A Casino Odyssey: Part Four

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.

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

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.

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 fifty 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.

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