March 21, 2012 -- It's the stuff that gamblers' dreams are made of. Blackjack player Don Johnson revealed in a magazine interview how he won $15 million from three Atlantic City's casinos in about five months.
Previously tightlipped about how he did it, Johnson said he played "fair and square" but he did have some favorable conditions when he played single blackjack hands of up to $100,000.
He won $6 million from the Tropicana; from the Borgata, $5 million, and he took $4 million from Caesar's, all between December 2010 and April 2011. In an interview with The Atlantic, Johnson described how the casinos gave him a 20 percent discount on his losses and slightly more favorable house rules that let him break the bank.
"I guess for the first time in 30 years, a group of casinos actually had a huge setback on account of one player," Johnson told the magazine. "Somebody connected all the dots and said it must be one guy."
Perks for high rollers, like free hotel stays and trips on jets, are not new to gambling houses. But two years ago with revenues tanking in an unstable market, casinos became desperate to attract big spenders, to the point that they began calling to invite Johnson, a known player, to play in late 2010 with special deals.
Johnson negotiated for discounts as high as 20 percent after his losses hit $500,000 at the Tropicana and then decided to play. So if he were to lose the whole $500,000 he'd only have to pay $400,000.
Johnson admitted to The Press of Atlantic City, taking some losses along the way.
But Tropicana "pulled the deal" after he won a total of $5.8 million, the Borgata cut him off at $5 million, and the dealer at Caesars refused to fill the chip tray once his earnings topped $4 million, according to The Atlantic.
The 49-year-old resident of Bensalem, Pa., said in the interview with The Press that he began playing blackjack 15 years ago, starting with $25 bets. His profession is gambling-related as 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 said he did not count cards, which is considered cheating and will get you banned from some casinos, but not illegal. Blackjack players 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 their 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."
Henry Tamburin, author of "Blackjack: Take the Money and Run" and editor of Black Jack Insider Newsletter, said it was "unheard of" but not impossible that he was getting a discount of 20 percent on his losses.
"A 20 percent discount?" Tamburin asked, "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 [per hand] 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.