Elsewhere on the site we’ve written a piece about players who have cheated the casinos, whether by using elaborate devices that can predict the speed and drop of the ball on the roulette table or by using a technique called ‘edge-sorting’. The examples we spoke about there required a degree of nefarious play, either misleading or intentionally cheating the casinos in order to walk away with their money when the players probably wouldn’t have done if they’d played by the same rules as everyone else.
Here we’re looking at the stories of the people who took on the casinos fairly and squarely, coming away with enough money to make it a story worth telling. Only, that’s not entirely true. The first example we’ll look at is the story of the MIT Blackjack Team, which some feel is not an example of a group of people who did things fairly. Counting cards isn’t illegal in casinos but the managers will ask you to leave if they think you’re doing it. The only time it tips over into being against the rules is if you do it with an accomplice, so is it right to feature the MIT Team in this piece? That’s a matter of personal opinion, really.
The Story of the MIT Blackjack Team
Let’s start by taking a quick look at the tale of how the MIT Blackjack Team took on the casinos. It all began in the 1970s when a man named Bill Kaplan went to Las Vegas with $1,000 in his pocket and turned it into around $35,000 over the course of nine months. He did so using a card counting system that he’d read about in a book and then worked hard to perfect.
Fast forward to 1980 and J. P. Massar overheard Kaplan talking to someone about his Vegas exploits in a Chinese restaurant. Massar had already formed a card-counting school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and believed that working with Kaplan could take their work to another level. Kaplan saw that Massar’s group had promise but that the players used different methods of counting cards, with some of them being overly complex.
When the group returned to MIT Kaplan agreed to help the team, but only if it was done an official level as a business. He wanted to formalise the card counting system that those involved used, as well as having a strict policy when it came to training and the recruitment of players. It was so official that they even had prospectuses made up to recruit initial investors.
The team continued to develop and grow throughout the 1980s, with up to seventy players involved between 1979 and 1989. It was the formation of Strategic Investments, a Massachusetts Limited Partnership, in 1992 that truly saw the team develop to the point that it would later grab the attention of Hollywood. The company was formed in order to take advantage of the opening of a new casino in Connecticut, which they thought would be a good place to train players into their system.
Kaplan and Massar worked with a maths professor named Edward Thorp, using a high-low system that required a big player, a spotter and a controller. The spotter’s job was to do the count and signal to the big player when he should place a large bet because the cards had turned in his favour, whilst the controller constantly placed small bets to double-check the spotter’s count. In the two years that followed, the MIT Blackjack Team grew to include nearly eighty players based around the country.
The system created and the use of Strategic Investments meant that thirty different players could be in action at any one time, playing in casinos all around the world. Obviously the more that team won, the more suspicious casinos began to grow and soon members of the Team were banned from casinos everywhere. As a result, Strategic Investments was dissolved on the 31st of December 1993, having made millions.
That didn’t exactly spell the end of the MIT Blackjack Team, however. Those that wanted to continue playing split into two separate teams and carried on their own battles with the casinos. Semyon Dukach and a few of the players became known as The Amphibians, whilst Mike Aponte, Manlio Lopez and Wes Atamian create The Reptiles. They continued to play until the turn of the millennium, at which point they drifted off in the search of their own pursuits. Were they a group of people who beat the casinos fairly? That’s for you to decide.
Don Johnson Takes On Atlantic City
Say the name ‘Don Johnson’ to most people and they’ll immediately think of the actor who played James “Sonny” Crockett in Miami Vice, the TV show of the 1980s. Few people will know about the former jockey-cum-racetrack manager of the same name. One set of people that will know his name very well, however, is the group of casino managers and bosses that allowed him to take close to $15 million in a matter of days.
In order to understand how he did it, you first need to know about the state of the casino business in Atlantic City during the noughties. During the latter part of the decade the place many consider to be gambling’s second home in America after Las Vegas went through a real downturn, with nearly half of the casinos closing and a 50% drop in revenue hitting the venues. The result was that by 2010 they were getting more and more desperate to encourage high-rollers to turn up and spend their money on the casino floors.
To most of us, the world of the high-rollers is one that we’ll never get to experience. Casinos know that a visit from a particularly unlucky high-roller, who will gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars in exchange for trips on private jets and being put up in expensive suits, can be the difference between them posting net wins or losses for their casino floors for a month. The other thing that high-rollers get as incentives, apart from luxury suites and private transfers, is a discount on their losses and that’s where our story really needs to start.
In 2010 the Atlantic City casinos wanted to snag themselves a ‘whale’, as they call the high-rollers, in order to ensure that they kept their heads above the water. The result of this was that the incentives that they were offering these high-rollers were seemingly getting more and more desperate. Johnson had spent some time trying to figure out how to get the better of the Borgata in Atlantic City but had failed, losing enough money to mean that the casino considered him to be a potential whale. When he hadn’t been in to see them for more than year, the Borgata’s marketers got in touch to see if they could entice him back.
To accomplish this they offered to reduce the house’s edge to make it more like a 50/50 game of chance than it usually was. They also offered to increase Johnson’s discount from 10% to 20%, meaning that if he lost $500,000 he would only need to actually pay them $400,000. Having spent much of the previous decade working as the betting operations manager for the casino at Philadelphia Park, he had learned exactly how the betting industry worked and had figured out what would need to happen for the odds to shift in his favour. That’s exactly what had happened when the Borgata called and he negotiated with them. As soon as they found out that the Borgata had got him on board, the Tropicana and Caesars both got in touch and offered him a similar deal.
All of that meant that Johnson felt as though he could sit down at the blackjack table and be braver than he would have been otherwise. There was also the fact that although the casinos knew him they didn’t know him well enough to have a profile on him as they did for most high-rollers. They have algorithmic computer models that can tell them how much they can expect to win or lose, but they didn’t have that information for Johnson and so they were happy to let him play hands worth $100,000 each.
At one point he was dealt two 8s, which he decided to split, receiving another two 8s that he split again. That meant he had four hands worth $100,000 each in play. He was dealt a 3 on hand one, a 2 on hand two and, remarkably, a 3 and a 2 on hands three and four. The dealer’s upwards facing card was a 5, so Johnson doubled-down on all four of his hands for a total amount of $800,000 in play. When the dealer drew a 10, Johnson decided to call the game, meaning that he’d draw no further cards and hope that the dealer went bust. The dealer drew a 10, giving him a total of 25 and busting him out of the game.
It was through this combination of luck, maths and good judgement that Johnson went on to take the Tropicana for around $6 million in one night, having also taken the Borgata for $5 million and Caesars for $4 million. Unsurprisingly, the majority of casinos in Atlantic City decided he wasn’t welcome there, with the eyebrow-raising exception to that coming in the form of the Tropicana. Indeed, they invited him to host a tournament for them, in spite of the fact that he took another $2 million from them at a later date. The big difference now is that the edge they give him isn’t quite so favourable.
Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo Watches The Roulette Wheel
Many people believed that wheel bias was a real thing, which meant that not all roulette wheels were created equal. Instead, they all had biases in areas like the size of the pockets the ball would fall into, the way the gears of the wheels worked and other such things. Despite believing it to be the case, though, no one had ever really bothered to try to take the casinos on by using these biases to their advantage; until Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo came along, that is.
He began his gambling life by spending hours and hours watching a roulette wheel in his native Spain, making a note of the results and interring them into a computer programme in order to analyse them. His analysis allowed him to ensure that the house edge of 5% was not only eviscerated but actually swung to be a 15% edge to the player.
The result was that he and his family, who helped him with the recording of data and the betting, banned him from playing. Soon they were banned from every casino in Spain, so they moved to Las Vegas. By the time they were banned from there too, they had taken the casinos for about $1.5 million, all by realising that roulette wheels were as imperfect as everything else made by a human.
The Man With The Golden Arm
Not everyone believes that ‘controlled shooting’ in craps is possible, but Dominic LoRiggio certainly does. The idea behind it is that you hold the dice in a certain way, grip them and then throw them so that they they land exactly as you need them to when you need them to whilst playing the game of craps. ‘The Dominator’, to give LoRiggio one of his nicknames, joined a group of other players who believed in the ability to control the die during the throw in a group called Rosebud, who spent thousands of hours practicing their tossing until they felt they had perfected it.
One of Rosebud’s rules was that they bet in a conservative manner, which was something that eventually let LoRiggio to go out on his own as he felt that they were holding him back from earning a decent amount of money. The method of throwing the die so that they rest gently on the back wall of the craps table is not illegal, so the money that he won was his to keep without any questions being asked. Yet if casinos suspect gamblers of controlling the die then they can take measures to stop them, including asking them to throw the die in different ways. As a result, the Man With The Golden Arm now makes more money teaching others his techniques than he does by taking on the casinos.