The Man Who Broke Atlantic City

From The Atlantic

Don Johnson won nearly $6 million playing blackjack in one night, single-handedly decimating the monthly revenue of Atlantic City’s Tropicana casino. Not long before that, he’d taken the Borgata for $5 million and Caesars for $4 million. Here’s how he did it.

Don Johnson finds it hard to remember the exact cards. Who could? At the height of his 12-hour blitz of the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, last April, he was playing a hand of blackjack nearly every minute.

Dozens of spectators pressed against the glass of the high-roller pit. Inside, playing at a green-felt table opposite a black-vested dealer, a burly middle-aged man in a red cap and black Oregon State hoodie was wagering $100,000 a hand. Word spreads when the betting is that big. Johnson was on an amazing streak. The towers of chips stacked in front of him formed a colorful miniature skyline. His winning run had been picked up by the casino’s watchful overhead cameras and drawn the close scrutiny of the pit bosses. In just one hand, he remembers, he won $800,000. In a three-hand sequence, he took $1.2 million.

The basics of blackjack are simple. Almost everyone knows them. You play against the house. Two cards are placed faceup before the player, and two more cards, one down, one up, before the dealer. A card’s suit doesn’t matter, only its numerical value—each face card is worth 10, and an ace can be either a one or an 11. The goal is to get to 21, or as close to it as possible without going over. Scanning the cards on the table before him, the player can either stand or keep taking cards in an effort to approach 21. Since the house’s hand has one card facedown, the player can’t know exactly what the hand is, which is what makes this a game.

As Johnson remembers it, the $800,000 hand started with him betting $100,000 and being dealt two eights. If a player is dealt two of a kind, he can choose to “split” the hand, which means he can play each of the cards as a separate hand and ask for two more cards, in effect doubling his bet. That’s what Johnson did. His next two cards, surprisingly, were also both eights, so he split each again. Getting four cards of the same number in a row doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Johnson says he was once dealt six consecutive aces at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. He was now playing four hands, each consisting of a single eight-card, with $400,000 in the balance.

He was neither nervous nor excited. Johnson plays a long game, so the ups and downs of individual hands, even big swings like this one, don’t matter that much to him. He is a veteran player. Little interferes with his concentration. He doesn’t get rattled. With him, it’s all about the math, and he knows it cold. Whenever the racily clad cocktail waitress wandered in with a fresh whiskey and Diet Coke, he took it from the tray.

The house’s hand showed an upturned five. Arrayed on the table before him were the four eights. He was allowed to double down—to double his bet—on any hand, so when he was dealt a three on the first of his hands, he doubled his bet on that one, to $200,000. When his second hand was dealt a two, he doubled down on that, too. When he was dealt a three and a two on the next two hands, he says, he doubled down on those, for a total wager of $800,000.

It was the dealer’s turn. He drew a 10, so the two cards he was showing totaled 15. Johnson called the game—in essence, betting that the dealer’s down card was a seven or higher, which would push his hand over 21. This was a good bet: since all face cards are worth 10, the deck holds more high cards than low. When the dealer turned over the house’s down card, it was a 10, busting him. Johnson won all four hands.
Johnson didn’t celebrate. He didn’t even pause. As another skyscraper of chips was pushed into his skyline, he signaled for the next hand. He was just getting started.

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:

BLACKJACK PLAYER TAKES TROPICANA
FOR NEARLY $6 MILLION,
SINGLE-HANDEDLY RUINS CASINO’S MONTH

But the story was even bigger than that. Johnson’s assault on the Tropicana was merely the latest in a series of blitzes he’d made on Atlantic City’s gambling establishments. In the four previous months, he’d taken $5 million from the Borgata casino and another $4 million from Caesars. Caesars had cut him off, he says, and then effectively banned him from its casinos worldwide.

Fifteen million dollars in winnings from three different casinos? Nobody gets that lucky. How did he do it?

The first and most obvious suspicion was card counting. 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. (The tactic requires both great memory and superior math skills.) Made famous in books and movies, card counting is considered cheating, at least by casinos. In most states (but not New Jersey), known practitioners are banned. The wagering of card counters assumes a clearly recognizable pattern over time, and Johnson was being watched very carefully. The verdict: card counting was not Don Johnson’s game. He had beaten the casinos fair and square.

It hurt. Largely as a result of Johnson’s streak, the Trop’s table-game revenues for April 2011 were the second-lowest among the 11 casinos in Atlantic City. Mark Giannantonio, the president and CEO of the Trop, who had authorized the $100,000-a-hand limit for Johnson, was given the boot weeks later. Johnson’s winnings had administered a similar jolt to the Borgata and to Caesars. All of these gambling houses were already hurting, what with the spread of legalized gambling in surrounding states. By April, combined monthly gaming revenue had been declining on a year-over-year basis for 32 months.

For most people, though, the newspaper headline told a happy story. An ordinary guy in a red cap and black hoodie had struck it rich, had beaten the casinos black-and-blue. It seemed a fantasy come true, the very dream that draws suckers to the gaming tables.

But that’s not the whole story either.

Continue reading at The Atlantic