March 16, 2012

GOOD WORK, IF YOU CAN GET IT:

The Man Who Broke Atlantic City: Don Johnson won nearly $6 million playing blackjack in one night, single-handedly decimating the monthly revenue of Atlantic City's Tropicana casino. Not long before that, he'd taken the Borgata for $5 million and Caesars for $4 million. Here's how he did it. (MARK BOWDEN, April 2012, Atlantic)

DON JOHNSON FINDS IT HARD to remember the exact cards. Who could? At the height of his 12-hour blitz of the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last April, he was playing a hand of blackjack nearly every minute.

Dozens of spectators pressed against the glass of the high-roller pit. Inside, playing at a green-felt table opposite a black-vested dealer, a burly middle-aged man in a red cap and black Oregon State hoodie was wagering $100,000 a hand. Word spreads when the betting is that big. Johnson was on an amazing streak. The towers of chips stacked in front of him formed a colorful miniature skyline. His winning run had been picked up by the casino's watchful overhead cameras and drawn the close scrutiny of the pit bosses. In just one hand, he remembers, he won $800,000. In a three-hand sequence, he took $1.2 million.

The basics of blackjack are simple. Almost everyone knows them. You play against the house. Two cards are placed faceup before the player, and two more cards, one down, one up, before the dealer. A card's suit doesn't matter, only its numerical value--each face card is worth 10, and an ace can be either a one or an 11. The goal is to get to 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. Scanning the cards on the table before him, the player can either stand or keep taking cards in an effort to approach 21. Since the house's hand has one card facedown, the player can't know exactly what the hand is, which is what makes this a game.

As Johnson remembers it, the $800,000 hand started with him betting $100,000 and being dealt two eights. If a player is dealt two of a kind, he can choose to "split" the hand, which means he can play each of the cards as a separate hand and ask for two more cards, in effect doubling his bet. That's what Johnson did. His next two cards, surprisingly, were also both eights, so he split each again. Getting four cards of the same number in a row doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Johnson says he was once dealt six consecutive aces at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. He was now playing four hands, each consisting of a single eight-card, with $400,000 in the balance.

He was neither nervous nor excited. Johnson plays a long game, so the ups and downs of individual hands, even big swings like this one, don't matter that much to him. He is a veteran player. Little interferes with his concentration. He doesn't get rattled. With him, it's all about the math, and he knows it cold. Whenever the racily clad cocktail waitress wandered in with a fresh whiskey and Diet Coke, he took it from the tray.

The house's hand showed an upturned five. Arrayed on the table before him were the four eights. He was allowed to double down--to double his bet--on any hand, so when he was dealt a three on the first of his hands, he doubled his bet on that one, to $200,000. When his second hand was dealt a two, he doubled down on that, too. When he was dealt a three and a two on the next two hands, he says, he doubled down on those, for a total wager of $800,000.

It was the dealer's turn. He drew a 10, so the two cards he was showing totaled 15. Johnson called the game--in essence, betting that the dealer's down card was a seven or higher, which would push his hand over 21. This was a good bet: since all face cards are worth 10, the deck holds more high cards than low. When the dealer turned over the house's down card, it was a 10, busting him. Johnson won all four hands.

Johnson didn't celebrate. He didn't even pause. As another skyscraper of chips was pushed into his skyline, he signaled for the next hand. He was just getting started.
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Posted by at March 16, 2012 6:02 AM
  

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