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.

 

 

 

Business as (un)usual in the poker room

The 3 Commandments

Life in the poker room is a pretty placid affair. Low-level chatter punctuated by laughs or the occasional cheer. The shuffle of cards. Pop music—Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, The Eagles, The Beatles—on low volume.

“Raise.”
“Call.”
“Fold.”

Occasionally you’ll also hear “Shit,” “Dammit,” and the stray “Fuck,” but the unspoken ethos and the printed rules that hang on the wall discourage profanity.

A sense of calm celebration prevails. And when it doesn’t, when the calm is shattered, alcoholic beverages or controlled substances are usually involved. Outbursts or fisticuffs are extremely infrequent, so that when they do occur, the effect is jolting.

Recently at an area poker room, for instance, a guy juiced up on booze and Adderall loudly and profanely questioned his bar tab. The bartender—a professional and cool-headed young lady—sought to placate him by refunding, out of her tip jar, the amount in question. No dice. His rant continued unabated and before long, security ejected him.

But the show was just beginning. Out on the street he started throwing punches and soon the security guy and two poker players were—with great difficulty—wrestling this bantamweight drunkard to the ground, not before he smashed a window and started yelling for his mom. Police arrived. Next stop: the drunk tank.

To be clear: These things rarely happen, but when they do, they live on for days in poker room discussions, providing a nice break from the run-of-the-mill, that-guy-called-my-pocket-kings-with-ace-three-off-and-sucked-out-on-the-river conversations.

The saphead has been banned from the club and condemned for breaking a cardinal rule of the poker room: Thou shalt not abuse the female bartender.

Also, thou shalt not imbibe Adderall and Hennessy then attempt to play Texas Hold’em.

Also, thou shalt not be a jackass.

I’ll drink to that

We enjoy drinking for a variety of reasons: to loosen up, to commiserate, to take a little vacation from the here-and-now. Sometimes, of course, the alcohol will prompt philosophizing.

Here’s an actual conversation that took place in the bar at the Encore Club in Portland some months ago.

The characters: A 40-ish player who, while not given to moping or self pity, has just busted out of a Texas Hold’em tournament and is not feeling too good about it; and Encore’s off-duty cook, a bald-headed, tattooed guy also in his 40s, with horn-rimmed glasses and a sour, studious demeanor—in a prison film, he’d be the lifer hitting the law books in hopes of winning exoneration.

They’ve both had a few drinks…
Player (re: poker): Sometimes I wonder if it’s all worth the time and effort.
Cook: Isn’t that the big question?
Player: I guess…
Cook: I ask myself, is it all futile? Aeschylus talks about that in “The Libation Bearers.” Have you read it?
Customer: Well, I’ve read my Aeschylus, but I’m unfamiliar with that one.

(https://www.flickr.com/photos/telemax/5710524254) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aeschylus is probably wondering how the hell he got dragged into a gambling blog…
Hold on: “The Libation Bearers”?? And at least three people in a bar in a poker room who’d actually read Aeschylus?? Had I slipped into an alternate universe where the denizens of poker rooms read Greek playwrights in their spare moments? Or is the moral of the story that you’ve got to give credit to people for being a lot smarter than you might think?

In a matter of weeks, the cook had moved on to a different job, no doubt spreading his joyful message of futility and Aeschylus to the unsuspecting clientele of another barroom.

Casino Buffet #1

At the casino buffet, you plunk down a modest amount of cash, in exchange for which you can sample a smorgasbord of dishes from near and far. Hey, that guy in the white hat is carving a hot turkey! The other guy in the other white hat is making crepes and omelets! And that other guy… shouldn’t he be wearing a hairnet or something?

In the spirit of the casino buffet, here are some tasty news tidbits from casinos near and far. And don’t worry, I’m wearing a hairnet.

There’s an acronym for that

I recently discussed that awful blackjack rule in Britain wherein the dealer takes his second card after all the players have acted. In a few short yet brilliant paragraphs, I illustrated how lousy this rule is and just how it might play out using as an example a hand in which you’re dealt two eights.

Turns out that there’s an actual acronym for this rule: ENHC, which stands for (drum roll, please…) European No Hole Card. You can find out more about this rule as well as a basic strategy chart that’s been adjusted for ENHC at Golden Touch Craps. Interestingly, the author, Dan Pronovost, uses virtually the same situation as I did to demonstrate the considerable downside of ENHC.

Eldorado killing

Awhile ago I wrote about an incident at the Eldorado in Reno in which a patron reportedly met his death during a scuffle with the hotel-casino’s security detail. Thankfully, justice is being served: one of the security guards has been charged with murder. Here’s a news article about it: “Security guard charged in man’s death.”

Whitehead’s WSOP

Colson Whitehead is a writer who’s earned a reputation as a “serious” novelist. Apparently he’s loosened up a bit. A novice poker player, Colson has written a new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death. It’s a first-person account of his experiences training for the World Series of Poker, then playing in it. Reviews have been mixed, but the New York Times seemed to like it. (Read the review here.)

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Colson Whitehead, author of “The Noble Hustle,” a reviewer’s copy of which is on its way to my mailbox… right, Doubleday?
This kind of book has been done before, somewhat recently—and very successfully—by James McManus. His Positively Fifth Street is brilliant and became an instant classic when it was published in 2003. Don’t know if Whitehead’s book reaches the stratospheric heights of “Fifth Street,” but I’d sure like to read it and judge for myself. (Ahem, Doubleday: Where’s my reviewer’s copy? Huh?)

A tale for the telling

Speaking of classics, Zach Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells has pretty much become required reading for those interested in this topic.

Now the Zelwood Empire has expanded with the publication of his new book, Verbal Poker Tells, and a series of seminars he’s giving in Las Vegas during this year’s WSOP. Recently I was Zach’s guinea pig in a test run-through of this seminar and was impressed with his mastery of this complicated topic. You’ll find out more about his books and his seminars at ReadingPokerTells.com.

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.

Jackpot summer, part three

Jackpot is the Mickey Rooney of Nevada gambling: pint-sized, but not lacking a certain pizzazz.

He's the Jackpot, Nevada, of movie stars.
The one and only Mickey Rooney!

Contrary to common knowledge, Rooney never proclaimed, “Let’s put on a show,” but those might’ve been the very words uttered by Idaho slot operator “Cactus Pete” Piersanti when he cofounded Jackpot in the mid-1950s. It was around that time that Idaho banned gambling, inspiring Pete to take his slot machines and plunk them a few yards beyond the Idaho border. So, unlike Las Vegas (and most cities, towns and villages on planet Earth), Jackpot was created for the sole purpose of gambling.

Ol’ Cactus Pete soon put up a hotel casino, cryptically named Cactus Petes (sic—there’s no apostrophe). Prior to reserving my room, I’d done a little research and learned that AAA had bestowed a four-diamond rating upon this establishment. The room rates were dirt-cheap and Jackpot boasted a preponderance of single-deck blackjack tables. Add to this the fact that Current Blackjack News told me that playing conditions were close to perfect, and this seemed like the perfect stopover for a guy desperate to forget that his marriage was cratering.

A field of ploppies

It’s Labor Day and I arrive at 6pm. The casino is nearly deserted, which is good news: Card counters prefer playing with as few other players as possible. In fact, one-on-one blackjack sessions are highly favored by “advantage players” (a euphemism for card counters).

Should I auction this on e-Bay?
Yes, Virginia. There is a Cactus Pete.

The few players in attendance, however, manage to find me. All of them are what we call “ploppies,” mediocre to poor players who screw with your rhythm, who bounce in and out of games, who make it difficult for this particular player to gain any traction. This isn’t any fun, so after losing a hundred dollars, I cross the street to one of the other two casinos in town, the Horseshu, which is run by the same company that owns Cactus Petes.

This place is small enough that it ought to be called the Shubox. It, too, is nearly empty, with just one other player trying his luck at blackjack, which like Petes is of the single-deck variety.

I sit down at a table—I’m the sole player—and things click right into place. Everything’s working: splits, double-downs, blackjacks. It’s easy to keep the running count of a single deck, so adjusting my bets is easy too: I flat bet when the count is low, raise it when the count’s high. Pretty soon I’m ahead over $200, when a floor supervisor appears behind the dealer.

“Hey,” he says by way of greeting.

Me: “Hello.”

Him: “Say, what’s your name?”

Uh-oh.

This is not the trickiest question in the universe, but uh-oh. My sense of paranoia, incubated during 12 years of Catholic school then finely tuned by two decades in the world of show business, kicks in. Big time.

My name. He wants to know my name. What answer do I provide? Is this a prelude to  being shown the door?

Suavely I reply, “Huh?”

This had happened to me once before, at the Palace Casino in La Center, Washington, before my card-counting days. I’d been on a tear, a ridiculous run of good luck during which I’d been progressive betting—that is, raising my bet when I won a hand, cutting back when I lost—and I could do nothing wrong. It was a full table and the other players were gasping and cheering at my invulnerability: catching a five when I hit 16; getting blackjacks after I split aces; drawing perfect 21s on my double-downs. It was a thing of beauty and I was up over $600—a fair amount when betting in units of five dollars—when, while the shoe was being shuffled, a woman appeared at my elbow: the supervisor.

“Wow. You’re doing pretty well. What’s your name?”

Crap, I thought. Why does she want my name? A pick-up line? Idle curiosity? Don’t think so. This cannot be good.

I went through a list of aliases in my brain. Claude? Mel? Diane? No wait, that’s a girl’s name.

She continued to look at me expectantly. I imagined her train of thought: This is not a trick question. Does this bozo have amnesia or is he simply retarded?

“Your name…”

Oh, what the hell. I blurted out the truth, threw her a bone.

“Doug.”

It hung there a split second. But she wanted more. She prompted me.

“Doug…”

Now the other players were looking at me. What is wrong with this man?

I gave up. “Baldwin,” I said. “Baldwin-Baldwin. Baldwin”

In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate.

The supervisor gave me a sweet, gentle look that said Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Back to the Horseshu, where the supervisor is patiently awaiting me to deliver this precious piece of information.

(A side note: In the casino world, this is the mildest form of “heat,” so mild that it might not even qualify as heat. Simply a way of the casino saying, “We are aware of your existence. So just watch yourself.”)

A few seconds tick by. My thoughts go back to the La Center incident, the futility of pleading deafness or memory loss. I’d learned my lesson, so I reply.

“Duhbalwin.”

“What’s that?”

I give him a look that says Who’s playing stupid now? I’m sticking with my response, going all-in, adding a degree of emphasis.

“DUH-Bal-win!”

In times of stress, I have a tendency to overcompensate. Did I mention that?

From the November 2013 issue of Current Blackjack News
Say it ain’t so: No more blackjack at the Horseshu.

The Dalles blues

The next morning I’m on my way. It’s the final leg of this journey, an 11-hour drive to Portland if I stopped to stretch my legs and get a quick bite. And I knew the perfect place.

Pendleton, Oregon, is known for three things: plaid shirts, a rodeo and the Wildhorse Casino. The rodeo is a week away. I don’t need any plaid shirts. So, oh well, I guess I’ll have to stop at the casino.

First impression: It’s an institutional joint, like the dining room at a low-security prison. Cold, kind of stark.

I sit down and play for ninety minutes. No single-deck games here, but the six-deck shoes are kind to me and I do OK.

Darkness is nearing as I hop back onto I-84. In about four hours I’ll be back in Portland. Although I’ve emerged from the casino $75 richer, the ninety minutes there has proved costly. Just east of The Dalles, there’s a roadblock and a reader board telling me I must exit. There’s a forest fire ahead and it’s jumping the interstate, rendering travel perilous.

So here I am pulling into downtown The Dalles (the “The” has been Krazy Glued to “Dalles” for reasons unknown) at nine-thirty on a smoky Tuesday night, utterly famished. The clerk at the Best Western tells me that the best restaurant in town is Baldwin’s Saloon. Hey, that’s got to be a positive omen, right? I arrive there at 10pm on the dot, just in time to see a waiter flip over the sign on the door: Closed.

Nothing is open. The streets are rolled up.  I have a dinner of Coke and chips piping fresh from the Best Western’s vending machines.

There’s a literary term known as “pathetic fallacy” in which writers ascribe human emotions to elements of nature. I’ve travelled 2900 miles and now I’m stuck here in The Dalles, an hour and a half from home, a raging fire impeding my journey. Thwarted in my travels, stranded in the middle of nowhere, it’s difficult to see it not as a fire, but as a symbol of what lay ahead in the months to come.

 

Jackpot summer, part two

This is the deal.

You’re in Philadelphia.

You’re down-and-out because you’ve just dropped your daughter at a college among strangers in a strange city that’s 3,000 miles from home. There were some teary moments as you said farewell.

She grows smaller in your rearview mirror and it’s time to head back home to Portland, Oregon, in your black RAV-4.

But there’s a sad realization: Once you’ve traversed those 3,000 miles, you’re going to have to face domestic chaos. There’s a marital meltdown awaiting you and you’re going to have to deal with it as soon as you pull into your driveway. So with a heavy heart (and a cliché to express it) you suck it up, point your SUV west, pull out onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and –

Whoa! Wait a minute. What’s the big hurry, mister? Here’s an idea: Don’t rush home. Head for Jackpot, Nevada!

The magical world of bladders

Traveling west from Pennsylvania to the west coast, you can divide the landscape roughly into thirds: rolling hills, then a pancake flatness that extends from Ohio to Nebraska, and finally a breathtaking dose of western grandeur.

Part two—the pancake flatness—is the hard part. To get relief from the tedium, you’d love to pull off the road, but to where? That silo in the distance? Perhaps a quick side-trip to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart?1 And let’s not forget about downtown Altoona.

Thankfully there’s an antidote in Council Bluffs, Iowa; this is where the Harrah’s empire (now the Caesars empire) planted a riverboat casino.

Ever been to a riverboat casino? Notice please that I said not on but to. Being on a riverboat casino conjures up images floating down the Mighty Mississip, consorting with rogues and rascals, and taking an occasional break to smoke a cigar on the deck while the bartender prepares your Mint Julep.

All aboard!
Actual riverboats that actually move through the water.

Being to a riverboat casino is a different story. It’s a gambling concept that, in my experience, manages to integrate the worst parts of boating: tacky carpeting, the oppressive claustrophobia of a below-deck, and being stuck in dry dock. One good thing: There’s not much danger of losing your balance and falling overboard because, as the Byrd’s sang, you ain’t goin’ nowhere. Why? Because many of these casinos are riverboats in name only.

In a state like Iowa, for example, regulations formerly mandated that casinos be constructed over water. The state’s initial impulse—to protect citizens from the evils of gambling by segregating casinos and making them more onerous to build—was a noble one. In actuality, it seems to have spurred casino owners into new levels of creativity. Look at the Riverside Casino in Riverside, Iowa: It’s land-based, but to satisfy local regulations it was built atop 29 bladders filled with water.

Talk about a  recipe for success: Fill the bladders with water… and they will come.

He: “Honey I’m off to the Riverside.”

She: “Now don’t you go throwing away all your hard-earned money at that bladder-boat!”

Back to Council Bluffs and Harrah’s. It’s a riverboat casino but I cannot say if bladders were or were not involved. I can say it was claustrophobic. The word “shoebox” comes to mind. That might have been because I was exhausted: I began the day at a Comfort Inn in Toledo, Ohio, and had been on the road for 12 pancake-flat hours.

I was too tired even to count cards, which was a big part of this Blackjack Autumn-inspired excursion. However, in the odd way that gambling can defy your expectations, this bleary-eyed boy in the space of 90 minutes won $150 at blackjack, then another $157 at a lucky video poker machine. It was money that unfortunately would not stay in my pocket for very long.

Ghost-gamblers in the sun

So.

Friday night in Omaha, which borders Council Bluffs.

Saturday night in Rawlins, Wyoming, which like most of Wyoming borders nothing.

And then Labor Day 2003: Onward to Jackpot!

The direct route to Jackpot entailed taking I-80 west to Salt Lake City, then merging onto I-84, which would take me to Twin Falls, Idaho. From there it was just a chip’s throw to Jackpot.

Given my mode of willful avoidance, this was not the route I intended to take.

Instead I was going to stay on I-80, which would lead me around the Great (and spooky) Salt Lake and right into West Wendover, NV, or just plain Wendover, as everybody calls it, because hell, in this place who needs the adjective “west”? It’s redundant because you’re in the middle of the desert and there are animal skulls by the side of the highway and tumbleweeds blowing across the highway and the ghost of Joseph Smith windsurfing across the Great Salt Lake. It’s flat flat flat, not a creature is stirring not even a vulture, until there, in the distance, is Wendover.

Shiny. Impressive. From a distance Wendover looks like Oz, but without the flying monkeys.

Up closer, it’s a bit more prosaic. In Blackjack Autumn, Barry Meadow writes that towns like Wendover and Jackpot exist “solely because people like to gamble.” And how!

The one and only Wendover Will!
The Eiffel Tower of Wendover. (Photo credit: “Wendover Will” by Pitamakan is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0.)

Wendover consists largely of hotels and casinos, so although the town is hosting thousands of guests, its streets are nearly empty, a ghost town teeming with tourists huddled inside windowless, clock-less rooms—ghost-gamblers invisible in the Wendover sun.

I join them.

Wendover’s blackjack tables are a player’s dream, single-deck games with rules that shave the house edge to almost zero. And there’s not just one or two of these primo tables: They’re everywhere. For a card counter to lose under these conditions would be close to impossible. But that doesn’t stop me. Apparently I’ve entered the Bizarro Blackjack Universe, because I do lose. Quickly. In fact, I say farewell to most of my ill-gotten gains from the riverboat in the space of an hour.

It’s no longer Wendover to me. It’s Bendover.

Clichés abound in gambling, and it’s time to comfort myself with an oldie but goodie. To wit: I’m still up fifty bucks! And hey, that’s better than losing!

Time to hit the road. Jackpot is just 125 miles away and I’ll be there well before dark.

 

  1. In addition to the RV Hall of Fame, Elkhart is also famous as the breeding ground of Evil George Taylor. It is here where he learned to gamble at his father’s knee, and where he later drove both parents into financial ruin during a particularly brutal session of penny ante poker.