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A Casino Odyssey: Part One

By localroger in Culture
Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 07:53:27 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

In 1990, our neighboring state of Mississippi legalized gambling. Two years later, for the first time in my life I walked into a casino. This was the beginning of an odyssey which would, more through faith in math and hard work than luck, and against all normal expectation, turn my debt into a healthy savings. It would see me develop an appreciation for 60-year-old Scotch and and US$50 steaks. It would show me a great deal of the excitement and drama people go to casinos for. And in the end it would leave me and my friends with a deep, abiding hatred of these places and a terrible understanding of how they affect most of their clientele.

Because this is a long story, this is part one of four.

A Fateful Decision

In late 1991 friend Y and I decided, on a lark, to see what all the fuss was about. We visited the Grand Casino in Gulfport, MS, back when the parking lot only had two levels, there was no "entertainment barge" and the hotel was a distant dream. We were confronted with a bewildering array of lights, sounds, signs, and people frantically doing incomprehensible shit. We watched the Roulette wheel and sat in on a Blackjack game and put a few quarters into slot machines. And we finally left, wondering how anybody figured out what to bet on.

So we did what educated people did back before the Internet: We bought a book.

Guerrilla Gambling by Frank Sclobete is a bit dated and has some factual errors, but it's still a good introductory guide. Reading GG is much better than going into a casino with no clue at all. We quickly learned to separate the smart from the stupid moves. You generally can't win, we figured, but by figuring in the comped food and entertainment value we might reduce our entertainment expenses and come out ahead of where we would have been staying home. We formed up a little budget and kept perfect records of our visits, so that we could deduct our losses against our wins if we ended up ahead.

Our friend X had much more ambitious plans. Even before the casinos came, he planned to become a professional gambler. He studied and drilled card counting techniques. He regarded the coming of the casinos as a sign of his personal fate, sent by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. While X was a nice guy who started sharing gas money to go out to the Coast with us, none of us took his plans seriously. For one thing, it was very clear he had a serious impulse-control problem and was a hard-core gambling addict.

A Lesson in Reality

That record of our wins and losses got a bit monotonous in my case. I studied the strategies, I played smart, and I lost my ass. I couldn't win a bet on what time of day it was. Meanwhile, X and Y fluttered along more normally, enjoying some winning sessions to offset their losses. X began a binge-and-recover cycle which would last five years, as he worked until he had a few thousand dollars, quit his job, moved into the casino, and gambled until he was wiped out by an unfortunate streak. He was playing smart, but not quite smart enough. I was learning just how bad bad luck can be -- which is much worse than you think.

After a few months, I had racked up fifteen losing visits in a row. I had lost early and lost big (at least based on my US$50 visit allowance) every single visit. I wasn't playing any different from Y, who had by now accumulated a bankroll of several hundred dollars. Typically I'd play for an hour at most and bust out, then watch Y and try to score free drinks while Y played into the night. I added up all the money I was losing and decided enough was enough. I had lost enough to buy the new computer I was longing for. I started staying home and let X and Y ply the tables. And I swore I'd never go back.

I Am Dragged Back

It turned out there were these things called tournaments, where all the players chip in to a prize pool and play the game with play money ("non-negotiable cheques"). At the time most of these were zero-sum, no-house-edge affairs or even offered with a bonus payout to get customers in the door. And since you were playing against other customers instead of the house, nobody cared if you played smart to get an edge against them. Remembering the sting of consistent losing, I refused to be seduced by these promotions; but I couldn't refuse to play in the $10,000 top-prize free tournament that was offered twice by [censored now-defunct casino].

Imagine my shock when I won the $10,000.

We were staying at a campground, it was near midnight, and hundreds of people watched the casino present me with 95 $100 bills. I had never seen so much money in one place in my life, and hot-damn it was mine! We deposited the cash with the cage (cashier) and asked them to write me a check so it would stay that way.

This incident broke my losing streak, and I suddenly found myself able to walk away from table games with modest wins often enough to make occasional play possible. At the time this change in the weather was simply bewildering. Later I would take it as a second important lesson.

For the next few years my personal life would be scheduled around Gulf Coast casino tournaments. I was working a reduced schedule with flex time so it was very practical to make sure the days I had off made room for the free Craps tournament at Bayou Caddy's Jubilee (back when it was still docked on Bayou Caddy, in Lakeshore MS). Or the free Craps tournament at Casino Magic, Biloxi. Or the zero-sum buy-in Blackjack tournament at Casino Magic, Bay St. Louis. Or the one at the Isle of Capri Biloxi. Or the one at the President, or the one at the Copa... well, you get the idea.

We became masters of the tournament strategy, learning to count chips like lightning to determine our position in the critical closing hands of a tournament round. Since tournaments are high-variance affairs where you bet a little often to win a lot of money infrequently we had a typical tournament split agreement. If one player made the final round, he got 80% with the other two splitting 20%. If two players made the final they would split 80% while the odd one out got 20%. We learned that there is something of a gambler's code. While he owed other people tens of thousands of dollars, X would never renege on a gambling agreement. There is a certain amount of trust involved, but the three of us learned through experience that we would be paid when one of our ships came in.

That would be important, later.

Gambling Becomes a Social Event

Besides X and Y and myself, there were dozens of "regulars" who you'd meet at every tournament. Tournaments were entertaining, festive affairs. These were people who, if not rocket scientists, were at least attracted by the idea of being able to play these games at a level they could not normally afford, with their losses limited to the entry fee. There were very few sad stories.

Mrs. J was the wife of a prominent Biloxi businessman, and soon after we hit the tournament circuit she won a $300,000 jackpot. Soon she was playing green chips instead of red. (Translation: $25 minimum bets instead of $5) Within a couple of years the $300,000 was gone. So was the husband. J was working as a Blackjack dealer to support herself.

We might have noticed this if we weren't having so much fun pigging out on the free buffets and taking home the occasional nice win. We joined all the player's clubs and signed up for every free drawing. Before this book was published we had stumbled onto many of the techniques it reveals for boosting our EV (Expected Value, the theoretical return on an investment or bet). On a typical Coast visit our combined coupons, mailers, free or bonus tournament entries, and whatnot added up to twenty or thirty bucks apiece. Since we were going out twice a week or more we quickly "got in the long run" and "realized our EV" (that is, our win/loss record reflected our mathematical edge over the situation, not the random swing of whether we actually won or lost a particular match-play coupon.)

We developed the trick of making sure we always had enough comp points at the Grand Gulfport for a free buffet on holidays like Easter and Christmas. The whole state gets the idea to eat there on those days, but the point of the comp isn't just that the food is free; what becomes much more important is that you go to the head of the line. So while the Normals are lined up back to the non-smoking slots looking at a two-hour wait, we sail up to the VIP line and get seated in 15 minutes. Y and I were making several thousand dollars apiece per year, not enough to live on but a small income that completely displaced a similar amount we used to spend on eating out and entertainment. Our bills were dwindling and I was fond of telling people that the casino industry was the best thing since sliced bread.

I mean, we were getting paid to have fun! What more could anyone want?

Continues in Part 2: New Modalities


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My experience gambling is...
o I lose 19%
o I win 9%
o I don't gamble (no interest) 57%
o I don't gamble (no casinos nearby) 5%
o I don't gamble (too young) 6%
o I don't gamble (recovering addict) 0%

Votes: 145
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o bought a book.
o tournament strategy
o this book
o Part 2
o Also by localroger

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A Casino Odyssey: Part One | 27 comments (18 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
Not a diary (3.50 / 12) (#2)
by Aquarius on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 06:27:50 PM EST

I'm glad that this didn't end up as a diary. So far, it's fascinating. Keep it up.


"The grand plan that is Aquarius proceeds apace" -- Ronin, Frank Miller
Can you clarify a couple things? (3.66 / 6) (#3)
by mindstrm on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 06:36:37 PM EST

What casino games are we talking about, and what kind of tournament?

You don't 'beat the casino' at standard casino games.
And a book surely can't teach you how; if that were the case, casino's wouldn't be in business.

Is this Poker we're talking about?

Casino Tournaments (4.77 / 9) (#7)
by localroger on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 07:10:48 PM EST

Casino tournaments involve playing any other casino game -- even slot machines, but it can be poker, blackjack, craps, or whatever -- with play money. Everyone buys in for a flat fee and gets "non-negotiable cheques" which look and feel like casino chips but aren't redeemable. (In a slot tournament, they just program your machine for free play.)

You then gamble for a set time or number of hands. Whoever has the most play money when the time runs out wins.

Tournaments were a popular draw in the years I'm talking about here, but lately most tournaments are invitation-only affairs for high rollers. I think a few of the locals joints in Las Vegas still have open buy-in tournaments but it's been a few years since I had reason to check.

I'll have more to say about the regular games in the next installment. There are huge obstacles, but a few people have beaten the casino at blackjack (by card counting) and roulette (by wheel clocking), both of which are legal but both of which will get you expelled from the casino if you're noticed.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Great.... (4.00 / 2) (#17)
by mindstrm on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 07:09:57 AM EST

Thanks for the clarification. I obviously don't hang out in casinos enough ;)

I'm interested to hear the rest of your installments.

I'll admit; I don't like the way casinos make card-counters out to be doing something 'wrong', though I fully understand why they can't allow them to continue gambling.

On a related note, I recall a story, from back in the late 60's or perhaps early 70's where some guys developed a small computer for counting blackjack. They used these all over Vegas, and made quite a bit of money (not millions, but a healthy profit). They were caught; however, after analysis, it was determined they could not be charged with cheating, as the devices did not in any way 'cheat'; they just counted. This, of course, won't work anymore; using such a device to augment your game in nevada is illegal now.

[ Parent ]
A buddy of mine told me: (4.35 / 14) (#10)
by Canimal on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 08:04:36 PM EST

If you are really lucky, the first time you go to a casino, you lose big.

Nice writing.


New Mexico observation. (3.00 / 3) (#12)
by Apuleius on Thu Jul 19, 2001 at 10:12:03 PM EST

From Los Alamos to Santa Fe I pass by two casinos. From Los Alamos to Taos I pass by another two. Whenever I slow down or stop by these places I see some benign things: people who go there for the entertainment and who look okay, and of course, bored elderly folks. But I also see some not-so-nice things: bored and obviously neglected children, and antisocial gamblers, often lacking a full set of teeth, and often radiating a nasty aura. Once I saw a guy like that walking out of the OhKay casino, whom I later saw hitchhiking. I guess he bet his ride-home money. It's politically incorrect to say this, but one of these days the tribes who set these casinos up are going to bitterly regret it, when an antisocial gambler does something to someone who lives nearby. (And of these four, three are right by residential areas. Two are right by two Pueblo villages, and one is in the center of Espanola.)

On the other hand, when this happens, some of these casinos will make great convention halls. I bet they'll be available for a song. K5Con, anyone?

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)
Roulette... (5.00 / 8) (#15)
by deefer on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 05:15:04 AM EST

Excellent tale, well told.

Gambling *is* fun, that's why people do it. When I first went to a casino 3 years ago, I took 50 quid with me. Left credit cards, debit cards etc at home. I had my gambling money, and my spending money in two seperate sections of my wallet. First thing I did walking into the casino was to hold a cigarette lighter up to the cash in my hand. The money was not my rent, or food money, I was prepared to set fire to the notes. Losing it would not impact my standard of living in any way.

First time out, I came home with 75 quid. I kept my gambing stake in a little wooden coffee box. Two years later, I had my "system" on the roulette table, and I was sitting on over five hundred pounds, from visiting the casino every two months or so. I never put the cash in anything other than the wooden box - I felt if I spent it then the line between cash to burn and cash needed to live would blur.

I was the daddy of gambling, so I thought, so I started putting down bigger bets. I was in the middling ground for 6 months, I'd win some, lose some, but still had nearly six hundred pounds in my little wooden coffee box. And I was beating the system still; because I had my "system". I'm smarter than most, right?

Until the one time I lost the lot. Yep, six hundred pounds sterling, gone in about 40 minutes. I'm earning enough so that's not a big deal, and it was all profit from my original 50 pound investment in any case. But it made me radically rethink my attitude to gambling, and since then I realised you can't beat the system, you can only ever stay ahead of it for a little while.

Just don't ever have any money you can't live without on a gambling table, because sooner or later the laws of chance start working against you.

I still go to casino's every now and then, but it's lost it's appeal to me. I still pretend to burn my gambling money before I put it down, so I know that I don't need that cash. And if I go on a Saturday night it works out about the same cost as if I'd gone boozing (you're not allowed to drink booze next to a gambling table in the UK, but soft drinks are free if you're playing). And I still wake up Sunday with no cash, but less of a hangover! But I've seen too many players look like they're putting next weeks' rent down on the tables, and that isn't right. But some people have no self control, or have deluded themselves like I did that their system (be it clever spreads or a lucky rabbits foot) is the one that'll make them rich. And casinos are wolves dressed as lamb; they exist only to extract the maximum amount of cash from you as possible. If you understand this then enjoy your gambling, but don't ever let your hubris gain ascendency over common sense.

And always remember; two men can argue over anything without coming to blows, except when arguing about money.

Kill the baddies.
Get the girl.
And save the entire planet.

Make no mistake.. (4.00 / 3) (#18)
by mindstrm on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 07:29:14 AM EST

many gamblers are addicts. They cannot control the impulse to gamble. Yes, it *can* be about entertainment.. certainly. Ask around though; the number of people who think they can beat the slots with their system, even though they've been trying it for *years*, is amazing. I've watched people spend every penny they have on video-lottery-terminals... (vlt's)... or video-poker in a bar.
Casinos absolutely exist to extract money from you; it's a business. They give you comps to keep you in their casino, spending money. They treat big players like kings; but the amount they receive anually from those big players is much greater than what it costs them to do so.

In short, true gambling is only a sport for people who can't do math. (I say 'true' gambling, because, if you can count cards at blackjack, it's not quite pure gambling; same goes for a good poker player.).

Also.. those that play blackjack or poker for a living; they don't make millions generally, and they still work 8 hour days (or much longer) at their 'job'.

[ Parent ]
Funnily enough... (4.00 / 1) (#20)
by _cbj on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 09:29:13 AM EST

It was just last week there was talk (no idea by whom, or how definite) about relaxing the casino restrictions. More booze, more families, that kind of thing.

Oh, here it is: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk/newsid_1442000/1442532.stm

[ Parent ]

Croupier (4.00 / 3) (#23)
by retinaburn on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 10:10:12 AM EST

A great little movie I saw on video recently is Croupier. A struggling writer(Clive Owen) (the driver in the recent BMW Films) takes a job at a local casino, and the interesting tale unfolds.

Check it out.

I think that we are a young species that often fucks with things we don't know how to unfuck. -- Tycho

[ Parent ]
Gambling can be sad (3.25 / 4) (#16)
by Rudi V on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 07:04:55 AM EST

A couple of years ago, I made a trip through the south-west of the USA, and Las Vegas was the central point of an 8-formed loop. As a world-famous and spectacular place, the city and its casinos where on the 'must-see' list - and they are indeed overwhelming. But it also gave me a very sad feeling when seeing elderly people feeding coins to the slot-machines at 8 am - thinking of my own grand-parents. Solitary gambling as a replacement for social contact is very sad. So, when the road led me back to Vegas, I decided to spend the night at Boulder City; more expensive than staying at a casino hotel but much better for my mood.

Not a gambler (3.00 / 4) (#19)
by Lord13 on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 09:15:31 AM EST

I've never gambled in my life. I've never even bought a scratch ticket at 7-11. That being said, I find this article fascinating; please continue the series.

Has anyone ever run into someone on a "scratch-ticket-binge"? The guy(or girl) at your local party store who stands next to the cashier and buys ticket after ticket after ticket. He buys one ticket just as your walking up to pay for your beer and before your sixer is even rung up, he's scratched off his ticket and is anxiously waiting to get the next one.

I always wonder how much money this type of person will drop while standing next to a rotating hot dog oven.

Growing half a tree, water it everyday.
Let me tell you about scratch tickets (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by jcolter on Sat Jul 21, 2001 at 02:14:04 AM EST

I used to work in a "convenience" store that sold scratch of tickets. Most people would come in and spend a couple of dollars a day. Then there are the people that spend upwards of $50 a day (I know you think I'm lying).

They looked upon it as a sort of retirement policy. I not that into capitalism, but it did cross my mind on occasion that if these people put away the money they spent on gambling in reasonable investments, they actually would be rich.

People would all day come into the store asking me "what hasn't had a winner in a while". The logic being that there are a certain number of winners in each role and that by waiting around you would have a better chance of getting lucky. Of course, the amount of winners is determined by the aggregate amount of tickets issued, not per role. This was obvious to anyone that read the free handouts NY State issued with every new scratch off. The odds are very similar to slot machines (meaning you get back about 80% of what you gamble). Surprisingly most heavy gamblers seemed to think that they were about even with the state. However, I can attest to that being untrue

[ Parent ]
The Eudaemonic Pie (4.33 / 3) (#21)
by wiredog on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 09:31:56 AM EST

In paperback at Amazon, is a book about how a group of physics and computer students at, IIRC, UC Santa Cruz were able to beat roulette using embedded 6502's (again, IIRC) controlled with toe switches, with the output going to buzzers in their belt buckles. This all occurred in the late 70's. A fun and informative look at hacker culture at that time.

I was a Math/CS major in college at Southern Utah University just an hour from the casinos in Mesquite Nevada. I took a probability course where we worked out what the odds actually are. I can't remember exactly, but the casino is guaranteed something like 5% profit, over time, on the least profitable games. Some of us then went to Mesquite for some unofficial "homework". We had calculated the odds correctly.

The article mentions "card counting". This is a method whereby the player, in 21 (blackjack), remembers which cards have been played, so that he can better calculate the odds of beating the dealer. The casinos have two ways of beating this. One is multiple decks, which tremendously complicates the odds. The other is blackballing. You get caught counting cards and you get ejected. Then they tell every other casino about it and you are not allowed back into any of them, either.

When I go into a casino I take $50 to $100 with me, usually play blackjack at the $5 table, and when the money's gone, so am I. I've paid more money for worse entertainment at concerts and other places.

A final note. In Las Vegas do not play poker unless you either have lots of money, or know what you are doing. That is a game where people can earn a living playing it. Some (few) people do. They are pros who will set you up, and then take you to the cleaners. I've gotten into a couple of games after the odds were kind to me at blackjack, and it's amazing how fast a couple thousand dollars can disappear. It was fun to watch the pros at work and, like I said, more entertaining that some concerts I've paid $50 for.

Anything that's invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things

Epilogue (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by slaytanic killer on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 10:41:10 AM EST

Thanks for the link, since last I checked, the book was firmly out of print. I lent it out a bit too much. Every year or so, I hear something interesting about them, ever since I read Norman Packard's interview in OMNI.

Right now, Farmer and Packard are running the Prediction Company, in Santa Fe, NM, which attempts to use models to beat the financial markets. I think they're having an interesting time of it though, since these markets are just as self-correcting as the casinos are. Haven't read Thomas Bass' book on it, but they'd have to be forced to such a convoluted algorithm that it would be too tenuous to give high returns, or use a great deal of psychology and near-insider information.

[ Parent ]
Tourney (3.00 / 4) (#22)
by priestess on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 10:05:30 AM EST

Just a couple of weeks ago some friends and I decided to try a Poker (Hold'em) tourney at the local Casino. Just a tiny little affair with a ten quid entry and 3 buyins if your chips run out.

None of the three of us used any of those buyins, managing to keep that original stack for more than the first hour they're allowed for. Twas much fun and kept me sober for the first Friday in a good long while while costing less than I'd normally spend on booze.

What struck me was how keen all the rest of the players seemed on loosing their money. We've been playing for REALLY low stakes for ages and the betting tends to be mild between friends but as soon as you find yourself in a casino people are throwing chips at the table like it's just done a strip. Woh, god knows what it's like when you're NOT in a tourney and some people start out with a larger stack than others.

Anyway, I did okay until some guy forced me to go all-in with a pair of queens in the hole before the flop. His ace was matched in the flop and then rematched on the river. Damnit. I could've made 6000% profit if I'd won that tourney.

We figure we'll go every month or so, it's fun afterall but frankly if it starts to cost more than going to a gig then I'll probably go see a band instead.

I'm assuming parts two to four will detail your slow decent into poverty and addiction? Cool, looking forward to it.


My Mobile Phone Comic-books business
Slighty OT: Great Book about Gamling and Casinos (3.50 / 2) (#25)
by HypoLuxa on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 03:45:24 PM EST

I read Gambling Scams by Darwin Ortiz a few years ago, and it's a very interesting book that details casino odds, card counting, and cheating of every stripe and variety. It explains, with many amusing anecdotes, all of the ways players have cheated casinos, casinos have cheated players, and players have cheated each other. It also goes on to look at lotteries, carnival games and other "games of skill."

Not directly related to the story, but still a great read.

I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons.
- Leonard Cohen
Casino Oddessy, eh? Reminds me of a nice book... (2.00 / 1) (#26)
by PowerPimp on Fri Jul 20, 2001 at 07:42:27 PM EST

We were somewhere outside of Barstow, at the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold...
You'd better take care of me God; otherwise, you'll have me on your hands...
A Casino Odyssey: Part One | 27 comments (18 topical, 9 editorial, 0 hidden)
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