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For the casino, the art is in telling the skilled whales from the unskilled ones, then discouraging the former and seducing the latter. The marketers present casinos as glamorous playgrounds where workaday worries and things like morality, sobriety, and prudence are on holiday. The last thing a skilled player wants is a big reputation. Johnson was on an amazing streak.
He was just getting started. He was neither nervous nor excited. When his second hand was dealt a two, he doubled down on that, too. All of these gambling houses were already hurting, what with the spread of legalized gambling in surrounding states. When revenues slump, casinos must rely more heavily on their most prized customers, the high rollers who wager huge amounts—tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars a hand. More useful, for his purposes, is running a smaller of hands and paying attention to variation. As good as he is at playing cards, he turns out to be even better at playing the casinos.
You play against the house. The wagering of card counters assumes a clearly recognizable pattern over time, and Johnson was being watched very carefully.
Who could? Fifteen million dollars in winnings from three different casinos? About a decade ago, he founded a business that does computer-assisted wagering on horses.
It was a growth industry. He worked with a physician to keep weight off, fighting his natural growth rate with thyroid medication that amped up his metabolism and subsisting on vitamin supplements. The player still loses. Whenever the racily clad cocktail waitress wandered in with a fresh whiskey and Diet Coke, he took it from the tray.
Made famous in books and movies, card counting is considered cheating, at least by casinos. Dozens of spectators pressed against the glass of the high-roller pit. The goal is to get to 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. His body quickly assumed more normal proportions, and he went to work helping manage racetracks, a career that brought him to Philadelphia when he was about He was hired to manage Philadelphia Park, the track that evolved into the Parx casino, in Bensalem, where he lives today.
Compared with horse racing, the odds in blackjack are fairly straightforward to calculate. What gives Johnson his edge is his knowledge of the gaming industry. He had beaten the casinos fair and square. But the vast majority of players lose, and the longer they play, the more they lose. Little interferes with his concentration. The software his company employs analyzes more data than an ordinary handicapper will see in a thousand gothic dating Atlantic City NJ, and defines risk to a degree that was impossible just five years ago.
He is a veteran player. Some wear disguises when they play. But the story was even bigger than that.
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Card counters seek to gain a strong advantage by keeping a mental tally of every card dealt, and then adjusting the wager according to the value of the cards that remain in the deck. At the height of his hour blitz of the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last April, he was playing a hand of blackjack nearly every minute. To look at him, over six feet tall and thickly built, you would never guess that he was once a jockey. He has served as a state regulator in Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming. With their table-game revenues tanking and the of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders.
The towers of chips stacked in front of him formed a colorful miniature skyline. Scanning the cards on the table before him, the player can either stand or keep taking cards in an effort to approach His next two cards, surprisingly, were also both eights, so he split each again.
The new Parx racetrack and casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a gigantic gambling complex, is less than 80 miles away from the Atlantic City boardwalk. He does not just walk into a casino and start playing, which is what roughly 99 percent of customers do. D espite his pedestrian attireDon Johnson is no average Joe. For one thing, he is an extraordinarily skilled blackjack player. Beyond the usual high-roller perks, the casino might also sweeten the deal by staking the player a ificant amount up front, offering thousands of dollars in free chips, just to get the ball rolling.
It seemed a fantasy come true, the very dream that draws suckers to the gaming tables.
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But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. In most states but not New Jerseyknown practitioners are banned. As another skyscraper of chips was pushed into his skyline, he aled for the next hand. He drew a 10, so the two cards he was showing totaled This was a good bet: since all face cards are worth 10, the deck holds more high cards than low. But even though he has been around the gambling industry for all of his 49 years, Johnson snuck up on Atlantic City.
D on Johnson finds it hard to remember the exact cards. Johnson won all four hands. He was the only Atlantic City casino executive who agreed to talk to me about Johnson. He started to learn a lot about gambling. Johnson says he was once dealt six consecutive aces at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. It hurt. The tactic requires both great memory and superior math skills. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them.
The headline in The Press of Atlantic City was enough to gladden the heart of anyone who has ever made a wager or rooted for the underdog:. He stood 6 foot 1 and weighed only pounds. Two cards are placed faceup before the player, and two more cards, one down, one up, before the dealer.
Arrayed on the table before him were the four eights. Many casinos sell laminated charts in their guest shops that reveal the optimal strategy for any situation the game presents. Pennsylvania is likely to supplant New Jersey this year as the second-largest gaming state in the nation.
By latethe discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent. How did he do it? Caesars had cut him off, he says, and then effectively banned him from its casinos worldwide.
By April, combined monthly gaming revenue had been declining on a year-over-year basis for 32 months. For most people, though, the newspaper headline told a happy story. Johnson was in charge of day-to-day operations, including the betting operation. High rollers are lured with free meals and drinks, free luxury suites, free rides on private jets, and … more.
The industry pays close attention to high-level players; once a player earns a reputation for winning, the courtship ends. A session of, say, hands will display wider swings, with steeper winning and losing streaks, than the standard casino charts. Almost everyone knows them. The first and most obvious suspicion was card counting.
Nobody gets that lucky. The regimen was so demanding that he eventually had to give it up. The basics of blackjack are simple. In his best years as a professional jockey, he was practically skeletal.
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Hard times do not favor the house. The way averages work, the larger the sample, the narrower the range of variation.
They negotiate. When you add gaming tables or slots at a fancy new venue like Revel, or like the Borgata, which opened inthe novelty may initially draw crowds, but adding gaming supply without enlarging the of customers ultimately hurts everyone. Word spre when the betting is that big. An ordinary guy in a red cap and black hoodie had struck it rich, had beaten the casinos black-and-blue.