🔥 The Man Who Broke Atlantic City - The Atlantic

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Don Johnson won nearly $6 million playing blackjack in one night, Not long before that, he'd taken the Borgata for $5 million and to host a tournament—but its management isn't about to offer him the same terms again.


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About a decade ago, he founded a business that does computer-assisted wagering on horses. 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. The last thing a skilled player wants is a big reputation. Hard times do not favor the house. Pennsylvania is likely to supplant New Jersey this year as the second-largest gaming state in the nation. Who could? So it was no longer worth his while to play there.{/INSERTKEYS}{/PARAGRAPH} The first and most obvious suspicion was card counting. 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. But the vast majority of players lose, and the longer they play, the more they lose. What gives Johnson his edge is his knowledge of the gaming industry. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. The marketers present casinos as glamorous playgrounds where workaday worries and things like morality, sobriety, and prudence are on holiday. The goal is to get to 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. Dozens of spectators pressed against the glass of the high-roller pit. In his best years as a professional jockey, he was practically skeletal. High rollers are lured with free meals and drinks, free luxury suites, free rides on private jets, and … more. It was a growth industry. In most states but not New Jersey , known practitioners are banned. How did he do it? Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. But even though he has been around the gambling industry for all of his 49 years, Johnson snuck up on Atlantic City. When his second hand was dealt a two, he doubled down on that, too. But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. For one thing, he is an extraordinarily skilled blackjack player. 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. Fifteen million dollars in winnings from three different casinos? He stood 6 foot 1 and weighed only pounds. Johnson says he was once dealt six consecutive aces at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. When this happened to Johnson, he knew the ground rules had skewed against him. By late , the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent. 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. The new Parx racetrack and casino in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, a gigantic gambling complex, is less than 80 miles away from the Atlantic City boardwalk. Word spreads when the betting is that big. He had beaten the casinos fair and square. 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. All of these gambling houses were already hurting, what with the spread of legalized gambling in surrounding states. To look at him, over six feet tall and thickly built, you would never guess that he was once a jockey. The way averages work, the larger the sample, the narrower the range of variation. The wagering of card counters assumes a clearly recognizable pattern over time, and Johnson was being watched very carefully. He has served as a state regulator in Oregon, Idaho, Texas, and Wyoming. He was neither nervous nor excited. Two cards are placed faceup before the player, and two more cards, one down, one up, before the dealer. Johnson was in charge of day-to-day operations, including the betting operation. Whenever the racily clad cocktail waitress wandered in with a fresh whiskey and Diet Coke, he took it from the tray. D espite his pedestrian attire , Don Johnson is no average Joe. 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. Johnson had not played a game at the Borgata in more than a year. Many casinos sell laminated charts in their guest shops that reveal the optimal strategy for any situation the game presents. It seemed a fantasy come true, the very dream that draws suckers to the gaming tables. But the story was even bigger than that. As good as he is at playing cards, he turns out to be even better at playing the casinos. The towers of chips stacked in front of him formed a colorful miniature skyline. A session of, say, hands will display wider swings, with steeper winning and losing streaks, than the standard casino charts. It hurt. Little interferes with his concentration. He does not just walk into a casino and start playing, which is what roughly 99 percent of customers do. The way any discount works, you have to lose a certain amount to capitalize on it. 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. He was just getting started. More useful, for his purposes, is running a smaller number of hands and paying attention to variation. The basics of blackjack are simple. {PARAGRAPH}{INSERTKEYS}D on Johnson finds it hard to remember the exact cards. You play against the house. He is a veteran player. Some wear disguises when they play. Nobody gets that lucky. By April, combined monthly gaming revenue had been declining on a year-over-year basis for 32 months. They negotiate. For the casino, the art is in telling the skilled whales from the unskilled ones, then discouraging the former and seducing the latter. A tlantic City did know who Johnson was. For Johnson, the game began before he ever set foot in the casino. 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. 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 player still loses. The tactic requires both great memory and superior math skills. Almost everyone knows them. Caesars had cut him off, he says, and then effectively banned him from its casinos worldwide. 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. But he was not considered good enough to discourage or avoid. An ordinary guy in a red cap and black hoodie had struck it rich, had beaten the casinos black-and-blue. When casinos started getting desperate, Johnson was perfectly poised to take advantage of them. 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. For most people, though, the newspaper headline told a happy story. Johnson was on an amazing streak. Made famous in books and movies, card counting is considered cheating, at least by casinos. Arrayed on the table before him were the four eights. He started to learn a lot about gambling. The regimen was so demanding that he eventually had to give it up. 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:. Johnson won all four hands. He had been trying to figure out its blackjack game for years but had never been able to win big. As another skyscraper of chips was pushed into his skyline, he signaled for the next hand. Compared with horse racing, the odds in blackjack are fairly straightforward to calculate. The industry pays close attention to high-level players; once a player earns a reputation for winning, the courtship ends. He was the only Atlantic City casino executive who agreed to talk to me about Johnson.