Fast-paced. I lost $600.
The only person to make money from “The Book” was the guy who wrote it.