🖐 The Man Who Broke Atlantic City - The Atlantic

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The Days that Saw Archie Karas turn $50 into $40M

The wagering of card counters assumes a clearly recognizable pattern over time, and Johnson was being watched very carefully. Hard times do not favor the house. Caesars had cut him off, he says, and then effectively banned him from its casinos worldwide. Johnson was in charge of day-to-day operations, including the betting operation. High rollers are lured with free meals and drinks, free luxury suites, free rides on private jets, and … more. For most people, though, the newspaper headline told a happy story. The headline in The Press of Atlantic City was enough to gladden the heart of anyone who has ever made a wager or rooted for the underdog:. They negotiate. The goal is to get to 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. By late , the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent. The first and most obvious suspicion was card counting. To look at him, over six feet tall and thickly built, you would never guess that he was once a jockey. In his best years as a professional jockey, he was practically skeletal. Arrayed on the table before him were the four eights. When his second hand was dealt a two, he doubled down on that, too. D espite his pedestrian attire , Don Johnson is no average Joe. By April, combined monthly gaming revenue had been declining on a year-over-year basis for 32 months. He started to learn a lot about gambling. You play against the house. But the vast majority of players lose, and the longer they play, the more they lose. He stood 6 foot 1 and weighed only pounds. When this happened to Johnson, he knew the ground rules had skewed against him. He had beaten the casinos fair and square. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. As another skyscraper of chips was pushed into his skyline, he signaled for the next hand. When revenues slump, casinos must rely more heavily on their most prized customers, the high rollers who wager huge amounts—tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars a hand. The tactic requires both great memory and superior math skills. Many casinos sell laminated charts in their guest shops that reveal the optimal strategy for any situation the game presents. He had been trying to figure out its blackjack game for years but had never been able to win big. A session of, say, hands will display wider swings, with steeper winning and losing streaks, than the standard casino charts. But he was not considered good enough to discourage or avoid. Pennsylvania is likely to supplant New Jersey this year as the second-largest gaming state in the nation. Johnson won all four hands. But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. Fifteen million dollars in winnings from three different casinos? He was neither nervous nor excited. He worked with a physician to keep weight off, fighting his natural growth rate with thyroid medication that amped up his metabolism and subsisting on vitamin supplements. More useful, for his purposes, is running a smaller number of hands and paying attention to variation. He was just getting started. The software his company employs analyzes more data than an ordinary handicapper will see in a thousand lifetimes, and defines risk to a degree that was impossible just five years ago. It hurt. Nobody gets that lucky. Johnson was on an amazing streak. When you add gaming tables or slots at a fancy new venue like Revel, or like the Borgata, which opened in , the novelty may initially draw crowds, but adding gaming supply without enlarging the number of customers ultimately hurts everyone. The way averages work, the larger the sample, the narrower the range of variation. But the story was even bigger than that. He is a veteran player. He drew a 10, so the two cards he was showing totaled This was a good bet: since all face cards are worth 10, the deck holds more high cards than low. He was the only Atlantic City casino executive who agreed to talk to me about Johnson. He does not just walk into a casino and start playing, which is what roughly 99 percent of customers do. Johnson says he was once dealt six consecutive aces at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Word spreads when the betting is that big. It was a growth industry. Two cards are placed faceup before the player, and two more cards, one down, one up, before the dealer. How did he do it? All of these gambling houses were already hurting, what with the spread of legalized gambling in surrounding states. The player still loses. At the height of his hour blitz of the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last April, he was playing a hand of blackjack nearly every minute. As good as he is at playing cards, he turns out to be even better at playing the casinos. Compared with horse racing, the odds in blackjack are fairly straightforward to calculate. The marketers present casinos as glamorous playgrounds where workaday worries and things like morality, sobriety, and prudence are on holiday. For Johnson, the game began before he ever set foot in the casino. The way any discount works, you have to lose a certain amount to capitalize on it. Whenever the racily clad cocktail waitress wandered in with a fresh whiskey and Diet Coke, he took it from the tray. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. What gives Johnson his edge is his knowledge of the gaming industry. In most states but not New Jersey , known practitioners are banned. It seemed a fantasy come true, the very dream that draws suckers to the gaming tables. Scanning the cards on the table before him, the player can either stand or keep taking cards in an effort to approach His next two cards, surprisingly, were also both eights, so he split each again. An ordinary guy in a red cap and black hoodie had struck it rich, had beaten the casinos black-and-blue. So it was no longer worth his while to play there.{/INSERTKEYS}{/PARAGRAPH} Made famous in books and movies, card counting is considered cheating, at least by casinos. Card counters seek to gain a strong advantage by keeping a mental tally of every card dealt, and then adjusting the wager according to the value of the cards that remain in the deck. When casinos started getting desperate, Johnson was perfectly poised to take advantage of them. {PARAGRAPH}{INSERTKEYS}D on Johnson finds it hard to remember the exact cards. Johnson had not played a game at the Borgata in more than a year. Almost everyone knows them. About a decade ago, he founded a business that does computer-assisted wagering on horses. For the casino, the art is in telling the skilled whales from the unskilled ones, then discouraging the former and seducing the latter. The last thing a skilled player wants is a big reputation. Beyond the usual high-roller perks, the casino might also sweeten the deal by staking the player a significant amount up front, offering thousands of dollars in free chips, just to get the ball rolling. Some wear disguises when they play. The basics of blackjack are simple. Dozens of spectators pressed against the glass of the high-roller pit. The new Parx racetrack and casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a gigantic gambling complex, is less than 80 miles away from the Atlantic City boardwalk. He has served as a state regulator in Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming. The industry pays close attention to high-level players; once a player earns a reputation for winning, the courtship ends. Little interferes with his concentration. The regimen was so demanding that he eventually had to give it up. He had the money to wager big, he had the skill to win, and he did not have enough of a reputation for the casinos to be wary of him. Who could? His body quickly assumed more normal proportions, and he went to work helping manage racetracks, a career that brought him to Philadelphia when he was about He was hired to manage Philadelphia Park, the track that evolved into the Parx casino, in Bensalem, where he lives today. For one thing, he is an extraordinarily skilled blackjack player. The towers of chips stacked in front of him formed a colorful miniature skyline. But even though he has been around the gambling industry for all of his 49 years, Johnson snuck up on Atlantic City. A tlantic City did know who Johnson was.