When chips are down, there's one game you can count on

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When chips are down, there's one game you can count on

When you start teaching a beginner's English class, one of the first subjects is numbers. Korean kids are good with numbers, and are whizzes at reciting 1 through 10 in English. But the next 10 numbers in English are irregular, and give the kids fits.?Usually, when counting to 20, they will breeze through 1 to 10, stumble at 11, crash at 12 and limp on to 20.

I was teaching one of these classes a few years ago, and was racking my brain for a way to focus on 11 through 20. I knew the solution, but didn't want to say it: blackjack.

In blackjack, the dealer starts each round by dealing two cards to each player. The point values are added together, and usually total between 11 and 20. The play is snappy, and everyone is involved. It's easy to learn, and never gets boring.

At first I dismissed the idea, aware that in Korea gambling is a taboo, like driving a car without terrorizing pedestrians. But the more I thought about it, the better it seemed.

Then one day I tried it. When game time came, I took out a deck of cards and a big Dixie cup full of copper 10-won coins to use as chips. I told the students -- three girls and two boys, all about 10-years-old -- to stand around the desk. I gave them a brief demonstration of blackjack, including the betting part. The boys were taciturn, but intrigued, as if to say, "I've found my calling in life." The girls were skittish and looked at each other nervously, as if to say, "Is Mike teacher trying to corrupt our little minds?"

They got the game right away. I said the winner -- whoever had the most coins when the bell rang -- would get a Choco-pie.

The game was a hit, so to speak. On each deal, after I gave the students two cards and before I asked if they wanted another, I asked, "How many do you have?" They would say, "I have 14" or "I have 19." They quickly picked up essential blackjack vocabulary, like "hit me," "I stand" and "bust!"

Once in a while, when a boy said "hit me," I'd sock him in the arm. That would elicit the following exchange:

"Teacher! Why?"

"You told me to."

I enjoyed playing blackjack with this beginner's class so much that I started playing it in higher-level classes as well. For constant back-and-forth between the teacher and the students, no other game beats it.

Miraculously, I never got reprimanded by my supervisor or any parents.

Looking back, I think I helped the kids understand the reality of gambling. Before each game they started with 20 chips each, and they usually ended up losing. I think this taught them a valuable lesson: that when you gamble, you should expect to lose. That will help them later in life.

Until they learn about counting cards.

by Mike Ferrin
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