Dear Mark: My wife and I are heading to Vegas to celebrate our 45th anniversary, and I would like to try blackjack, but have never played the game at a casino. Any place you would recommend for a beginner? - Rick F.

Before any beginner sits front and center on a blackjack game, I suggest that you do NOT make your first playing experience your classroom. If you are new to blackjack, and you don't know the rules or any of the playing strategies, you might want to learn the game first on a 25-cent video blackjack machine.

The advantage of a video blackjack machine vs. a live game is the low minimum bankroll requirement needed to play. Many 25-cent video blackjack games, even ones that pay the full amount for a blackjack, exist on the casino floor. Besides lacking the intimidation factor of a live game, they make excellent practice session partners where you can work on basic strategy. Which leads me to the best blackjack tip you will ever get from your's truly: Learn basic strategy.

Blackjack, Rick, is a game that many play, but few play well. Basic strategy is nothing more than how you play your hand against the dealer "up card." Playing your hand correctly will bring the house advantage down to well under one percent. I recommend that you purchase one of those laminated cheat sheets sold for about $3 to $5 in some casino gift shops (a buck on my web site - http://markpilarski.com). Believe me, they are worth their weight in the precious metal rhodium.

As for using a blackjack strategy card on a machine or a live game, yes, it's absolutely allowed, and a must for newbies learning the game. Using a basic strategy card will give you a concise, definitive play, for every starting hand that you will be dealt. Eventually, you will learn basic strategy to the point where it becomes an automatic response. While working up to that proficiency, you might as well carry one along in your top pocket to refer to with those tough decision making moments.

Also, Rick, consider using a computer to acquire gaming skills without the expense of a live or video blackjack game. At no financial risk, a blackjack computer software program enables you to spot costly trends that you can avoid when playing the "real deal." Any knowledge obtained without a cash outlay should make you more money down the road.

So, Rick, which blackjack game in Las Vegas is the best? Drum roll, please: That game can be had at The El Cortez. The last time I played there, they even promoted that rare, single deck blackjack game that pays 3:2 for a blackjack. The house advantage on this game is .19 percent, making it the best game both Downtown and on the Strip. Here's the kicker, Rick. The minimum bet on this game is only five smackeroos. (Note: Their web page shows Single Deck BJ - 3:2 payoff, $3 and $5 minimums) When I was there, though, it was $5, most likely because it was on a Saturday evening.

So, Rick, are you going to bring Vegas to its knees at $5 a pop? Hardly, but your anniversary slush fund is going to keep you in the game a whole lot longer there than at any other game in town. Sure, there are other great blackjack games in Vegas, but you're looking at games with a $25 minimum. They don't include the low minimum and generous rules of the single deck blackjack game at El Cortez. Locals love this place, as it's also known for its loose slots and as a decent low-end comp house. So, what's not to like about the El Cortez? Nothing!

It's too bad that all casinos aren't like this, suggesting that no matter where you play, you should still always be shopping for value.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Winners tell funny stories, and losers yell, "Deal, dealer, deal!" - Poker Saying