We begin to realize what we've stepped in
The casino fairy-tale jumped the shark for me in mid 1999 at the New
Palace casino in Biloxi. The Old Palace had gone bankrupt and the New
owners were offering a pretty good game to lure people in. Y was
playing aggressively, figuring to get in as much play as possible before
getting the inevitable boot. The count was going up and the dealer
could do no wrong.
Across the table was a guy in his mid-50's. He was overweight, and
nursing both a beer and a cigar. I wasn't betting, and neither was
the guy's wife. I was doing the act I usually do while watching Y
lose big. "I've seen this movie before. Hey, could you get me a
waitress? Now I really need a drink." Across the table the guy
with the beer and cigar was betting several hundred bucks a hand and
losing almost as quickly as Y. After a disastrous hand in which both
players lost multiple splits and doubles, the wife met my gaze, shook
her head just a bit, and rolled her eyes.
There was just one problem with this moment of shared suffering; I
was an imposter. The $20,000 Y lost on this shoe was meaningless,
because it would be offset by $22,000 won somewhere else in short
order. But the guy with the cigar and the beer and the sunken
features was cruising toward destruction. He might already be
playing with money he couldn't afford to lose; and if he wasn't, he
would be eventually. That's the real movie I'd seen before, too
Y likes to make the point that gambling is the worst form of addiction,
because there is a limit to how much coke or heroin you can
put into yourself but there is no limit to how much money you
can piss away in a casino. The same place that takes your money
on average ten cents a hand at the $5 table will happily arrange
to take it $100 a hand at a private, ten thousand dollar minimum
table opened just for you.
Casinos "work" (in the sense that they are effective tools for separating
customers from their money) by exploiting two universal human misperceptions.
The first of these is a tendency to perceive patterns in randomness.
The cruel losing streak with which I began my gambling career was no
deliberate taunt by god or evidence of crooked games;
it was a perfectly ordinary run
of random numbers. As Knuth wrote with regard to random number generators,
if your RNG can't pump out a string of 20 zeroes then it really isn't
random. That is a perfectly valid result which must happen just as
often as any other arbitrary string of 20 results. But when it happens,
we don't think "hmmm, that is a perfectly valid if unusual result."
We think the game is fixed or biased, and if we're gambling we might smirk and
place a bet.
The second misperception has to do with the house edge. It seems so
reasonable, just a few percent tax to pay the dealer and build the
casino. But most of us think of that percentage with regard to the
drop rather than action. The typical 25-cent slot
or $5 blackjack player thinks of the $100 he's bought in for, not of the
thousands upon thousands of dollars in individual bets he can make
before losing that stake. The exponential nature of the math turns
that tiny percentage into an all-devouring black hole, which can
eat the world a nibble at a time.
The people who run casinos know this. This is why they are so paranoid about card counters. The
truth is that most card counters lose. They either don't play
perfectly, they piss their winnings away at other games like Craps
where they don't have an edge, or they are underfunded. Casinos spend
far more in detection, tracking, and harrassment than they would ever
lose if they just let counters play. But card counters take away
their sacred edge, faith in which is the backbone of the entire
If we have noticed the depressing tendency of green and black chippers
to suddenly stop coming around, it's hard to imagine that the casino
personnel who track their play are unaware of it. When you are a low
roller, the fellow who shakes your hand and remembers your preference
in beer and writes you the occasional buffet comp seems like any other
service employee. When you are a high roller he seems like a source
of redemption, offsetting your losses with a nice dinner and tickets
to the fight. When you are outside the system and as familiar with it
as we are, you realize he is the worst sort of vampire. Behind the
glitz and the chance to win is a snaggle-fanged monster
ready to cast you aside as soon as it has sucked you dry.
Newbies are often amazed at the hypocrisy of casinos vis-a-vis their
treatment of card counters. "You mean they kick you out just
because you used your BRAIN?" Yes, they do. Because when you
reach into their game and seize their edge, you become the
monster with all its mighty stealth and power. The local
swings of variance become your ally, masking the slow steady
trickle of their wealth into your hands. They know exactly what
the edge does, exactly how variance masks its effect until it's
too late, and it puts the fear of God into them to find you have
it instead of them.
We began to wonder about the gladhanding suits who congratulated us
on our wins and sympathized with our losses and plied us with food
and free airfare and jacuzzi suites. How do they sleep at night?
As they shake your hand and check your action in the computer
they are sizing you up, wondering what it will take to bring you
back. No doubt wondering how long you'll last. They are more likely
than anyone to be able to foresee the
broken family, the busted business, the jail time, the suicide that
might be in your future. There is only one word to describe the kind
of person that can shake your hand and smile in the face of such
understanding, and that word is evil.
Flatness of Aspect
None of us gambles any more recreationally. In 1999 I had my
first official losing year; we were scheduling our visits to casinoland
around Y's card counting, instead of opportunities for me to get
low-level advantage play. And as X's aggregate win crept toward the
million dollar mark, regular play lost its appeal. We could see with
great clarity how meaningless a fifty-thousand dollar swing was
in the face of a percentage edge. It no longer felt like a fun thing
to let the casino do that to us, even for chump change.
X doesn't even play much Blackjack any more, and claims he has been cured of his
gambling addiction. The action is no longer exciting; the short-term
wins elicit no feeling of triumph, the short-term losses no sense of
doom. Counting itself is simple and unchallenging; X and Y can both
walk past a table full of dealt cards and mutter "plus six" without even
thinking about it. It's just practice.
The logistical problems of running his team and managing the bankroll
have taken up much of his time. The exciting game of cat-and-mouse
has turned into a job, with the unusual caveat that you get fired for
doing it too well.
Y has vowed to play as long as possible despite increasing
difficulties. "I'm gonna get everything from those vampires
I can." Most of X's other players have expressed similar sentiments.
The greatest obstacles to continued play ironically don't involve the
great expense put by casinos into surveillance and detection; they have
been erected by the Government. Anti-money-laundering laws require the
casino to fill out paperwork whenever more than $10,000 in cash
changes hands; and while it's legal to lie to a casino about who
you are it's not legal to put false information on a CTR. At the level
X plays $10,000 can change hands very quickly, and X and his players
are sensibly unwilling to commit felonies to keep playing. This makes
too easy for the casino to cross-reference your information and learn
that you're the guy who was barred on swing shift two weeks ago.
Card counters have to deal in cash because you can't use the casino
credit system without revealing your true identity either. But
draconian forfeiture laws make it dangerous to carry around large
amounts of cash. At the airport and at the traffic stop it makes
you a drug dealer until proven otherwise. Ex-team member B had
$24,000 stolen from him by a local police department in North Carolina.
Try proving that you won your money at the casino sometime.
The Company We Keep
You'd think the casinos would welcome the push to marginalize cash
and help identify their patrons, but they've accommodated the CTR
requirements as late and grudgingly as possible. The reason is
that a lot of their patrons are drug dealers.
And organized criminals. And embezzlers. The casino really doesn't
want to know where the money came from, any more than they want to
know what happens to you once they've extracted it from you.
We spent a few hours in Caesar's Palace on New Year's Eve 1999. Many
of the tables required minimum bets of five hundred dollars,
and minimums of less than $100 were not to be found. And the place was
packed. There were lots of Italian gentlemen, some of whom spoke little
or no English. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese gentlemen,
ditto. They were throwing orange ($1,000) chips around like Mardi
Gras doubloons and having a grand old time. And the usual opening
questions of casual casino table conversation, "Where are you from" and
"What do you do" were not to be heard.
(Y did make the mistake of asking one Chinese gentlman who was betting
about our level where he was from. After several seconds of hard
thought, he answered "carriphonia," or something like that.)
There was some worry that terrorists would strike Las Vegas on that
evening. If they had blown up Caesar's, they would have solved the
international organized crime problem in one swell foop.
This has all worked in our favor. The fact that we keep returning and
playing at these levels after more than three years is highly suspicious.
The casinos know we are lying about the money coming from "my business,"
but they let us play because they don't care that the money might be
stolen or earned selling smack to kids. They only start caring who
we are when they begin to suspect we won the money from them.
Through the Looking Glass, Backward
We have a lot of photographs of ourselves in suites most people only
see in movies, dining on five-star meals amongst the Picassos and
Renoirs, and holding big fake checks. We have a lot more money.
And we have seen the darkest side of human nature. We have seen men
smile and feign friendship even as they are sharpening knives
for the slaughter. We have become familiar with the faintly bewildered
expression of the busted-out loser as he staggers back to the real
world. We have looked into his eyes and turned away, because it takes
too long to explain, it's too late, and he wouldn't believe us
This is the story I want to tell my other friends, the people I work
with, and the random folks I see entering casinos. It's not what
it looks like, I want to tell them. But it's like trying to describe
nausea. It's like describing the feeling when you stick your hand into
a dark space and find some rotting maggot-ridden
dead thing. We actually went there.
We overcame obstacles whose height we never realized,
and we didn't understand how rare a thing that was. For years we
won and I thought the casinos were just wonderful and I told so
many hundreds of people that they were. And all the time I had
When the long-suffering
wife shot me a sympathetic glance, and I responded in kind, for one
brief awful moment I was the gladhanding sack of shit. In
that moment I knew. But how do you
put such an awful feeling into words?
Sometimes, foolishly, I do try to tell them.
But not often. Because
I had such great luck the other night, I hit four hundred quarters,
I split tens and drew two aces and I just KNEW the dealer was going to
bust and you know the seven is coming when the dice go off the table
and I never start with full coin, you have to see how a machine is going
before you commit, it's not gambling when you count, I'm down twelve,
how do you remember all those cards, that shooter was so hot the dice
were on fire and we cleaned the table out of green chips and the machine
never hits if you use the buttons to spin the reels and wow that's
wonderful how you've won so much. But I really just like to play the slots.