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Deal Me In: Anatomy of a beatdown

11 March 2016

Dear Mark: Terrific column last week, Breaking the Bank, especially the portion on Don Johnson’s take down of three Atlantic City casinos at blackjack. I was, to a certain extent, involved with the circumstance. At the time, I was a dealer at the Caesars and actually dealt to Mr. Johnson for nearly an hour. You did not mention this, but after he had beaten us out of $4 million, Caesars ended up barring him. By the way, please do not use my name as I am still working in the industry. Anonymous

This correspondence is in reference to my writing last week “In 2011, Don Johnson ‘broke the bank’ by winning approximately $6 million at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City after previously taking $5 million from the Borgata and $4 million more from Caesars. His $6 million win cut a devastating swathe through the monthly revenue of Atlantic City’s Tropicana Casino.”

Anonymous is correct in that Caesars had cut him off, and then effectively banned him from its casinos worldwide. The way I heard it play out was that a dealer at Caesars – it might be our friend here, although anonymous didn’t mention it – refused to fill the chip tray once Johnson’s earnings topped $4 million.

So, was Johnson counting cards, was the game fair and square, and can someone single-handedly lay waste to the monthly revenue of an Atlantic City casino?

As to counting cards, which is legal in Atlantic City, Johnson was not, but he was playing perfect basic strategy. With every hand scenario, Johnson knew the optimal decision to make. Then again, as I have been preaching it here in this column for 20 years, every Joe or Josephine can do the same. Except, Johnson upped his game, not by cheating, or card counting, but by hoodwinking those three Atlantic City casinos into providing incentives that mathematically tilted the game in his favor, and in a big way.

Johnson was what the industry calls a whale, a player who is plied with free meals and drinks, top-floor suites, private jets — you get my drift, the sky is the limit. Another perk for a high-roller like Johnson was negotiating special ground rules for playing blackjack. Don Johnson’s skill at obtaining these special conditions was what set him apart from your average casino visitor playing basic strategy.

Because the casino inherently values high rollers far more than the average customer, it is willing to loosen the rules, and in Johnson’s case, lessen its house edge against him.

Although I wasn’t privy to any of the negotiations, Johnson had reportedly negotiated terms with one casino that included a hand-shuffled six-deck shoe, splits and double downs allowed on up to four hands at once, and the dealer stands on a “soft 17," which, combined, reduced the house edge down to one-fourth of 1%.

Here’s the kicker! They also offered him “loss rebates.” When a casino offers a loss rebate discount of, in his case, 20%, it means that if Johnson loses $200,000 at the blackjack table, he has only to pay $160,000.

Under these conditions, Johnson was playing an evenly matched game against the house, including a 20% discount where he is but risking 80 cents of every dollar wagered. With near zero risk, and loss rebates of up to 20%, effectively you can “break the bank.”

Evidently, some suit upstairs with an unsharpened Ticonderoga #2 Soft got the arithmetic wrong, which was celebrated by this headline in The Press of Atlantic City: “Blackjack Player Takes Tropicana for Nearly $6 million, Single-Handedly Ruins Casino’s Month.”


Gambling Wisdom of the Week: “All casino strategy is designed to chloroform the human lollipops so they can be separated from their money as painlessly as possible.” – Lyle Stuart, Winning at Casino Gambling
Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.