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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.

 

 

 

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.