Classic Roger #7: A Casino Odyssey

A Casino Odyssey: Part One was originally published to Thu Jul 19, 2001 [about events taking place in the 90s through the early 00s. Do not assume you can achieve these results today in an industry that has now over-expanded, collapsed, and moved offshore to Macau. There is very little loose money left to get.]

Length: Around 8,000 words

In 1990, our neighboring state of Mississippi legalized gambling. Two years later, for the first time in my life I walked into a casino. This was the beginning of an odyssey which would, more through faith in math and hard work than luck, and against all normal expectation, turn my debt into a healthy savings. It would see me develop an appreciation for 60-year-old Scotch and and US$50 steaks [Editor’s Note: in early 90s dollars, folks!.] It would show me a great deal of the excitement and drama people go to casinos for. And in the end it would leave me and my friends with a deep, abiding hatred of these places and a terrible understanding of how they affect most of their clientele.

A Fateful Decision

In late 1991 friend Y and I decided, on a lark, to see what all the fuss was about. We visited the Grand Casino in Gulfport, MS, back when the parking lot only had two levels, there was no “entertainment barge” and the hotel was a distant dream. We were confronted with a bewildering array of lights, sounds, signs, and people frantically doing incomprehensible shit. We watched the Roulette wheel and sat in on a Blackjack game and put a few quarters into slot machines. And we finally left, wondering how anybody figured out what to bet on.

So we did what educated people did back before the Internet: We bought a book.
Guerrilla Gambling by Frank Sclobete is a bit dated and has some factual errors, but it’s still a good introductory guide. Reading GG is much better than going into a casino with no clue at all. We quickly learned to separate the smart from the stupid moves. You generally can’t win, we figured, but by figuring in the comped food and entertainment value we might reduce our entertainment expenses and come out ahead of where we would have been staying home. We formed up a little budget and kept perfect records of our visits, so that we could deduct our losses against our wins if we ended up ahead.

Our friend X had much more ambitious plans. Even before the casinos came, he planned to become a professional gambler. He studied and drilled card counting techniques. He regarded the coming of the casinos as a sign of his personal fate, sent by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. While X was a nice guy who started sharing gas money to go out to the Coast with us, none of us took his plans seriously. For one thing, it was very clear he had a serious impulse-control problem and was a hard-core gambling addict.

A Lesson in Reality

That record of our wins and losses got a bit monotonous in my case. I studied the strategies, I played smart, and I lost my ass. I couldn’t win a bet on what time of day it was. Meanwhile, X and Y fluttered along more normally, enjoying some winning sessions to offset their losses. X began a binge-and-recover cycle which would last five years, as he worked until he had a few thousand dollars, quit his job, moved into the casino, and gambled until he was wiped out by an unfortunate streak. He was playing smart, but not quite smart enough. I was learning just how bad bad luck can be — which is much worse than you think.

After a few months, I had racked up fifteen losing visits in a row. I had lost early and lost big (at least based on my US$50 visit allowance) every single visit. I wasn’t playing any different from Y, who had by now accumulated a bankroll of several hundred dollars. Typically I’d play for an hour at most and bust out, then watch Y and try to score free drinks while Y played into the night. I added up all the money I was losing and decided enough was enough. I had lost enough to buy the new computer I was longing for. I started staying home and let X and Y ply the tables. And I swore I’d never go back.

I Am Dragged Back

It turned out there were these things called tournaments, where all the players chip in to a prize pool and play the game with play money (“non-negotiable cheques”). At the time most of these were zero-sum, no-house-edge affairs or even offered with a bonus payout to get customers in the door. And since you were playing against other customers instead of the house, nobody cared if you played smart to get an edge against them. Remembering the sting of consistent losing, I refused to be seduced by these promotions; but I couldn’t refuse to play in the $10,000 top-prize free tournament that was offered twice by Lady Luck Casino Biloxi.

Imagine my shock when I won the $10,000.

We were staying at a campground, it was near midnight, and hundreds of people watched the casino present me with 95 $100 bills. I had never seen so much money in one place in my life, and hot-damn it was mine! We deposited the cash with the cage (cashier) and asked them to write me a check so it would stay that way.

This incident broke my losing streak, and I suddenly found myself able to walk away from table games with modest wins often enough to make occasional play possible. At the time this change in the weather was simply bewildering. Later I would take it as a second important lesson.

For the next few years my personal life would be scheduled around Gulf Coast casino tournaments. I was working a reduced schedule with flex time so it was very practical to make sure the days I had off made room for the free Craps tournament at Bayou Caddy’s Jubilee (back when it was still docked on Bayou Caddy, in Lakeshore MS). Or the free Craps tournament at Casino Magic, Biloxi. Or the zero-sum buy-in Blackjack tournament at Casino Magic, Bay St. Louis. Or the one at the Isle of Capri Biloxi. Or the one at the President, or the one at the Copa… well, you get the idea.

We became masters of the tournament strategy, learning to count chips like lightning to determine our position in the critical closing hands of a tournament round. Since tournaments are high-variance affairs where you bet a little often to win a lot of money infrequently we had a typical tournament split agreement. If one player made the final round, he got 80% with the other two splitting 20%. If two players made the final they would split 80% while the odd one out got 20%. We learned that there is something of a gambler’s code. While he owed other people tens of thousands of dollars, X would never renege on a gambling agreement. There is a certain amount of trust involved, but the three of us learned through experience that we would be paid when one of our ships came in.

That would be important, later.

Gambling Becomes a Social Event

Besides X and Y and myself, there were dozens of “regulars” who you’d meet at every tournament. Tournaments were entertaining, festive affairs. These were people who, if not rocket scientists, were at least attracted by the idea of being able to play these games at a level they could not normally afford, with their losses limited to the entry fee. There were very few sad stories.

Mrs. J was the wife of a prominent Biloxi businessman, and soon after we hit the tournament circuit she won a $300,000 jackpot. Soon she was playing green chips instead of red. (Translation: $25 minimum bets instead of $5) Within a couple of years the $300,000 was gone. So was the husband. J was working as a Blackjack dealer to support herself.

We might have noticed this if we weren’t having so much fun pigging out on the free buffets and taking home the occasional nice win. We joined all the player’s clubs and signed up for every free drawing. Before The Frugal Gambler was published we had stumbled onto many of the techniques it reveals for boosting our EV (Expected Value, the theoretical return on an investment or bet). On a typical Coast visit our combined coupons, mailers, free or bonus tournament entries, and whatnot added up to twenty or thirty bucks apiece. Since we were going out twice a week or more we quickly “got in the long run” and “realized our EV” (that is, our win/loss record reflected our mathematical edge over the situation, not the random swing of whether we actually won or lost a particular match-play coupon.)

We developed the trick of making sure we always had enough comp points at the Grand Gulfport for a free buffet on holidays like Easter and Christmas. The whole state gets the idea to eat there on those days, but the point of the comp isn’t just that the food is free; what becomes much more important is that you go to the head of the line. So while the Normals are lined up back to the non-smoking slots looking at a two-hour wait, we sail up to the VIP line and get seated in 15 minutes. Y and I were making several thousand dollars apiece per year, not enough to live on but a small income that completely displaced a similar amount we used to spend on eating out and entertainment. Our bills were dwindling and I was fond of telling people that the casino industry was the best thing since sliced bread.

I mean, we were getting paid to have fun! What more could anyone want?

A Casino Odyssey: Part Two

was originally published to Fri Jul 20, 2001

My life was scheduled around casino tournaments. I had gotten the equivalent of almost a $10,000 raise by turning entertainment expenses into a small income using techniques similar to those revealed in Jean Scott’s The Frugal Gambler. I had dozens of new, interesting friends. I could look at a rack of casino chips from five feet away and nail its total value within five bucks in seconds. I knew every single bet and payout on the Craps table. And my friend X was about to make my life really interesting.

One thing about being a smart gambler is that you quickly find out you are rara avis.

Inoculated against the ravages of gambling addiction by my early instructive losing streak, I was mystified when Y pumped a nice $500 win into a $25 slot machine because “my luck has been so good recently.” This is someone who has an advanced degree in physics! And X, who had studied the math (not really complicated stuff, it’s all basic algebra and statistics) until he could bore you for hours with the effects of a rule change or strategy variation on your Expected Value (EV), couldn’t seem to avoid getting wiped out in tragic negative swings. Back to work, at least for a couple of months, back to the tables, oopsie, back to work…

I proselytized. Many of my friends and coworkers gambled, and they found my success interesting. I made no secret of how to get the best edge, work the comp system, and parlay the tournaments into a win.

The most common response was: “Well, I really like to play the slots.”

I can readily tell you the number of Normals who saw what my friends and I accomplished and took even a tentative step toward duplicating it. Not succeeded, but tried. It was zero, out of hundreds.

And then there were the folks we played against in the tournaments. Nice people, generally intelligent people, but prone to do the most amazingly ill-thought-out things in situations that were worth hundreds or thousands of dollars. We laughed and joked and of course much of the thousands of dollars a year I was taking home were coming out of their pockets. At times I got a bit weirded out by that.

Basic Strategies

Every casino game of skill has an optimal strategy which can be determined mathematically or by computer analysis. You always lose the least in the long run by playing this “Basic Strategy,” no matter what might happen to happen on an individual hand. Thus, you always hit 16 against a dealer 10 at Blackjack. Yes, you’ll probably lose; in a statistical sense you’ve probably lost the hand already. But computer analysis shows you will lose less if you take the hit and risk busting.

If you’re playing correctly there really are no decisions to make, but almost nobody plays correctly. The theoretical house edge at most casino Blackjack games ranges from 0.1 to 1.5 percent or so depending on the rules. But the actual take is typically 2 to 5 percent. This reliable gap is entirely the result of incorrect play. (This EV is in terms of “action,” the sum total of all bets made. The “hold,” loss figured against only the “drop” gamblers buy-in for, is another matter entirely.)

Occasionally this preponderance of poor play encourages a casino to do something really stupid. One promotional idea which emerges infrequently is the “2 to 1 Blackjack” game where natural 21 pays 2:1 instead of 3:2. Most players still face a loss, but the perfect Basic Strategist sees the edge the casino usually expects to see, about one percent — without counting cards.

The Boomtown Belle, one of the “me, too” riverboat casinos legalized in Louisiana, was desperate to get people on their boat during the legally required 1.5 hour cruises. In September of 1995 they decided the solution was 2:1 Blackjack, up to two hands of $25. X and Y literally scraped together all the money they could lay hands on and showed up. (I was now working full-time, and was unable to go with them.)

At first they nearly lost their stake of $1,200 because they were really betting too much and had early bad luck. But then they won $14,000 over the next 9 days in about 30 hours of play. At which time the casino became tired of their action and invited them to leave.

Card Counting Finally Succeeds

X was pretty much an expert on the mechanics of card counting. It doesn’t work like the scene in Rain Man.

It’s all in the FAQ.

X played smart. I watched him play and I knew exactly what he was doing wrong. Hell, he even knew what he was doing wrong on an intellectual level but he didn’t really believe it.

When you are playing with an advantage, there is a calculation called “risk-of-ruin”. It tells you that if you have such bankroll and bet at so level, you will have hmmmm chance of losing all your money before you double it. Card counting is high-variance; you are literally waiting for opportunities to bet (high counts). You can still lose those high-count bets. As a very vague rule of thumb you need about 100 big bets in your bankroll to count cards. X was playing with more like 20 big bets, if that. His advantage couldn’t overcome his risk of ruin.

X lost his share of the Boomtown Belle $14K and went back to another work, quit, lose-stake cycle. In May of 1997 the Jubilee (now relocated in Greenville, MS) decided a 2:1 promotion was the way to lure monied gamblers to a dumpy burg located at the most inconvenient possible point between Jackson, MS and Memphis, TN. Most of the monied gamblers who showed up knew how to beat the promotion and it only lasted a few days, but X and Y made off with almost $10,000. Not long afterward the Lighthouse Point, also in Greenville, got the same bonehead idea and yielded several thousand dollars more.

Time to quit the job again, time to…

…call me, as it turned out.

I spent the next few weeks fielding calls from X. He was actually going over the risk-of-ruin calculations to convince himself they weren’t bullshit. After some algebra refreshers and a quick course on QBasic, he built some simulations and did some figuring and convinced himself. He dutifully went to the soon-to-close Flamingo Hilton and started playing a modest $5-$25 bet spread. It was a fortunate choice, because a bureaucatic screw-up of titanic proportion had lost them their gaming license, and the lackluster staff at this doomed boat were in no mood to protect Hilton’s already-lost investment against X’s faint probing.

When counting cards, you make the money by betting small when they have the edge and high when you do. The count tells you this; each card has a point value, negative or positive. When the count is positive the deck is rich in tens and the odds favor you; you bet more. When it’s negative the deck is rich in fives and sixes. The dealer is less likely to bust, you’re less likely to get dealt good natural hands. You reduce your bet or go to the bathroom.

The gap between your smallest and largest bets is your “spread.” It’s also how you get caught. While the count does tell you to play some hands contrary to Basic Strategy (you stand on 16 against 10 in high counts, for example) this strategy variation isn’t enough to beat the game. You have to spread your bets, and the more you spread the more you win. And the more noticeable your play is.

In February 1994, when he had been playing with red chips and losing anyway, X had been “backroomed” by [censored]. Security guards literally dragged X into a back room, took his picture, and read him the Trespass Act. But the lackluster staff at the Flamingo gave him an excellent game and once he’d built up his bankroll he found himself still able to play at some other properties.

As 1997 rolled over into 1998 he parlayed his modest stake into $80,000. But in that course he was kicked out of every casino on the Gulf Coast. His big bets were now in the $100 black chip range, and everybody knew he was a counter from his losing days. Once he began to win, he was shown the door, although usually with more politeness than [censored] had shown.

“Ah, Mr. X. We must contratulate you on your really excellent play. Yes, we have noticed that you are very, very good. In fact, you’re really too good for us. You’re welcome to play any of our other games, but we really can’t offer you a Blackjack game any more.”

X now had a bankroll but couldn’t play. We could play, but had no bankroll. X knew we could be trusted to play by the agreed strategy (as we had in so many tournaments) and to account properly for the money (as we had in so many tournaments and as Y had in the 2:1 promos.) He called and offered a deal: If we played for him we could keep half the profit. I didn’t have the time, but Y weighed half the win against none of the risk and decided it was a no-brainer.

Y was no card-counter; we knew the theory but with no bankroll had had no reason to drill the ability to actually maintain the count. There is a large gap between knowing that tens are -1 and sixes are +1 and being able to count up and down as cards are dealt in a live game. Y drilled with the computer for about a month, an hour or two a day, then after favorable testing by X entered a casino with several thousand dollars of his money. Y was nervous but X pronounced the results acceptable and Y continued to play. Known as the cheapskates that we were, we covered the story of our newfound “wealth” with a white lie about an inheritance. Since I didn’t have the time to do the drills or play enough to make it worthwhile, when I accompanied Y we covered my own continued cheapness with vague hints that I was worried about Y’s incipient gambling addiction.

It worked like a charm, and before long we were being wined and dined like royalty. At least, until our hosts figured out what we were doing…

A Casino Odyssey: Part Three

was Originally Published
Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 06:11:03 PM EST

Our personal lives no longer revolved around tournament schedules, five-dollar match-play coupons, and free buffets. We were eating at the a la carte restaurants, drinking expensive Scotch, and staying in multi-room hotel suites with Jacuzzi baths — all for free, while my friends won hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At least, at the properties that hadn’t figured out what we were doing yet.

While Y gradually sharpened her card-counting skills and conquered the Gulf Coast, X realized that if he stayed away long enough, he could return to properties where he’d been banned. But the Coast was no longer big enough to accommodate his bankroll. He and Y were now “black chippers,” players who bet more than $100 a hand, and their play attracted the attention of casino staff — much of it fawning, some of it hostile.

We had already visited Las Vegas as a low-roller vacation back in our low-roller cheap days. Now it was time to return on business. X and Y made a modest entrance and found playable games run by people who didn’t know who they were all over town.

Back home, I didn’t play in many tournaments any more. Our visits to Mississippi were scheduled around countable Blackjack games, and I occupied myself playing low-stakes Craps while Y “went nuts” with “my” money across the pit.

Yes? Oh, how’s it going Y?

Oh, I’ll be playing later but I’m hungry now. Can we have two for [insert $50-a-plate restaurant]?

[Editor’s note: Again, if these prices seem low, keep in mind that we’re talking about the 1990s at a time when casino destinations like Vegas was popular for their low prices. Now that gambling income has collapsed, the New York restaurant price has come to a casino near you…]

Of course. Will you be needing a room?

Of course, Y got invited to leave plenty of times; but we didn’t have X’s history of low-stakes card counting. (Hint to wannabe counters: do not play in real casinos at low stakes. A lot of places will let you do that, but then bar you when your action turns green.) And casinos do not hire, ahem, the best and the brightest. The surest way to spot a card counter is to be able to count cards yourself. Then you can tell that a player is spreading his bets according to the count. Needless to say, a lot of players vary their bets according to whim or superstitious bullshit. Few casino personnel are equipped to tell the difference. I was sitting next to Y at the Horseshoe in Tunica, MS once when the genius pitboss barred a bona fide loser while Y calmly spread a ridiculous 20:1 right beside him.

Many casinos actually discourage their employees from learning about card counting. One fellow who had gone to a great deal of trouble to educate himself became so disgruntled that he supplied X with his and Y’s pages from the infamous Griffin book.

You’d think it would be a big deal to be listed in Griffin, but it isn’t. X and Y got nailed thanks to some bonehead moves by another player X had recruited — he was now up to four in addition to himself and Y, and the rules of dividend disbursement were taking on a Kafkaesque level of complexity as he tried to reward both hours of play and productivity. The Griffin listing slowed them down for a little while at a couple of properties, then they sank into the sea of 50,000+ faces listed in that book.

The Griffin book is worthless. People don’t get nailed because they are in Griffin; they get nailed because the casino has noticed what they are doing. It’s the same with play-tracking systems that had their day and the facial-recognition systems that are all the rage now. They can’t be applied until the casino has noticed you and pointed the Eye in the Sky in your direction.

But once the casino has noticed what you are doing you are pretty much SOL anyway; Griffin and these high-tech toys just provide confirmation. This is true whether you are illegally plying slot machines with doodads that bollix up their coin returns or legally counting cards. At least when you are card-counting, there isn’t much they can legally do to you other than show you the door.

One of the things that makes it possible for X and his minions to play is that casinos are departmentalized. These are at a minimum Slots, Table games, and Promotions, and they don’t talk to one another. It has often happened that we were barred by a table game pitboss only to receive a mailer from Promotions inviting us back weeks later. It has been established in Nevada that this invalidates the recital you were given of the Trespass Act; they can’t have you arrested for showing up where they have invited you. We have also gotten wildly different receptions from the three casino shifts, which also don’t communicate much. Sure, it’s in the computer, but nobody gets it out of the computer until they notice there might be something worth looking up.

By 1999, X’s team had won half a million dollars and he had eight people playing for him.

Through the Looking Glass

In the real world, when you look at the menu for an expensive restaurant you think

boy that lobster sounds good but what does “market price” mean?

In casino looking-glass land, it goes more like this:

damn he wrote the comp for two hundred bucks how are we gonna burn all that up? hey let’s start with the lobster!

X, Y, and several other letters of the alphabet were criscrossing the country by 1998. New gaming jurisdictions were busting out all over the map and they were filled with clueless pit personnel who were blinded by the size of their action. Y took me along on some of these trips where we ate rich food and drank expensive booze. X and Y went on many others, driving to such improbable locales as Chicago and Cherokee, NC.

The Cherokee casino, run by Harrah’s, was a source of particular strangeness; with no hotel, located in a dry county, it offered no possible way to cash in several thousand dollars a day worth of comp points. So X and Y and several other letters came back laden with cans of peanuts, chocolates, Native American artifacts, leather jackets, and even pants specially ordered for them by the gift shop. The gift shop stopped accepting comp points shortly before the countable Blackjack machines were reprogrammed to be un-countable.

Overenthusiastic guards pursued X from a Bossier City, Louisiana casino, presumably in an attempt to find out where he was staying. The resulting car chase ended undramatically when X lost his followers; he was in a sedan and they were in a marked casino van. It was an unusual version of a ritual which was usually accomplished with a backhanded compliment.

For the most part I didn’t get to experience the thrill of being pursued by overzealous guards. I did one time get to cash out seven thousand dollars worth of cheques while Y made for the door. We could hear the pit personnel arguing about us and knew the game was up. Casinos have dangerously high noise levels; in my real job I take training on this and have been taught that noise pressure levels between 80 and 100 decibels are not painful, but still result in progressive hearing loss. Many casino personnel are deaf as stones from too much time around the clanging slot machines, and when they think they’re whispering you can hear them from across the pit.

Throughout all of this we came to perceive that most people didn’t have a clue what goes on at the high end of casino life. It’s not like what you see on the TV special about “whales” (except maybe for the few hundred such people [Editor’s Note: and who now go to Macau instead.]. It’s not like a Mario Puzo novel (except maybe for Fools Die, and then only a little). The most striking thing, once you get to the green chip level, is how few winners there are. We made no friends at the tables where X and Y were eventually betting $1,000 a hand; the whole proceeding had a marked air of desperation. The casino personnel were desperate for our action; the other players at our level were desperate to recover losses which they wouldn’t ever recover. Everyone was lying about everything; we were lying about who we were and what we were doing, the other players were lying to their spouses, shareholders, partners, and accountants about where the money was; and the casino folks were grinning and pumping out the fairy tales they hoped would bring us back to lose what we had just won where we had just won it.

Stand at the corner of Tropicana and Las Vegas boulevards, and you can turn 360 degrees and see Sagans of dollars worth of investment — a giant MGM lion, a pyramid, a life-sized King Arthur’s castle and one-third size New York skyline, with the more distant towers of other properties providing a backdrop. The money to build those monuments to tackiness does not come from people who are playing $5 a hand Blackjack to get free drinks. It comes from the green and black chip players, usually businessmen, who can afford to bet at these levels at least for a while. There are very few “regulars” at this level the way there were at the tournaments.

As I found out when I began gambling, it is perfectly possible for a five-dollar player to lose $1,000 without ever seeing a winning session. But a regular person with a job and a mortgage can afford that. Your expectation, superimposed on the swings of outrageous fortune, is to lose ten to twenty bucks an hour. (You will probably play 60 to 100 hands an hour; this generates several hundred dollars in action. The casino expects to keep two to five percent of this total.) Joe Sixpack can usually afford this too, though he might not realize just how high the tax is.

At the green chip ($25 minimum) level, Joe Sixpack will get wiped out. Swings of $5,000 are common, and the vig is more like $100 an hour. Some ordinary people can sustain this play for the annual Las Vegas vacation, but not if they are driving to the local casino every week. Some professionals with high incomes can sustain this play, but they are unusual. The story of Mrs. J, who managed to lose a $300,000 windfall along with her husband is much more typical.

At the black chip ($100 minimum) level, the air gets very thin. You can lose the ranch in a single session, and many of the occupations which can keep you funded against the vig are illegal. There are people who play a lot at this level, but few of them play for very long. Those that can don’t want to make your acquaintance. They’re either dodging autograph seekers or the law.

One of the most suspicious things about our own play as the 1999 rolled over into 2000 was not the card-counting bet spread. It was the fact that we were playing at levels up to $1,000 a hand, and we kept coming back even though we obviously weren’t rock stars, athletes, or mafiosos.

A Casino Odyssey: Part Four

was Originally Published
Sun Jul 22, 2001 at 12:41:37 PM EST

We were living a life many people dream of, jet-setting to exotic locations, staying in huge hotel suites, eating like royalty, watching prizefights and concerts and dazzling shows from seats so exclusive you couldn’t buy tickets if you wanted to, and handling tens of thousands of dollars in cash as if it were pocket change.

And it was all starting to feel very, very wrong.

We begin to realize what we’ve stepped in

The casino fairy-tale jumped the shark for me in mid 1999 at the New Palace casino in Biloxi. The Old Palace had gone bankrupt and the New owners were offering a pretty good game to lure people in. Y was playing aggressively, figuring to get in as much play as possible before getting the inevitable boot. The count was going up and the dealer could do no wrong.

Across the table was a guy in his mid-50’s. He was overweight, and nursing both a beer and a cigar. I wasn’t betting, and neither was the guy’s wife. I was doing the act I usually do while watching Y lose big. “I’ve seen this movie before. Hey, could you get me a waitress? Now I really need a drink.” Across the table the guy with the beer and cigar was betting several hundred bucks a hand and losing almost as quickly as Y. After a disastrous hand in which both players lost multiple splits and doubles, the wife met my gaze, shook her head just a bit, and rolled her eyes.

There was just one problem with this moment of shared suffering; I was an imposter. The $20,000 Y lost on this shoe was meaningless, because it would be offset by $22,000 won somewhere else in short order. But the guy with the cigar and the beer and the sunken features was cruising toward destruction. He might already be playing with money he couldn’t afford to lose; and if he wasn’t, he would be eventually. That’s the real movie I’d seen before, too many times.

Y likes to make the point that gambling is the worst form of addiction, because there is a limit to how much coke or heroin you can put into yourself but there is no limit to how much money you can piss away in a casino. The same place that takes your money on average ten cents a hand at the $5 table will happily arrange to take it $100 a hand at a private, ten thousand dollar minimum table opened just for you.

Casinos “work” (in the sense that they are effective tools for separating customers from their money) by exploiting two universal human misperceptions. The first of these is a tendency to perceive patterns in randomness. The cruel losing streak with which I began my gambling career was no deliberate taunt by god or evidence of crooked games; it was a perfectly ordinary run of random numbers. As Knuth wrote with regard to random number generators, if your RNG can’t pump out a string of 20 zeroes then it really isn’t random. That is a perfectly valid result which must happen just as often as any other arbitrary string of 20 results. But when it happens, we don’t think “hmmm, that is a perfectly valid if unusual result.” We think the game is fixed or biased, and if we’re gambling we might smirk and place a bet.

The second misperception has to do with the house edge. It seems so reasonable, just a few percent tax to pay the dealer and build the casino. But most of us think of that percentage with regard to the drop rather than action. The typical 25-cent slot or $5 blackjack player thinks of the $100 he’s bought in for, not of the thousands upon thousands of dollars in individual bets he can make before losing that stake. The exponential nature of the math turns that tiny percentage into an all-devouring black hole, which can eat the world a nibble at a time.

The people who run casinos know this. This is why they are so paranoid about card counters. The truth is that most card counters lose. They either don’t play perfectly, they piss their winnings away at other games like Craps where they don’t have an edge, or they are underfunded. Casinos spend far more in detection, tracking, and harrassment than they would ever lose if they just let counters play. But card counters take away their sacred edge, faith in which is the backbone of the entire industry.

If we have noticed the depressing tendency of green and black chippers to suddenly stop coming around, it’s hard to imagine that the casino personnel who track their play are unaware of it. When you are a low roller, the fellow who shakes your hand and remembers your preference in beer and writes you the occasional buffet comp seems like any other service employee. When you are a high roller he seems like a source of redemption, offsetting your losses with a nice dinner and tickets to the fight. When you are outside the system and as familiar with it as we are, you realize he is the worst sort of vampire. Behind the glitz and the chance to win is a snaggle-fanged monster ready to cast you aside as soon as it has sucked you dry.

Newbies are often amazed at the hypocrisy of casinos vis-a-vis their treatment of card counters. “You mean they kick you out just because you used your BRAIN?” Yes, they do. Because when you reach into their game and seize their edge, you become the monster with all its mighty stealth and power. The local swings of variance become your ally, masking the slow steady trickle of their wealth into your hands. They know exactly what the edge does, exactly how variance masks its effect until it’s too late, and it puts the fear of God into them to find you have it instead of them.

We began to wonder about the gladhanding suits who congratulated us on our wins and sympathized with our losses and plied us with food and free airfare and jacuzzi suites. How do they sleep at night? As they shake your hand and check your action in the computer they are sizing you up, wondering what it will take to bring you back. No doubt wondering how long you’ll last. They are more likely than anyone to be able to foresee the broken family, the busted business, the jail time, the suicide that might be in your future. There is only one word to describe the kind of person that can shake your hand and smile in the face of such understanding, and that word is evil.

Flatness of Aspect

None of us gambles any more recreationally. In 1999 I had my first official losing year; we were scheduling our visits to casinoland around Y’s card counting, instead of opportunities for me to get low-level advantage play. And as X’s aggregate win crept toward the million dollar mark, regular play lost its appeal. We could see with great clarity how meaningless a fifty-thousand dollar swing was in the face of a percentage edge. It no longer felt like a fun thing to let the casino do that to us, even for chump change.

X doesn’t even play much Blackjack any more, and claims he has been cured of his gambling addiction. The action is no longer exciting; the short-term wins elicit no feeling of triumph, the short-term losses no sense of doom. Counting itself is simple and unchallenging; X and Y can both walk past a table full of dealt cards and mutter “plus six” without even thinking about it. It’s just practice.

The logistical problems of running his team and managing the bankroll have taken up much of his time. The exciting game of cat-and-mouse has turned into a job, with the unusual caveat that you get fired for doing it too well.

Y has vowed to play as long as possible despite increasing difficulties. “I’m gonna get everything from those vampires I can.” Most of X’s other players have expressed similar sentiments.

The greatest obstacles to continued play ironically don’t involve the great expense put by casinos into surveillance and detection; they have been erected by the Government. Anti-money-laundering laws require the casino to fill out paperwork whenever more than $10,000 in cash changes hands; and while it’s legal to lie to a casino about who you are it’s not legal to put false information on a CTR. At the level X plays $10,000 can change hands very quickly, and X and his players are sensibly unwilling to commit felonies to keep playing. This makes it entirely too easy for the casino to cross-reference your information and learn that you’re the guy who was barred on swing shift two weeks ago.

Card counters have to deal in cash because you can’t use the casino credit system without revealing your true identity either. But draconian forfeiture laws make it dangerous to carry around large amounts of cash. At the airport and at the traffic stop it makes you a drug dealer until proven otherwise. Ex-team member B had $24,000 stolen from him by a local police department in North Carolina. Try proving that you won your money at the casino sometime.

The Company We Keep

You’d think the casinos would welcome the push to marginalize cash and help identify their patrons, but they’ve accommodated the CTR requirements as late and grudgingly as possible. The reason is that a lot of their patrons are drug dealers. And organized criminals. And embezzlers. The casino really doesn’t want to know where the money came from, any more than they want to know what happens to you once they’ve extracted it from you.

We spent a few hours in Caesar’s Palace on New Year’s Eve 1999. Many of the tables required minimum bets of five hundred dollars, and minimums of less than $100 were not to be found. And the place was packed. There were lots of Italian gentlemen, some of whom spoke little or no English. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese gentlemen, ditto. They were throwing orange ($1,000) chips around like Mardi Gras doubloons and having a grand old time. And the usual opening questions of casual casino table conversation, “Where are you from” and “What do you do” were not to be heard.

(Y did make the mistake of asking one Chinese gentlman who was betting about our level where he was from. After several seconds of hard thought, he answered “carriphonia,” or something like that.)

There was some worry that terrorists would strike Las Vegas on that evening. If they had blown up Caesar’s, they would have solved the international organized crime problem in one swell foop.

This has all worked in our favor. The fact that we keep returning and playing at these levels after more than three years is highly suspicious. The casinos know we are lying about the money coming from “my business,” but they let us play because they don’t care that the money might be stolen or earned selling smack to kids. They only start caring who we are when they begin to suspect we won the money from them.

Through the Looking Glass, Backward

We have a lot of photographs of ourselves in suites most people only see in movies, dining on five-star meals amongst the Picassos and Renoirs, and holding big fake checks. We have a lot more money. And we have seen the darkest side of human nature. We have seen men smile and feign friendship even as they are sharpening knives for the slaughter. We have become familiar with the faintly bewildered expression of the busted-out loser as he staggers back to the real world. We have looked into his eyes and turned away, because it takes too long to explain, it’s too late, and he wouldn’t believe us anyway.

This is the story I want to tell my other friends, the people I work with, and the random folks I see entering casinos. It’s not what it looks like, I want to tell them. But it’s like trying to describe nausea. It’s like describing the feeling when you stick your hand into a dark space and find some rotting maggot-ridden dead thing. We actually went there. We overcame obstacles whose height we never realized, and we didn’t understand how rare a thing that was. For years we won and I thought the casinos were just wonderful and I told so many hundreds of people that they were. And all the time I had no idea.

When the long-suffering wife shot me a sympathetic glance, and I responded in kind, for one brief awful moment I was the gladhanding sack of shit. In that moment I knew. But how do you put such an awful feeling into words?

Sometimes, foolishly, I do try to tell them.

But not often. Because

I had such great luck the other night, I hit four hundred quarters, I split tens and drew two aces and I just KNEW the dealer was going to bust and you know the seven is coming when the dice go off the table and I never start with full coin, you have to see how a machine is going before you commit, it’s not gambling when you count, I’m down twelve, how do you remember all those cards, that shooter was so hot the dice were on fire and we cleaned the table out of green chips and the machine never hits if you use the buttons to spin the reels and wow that’s wonderful how you’ve won so much. But I really just like to play the slots.

The following was originally posted as the first comment to the thread beneath the story.

Where Are They Now Dept. [Editor’s Note: As of July 2001]

Since 1997, X and his team have won about 1.5 million dollars. X has paid about half of this to his players; much of the rest is invested, and about $200,000 is kept liquid as the team bankroll. Risk-of-ruin calculations indicate that this bankroll is all but unbustable; he cannot play at levels which really risk it because of the CTR mess.

We are aware of three other teams which have won similar amounts in the same timeframe. Since Ed Thorpe published Beat the Dealer we figure less than a hundred people have ever managed to do this. And nearly all of them started with investment comparable to their eventual win. We aren’t aware of anyone who ever started out playing red chips, as X did, and won a million dollars.

A lot more people have tried and failed. (You will find a lot of these in Blackjack forums on the Internet.) As X found out, if you don’t do everything perfectly, you join the ranks of the losers.

Meanwhile, in 1998 alone the casino industry won 50 billion dollars.

Countermeasures and cover have eaten more and more time as X and his players seek beatable games they are allowed to play. I figure it has cost between ten and fifteen man-years of full-time effort for the team to realize its win. That isn’t so impressive when you break it down. Most of X’s players have earned less than $100,000 a year.

It took X almost a decade to hit on the formula that worked. During that time he abandoned job after job to pursue his dream of beating the system. He was able to get those jobs because, when he applies himself, he is a gifted and highly successful salesman. Had he simply stuck with one of the many opportunities he had to enter a career, he would likely have been making $100,000 or more per year since the early 1990’s.

As it stands, he is in his early 40’s and all but unemployable. (Would you hire someone whose last job was “professional gambler?”) His team is still playing and earning money but he is being squeezed by increasingly paranoid countermeasures. An additional problem is that many people in the industry are now too young to remember the lawsuits and judgements which resulted when card counters were beaten up by casino staff in the early 1980’s. This year there have been several incidents of assault on counters (including X himself) by casino staff. We are worried that one day soon somebody is going to end up in the hospital. This was totally unheard-of in the 90’s, when the corporate line was more like “we aren’t run by organized crime any more and we don’t risk our shareholders’ money by doing things like that.”

Y’s identity has been burned out nearly everywhere. Y is currently taking a break. We don’t know how long this break will be; “indefinite” is a possibility.

I have had a standing offer to join the team myself ever since X formed it, but I think you’ve guessed by now that I’ll never take him up on it. It’s fantastically difficult for him to find players who will both play correctly and account honestly for the money. (No, I’m not going to put you in touch with him.)

My coworkers still think of me as the local gambling expert, and ply me with stories about their latest adventures. Nobody has noticed how uncomfortable this makes me lately. They also still ask for advice, which (as always) they promptly ignore when I make the mistake of giving it.

It has been almost a year since I even entered a casino, and almost two since I actually placed a bet.

[Editor’s Note: Thanks to industry consolidation which means that most of the casino industry is now owned by a very few corporations, the opportunities for comps and cash discussed in this article are gone. Where the customer has no choice, the industry will offer no incentives — and this proved as true of the gambling industry as for any other. We had a good ride, but the money’s long gone, so don’t be afraid to hit the tip jar on the way out if you enjoyed this story. None of it is going to find its way back to Harrah’s Entertainment.]

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