Category: casinos

As I was saying…

Okay, so I took some time off.

Since the last post, I visited Barcelona, Grenada, and Almeria, Spain, courtesy of the lovely Rhonda K. and the wonderful folks at Cosentino. Much eating and drinking was involved (was that a roofie I quaffed?). No casino visits, however. The rules for table games are just too wacky in Europe. And I just wasn’t willing to play poker in a non-English-speaking environment. It’s enough of a struggle playing in my native tongue.

Other stuff happened: A long stream of charming AIRBNB guests visited from around the globe, and I wrote a series of articles on casinos and gambling for the Oregonian, our local paper here in Portland. I’ve pasted one of them below for your edification.

 

AC: Will the last one to leave please kill the lights?

An article in the September 7th New Yorker Magazine takes a deep dive into the choppy waters of Atlantic City. You’ve probably heard some of this stuff before: the cataclysmic failure of the Revel, declining gaming revenues, the closing of this casino and that. But NYer staff writer Nick Paumgarten does a solid job of putting a human face on this tale of woe and also frames it in the perspective of New Jersey politics. Could Chris Christie’s presidential bid (such as it is) be put into jeopardy, smashed to smithereens, because of the Revel’s spectacular flameout?NewYorker, Sept 7

Who knows? But reading Paumgarten’s piece had me thinking about the several times I’ve visited AC. I’m not sure why I returned, especially after my initial visit.

That first time was actually three strange weeks I spent there in the summer of 1979 developing a stage play (“The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Jesse James”) with nine other like-minded artistes, and bedding down in the damp basement of a Quaker school. Water bugs the size of baby rats frolicked in the shower stalls, begging to be squished, while we taught acting classes and emoted in the gymnasium upstairs.

Gambling had just been recently legalized and we walked snootily through Trump’s crowded new boardwalk casino, decrying the glitz as offensive to our sophisticated Manhattanite sensibilities. The glitz stood in sharp contrast to the grungy streets immediately nearby, upon which pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers openly plied their wares.

Yes, this was one strange town, a fact eerily demonstrated on our final night. As we were partying in the gym, lighting hit the school. Lights flickered, came back on. Partying continued for awhile, until someone pointed to the big clock on the gymnasium wall.

Creepy.

It was running in reverse.

 

Gambling Tips x 9

As mentioned earlier, I landed a nice writing gig for The Oregonian, which allowed me to expound on the topic of gambling tips. Here are the ones I landed upon as they appeared in the newspaper. I’m sharing this with you courtesy of the Oregonian Media Group, which published the following article in the September 9, 2015, edition:


 

No doubt about it: Luck plays an important role in all casino games. And everyone who plays experiences swings of luck, both good and bad. But you can sidestep bad luck and improve your chances of winning by following these simple bits of advice.

Tip #1. Join the club.

Spirit Mountain has the Coyote Club, Chinook Winds has the Winners Circle, the Mill Casino has the Mill Club. In fact, virtually every casino offers you the opportunity to participate in their version of a players club.

The concept is simple: The more you play, the more the casino rewards you in the form of free or discounted meals and hotel rooms, as well as giveaways, special offers and merchandise. If you’re not already a member, becoming one should near the top of your list on your next casino visit.

Tip #2: Double your money.

In blackjack, always double down (that is, double your bet) when your first two cards total 11. Also, double down when you have 10 and the dealer’s face card is nine or less. Caution: This move is not for the faint of heart. Be prepared to experience a pulse-pounding jolt of adrenaline.

Tip #3: Split those cards.

No, you should not physically rip your cards in half. In blackjack when you hold two aces or two eights, you should split them into two hands by doubling your bet.

Tip #4: Assume the position.

Texas hold’em is a challenging game. If you’re a newbie, an important thing to learn (after the ranking of hands, of course) is the importance of position at the table. Simply stated, the closer you are to the dealer’s button, the freer you are to play a wider range of hole cards. An example: you’d might very well fold a pair of pocket deuces in early position, but (assuming no one else has entered the pot) raise with them in a late position.

Tip #5: Read the fine print.

Rules and payouts differ from machine to machine and table to table. Whether it’s video poker, slots, or a table game, take half a minute to look over the rules, even if you’ve played the game previously. Occasionally rules and payouts will have been adjusted since your last visit, and it pays to be prepared by knowing the latest ground rules.

Tip #6: Take slots to the max.

To win the jackpot in progressive slot machines, there’s no choice: You must make the maximum bet. But jackpots on non-progressive slots often pay disproportionally more when you make the maximum bet versus the minimum. Take a few seconds to see which type of payout will yield you a better result then adjust your wager accordingly.

Tip #7: Can you afford more? Then bet more.

The payouts are often more generous on slot machines that have a higher minimum bet. That means, for example, that many times playing a dollar machine versus a quarter machine is a better choice.

Tip #8: New to video poker? Start with Jacks or Better.

Although you’ll find banks of video poker machines situated among slot machines, the two games could hardly be more different.

When you play a slot machine, nothing you do can affect the outcome; your only decision is how much to wager. In video poker, however, you must decide which cards to keep and which to throw away; this directly affects how much you win.

If you’re new to video poker, cut your teeth on Jacks or Better. It’s the original version of this electronic game and it’s simple to learn. The goal, as its name implies, is to get a hand that contains at least a pair of jacks. The higher the hand, the more you win.

FYI, payouts at the casino are generally better than the Oregon Lottery version of the game.

Tip #9: Visit the web

It will come as no surprise that the Internet contains a cornucopia of information about casino games. Many casinos, including Spirit Mountain, Chinook Winds, and Seven Feathers, post rules on their websites.

To dig a little deeper, check out the free basic strategy charts all over the Web. Wizardofodds.com is a good place to start.

Plus there are dozens of sites—free and paid—devoted to poker and tailored to players of all skill levels.


 

Texts from the Battlefield: Sam and the Main Event

You might remember that several months ago on this site, I profiled my friend Sam (“The Nicest Guy You’d Never Want To Sit Next To“), currently one of the most successful poker players in Portland. Several months ago his skills at the table really paid off and he won a $10,000 entry in the World Series of Poker Main Event.

He was generous enough to share with me the text messages he sent to his “rail back home” as he progressed in the tournament, which for him began July 6.  FYI, each player starts with 20,000 chips. Spoiler alert: Despite his enthusiasm and crafty play, he did not make the November 9. And a caution: The texts are lingo-heavy.

He started texting on day one start and continued through his final hand. Here they are, for the most part verbatim…

Monday 2:19pm

Rough first level. Got down to 17.5k [chips] at one point from 30k SS but managed to climb back to 23.6. Got coolered in one hand AQ<AK when he doesn’t three bet me pre and board runs out KQ6A6. I check called three streets. Lotta time to recover tho….Let’s fucking goooooooo!!!!

Monday 4:36pm

Second break…roller coaster level. Got back up to SS then back down to 23k. Now back over SS at 31k or so. Maniac at table keeps wanting to mix it up with me. Just won a big pot off him so prepared for fireworks going forward. Thank u all for the texts and well wishes!!! I will update every break which is every 2 hours. Thanks for all the support!!!!

Monday 7:15pm

Dinner break. Another roller coaster level. But ended with 26.5k coming back to 150/300/25. Let’s keep it going!!!!!

Monday 10:55pm

Horrible level. Good news is I still have chips. Gonna focus and not text any more until bag and tag after one more level. Thanks again for the support guys!!!!!

Tuesday 12:55am

Bag and tag!!!!! Got down as low as 6k but climbed back to 14k. Coming back to 500bb on Wednesday. Thankful for all the support. U guys are the best. Not what I envisioned…but day 2 is day 2.

Wednesday 10:24am

Day two starts at noon today. Coming back to almost 30 bb’s. Making day 2 was my first goal now I am hopeful to be able to chip up. Loooooooong way to go but I’m def excited to get back to the table. Same as last time…will update on breaks. 😎👍🏼

Wednesday 2:12pm

19k at first break. Table is good…no one has gotten out of line yet. Been all in 4 times. Once AIPF TT vs TT for a chop against a 14bb stack. Then bvb all in on KT9 flop….we both have KT lolol

Three bet cram AK and got thru twice. Then lost a flip AQ<JJ vs 13bb stack.

Coming back to 300/600/75 so surviving but looking for spots to gain chips.

Wednesday 2:33pm

Bust….Second hand after break I’m BB. There’s an EP open and a 3b from the CO. I have JJ and 4b rip. First guy recrams and is CL at the table. JJ<KK. Blah. Thanks for the support guys.


 

And then there’s this

Apropos of nothing, here’s something I just received in the mail.

IMG_1289It’s an envelope that asks the eternal question: How can something be free if it’s prepaid? Or vice versa?

“Yes, Mr. Ivey”

Yes, Mr. Ivey, you can have a private baccarat table.

Yes, we give you permission to wager up to $100,000 per hand.

Yes, we can supply that particular series of purple Gemaco playing cards.

Yes, we can supply the specific style of shoe you desire, so you can more clearly see the patterns on the back of the cards.

By Photo by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Tumultuous times for the edge-sorting poker champ.
Yes, we can supply a Mandarin-speaking dealer to communicate with your Mandarin-speaking associate.

Yes, the dealer will rotate the cards any way you’d like then place them into the shoe in whatever orientation your little heart desires.

Yes, we—being of sound mind—will provide everything you’ve requested and yes, we will take your money if you lose.

Oh, one more thing: We won’t allow you to win.

If we lose, all bets are off.

Thus seems to be the borderline larcenous logic of the two casinos—one in London, one in Atlantic City—engaged in legal proceedings involving Phil Ivey in which they characterize him as a cheater.

Adios, $12.4 million

On October 7, Ivey took what might be regarded as preemptive action by appearing in a segment of “60 Minutes Sports.” He doesn’t grant interviews often, which is a shame because he’s articulate and comes off rather well as an ambassador for the world of gambling. That is, rather well if you buy the premise (as I do) that he did not cheat.

Viewers were treated to a glimpse of his cool digs overlooking the Vegas Strip; his secretive rear-door entrance to the Rio during the WSOP; and a thumbnail bio of his New Jersey childhood.

Finally the interviewer got down to the crux of the matter: Would Ivey admit to cheating at Baccarat?

Of course not. His made his case (rephrased above) with utter conviction.

Then, the day after “60 Minutes Sports” aired, he was screwed. A British judge ruled in favor of Crockfords, the London casino, telling them they didn’t have to pay Ivey the $12.4 million that Ivey feels (as do many in the gambling world) he won legitimately.

And so sorry, said the judge. An appeal would not be allowed.

There’s a loophole that his lawyers will likely exploit, but for now say goodbye to $12.4 million, Phil.

How the Crockfords decision will affect the Borgata’s suit against Ivey is unclear, though it cannot be read as a good sign. In that case, the Borgata is suing Ivey to get back the $9.6 million that he won at baccarat.

By Photos by flipchip / LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kid Poker: In Ivey’s corner.
Meanwhile, over at the ESPN site, Jeff Ma has written “Why Phil Ivey Got a Raw Deal,” an excellent analysis of the ethical issues involved in “advantage play.”

And none other than Daniel Negreanu weighs in on the decision over at the Pocket Fives site. Guess which side he landed on.

 

Welcome to the Casino Buffet

Some tasty tidbits from the world of gambling…

Video poker hell

While we’re on the topic of advantage play, Wired posted a fascinating article about two guys who exploited a flaw in a particular model of video poker machines that they discovered accidentally. Then, after they won a bunch of money, they went through legal hell.

Short version: Don’t screw around with the casinos. They’ve got friends in high places.

The longer (and highly recommended) version is right here.

 

“Mad” about slots

Slot machine manufacturers just love their TV tie-ins. I’m cool with the “Wheel of Fortune” slots, the “C.S.I.” slots, the “Big Bang Theory” slots, even the “Sex in the City” slots: Harmless little shows that don’t seem entirely out of place on the casino floor.

But how about this one: “Mad Men” slots.

No kidding.

By jdeeringdavis from San Francisco, CA, USA (Flickr Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Oh, sure. Walking the red carpet is fine. So are the Emmy nominations. And the Golden Globe nominations. And the fact that I’m a sex object to hundreds of thousands of females. But you know what I really, really want? My mug on a slot machine.”
Spin the wheel! If you’re lucky, you’ll get a “Don Draper Bonus”, and you can choose an ad for that next campaign!

Spin the wheel! If you’re luckier, you’ll draw a “Roger Sterling Bonus” and get this message: “Have a drink”!

Spin the wheel! If you’re unlucky, you’ll be dropped head-first into a brackish swamp awash with atavistic shame for the sexism and racism of the early 1960s.

But seriously folks, these machines feature graphics and video images from this brilliant, dark, sometimes creepy cult TV drama. While they might add an intellectual element to those banks of mindless electronic thieves, it’s like dropping a page from Nabokov into the Sunday funnies.

At least when you play “The Wizard of Oz” slots (yes, these machines exist) you’ll be smiling as you throw your money away.

With the “Mad Men” machines, the words “feel good” don’t exactly come to mind.

 

Nutty boy

In the category of Oddest Combination of Keywords Leading to My Site is this entry. And I quote:

“if a boy nut is cold what does that mean”

What does that mean, indeed? For starters I’d like to know what a “boy nut” is. Anybody?

And what would possess a person to Google this strange conglomeration of words? It looks like a phrase that you might randomly assemble on your refrigerator door with those magnetic word kits. While you’re drunk.

In any case, I really do hope that Stone-Cold Nuts helped answer this Googler’s existential question. If this website can help just one person solve the boy-nut-cold dilemma… well, that’s why we’ve been put on Earth, right?

 

 

Objects in the Mirror, part two

They call it the World Series of Poker, but I’m thinking that might just be a misnomer.

To reach baseball’s World Series, players must slog their way through an interminable, yawn-inducing regular season (162 games) plus a couple of weeks of playoffs before they get a crack at the so-called World Championship.

To reach the World Series of Poker, simply buy a ticket to McCarran International Airport, catch a ride to the Rio, plunk down your cash, and you’re in.

And unlike MLB’s World Series, which is a best-of-seven contest, the WSOP is actually 65 separate events played over the course of seven weeks, with various games and buy-ins culminating in the ten-day No-Limit Hold’em Main Event, the one that costs $10,000 for a seat at the table, the one that will pay out $10 million to the winner when the final nine players reconvene in November.

By Gage Skidmore [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aaron Paul was among the entrants in the 2014 Main Event.
At the WSOP, gender is not an issue. Neither is age, as long as you’re at least 21. Neither is nationality or skill. So essentially it’s more like the WCOP, the World Convention of Poker. You could be Stanford scholar or a paranoid, hygienically challenged old coot. You could be a celebrity: Aaron Paul, James Woods, Justin Henry and Ray Romano played this year. You could hail from Minsk, Athens, Tel-Aviv, or Matuyama City, Japan; a total of 87 countries were represented in the pool of 6,683 players who ponied up $10Gs for this year’s Main Event.

By the time I arrived at the Rio for my shot at a WSOP Side Event (which I’m capitalizing to make it seem more important that it actually was), 90% of those players had been bounced. Smarts and celebrityhood simply cannot protect you from those ever-escalating blinds.

The delegate from the fair state of Oregon will please step forward and be seated.

So while the 690-something remaining Main Event participants duked it out in the Amazon room, at 2:45pm I presented my entry slip and photo ID to the dealer at my assigned table, number 57, and took my place at seat four.

Psyched. Ready to compete against the other 538 entrants. “The Mental Game of Poker” had prepped me psychologically, and the Power Bar Triple Protein Threat that I’d consumed in my room at Bally’s and the Chocolate Caramel Fusion Bar in my pocket were going to keep me buzzing for awhile.

It’s 3pm: Let the game begin!

The contest progressed like this: 30-minute levels beginning at 25/50 blinds, with antes being added at level four. A 20-minute break every two hours.

At every poker table, there’s always a designated chatterbox and at table 57 those duties fell to the loudmouthed, Bronx-born general manager of a Houston car dealership. He wouldn’t shut up, perhaps because he was lubricating himself with tumbler after tumbler of vodka and pineapple juice. His playing style: Loosey-goosey, any two cards will do.

Then there was this lanky kid, an omnivore from Berlin, a terrible player with a charming German accent. While the Bronx guy was inhaling vodka, this kid was inhaling food. First there was the plate of salad and cheese that he forked into his mouth during and between hands. Then he disappeared and returned from the Poker Kitchen with a plastic tray bearing a large chunk of beef and a side of potatoes, which he proceeded to shovel down his gullet. Unfortunately for him, this fuel did nothing to improve the quality of his game. Soon he was hanging by a thread, prompting the sardonic old codger to my right to lean into me and whisper, “I bet he goes all in once he finishes that slab of meat.”

The final morsel was consumed, a final bet was made and he was gone.

Two hours later, it’s time for break number two, and I’m the one hanging by a thread. My chip stack has drastically shrunk. I have 20 minutes to figure this out. Out on the patio, in the hundred-degree heat, I take a shot at visualization: What’s the best possible situation for me at this point?

I picture pocket aces. I picture making a big raise. I picture everyone folding, except two players. I picture my aces holding up.

What the hell: If you’re going to dream the impossible dream, why not go all the way?

Inside, three hands later, I look down at my hole cards: Pocket aces. I make a big raise. Everyone folds except two players. I go all-in. My pocket aces win it and I triple up.

Tip of the hat to Shakti Gawain.

Finally, though, the clock wears down my stack to next-to-nada and I go all-in with ace-five off-suit and I’m trounced by a bigger ace. Six and a half hours into the tourney, I say “Good luck, everybody,” and take my Walk of Shame, not comforted by the fact that the vodka/pineapple-drunk car dealer from the Bronx has somehow managed to keep his seat longer than I.

Note to self: Next time get sloshed on pineapple-and-vodka. Maybe that’s the key to success in this game.

Casino buffet

WSOP’s Old Guy

By Sunday—day six of the Main Event—a quiet, church-like atmosphere prevailed; the Amazon Room had been transformed into the Cathedral of Poker. Pockets of light illuminated the remaining eight tables while spectators watched from the surrounding dimness.

There was some commotion, however, at the featured table where the oldest remaining player, Bill Cole, 72, of Murrieta, CA, was on a run of good luck. When his ace-king took down a huge pot against a youngster holding ace-queen, he leapt from his chair and shouted “Livin’ the dream!” and exchanged hugs with his small but vocal entourage.

You couldn’t help but root for the guy, but it wasn’t long before he shipped all his chips with ace-king of clubs (a reasonable move at that point) and lost to a pair of queens. It wasn’t a bad payday for the oldster: Finishing in 58th place, he took home $124,447.

Worst Bad Beat Ever?

This YouTube clip has been the buzz of the poker world, and for good reason. It occurred at WSOP’s Big One for One Drop, in which the buy-in was $1 million. Two players went E20Ci [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commonsall-in. Each held pocket aces. Statistically, this should have resulted in a chopped pot. But then there was that nasty heart on the river…

And you found me how?

The wonderful world of WordPress allows blog-keepers such as yours truly to monitor traffic. It also displays search terms, phrases that have led readers to Stone-Cold Nuts. Here are two recent examples, phrases that people typed into their search engines which, one click later, deposited them right here.

There’s this:

man won poker tournament of Adderall

And even better:

human nuts being cold

Speaking of nuts…

Overheard by my friend Zach Elwood at a Portland poker room: “I’m not impugning your manhood. I’m merely questioning your hand selection.”

Guest Post Numero Uno

I recently penned a guest post for YourPokerDealer.com in which I drew an analogy between the nuns of my youth and poker dealers. You can read it here: The Nun at the Table.

The Mind-Meld Mambo

You know that moment—that classic moment—in West Side Story when Tony and Maria meet and fall in love? They’re at a gymnasium for a neighborhood dance where tensions are running high because the Jets hate the Sharks and both groups are snarling at each other across the dance floor. The hatred is mutual, but for some reason, everyone is doing the mambo. I guess that was the tough guys’ dance of preference in 1961.

But then… then Tony and Maria simultaneously spot each other across the room, and everyone else blurs away, leaving these star-crossed lovers in their individual halos of light. The mambo music fades away and suddenly these two are performing a pas de deux to a music-box version of “Maria.”

The Jets versus the Sharks or "What happened to the mambo?"
The Jets versus the Sharks or “What happened to the mambo?”

The same kind of thing (except the pas de deux part) happens when fellow gamblers find each other in a non-gambling environment, like a wedding reception or birthday party.

“You mean, you… you play blackjack?” The other partygoers disappear into a mist of irrelevance as the two of you mind-meld over topics like card counting and eight-deck shoes. Your date listens politely, indulgently, like the mother of a five-year-old who’s happy that little Johnny has a new friend.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, at a wedding reception out in the small country town of Yacolt, WA., I found myself sitting near Jessica and Tony Quain, an entirely charming couple from the east coast. She I’d previously met. He was a stranger. We were making small talk when the conversation turned to their recent vacation in Scandinavia. Evidently they’d had a swell time cavorting (a Scandinavian-sounding verb if ever there was one) until they reached Aarhus, Denmark.

Tony was relaxing outside the Royal Casino taking a break from a blackjack session when two men in black masks raced past him into the casino wielding semi-automatic weapons. (You can see actual footage of the robbery here.)

Wait a minute. What did he just say? “Casino?” “Blackjack?” Is that a mambo I hear in the distance?

He’d uttered the magic words.

Let the mind-meld begin!

Turns out that Tony has been a card-counter for a bunch of years, a skill he took with him during college to the Atlantic City boardwalk, where he was able to profitably slog his way through those humongous eight-deck shoes.

We traded our stories of being thrown out of casinos: me from the El Dorado in Reno, him from the Trump Plaza and Claridge in AC. Oddly, they didn’t throw him out for being underage, which he was, but for his advantage playing. Evidently they don’t care much about corrupting the morals of youth and taking their money, but if Junior counts cards, they’ll toss his ass out onto the boardwalk. That was in 1991. I’m guessing there’s a statute of limitations (or institutional amnesia) because he’s returned since and played with impunity. That’s good news: Maybe I’ll return to the El Dorado.

No, wait a minute: That would mean going back to Reno.

Destination: WSOP

Tony to me: “So how does a blackjack player become a poker player?”

I’d told him I’d more or less forsaken 21 in favor of Hold’em, but the steps that led me there were kind of random.

Here goes.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuBlackjack can be a grind. You’re down, you’re up, you’re even. And if you’re counting cards your torturous inner monologue might be something like Ace plus king equals minus two… subtract that from negative 20… I’m down…. Deuce plus three equals plus two… add that to minus one… I’m up…

God help you if someone attempts even the most innocuous bit of conversation; simply processing an answer to “Nice day we’re having, don’t you think?” can give your brain a hernia. And the simple fact of life about card counting is that to really make money at it, you’ve got to have a fat bankroll—one that you’re ready to lose—at your disposal.

And then there’s the element of repetition. In blackjack, after a few hundred hands, you’ve seen it all, every combination of cards, every type of bad beat, every single way you can watch your bankroll swell and contract.

So, boredom was a factor. Then came the poker boom. Around 2003, everyone was talking about Hold’em, a phenomenon that coincided with the introduction of the hole cam, which enabled viewers to see the hole cards of players in major events. So, in effect, via televised editions of “The World Poker Tour,” you could have a front-row seat in a weekly series of poker seminars taught by the top players in the game.

That same year, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street hit the bookstores. The book has two main threads: the murder of Ted Binion, son of Benny Binion who is credited with devising the World Series of Poker; and color coverage of the 2000 WSOP. McManus’s writing style was smart, literary and approachable. He painted such a rich portrait of the game and its players that I was hooked. Also, the fact that he—a lowly writer, mind you—made it to the final table of the Main Event was enticing.

Eleven years later, after innumerable tournaments and cash games, I’m taking the next step: the WSOP. Just one of their smaller buy-in “Side Events,” but still…

As I post this, I’m five hours away from stepping on an Alaska Airline jet, destination Vegas.

A full report will appear here next time around.

Casino Buffet #2

Econo-Blog

Turns out that my new friend Tony Quain is a lot more than an accomplished card counter. He’s a true smarty pants, with a Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. A fine writer, too, with a provocative blog on free-market economics.

Walk a mile in his shoes

While researching poker strategy, this blog popped up: YourPokerDealer.com. It explores gambling from the dealer’s point of view. It’s a highly entertaining and informative site. Check out the very observational post on empathy.

Ivey Update: The Baccarat Flapdoodle Continues

A few posts back, we talked about the suit lodged against poker pro Phil Ivey by the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Their claim: Ivey and an associate bilked the casino out of nearly ten million dollars by exploiting the flawed patterns on the back of Gemaco playing cards.

The Borgata wants the money back because (they say) he cheated. Ivey says no way: his big wins were the result of “sheer skill.”

And so he’s firing back by filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. If Ivey’s attorneys are as skilled in legal matters as Ivey is in poker, you’ve got to pity the Borgata: They don’t stand a chance.

From “The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death”

“The World Series of Poker. My intro to the world of high-stakes competition. I’d never been much of an athlete, due to a physical condition I’d had since birth (unathleticism). Perhaps if there were a sport centered around lying on your couch in a neurotic stupor all day, I’d take an interest.”

No, Doubleday never sent me a reviewer’s copy. But I’m not going to hold that against them. The book is an absolute hoot and Colson Whitehead deserves all the praise he’s been getting.

 

 

 

Down the rabbit hole

The tiny Chinese man with jigsaw teeth is perhaps the happiest man on the face of the earth. If he wins, he laughs. If he loses, he laughs harder.

We’re playing blackjack at the Empire Casino in Leicester Square, London, and everything is a source of amusement for this old guy. Between hands he’s kind enough to lean over in my direction and—in Chinese—share his thoughts with me. What in God’s name is he saying? And why won’t he stop laughing? Is he high? Demented? Perhaps his meds haven’t kicked in.

I shrug and chuckle along with him as the dealer gives himself a five on top of his sixteen: 21. We all lose. Hilarious!

My guess is that this Asian elf has sat through enough hands to understand that putting together a decent winning streak at a London casino is pretty much a long shot; each turn of the card confirms his belief that he’s got it all figured out, the gambling universe and his place in it.

Either that or he’s mad as a hatter.

Which I can understand. This is the Alice in Wonderland version of blackjack. It’s not even noon and the blackjack and roulette tables are jam-packed with noisy players. It’s the Tower of Babel and everyone is speaking in British, American or Eastern European accents or in Chinese.

By Ian Holton from Beijing, China (IMG_2316) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Emerge from the Tube and you have a choice: Angela Lansbury or the Laughing Chinese Elf.
Then there’s the young guy lounging mid-table who is not taking cards. Instead, at the beginning of each hand he scrambles to place bets on other players’ hands: multiple chips, plus side action on those dumb long-shot side bets that pay you a gazillion-to-one if your cards plus the dealer’s cards together make a straight flush, or their combined total equals the square root of an isosceles triangle’s hypotenuse.

Another old Chinese fellow is hovering over my left shoulder, lingering there, pressing in on me to get a closer view of the action. He’s a gnat. He won’t go away. This is my cue to cash in my chips and leave.

West End farce

The Empire at the Casino (operated by Caesar’s Entertainment) shares Leicester Square with a handful of other casinos, as well with a bunch of West End theatres. The effect is like an upscale mini-Vegas. Walk under the marquee for Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury, turn the corner, step into the Empire and play a role in the low-brow farce known as British blackjack.

Why is it farcical? Well, there’s this whole business of the casinos actually encouraging customers to bet on other customers’ hands. At the Hippodrome—several short blocks from the Empire—the tables are a confusion of green-felt geometrics, including three extra circles in front of each player that are meant to accommodate this freelance betting. Puzzling. Would you place your chips in front of a stranger whose blackjack skills are unknown to you and expect to win? Of course it’s simply a blatant attempt by the London casinos to bilk more money from their customers.

And then there’s a variation in blackjack procedure which is really quite perverse. British rules (or at least the rules in the casinos I visited) call for the dealer to deal two cards to all players and just one face-up card to himself. Action then progresses as the dealer goes around the table accommodating the players—allowing them to take a hit or not—and only then does he take his second card!

This was a bit of info I knew going in, but seeing it in action hammered home its absurdity. Here’s how this rule might play out.

In the good old USA, everyone—dealer included—gets two cards, and the dealer’s second card is face up.

Let’s pretend you’re at a Vegas casino and you’re dealt two eights. Blackjack 101 says you must split them. And let’s pretend that the dealer’s up-card is an ace. But before action progresses—before you can split those eights—he asks if anyone would like insurance (generally a poor wager), then checks his hole card. In our fictional scenario, he’s got a picture card underneath and he turns over blackjack. Everyone loses, but at least you didn’t have the opportunity to plunk down the extra money to split those eights.

By Ian Muttoo from Mississauga, Canada [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Notice that no one is wearing a hat. For security reasons they’re forbidden in London casinos.
But in London, this same scenario would work out very differently, one might say catastrophically.

The dealer goes around the table and gives you the two eights and himself a single card which is a face-up ace. Let’s say you’re betting 25£ (about $42US). You split the eights, so now you’ve got 50£ out there. Time for your first draw on your first eight…. and you get another eight. So you’ve got to split again.

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. In our make-believe scenario you follow basic blackjack strategy and you end up re-splitting those eights four times and doubling down on two of those hands. You’ve got 150£ out there (or about $250US) and now it’s time for the dealer to take his second card.

It’s a ten. Everyone loses, but you in particular are toast.

Huh x 7

After one such let-me-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-my-hat hand in which we all took a beating, I heard emitting from a fellow player a sound which I’ve heard many times stateside. In fact the first time I heard this noise, it was issuing from the mouth of my “pal” Evil George Taylor, who was suffering from an extended streak of bad luck in Reno. Uttered with a tight smile and a shake of the head, it sounded like huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh. No less than seven huhs.

The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation.

The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation says, Of course I lost. How could it be otherwise?

The Grim Chuckle says, I am a decent human being with no small modicum of intelligence, and yet I sit here being pummeled hand after hand by a stranger wearing a maroon vest and a nametag reading “Omar.”

It says, I could be doing anything right now. I could be reading a book or watching Mad Men or catching up on my sleep. Hell, getting shit-faced drunk would be a more productive use of my money and time than this soul-sucking activity. But after racking my brain trying to come up with a productive plan of action, the only thing I can do is mutter “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”

Seven “huhs.”

There’s something oddly comforting in hearing that sound come from a stranger at a blackjack table 5,000 miles from home. Apparently, the Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation transcends borders and unites gamblers in a worldwide embrace of despair impotence humanity.

Paging Clive Owen

One last stop on this mini-tour of London casinos: the Grosvenor Piccadilly, part of the huge Grosvenor (pronounced GROW-ven-er) chain of casinos. To gain entrance you must join their “club.” Okay, why not: This place must be special. I think of the film Croupier, with Clive Owen in a black tie and the gamblers in fancy suits, beautiful women hanging on their arms.

I join. I enter the casino: Empty, save for one or two players. Echoing through this vast space is Billy Ray Cyrus crooning “Achy Breaky Heart,” a tune I’m pretty certain didn’t find its way onto the Croupier soundtrack.

I go upstairs, where there are two human beings among the banks of gambling machines. One of them is a young Asian woman sprawled over the top of an electronic roulette game, fast asleep, the “before” picture of a Red Bull ad.

Cue the exit music.

Two minutes later I’m on the street, marching past a restaurant called The Slug and Lettuce, humming “Achy Breaky Heart,” a card-carrying member of the Grosvenor family, happy to see Angela Lansbury smiling down on my decision to beat feet from that sad-sack casino as fast as I could.

The Borgata’s Baccarat Flapdoodle

For the past couple of weeks, Internet gambling sites have been buzzing about a provocative tidbit of news: Atlantic City’s Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa announced it was suing poker genius Phil Ivey to the tune of $9.6 million. They’re charging that Ivey earned that much by cheating at baccarat.

By www.LasVegasVegas.com [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Phil Ivey at the 2009 World Series of Poker
Upon reading the initial reports, I experienced a say-it-ain’t-so moment. Ivey a cheat? The man is a towering figure in the world of poker, unquestionably one of its greatest players. In a game where skill is measured in dollar amounts, Ivey has reportedly won more than $21 million in tournaments and many millions more in cash games. Plus he’s taken home nine World Series of Poker bracelets. So why would he risk his reputation by getting involved in a cheating scheme?

Turns out “cheating” may be the wrong word. And given the antipathy towards casinos by many professional gamblers, his reputation may actually be burnished.

So, what is baccarat anyway?

Think of baccarat as blackjack’s sleepy cousin or as a rich, lazy brat. It doesn’t matter if you (the player) know the rules of baccarat or not, because you don’t have to do anything. Correction. You must stay conscious. And you must take a lot of money out of your pocket because baccarat is usually offered only in the roped-off high-rollers area of the casino floor. The only action that you take is to place your chips on one of three betting positions: the player, the banker (i.e., the casino) or tie. That’s it.

Two cards each are dealt face down to the player and the banker. The cards are flipped over. Depending on the total value of each hand, you’re automatically dealt another card or no card. No thinking allowed. The goal is to get nearest to a value of nine.

You make no decisions, except that initial one as to where to place your bet.
You cannot affect which cards are dealt. Cheating? Seems to be just about impossible. Unless you are the casino and you redefine the word, which some might say is exactly what the Borgata did. You might also say that the Borgata made a series of monumentally bone-headed decisions and that suing Ivey only serves to underline just how poor those decisions were.

By Route 82 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Attention all edge sorters: Bear left for Exit H.

A suit of cards

Here’s what the lawsuit says: “Because of his notoriety as a high-stakes gambler, and the amount of money he intended to gamble, Ivey was able to negotiate special arrangements to play Baccarat at Borgata.”

He requested a maximum bet of $50,000, a private pit and a handful of other conditions, including a dealer who spoke Mandarin Chinese. The casino chalked all this up to Ivey being superstitious.

But here’s where alarm bells should’ve gone off. Per his request, “Ivey was provided with one 8-deck shoe of purple Gemaco Borgata playing cards,” the lawsuit says, “to be used for the entirety of each session of play.”

Turns out the Gemaco cards were flawed. The patterns on the long edges on the back of the cards were cut irregularly, allowing Ivey and a sidekick to engage in a practice called “edge sorting.”

Betting patterns

The first time through the shoe, the duo would use the flawed patterns to detect which cards were favorable. Ivey’s pal would then instruct the dealer in Mandarin Chinese to kindly rotate the cards so the favorable cards would face in the oppose direction of the unfavorable.

Ivey also requested an automatic shuffling machine, so the orientation of the cards wouldn’t be disturbed. Prior to each hand being dealt, Ivey could see the pattern on the back of the first card in the shoe and place his bet accordingly.

A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.
A perfect hand in baccarat. Nine = face value, picture cards and 10s = 0.

At his first visit to the Borgata in April 2012, Ivey took home almost $2.5 million. The second time, a month later, he won more than $1.5 million. The third time, in July 2012, it was almost $4.8 million. The fourth time (yes, there was a fourth time) he won a mere $824,900: chump change.

The suit says that the edge sorting gave Ivey an “unfair advantage” over the casino. Hmmm. Unlike the rules that casinos employ to gave advantage over each player who walks in the doors?

It’s amusing to think that the casinos unwittingly put themselves in the role of a problem gambler, chasing their losses in session after session after session after session. Maybe they should seek professional counseling.

Choosing sides

The more I read about this escapade, the more I came down on the side of Ivey. Curious to learn if others shared my line of thinking, I contacted a quartet of people involved in the gambling industry and solicited their opinions.

First up is Zachary Elwood, author of the highly instructive and well-reviewed book, Reading Poker Tells. Here’s what he told me via email: “I’m completely on Phil Ivey’s side. I have no sympathy for casinos; their whole business is offering unwinnable games to the public. It’s their responsibility to make sure their games are unexploitable. As long as Ivey didn’t mark the cards and was just taking advantage of an existing quality of the cards that was theoretically available to anyone else, I don’t consider it cheating.

“Mainly, though, I feel the way I do because the casino is in the business of making sure no one has an edge on them. If a customer can figure out how to get an edge (without creating an advantage that is unique for that one person) I have no problem with it. The same way I have no problem with card-counting in Blackjack.”

A problem of perception

Next I contacted Sean Gentry, manager of Encore, arguably Portland’s top poker room. Part of Sean’s job is to ensure the integrity of his dealers and the decks of cards they use. He called my attention to an earlier edge-sorting case involving Ivey and a London casino, Crockfords. Ivey is suing them because they refused to turn over the millions of pounds he encore logowon using the technique at a form of baccarat called Punto Banco.

“It’s very clear that none of this would have been possible if the casinos hadn’t allowed it to happen,” Sean says. “The Borgata allowed Ivey to choose which decks he would be playing with… down to the specific model and color. How this didn’t set off alarm bells, I don’t understand.

“If they’re betting $50K per hand, surely the casino should put a lot of resources into maintaining the integrity of the game. How did they not have two pit bosses and a couple of security people monitoring the entire thing? It makes no sense. If you have a high roller coming in and being treated like a king, you should also have a royal level of security protecting your investment.”

But Sean had some reservations about Ivey’s involvement in the scheme, to wit: “I really don’t like that this will paint a dark image of arguably poker’s most famous player. The perception among random people unfamiliar with the game is that poker is a haven for cheaters and riff-raff. Having one of the most famous players involved in cheating (whether proven or not) will cast a shadow on public perception. As much good work as Ivey (or Negreanu or Greenstein) has done to improve public perception, a lot of the work will be undone if this story gets real mainstream play.”

Which it hasn’t. Yet.

From the other side of the table

My friend Diana1 dealt cards games in Reno for twenty years, including baccarat. She looked at the story from a couple of angles.

In an email she wrote, “It was very interesting that the casino continued to indulge them by turning the cards (purportedly for superstitious reasons). At first, yes — a lot of people have weird ways. Then, when the winning gets serious, there are two different focal points at play……one is the pit boss’s objective — to keep a winning player at the table because most times he will lose the money back (hence the continued allowance of deck manipulation so as not to piss off the player, causing him to leave the casino with the winnings).

“The other job is that of the surveillance crew – the eye in the sky. Normally, when the winning gets serious and there is a betting pattern detected, gaming commission agents would be called in to sit with surveillance, and all would be glued to that close-up monitor watching for anything that would be telling the player when to raise and lower their bet. I’ve even seen them take decks off of a table, right into a plastic bag to be scrutinized by the gaming agents… I think that the surveillance team should have been much more on top of this.”

She closed with some choice words for the gaming industry: “I guess the bottom line is: Casinos play a tough game. They do not operate whatsoever on what is right (or moral). The poker player went into that house on his own free will, they didn’t drop a net and drag him in. As such, he has to play by their rules.”

Al Rogers of bj21.com was much terser in stating his opinion. How did he feel about this entire affair?

“Ridiculous,” he said.

By darwin Bell from San Francisco, USA (Lolly in the sky Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
There’s one born every minute.

Who’s the fish?

There’s an old expression in poker, one that might apply to this Borgata mess: “If you can’t spot the sucker at the table, it’s probably you.” Over the course of four long sessions of baccarat, with millions of dollars at stake, the staff of the Borgata took a good look around the table and came to a brilliant conclusion.

There wasn’t a sucker in sight.

 

  1. Per her request, I’m not using her real name.

A Bootload of Trouble

Fact: There are approximately 1500 casinos in America. Per capita, that works out to be about one casino per 213,000 people.

Fact: In Italy there are four, count ‘em, four casinos. That’s about one casino for every 15.5 million citizens!

Despite this tragic situation, or perhaps because of it, Italia has a big, fat gambling problem.

Fears of Social Breakdown as Gambling Explodes in Italy,” announced the New York Times at the end of 2013. The epicenter of this explosion? The town of Pavia, near Milan, population about 68,000. According to the Times, there is one slot machine or VLT (video lottery terminal) for every 104 residents, who each spend an average of more than $4,000 per year on gambling. Evidently these machines are ubiquitous; not only that, they’re everywhere: malls, shops, coffee bars, even pharmacies.By GoShow (Own work. Added on to Flickr.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a broader scale, “one in every eight dollars spent by an Italian family goes toward gambling,” wrote Times reporter Elisabetta Povoledo.

Yikes! What’s the deal over there?

Answer: the Italian government. In an effort to combat a huge illegal gambling market that was largely controlled by organized crime, the powers that be deregulated gambling. Now instead of mobsters cashing in, the federal government does. In 2012, the feds took a rake of somewhere between $8 billion $11 billion in gambling tax revenue. Talk about a disincentive to help problem gamblers.

In The Daily Beast the head of an Italian organization that helps gambling addicts said, “Italy is becoming the Wild West of gambling nations.” Italy can also boast that it’s Numero Uno among European countries… in money spent on gambling.

The casino museum

It’s certainly not fair to judge Italian casinos (all four of them) on the merits and demerits of just one, but if the other Italian casinos are like the one in Venice, they’ve got a few issues to work out.

From the outside, the Casino Venezia is impressively old and handsome. Established in 1638, it bills itself as the first casino in Italy and Europe.

By Abxbay (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Casino Venezia, where you probably do not want to play blackjack.
Like most edifices in Venice, it’s a stone’s throw from a canal, in this case, the Grand Canal. And like all buildings in Venice, it’s subject to strict codes which are designed to preserve the character of this magnificent—and once terribly powerful—little city.

When I visited, there was a shiny new sports car parked in the courtyard, some sort of casino promotion. Inside I asked an employee, “What’s going on with the car?”

“What car?” she answered.

WHAT CAR?

Venice is, by law and practicality, a city without cars. You simply will not find an automobile on the entire island. I hadn’t seen a car in days. If you resided in Venice, you could spend your entire life without seeing a land-based motor vehicle. Here one was parked just yards away, a fact that might have been noted by someone who was forced daily to take a boat then utilize their own feet to get to their job. Maybe it had been so long since she’d seen a car that she simply didn’t recognize this newfangled hunk of metal and plastic within spitting distance.

Or maybe it was because the casino existed in a pre-Henry Ford time bubble. Except for the far-off bleating of electronic slot machines, this place was ancient, hermetically sealed off from the twenty-first century.

But, WHAT CAR?

I pointed outside with my thumb.

She raised her eyebrows, impressed: How did that get there?

Paging The Man With The Yellow Hat

Evidently this particular casino had a dress code, and since I’d arrived without a sports jacket, the Woman For Whom Cars Did Not Exist pointed me towards a counter where they supplied me with a black one that was about two sizes too big. It hung off my shoulders, giving me a simian appearance.

Curious George Goes to the Casino.

Inside, the casino floor was almost empty. It didn’t seem like a casino. It seemed more like a casino museum. Maybe a dozen or so tables, with just a handful of patrons who seemed tired and gray. You don’t associate this kind of staid atmosphere with a gambling hall.

This casino had been around for about 375 years. Just give it a few more centuries and maybe word of mouth will kick in.

I monkey-stepped my way over to a blackjack table.

Like any responsible gambler, I’d set a dollar limit for the evening, which came crashing to an end in about ten minutes. You see, it’s almost impossible to win blackjack at the Casino Venezia, thanks to rules which are aggressively tilted to the house. I discovered the most heinous of these rules about nine minutes into my session.

In the US, when the dealer and the player both have blackjack, it’s a push: no one wins. Here in Venice, when both parties have blackjack, guess who wins? The house.

Wait a minute: The name of the game is blackjack. How can they deal you blackjack then tell you that you lose?

My jaw dropped. The dealer had evidently seen this reaction so many times, he just shrugged helplessly: Mongo just pawn in game of life.

There was no way a guy was going to win under these conditions.

I quickly returned the borrowed jacket, regained my human form and made my escape from the Casino of the Apes.

It’s Always Sunny in the State of Nevada

Or, “Crime and No Punishment”

Several weeks ago, I began to solicit stories from entertainment-industry professionals about their experiences working in casino productions, either in front of the curtain or behind. In response to one of these requests, I ended up on the phone in a scary phone conversation with a seasoned show-biz performer. He requested anonymity—you’ll see why in a few paragraphs—so we’ll call him Ishmael. No, that won’t work. How about Gary?

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gary had the good fortune to land a series of gigs as a singer/dancer in Las Vegas musicals and revues. The incident he shares with us went down in the late 1970s in the showroom of a ritzy Strip hotel-casino, long since demolished.

By Joe Gauder [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Vegas Vic. Might he be related to our old pal, Wendover Will?
The Mob pretty much ran Vegas in those days, so it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the “Artistic Director” of this particular production had a cozy relationship with criminal elements. Let’s call this fellow Zeke. According to Gary, Zeke was pretty much regarded as an awful human being. In fact, Gary calls him the scummiest person he’s ever had the displeasure of meeting.

Zeke had, as they say, an eye for the ladies, which was bad news for the female dancers in this particular musical revue. You see, there was a clear expectation that these young women would, upon request, have drinks and/or dinner with Zeke or one his pals. Gary was clear that sexual favors were not part of this unspoken arrangement. Nevertheless, it put these gals in an uncomfortable situation: Lucrative employment in a glitzy Vegas show in exchange for a date, when “requested,” by a Mob associate.

Then came the day when a close female friend of Gary’s was thrust into that awful position. She was distraught, Gary was incensed. Then show time came and with it a dance number featuring Gary. As he looked into the audience, there was Zeke, who was a frequent attendee.

Gary spotted Zeke and—no mistake, no hiding his rage—he glared hatefully right at him. (Gary admitted, by the way, that his behavior was highly unprofessional. But I’d say, if it were a contest of unprofessionalism, Zeke was the winner, hands-down.)

The dance number ended and Gary exited the stage. Waiting for him were three men: two security guards and a menacing guy who was known to be a Mob hitman.

Hitman to Gary: “You’ve got ten minutes to pack your stuff and get out of here.”

Gary took this in. That meant ten minutes to go up to his dressing room, get out of costume and make-up, then gather and pack up all his belongings.

Gary to Hitman: “What if I can’t make it out in exactly ten minutes?”

Hitman: “I’ll break your fuckin’ head, that’s what.”

Ten minutes later, Gary was gone. Back at his apartment, he locked the door and drew the shades. Within days he had found work far from Vegas, and he didn’t feel safe returning until more than a year had passed.

The Taste of Blood at Eldorado

In a recent post, I wrote about getting the boot from the blackjack tables at the Eldorado in Reno. It shook me up at the time, but in retrospect perhaps they were treating me with kid gloves.

A.k.a, Carte de JeuOver at the bj21.com message boards, reader Harold Harvey warned me about going back to test the waters at the Eldorado, calling my attention to a recent news item: “The Reno Police are still investigating the death of a patron forcibly ejected by Eldorado security personnel a few months ago.“

“They are certainly not always as pleasant as they were to you,” wrote another bj21 denizen, LVBear584.

Here’s what they’re talking about.

On December 15, 2013, a 23-year-old guy named Victor Victoria-Acevedo was out drinking with a couple of buddies, when they approached the entrance of the BuBinga lounge at the Eldorado. They were carded by security at the door and turned away.

Things quickly turned ugly. Evidently, the security guards mistook Victoria-Acevedo for his brother, who’d been in an altercation with BuBinga security the week prior.

As they made their way to the casino exit, the trio was followed, then confronted by six security guards. An account of the incident in the Reno Gazette-Journal quoted one member of the trio, Carlos Robles, as saying “They were picking (Victoria-Acevedo) up and slamming him on the ground.”

The guards handcuffed Victoria-Acevedo and Robles, then led them to the security room. “He wasn’t acting right,” Robles told television channel KTVN. “He was mumbling. He was bleeding from the mouth.”

Reno police arrived on the scene, took a look at Victoria-Acevedo and thought maybe he was drunk or on drugs. They delivered him to a local hospital. A short time later he was dead.

Not exactly a publicity coup for the Eldorado, you might think. And you’d be right. But get this: Victor Victoria-Acevedo died in December. No charges have been filed against the Eldorado guards and the story has conveniently disappeared from news coverage.

The Reno Shuffle, part two

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A happy idiot

One of the cleverest marketing tools employed by casinos is the “player’s card.” Boiled down to its basics: You spend a lot of time at the casino and in turn they toss you a bone in the form of a free or discounted meal or hotel room.

The casinos assume, of course, that the more time you spend on the casino floor, the more money you’ll lose. Everyone who’s a member of one of these “clubs” understands this, and understands that each of the so-called rewards extended to you is really just a ploy to lure you back so you’ll lose some more money. This doesn’t stop you from illogically feeling that you’re special or that you’re getting something that’s truly free.

My Eldorado card, in mothballs for 10 years
All that glitters…

Thus, I was idiotically pleased when I received an offer from the Eldorado in the summer of 2004 for a $19-per-night room. They liked me! They really liked me! Also the timing was perfect: Marital woes were taking a toll and I needed to get out of town in a big way. This would be a way for me to take some time for mental hygiene and to put my card-counting skills to the test.

So it was that on my first night in Reno, I found myself downstairs at the Eldorado casino sharing a blackjack table with five other players. Everyone was laughing, joking, having a swell time: They were winning. The star of the table was a serviceman on furlough from Iraq. “Affable” doesn’t begin to describe him. “Roaring drunk” is closer.

In spite of his inebriated state (or perhaps because of it), he was killing the house. An abysmal player, he was making one boneheaded decision after another (hitting his 12 versus the dealer’s up-card of 6, for example) but he simply could not lose. Everyone loved it. Cheering! High fives! Who didn’t like to see a member of our armed forces win? Hell, he deserved it, no matter that he was among the most clueless blackjack players on Planet Earth.

But I appreciated this guy in uniform for another, totally selfish reason: He was providing me with cover. All attention was on him and his growing pile of chips. Perfect!

Since the spotlight was on G.I. Joe, it seemed obvious that I’d be able to count cards and vary my bets however I wished without attracting attention. The casino be damned! I could do whatever I pleased. In Greek tragedy this kind of attitude is known as hubris; the hero displeases the gods which leads to his downfall. The gods in this case were the security cameras positioned in the ceiling above the gaming tables. And I displeased them because they caught my stupid blunder.

To understand this blunder, you’ll need a little background on card counting. (Pardon me while I get a bit technical for a couple of paragraphs.)

By FASTILY (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The scene of the crime

It’s good to be high

Card counting is based on a simple precept: When the deck contains a high proportion of aces and cards valued at 10, the odds shift away from the casino and towards you. So when the count is high, you raise your bet. The higher the count gets, the more you “spread” your bet.

Eldorado playing cardConversely, when the count is low—meaning that there are a lot of low-value cards still to be dealt—you lower your bet. There are a bunch of fine points and nuances that I’ll skip, but here’s something out of Card Counting 101: When there’s a “push”—a tie between the dealer and the player—you never ever alter your bet; you simply let it ride. Altering your bet in this situation signals that you know that the “count” has changed; it’s akin to wearing a dunce cap with the words “I AM A CARD COUNTER” emblazoned across the front.

I was about to put on the cap.

 

Exit stage left

In front of me were six red chips—thirty dollars. The table was littered with a bunch of face cards and aces, bringing the count into negative territory. I was holding two face cards and the dealer had two face cards: a push, so my chips remained in front of me. The G.I. had pulled down a blackjack and was busy giving his neighbors a high-five, making a big commotion, giving me the bright idea that I could pull back three of my chips, a move that I just knew would go unnoticed.

Ten minutes later, I was bored. Despite all the help I was getting from the U.S. armed forces, I was up a mere $34. Time to seek my fortune elsewhere. I scooped up my chips and turned to leave the table.

“Mr. Baldwin?”

It was a bland-faced guy in a beige suit, open collar.

Me: “Uh, yeah?”

Him: “We’d prefer it if you not play blackjack at our casino.”

I didn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “Excuse me?”

He said, “Feel free to enjoy any of our other games,” and made a gesture that in the movies says One day, son, all this will be yours.

Me: “What? Why?”

The word “nonplussed” was coined for this exact kind of situation.

Him: “We don’t like your style of play.” Now looking out across the casino, he spread his arms grandly, Moses parting the Red Sea. “But you are certainly free to enjoy any of our other fine games.”

Me: “Come on. Are you kidding? I’m only up thirty-four bucks.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We don’t appreciate your style of play.”

I wanted to say, What about that drunk soldier? What about HIS style of play? Do you see how much he’s got? Do something about him, why don’t you? But that would’ve been a betrayal. After all, I’d used him for cover and I’d blown it.

This brief episode was conducted so quietly, so politely that it attracted no attention whatsoever.

I wandered into the banks of slot machines. My mouth hung open. I was in shock (nonplussed, I tell you! nonplussed!) at this absurdity.

Let’s get this straight: They invited me to this hotel, more or less comp my room, and then—in effect—toss me out of their casino?

Then a worse thought occurred to me. As a professional courtesy, casinos were known to fax photos of card counters to other area casinos. And that would put me out of action for the remainder of my trip.

I had to find out.A king of clubs

Ten minutes later I’d crossed the Truckee River—where it’s reputed that the newly divorced would toss their wedding rings—and was playing blackjack at the Siena. I did not slouch or turn away from the security cameras. I wanted to know where I stood; I wanted them to get a good look at me. An hour later it was apparent that I had not made it onto the Most Wanted List. It was also apparent that card counting does not constitute the road to riches.

I skulked back to my hotel room $200 poorer.

So what did we learn today? Well, that card counting is not a foolproof recipe for success. And that military personnel may be useful in providing cover on the battlefield, but at the blackjack table? Not so much.

 

 

 

And now a word from the gene pool…

Depending on your state of mind, it’s either grimly fascinating or highly amusing to observe the train wreck known as the problem gambler.

He’s that sartorially challenged guy in baggy shorts and hyperactive tattoos who never seems to leave the poker room.

Or the successful downtown lawyer with a wife and daughter who simply cannot feed twenties into the video slot machine fast enough.

Or the beefy former frat fellow who apparently has never made the acquaintance of a blackjack basic-strategy chart and who approaches the game like an all-night kegger: Bring on the booze, and be gone, judgment and restraint! I’ve got money to lose, and plenty of it!

Yes, when it comes to problem gamblers, it’s easy to be glib and judgmental (guilty!) until it comes to a member of your family (also, unfortunately, guilty). I’m talking about my brother Bruce and I’m talking about my second-to-last visit to Reno in the summer of 2002.

The Reno shuffle, part one

If you read the Reno Gazette-Journal’s website (and why wouldn’t you?) you’ll see prominently featured on its home page an ongoing series called “Reno Rebirth.” The premise of this series, as I understand it, is that once upon a time Reno was great; then it sucked; now let’s all join together and help make it not suck again.

Let’s wish them luck. According to dispatches from the front, downtown Reno is looking pretty bedraggled these days, more than a little worn around the edges.

Another King of ClubsIt wasn’t exactly Shangri La during the summer of 2002, but you could travel there from Portland with little trouble or expense, the casinos were crowded, and the table conditions were good.

We landed in Reno mid afternoon and the sun had the brightness of a nuclear explosion, producing the kind of heat that alters your vision, the squinting kind of heat you might experience if you lathered a tube of Ben Gay over your cranium then for good measure applied some directly to your eyeballs. I guess what I’m saying here is that it was kind of hot.

This was a trip I made in the company of Evil George Taylor and we’d booked a couple of rooms at the Eldorado, which put us right in the center of downtown. One of the good things about Reno is that all the casinos are near each other. Even the outlying ones, the Peppermill and the Atlantis, are a short drive from center city. We’d take the rental car, park, then flee inside, like refugees from an advancing army, to the air conditioning inside.

The trip, my last one before I taught myself to count cards, was not a successful one. I simply couldn’t sustain more than one prolonged winning session.

The low point, gambling-wise, was a session in which I played against a dealer with jet-black hair whose name tag read “Fausto.” Fausto, as in that guy who sold his soul to Mephistopheles. I later learned that Fausto is actually an Italian word meaning “lucky.” But from my position across the table from him that summer evening, he seemed like Satan.

I was thinking, I’m playing cards with the devil!

Then as my miserable luck continued I thought, I am losing to the devil! 1

The smart thing would’ve been to move to another table, but the place was teeming with players and I couldn’t find an open spot at a non-demonic table. So I let the devil beat me. But at least I escaped with my soul. I hadn’t bargained it away for unlimited luck at the blackjack table. Although if the proposition had been raised…

Clearly, it was time for a break and I needed to go upstairs to return a phone call. It was a call that I was dreading.

Betting on a pulse

People who hate casinos hate them for any number of reasons.

  • Casinos are sinful, gaudy, smoke-filled holding pens designed exclusively to separate you from your money.
  • Casinos promote crimes such as prostitution and drug dealing.
  • Casinos prey on the elderly, luring them with free transportation and buffet discounts.
  • Casino floors are populated by sad-sack losers.

My brother Bruce hated casinos for another reason: He simply because he could not step foot into them. The sensory overload was too much, causing him to shake almost to the point of convulsion. This was ironic since my brother was a rabid, enthusiastic, lifelong gambler.

Ironic, too, was the fact that I heard he was dying in my Eldorado hotel room during a break between blackjack sessions.Yet another King of Clubs

Bruce perfectly fit the profile of a problem gambler. His days revolved around a handful of rituals: drinking a half case of Budweiser; smoking a pack of non-filtered Camels; delivering racing programs for the local greyhound track; spending his salary at the very same track or another gambling facility; then going to a bar in West Palm Beach known as El Cid.

Bruce liked to bet on two- and four-legged creatures. The ponies. And the greyhounds. And jai alai. And football games. Anything with a pulse. Unfortunately, this predilection had cost him his wife and daughter, along with at least one job.

So, now we get to the serious question of genetics, of nature versus nurture. Is this kind of behavior built-in or inculcated? There’s a strong case for the latter: When I was seventeen, Bruce introduced me to harness racing at Roosevelt Raceway and taught me how to handicap the trotters. I’m guessing he saw this as a rite of passage, because his father did the same for him at the same age, causing — as I understood it — some consternation on the part of my mother.

But then there’s this: Bruce was actually my half-brother; we had different fathers. Both his father and mine were problem gamblers.

Where does that leave yours truly? I’m not answering, because I truly don’t know. I’ve not lost anything of significance in my gambling career. I’m a responsible guy. But why is it that the first time I sat down at a blackjack table, I felt like I was going home, that I’d landed exactly where I was supposed to be?

A keepsake for cash

Several days after returning from Reno, I was on a plane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to help my sister tie up loose ends for Bruce. There was all that unpleasant death-related stuff to deal with, including returning his portable oxygen tank, which on its top side showed burn marks from his unfiltered Camels.

He’d squirreled away enough money to pay his funeral expenses and to leave $500 to me, which was a surprise. I thought it appropriate to put the bulk of that money into my gambling fund.

But I did take $50 of my inheritance and spent it on an item that I carry with me every time I go the casino or card room, every time I play poker or blackjack: It’s a brass, hinged money clip with an Indian-head nickel on top. It does a pretty good job, this money clip, of holding my money together, at least until my winnings swell the wad beyond its grasp, or until the house edge has whittled my bankroll down to a shadow of its former self.

 

Courtesy of Bruce
Courtesy of Bruce

 

 

 

  1. I later used this incident as inspiration for a ten-minute stage comedy called “A Little Risk,” which I’ve posted for your reading pleasure.