The Man Who Broke Atlantic City

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.

Sophisticated gamblers won’t play by the standard rules. They negotiate. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. It does this primarily by offering discounts, or “loss rebates.” When a casino offers a discount of, say, 10 percent, that means if the player loses $100,000 at the blackjack table, he has to pay only $90,000. 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 even in that scenario, Johnson won’t play. By his reckoning, a few thousand in free chips plus a standard 10 percent discount just means that the casino is going to end up with slightly less of the player’s money after a few hours of play. The player still loses.

But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. After all, one high roller who has a bad night can determine whether a casino’s table games finish a month in the red or in the black. Inside the casinos, this heightened the natural tension between the marketers, who are always pushing to sweeten the discounts, and the gaming managers, who want to maximize the house’s statistical edge. But month after month of declining revenues strengthened the marketers’ position. By late 2010, the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent.

“The casinos started accepting more risk, looking for a possible larger return,” says Posner, the gaming-industry expert. “They tended to start swinging for the fences.”

Johnson noticed.

“They began offering deals that nobody’s ever seen in New Jersey history,” he told me. “I’d never heard of anything like it in the world, not even for a player like [the late Australian media tycoon] Kerry Packer, who came in with a $20 million bank and was worth billions and billions.”

When casinos started getting desperate, Johnson was perfectly poised to take advantage of them. 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. He was also, as the Trop’s Tony Rodio puts it, “a cheap date.” He wasn’t interested in the high-end perks; he was interested in maximizing his odds of winning. For Johnson, the game began before he ever set foot in the casino.

Atlantic City did know who Johnson was. The casinos’ own research told them he was a skilled player capable of betting large amounts. But he was not considered good enough to discourage or avoid.

In fact, in late 2010, he says, they called him.

Johnson had not played a game at the Borgata in more than a year. He had been trying to figure out its blackjack game for years but had never been able to win big. At one point, he accepted a “lifetime discount,” but when he had a winning trip he effectively lost the benefit of the discount. The way any discount works, you have to lose a certain amount to capitalize on it. If you had a lifetime discount of, say, 20 percent on $500,000, you would have to lose whatever money you’d made on previous trips plus another $500,000 before the discount kicked in. When this happened to Johnson, he knew the ground rules had skewed against him. So it was no longer worth his while to play there.

He explained this when the Borgata tried to entice him back.

“Well, what if we change that?” he recalls a casino executive saying. “What if we put you on a trip-to-trip discount basis?”

Johnson started negotiating.

Once the Borgata closed the deal, he says, Caesars and the Trop, competing for Johnson’s business, offered similar terms. That’s what enabled him to systematically beat them, one by one.

In theory, this shouldn’t happen. The casinos use computer models that calculate the odds down to the last penny so they can craft terms to entice high rollers without forfeiting the house advantage. “We have a very elaborate model,” Rodio says. “Once a customer comes in, regardless of the game they may play, we plug them into the model so that we know what the house advantage is, based upon the game that they are playing and the way they play the game. And then from that, we can make a determination of what is the appropriate [discount] we can make for the person, based on their skill level. I can’t speak for how other properties do it, but that is how we do it.”

So how did all these casinos end up giving Johnson what he himself describes as a “huge edge”? “I just think somebody missed the math when they did the numbers on it,” he told an interviewer.

Johnson did not miss the math. For example, at the Trop, he was willing to play with a 20 percent discount after his losses hit $500,000, but only if the casino structured the rules of the game to shave away some of the house advantage. Johnson could calculate exactly how much of an advantage he would gain with each small adjustment in the rules of play. He won’t say what all the adjustments were in the final e-mailed agreement with the Trop, but they included playing with a hand-shuffled six-deck shoe; the right to split and double down on up to four hands at once; and a “soft 17” (the player can draw another card on a hand totaling six plus an ace, counting the ace as either a one or an 11, while the dealer must stand, counting the ace as an 11). When Johnson and the Trop finally agreed, he had whittled the house edge down to one-fourth of 1 percent, by his figuring. In effect, he was playing a 50-50 game against the house, and with the discount, he was risking only 80 cents of every dollar he played. He had to pony up $1 million of his own money to start, but, as he would say later: “You’d never lose the million. If you got to [$500,000 in losses], you would stop and take your 20 percent discount. You’d owe them only $400,000.”

In a 50-50 game, you’re taking basically the same risk as the house, but if you get lucky and start out winning, you have little incentive to stop.

So when Johnson got far enough ahead in his winning sprees, he reasoned that he might as well keep playing. “I was already ahead of the property,” he says. “So my philosophy at that point was that I can afford to take an additional risk here, because I’m battling with their money, using their discount against them.”

According to Johnson, the Trop 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.

“I was ready to play on,” Johnson said. “And I looked around, and I said, ‘Are you going to do a fill?’ I’ve got every chip in the tray. I think I even had the $100 chips. ‘Are you guys going to do a fill?’ And they just said, ‘No, we’re out.’”

He says he learned later that someone at the casino had called the manager, who was in London, and told him that Don Johnson was ahead of them “by four.”

“Four hundred thousand?” the manager asked.

“No, 4 million.”

So Caesars, too, pulled the plug. When Johnson insisted that he wanted to keep playing, he says, the pit boss pointed out of the high-roller pit to the general betting floor, where the game was governed by normal house rules.

“You can go out there and play,” he said.

Johnson went upstairs and fell asleep.

These winning streaks have made Johnson one of the best-known gamblers in the world. He was shocked when his story made the front page of The Press of Atlantic City. Donald Wittkowski, a reporter at the newspaper, landed the story when the casinos filed their monthly revenue reports.

“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 me. “Somebody connected all the dots and said it must be one guy.”

The Trop has embraced Johnson, inviting him back to host a tournament—but its management isn’t about to offer him the same terms again. (Even so—playing by the same rules he had negotiated earlier, according to Johnson, but without a discount—he managed to win another $2 million from the Tropicana in October.)

“Most properties in Atlantic City at this point won’t even deal to him,” Rodio says. “The Tropicana will continue to deal to him, we will continue to give aggressive limits, take care of his rooms and his accounts when he is here. But because he is so far in front of us, we have modified his discounts.”

Johnson says his life hasn’t really changed all that much. He hasn’t bought himself anything big, and still lives in the same house in Bensalem. But in the past year, he has hung out with Jon Bon Jovi and Charlie Sheen, sprayed the world’s most expensive bottle of champagne on a crowd of clubgoers in London, and hosted a Las Vegas birthday bash for Pamela Anderson. He is enjoying his fame in gambling circles, and has gotten used to flying around the world on comped jets. Everybody wants to play against the most famous blackjack player in the world.

But from now on, the casinos will make sure the odds remain comfortably stacked against him.

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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