A Casino Odyssey: Part One

Originally Published
Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 07:53:27 PM EST

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. 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.

Because this is a long story, this is part one of four.

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 [censored now-defunct casino].

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 this book 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?

Continues in Part 2: New Modalities

Email me or Return to localroger.com

Tip Jar
Or with Bitcoin