Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Against All Odds

So have you ever heard of a guy named Don Johnson? No, not the overly-tan, frosted-hair, pretty boy from Miami Vice fame. I'm talking about Don Johnson, the blackjack player. I didn't think so. And neither had Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino. Ditto for the Borgata and Caesars. But they all know who he is now. In fact, Mr. Johnson is now reportedly banned from all Caesers's locations worldwide, and only the Tropicana is (tepidly) welcoming his patronage. So what did he do to draw such ire from Atlantic City casinos? Well, he won. A lot.

Over the course of about six months last year, Johnson took The Tropicana for $6 million, the Borgata for $5 million, and Caesars for $4 million. Each jackpot was won exclusively at the blackjack table, and in a single sitting. So if you are keeping score at home, that's $15 million dollars in three nights. Are you kidding me?! Most households don't make that in a year. So how did he do it?

Whenever somebody takes a casino for a large jackpot, which is rare, they are typically cheating, or improbably lucky. Cheating, at least that's what the casinos call it, takes the form of card counting. As impossible as it may seem, there are people who can keep track of every card that has been dealt out of the eight decks usually in play at a blackjack table. Once there are only a few cards left, the counter knows which cards remain. A partner who can really play then uses this knowledge to step in and win the big hand. Just like Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man. But Johnson plays solo, and unlike Tom Cruise who is like two feet tall, he is a big burly guy, usually attired in an Oregon State hoodie. And while you might get lucky once in a while, they don't build those big casinos and hotels by handing people money. No, Johnson came up with a third way.

He's what you call a "high roller". In addition to being an excellent - some say perfect - blackjack player, he loves to gamble and had a lot of money before his big wins. Casinos rely on these high stakes players to come and wager huge amounts of money at their establishments. They buy them drinks, give them complimentary rooms, and even flights on private jets. They still very much lose their shirts, but they feel like royalty while doing so, and come back often. Johnson doesn't do any of that. Instead, he took his perks in the form of the loosening of the rules afforded to only the highest of high rollers. That's right, he convinced the casinos to move the odds a little less in their favor, in exchange for him betting sums of up to $100,000 per hand.

If you were unaware, each casino sets its own subtle rules on each game to determine the advantage the house enjoys. So while they vary from place to place, blackjack hands usually break out with the house winning 48%, the player 44%, and a tie 8% of the time. So you might win here and there, but over enough time, the casino is going to take you for 4% of everything you spend, in exchange for some cheap booze and a ride in a plane they've paid for with your money. But subtle changes in the rules, like using only six decks or letting the player split their hand multiple times, create tiny reductions in this advantage. Over the course of a few weeks, Johnson negotiated an arrangement that greatly improved the chances of a truly great player - with a ton of money to risk - to possibly win a bundle. And word has it that he's since been seen partying with the likes of Bon Jovi, the cast of Entourage, Charlie Sheen (remember him?), and even hosted a birthday party for Pamela Anderson. Well, I guess you can't buy class, but he's got enough money now to buy just about anything else.

Of course you don't have to win $15 million to enjoy yourself in Atlantic City. A timeshare rental at Atlantic Palace puts you right in the heart of the casino district, as well as steps away from the famous boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean. When the weather is warm, there is so much to see and do outside in the greater Atlantic City area that you may never see the inside of a casino. Plus there are great shows and fabulous restaurants to choose from. RedWeek members rate this resort 4-stars and in-season rentals are available for as little as $125/night.

Speaking of gambling, I've gotta run and check on my bracket. No not the NCCA basketball tourney (that's so played). I'm talking Beard Madness. I've got the abolitionist John Brown in a very tough seating against Abraham Lincoln. Of course Karl Marx looks strong, and Confucius is always a force to be reckoned with.

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