A Casino Odyssey: Part Three

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.

This is part three of a four-part story.
In case you didn't see them, here are Parts One and Two.

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]?
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; 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 [censored northern 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 who exist). 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.

Continues in Part 4: The Dark Side

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