May 24, 2011 -- There's lucky, very lucky, and then there's hoooooo-boy. Between December and April, a gambler named Don Johnson, playing single blackjack hands of up to $100,000, reportedly walked away from Atlantic City's tables with a cool $15 million.
From the Tropicana he took $6 million; from the Borgata, $5 million. Caesar's he let off easy, taking only $4 million. How'd he do it? Was it divine intervention, card-counting or an epic run of good luck?
Johnson isn't saying. He admits to having had to take some losses along the way. In what may turn out to be an unfortunate choice of phrase, he told a reporter for The Press of Atlantic City, "I don't wear Kevlar. I'm not bulletproof."
The 49-year-old resident of Bensalem, Pa., said in the same interview that he began playing blackjack 15 years ago, starting with $25 bets. Today he's a professional gambler of sorts: chief executive officer of Heritage Development LLC, which develops computer-assisted wagering systems for horseracing. His prowess in blackjack, he says, has gotten him banned from some casinos.
Johnson insists that he's no cheater: that all his Atlantic City winnings came to him fair and square. Though he refuses to divulge the system he uses, it depends in part on his having a big enough bankroll to sustain losses and keep right on going. "If you can take the swings," he told the Atlantic City paper, "You're going to win. You also have to understand the math."
By that he likely means card-counting, which is not illegal: A blackjack player with a trained memory and enough acuity can keep track of which cards have been played and which are still in the deck, thereby maximizing his chances for beating the house.
Explains Richard, a former card counter who today works on Wall Street (and who asks that his last name not be used), "As the composition of the cards in the deck fluctuates, the player's advantage fluctuates. When he knows he has the advantage, he bets higher. When he knows the advantage has shifted to the house, he bets lower. Not only do you change the amount of your bets, you change your playing strategy: When you know it's to your advantage, you hit a hand you'd otherwise have decided to stand on."
Alan, a professional gambler who asks that his last name not be used, adds, "Even under normal circumstances, the house's edge is small against a knowledgeable player. The size of the edge depends on the variation of the game that's being played, but it can get down to less than 1 percent. Card counting can turn the edge against the casino, which is why management bans card counters when they're caught."
Richard speculates that Johnson may have figured out a way deliberately to randomize certain aspects of his play, thereby avoiding detection by casino systems designed to recognize and root out counters. "Casinos monitor every aspect of play, 24/7, using cameras in the ceiling. It's a constant cat-and-mouse game. They look for certain clues that tell them here's a player exhibiting counting-like behavior, somebody who needs closer scrutiny--players exhibiting a large variation in bet size, for instance." Johnson, who was unavailable for this story, might have figured out a way to count without seeming to count--by deliberately making bad plays, for example, but in such a way as to minimize the cost to himself.
Henry Tamburin, author of "Blackjack: Take the Money and Run" and editor of Black Jack Insider Newsletter, doesn't rule out the possibility Johnson's winnings could have been the result of "sheer luck."
It's highly unlikely, he says, but not impossible--especially if, as Johnson told the Press, casinos had been giving him a VIP discount of 20 percent on his losses. "A 20 percent discount?" Tamburin asks in disbelief. "That's unheard of But if that's true, and you're only losing only $8 out of every $10 you bet, you've already got an edge if you just keep banging away. All you'd have to do it bet at high levels and use basic strategy."
Alan puts it more bluntly: "I can't believe casino management would be so dumb as to lose its edge entirely by increasing the limits to $100,000 and by forgiving 20 percent of the player's debt."
But perhaps they were. As the CEO of the Tropicana said in early May, referring to his casino's loss of $6 million to an undisclosed player assumed to be Johnson, "We ran very unlucky."
In fact, it was the first time since the casinos opened in Atlantic City in 1978 that a gambling house lost money at the game of blackjack over a particular month, a spokesman for New Jersey's Casino Control Commission told The Star Ledger: "It's extraordinarily unusual for a casino to lose money at the game of blackjack in a particular month," the spokesman told the paper.
Tamburin suspects there must be more to the story: "To me, it's all a little strange. Something's not right here. If you're the CEO, after you lose $1 million, somebody wakes up and says: There's something wrong here."