Why Texans Make Lousy Gamblers
And other Adventures of Las Vegas
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Each year Las Vegas casinos fly thousands of Texans to Nevada for free. The casinos pick up the tab for rooms, meals, drinks, everything. All the beneficiary has to do in return is agree to buy a certain amount of chips, three thousand dollar’s worth or more, and gamble with it. These junkets are such a major enterprise that some of the larger casinos have opened full-time offices not only in Houston and Dallas but also in medium-sized places like Corpus Christi. Of course, there are junkets from other parts of the country, but the reason why so many originate from Texas, as opposed to Kansas or Minnesota, is no secret. Texans like to gamble and they are bad gamblers.
There are bad gamblers from everywhere, but Texans have to face all the usual difficulties associated with gambling as well as the additional difficulties that come from being a Texan.
There is muttering in certain circles that those difficulties are congenital. Actually they are cultural. Gambling is important to Texans in a way that it isn’t to most other people because of an attitude that took hold here long ago and still remains. I heard that attitude best expressed by an oilman I met in a highway cafe named “Eats.”
“There are three times,” he said, “when you can take the measure of a man. When he’s playing poker. When he’s drinking whiskey. And when he’s giving money to a woman.”
There are other, perhaps better, tests of a man, but those three, however limited, are not easy. Texas men, growing up where those tests are part of a mythology that affects them, take gambling skill to be part of their birthright and thereby make a fatal mistake. They assume they’re good gamblers simply because they’re Texans. Lucky enough to be a Texan; lucky enough to win at dice.
Foolish, foolish. Especially since the Texan sees himself as a particular kind of gambler, a high roller. For someone blindly convinced of his luck, a high roller is the worst example he can follow. A high roller is, by definition, someone who bets more than he can afford to lose, so there’s that problem. But worse, the high roller represents gambling in a romantic light, while, really, gambling demands a businesslike eye to the mundane matter of profit and loss. What true son of Texas with money on the line wants to think about a balance sheet? He wants to think about a river of chips flowing his way, good whiskey, and slick babes—and suddenly, without his knowing quite how it happened, he is taking on all three of the oilman’s crucial tests at once.
Of the three, gambling is the most severe test since it is the only one that places the testee in conflict with absolute and universal laws. There are ways to win—we shall come to them in a moment—but generally speaking it is mathematically foreordained that a gambler must lose. Mathematicians have analyzed gambling in great depth and if the psychology of gambling is still a puzzle, the mathematics are not. Which brings us to an uncomfortable concept called “gambler’s ruin.”
Suppose two gamblers, each with a million dollars, decide to flip a coin at a dollar a toss. It is a certainty, not a probability but a certainty, that if the game goes on long enough, one of the gamblers will win all the other’s money. This is true even though the odds in this game are absolutely even and one might therefore assume that the longer the men played, the more likely it would be for each man to stay about even. What really happens is this: as the number of tosses becomes very large, the deviation from a precise 50-50 split becomes very small percentagewise but very large in actual number. For example, after a huge number of tosses, billions and billions and billions of them, a deviation of one million from a 50-50 split would be an extremely small percentage of the total number of tosses. This is good for mathematicians but bad for the gambler who bet on the wrong side of the coin. He has just lost his million a dollar at a time.
Now if the odds, instead of being even, favor one gambler over the other, or if one gambler starts out with more money than the other, it becomes possible to predict not only that one gambler will be wiped out, but also which one is likely to win: it’s the man with money and odds.
The advantages in odds and money needn’t be very large to make the ruin of the gambler on the short end virtually a sure thing. The formula for figuring all this out is extremely complicated, involving exponential variables and other computational headaches, but the results derived from the formula are deadly clear. In casino craps, where the basic percentage against the player is only 1.4 per cent, a gambler starting with a bankroll one-quarter the casino’s will be ruined 92 times out of 100. One starting with one-tenth the casino’s money will be ruined 99 times. Most people at a casino start with a bankroll that is only a tiny fraction of the casino’s, so their chances are smaller still.
Every successful gambler has taken this lesson to heart and learned how to place himself on the long end of the odds. He can do that only three ways. The best way is to run the game himself so he has the advantage of the house percentage. The worst, from the point of view of ethics if not of profits, is to cheat. The third is to become very good at a game like poker or blackjack where skillful play can tip the percentages in his favor. Texans have been successful at all three methods, but let’s begin with cheating.
Starting in late 1973 and carrying on through most of 1974, three gamblers from San Antonio, according to information that would later come out in court, had a sweet deal going. One of them, David K. Morris, was a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, often as a guest on one of the free junkets mentioned earlier. He liked to go to the Hilton or the MGM Grand where he always took a large and luxurious suite of rooms. This was fine with the hotels since Morris was known as a “good player,” that is, a high roller, and Morris, for his part, had private reasons for wanting to stay in such splendor. It made a fine setting for his private high-stakes poker game, a game that was crooked.
Morris brought two confederates with him on these junkets. Solomon Abdo was a card “mechanic” who could false shuffle, trick deal, stack the deck, or perform whatever sleight of hand was necessary to control which player got which cards. Charles Angellini was the “steerer.” He mingled among guests on the plane to Las Vegas, making friends and asking if they would be interested in coming to a party up in Morris’ suite. There’d be plenty of whiskey and girls around and a private poker game. On at least three occasions this game was given an edge of respectability by the presence of a well-known San Antonio policeman, Bill Weilbacher, who regularly left a winner.
Once the mark was in Morris’ suite and sitting at the game, the rest was relatively simple. Abdo secretly stacked a few decks and hid them in his clothes. The game went along for a while, the stakes getting higher and higher, until Abdo casually put his hand on his throat. That was the signal he was ready to “throw a cooler,” to bring the “cold,” or stacked, deck into the game. (The expression “cold deck” originated because cards are warmed during play by heat from the players’ hands; a new deck, by comparison, feels cold.) Angellini’s responsibility at this point was to “turn the mark,” to distract him while Abdo switched decks. Sometimes Angellini did this simply by asking if the mark wanted to fix himself a drink, but other times such casual and ordinary turns didn’t work, and Angellini, under pressure to get the job done, was forced to improvise. Once he leaned toward one of the girls standing around, pulled up her dress, pulled down her underpants, and said, “Hey, look at this!” Not, I would say, your class turn, but it definitely worked.
After the rigged deck was in play, Angellini and any of the players who were in league with the cheaters played according to further signals from Abdo. His palm flat on the table meant that the cards had been dealt according to plan. A thumb and forefinger meant to raise. A fist meant to drop. The mark was always dealt a very good hand, one that he would bet on heavily, thinking he had a sure winner. But at the showdown the mark’s four jacks would lose to four kings, or his queen high flush would lose to a king high flush. Frequently the closeness of the hands or something indefinable but strange about the atmosphere of the game would convince the mark that he was being cheated. But, as I have said, gambling, whiskey, and women do odd things to the mind. One mark, after losing a big hand, stomped out of the room saying he knew he was cheated. Angellini caught up with him in the hallway, quieted him down, and talked him into coming back for a drink. The mark had his drink, sat back down at the game, and the conspirators cheated him again.
There were at least nine separate games and nine separate marks. The cheaters’ winnings totaled approximately $55,000, ten per cent of which went to Angellini while Morris and Abdo split the rest. Eventually federal authorities in San Antonio got wind of these games and brought the three to court. Abdo and Angellini pled guilty to one count each of interstate travel in aid of racketeering and testified in the trial of Morris, who pled innocent. Abdo and Angellini each got sentences of two years. Morris was convicted under the so-called RICO statute (the initials stand for Racketeering-Influenced Corrupt Organization) and got twelve years. Weilbacher’s lawyers managed to quash a subpoena that would have required him to testify before a grand jury.
As it turns out, Morris was a double loser. Most of the money he took from the poker games he later lost at the dice tables in the casino. Leaving aside the question of his cheating, he had made the mistake a good gambler doesn’t make. He had tried to beat a game where the odds were against him.
Even poker players of real skill, men who don’t need to cheat to win consistently at high-stake games, sometimes lose their winnings at dice or other games. Some do it occasionally; others regularly, every time they get far enough ahead. They have, like Morris, succumbed to the threat that faces every gambler who decides he will try the second of the three winning strategies and trust to his skill to win. I call this threat the Slow Surrender of Resolve to Desperate Hope. It is an internal threat and a particularly subtle one, for all a gambler’s skill and accomplishment is no defense against it.
Las Vegas abounds in examples. Most people who decide to take up gambling do not realize how extremely solitary an occupation it is. That makes gambling a very poor permanent escape from any personal troubles since, in the long hours of concentration required, those personal troubles will find a way to push themselves into the gambler’s thinking. This is one of the ways that Slow Surrender of Resolve to Desperate Hope begins.
I met J.D. on the plane from Houston to Las Vegas. He was tall, curly-haired, thin as a pencil, and spoke in a slow, halting manner that was almost a stutter. Six months earlier he and his wife had divorced. It was more or less by mutual agreement, but immediately afterward his life took a turn for the worse. The law firm he had been with for four years didn’t promote him although they did give promotions to two of his law school classmates. Then, about a month after his divorce was final, several older men in the firm took the time to invite J.D. into their offices to ask if he was still very upset about the breakup of his marriage. Each time he insisted he was doing fine, that he and his wife had come to the conclusion that divorce was the best thing for both of them. J.D. was puzzled by this sudden concern since those men previously had taken only the slightest interest in his private life. A week later he was no longer puzzled. It was announced that the last promotion available for a year or so had gone to someone younger.
J.D. resigned and really didn’t think much about looking for another job. He’d never really liked law. There didn’t seem much reason now for going on with it. Besides, this was the perfect opportunity to try something that had been a lingering fantasy since his college days—to play blackjack professionally.
He had been a math major and had once devised what he then took to be a winning blackjack system for a term paper. He dug out that paper and some of his old textbooks and read all the books on blackjack he could find. For two weeks he plodded through his calculations, revising again and again his original system and incorporating many ideas he learned from the published systems of Thorp, Archer, and various others. He spent several more weeks playing practice hands by the hour. His system, like all blackjack systems, depended on his being able to remember the cards as they are played. In his case he needed to know the exact number of cards that still remained to be played and how many of them were tens, fives, and aces. In deciding what play to make, he considered all those numbers, the dealer’s up card, and the value of his hand, and then proceeded according to a set of rules that were more complicated and arcane than a legal brief: “When deck is six-tenths plus one, stand on soft seventeen against dealer’s seven.” He had managed to memorize these rules by playing long hours of practice hands. He kept at it until he could play rapidly through two decks without making a single mistake. Then he withdrew his last $3000, bought traveler’s checks, and hopped on the plane to Vegas. He’d never before set foot in Nevada.
I don’t think the fault lay with J.D.’s system or with his ability to make it work. On the plane he had me deal him practice hands and, sure enough, he could remember all the cards and calculate his play instantly. And the logic behind the system itself couldn’t have been far wrong. It was not too different from a winning system I’d found in, of all places, the Austin Public Library. But even the best blackjack systems give the player an overall advantage of less than 5 per cent, enough to produce a handy profit over a period of time, but not enough to prevent some fairly long losing streaks. J.D.’s mistake was believing in his system too much at first and then, after the Slow Surrender of Resolve to Desperate Hope took hold, he stopped believing in his system enough. In three days he lost all his money save a few hundred dollars.
Of course his newness to the place had something to do with what happened. The day before we arrived in Las Vegas, newspapers, quoting some NASA official who had commented on the Viking discoveries about the landscape of Mars, ran headlines that read Mars Like Nevada, and sure enough the Viking photographs on the television news that night, had they been colored dusty brown rather than the now familiar rust red, would have looked exactly like the Nevada landscape. Even along the strip, where stand the most luxurious hotels and casinos with their immense neon signs and ornate facades, there are huge tracts of land that are as empty as the desert surrounding the city. Walking from one casino to another can be, literally, a trek across the wilderness. It is this juxtaposition of neon and dust, from which there is no relief, that produces the charged, wild-eyed craziness that is almost epidemic in Las Vegas. No one is immune. Insulated from the rest of the world by miles of empty desert, blared at by music, eyed by sleek women, and intoxicated by drink, smoke, the singleminded obsession of thousands of gamblers, the sight of huge amounts of cash floating from one pair of hands to another, and the insect drone of the men who run the dice tables—“Eight, eight, the big eight”—the visitor can lose track of every reference that ever kept him to a straight and narrow line. J.D., as we wandered up and down the strip while he chose the place for him to begin playing, summed it up in one word: “Boinnnng!”
Nevertheless, J.D. had a strong enough sense of mission that, instead of losing touch completely, he simply had the edge taken off his concentration. Overconfident in the beginning, he began betting more money than he should have and then, playing better after reducing the size of his bets, he hadn’t been able to win enough money to catch up. He began betting more and at that point an unfortunate thing happened. He had just lost several large bets when he noticed that a fat woman sitting next to him was winning at a rate that was approximately equal to the rate at which he was losing. He began watching her—there is no reason for blackjack players to be secretive about their cards—and saw that she was consistently making bonehead plays. Yet she continued to win. He would stand on seventeen. She would hit on eighteen—suicidal!—and draw a three. The dealer would turn over a twenty. J.D. would lose and she would win. First his divorce, then his job, and now this. It was as if all his figuring and practice were useless. The gods were laughing in his face. And that was when the Slow Surrender of Resolve to Desperate Hope began. “I began to have hunches,” he told me as I drove him to the airport. “I would know what the right play was, but something would tell me I should play it different just this once. So I would play different and lose. Then I would go back to the system, but I kept believing in the hunches. I would figure the system play, then decide whether I should make the system play or follow my hunch. Finally I wasn’t even counting the cards, just following my hunches. At a hundred goddamn dollars a hand.” Nor was J.D. the only example. The morning after J.D. left Las Vegas, I was standing, at seven minutes past eleven as luck would have it, between two tall bookcases in an oddly shaped building with a concrete floor and dreary stucco walls. The place looked more like an auto parts warehouse than what it was—a bookstore and publishing company named the Gambler’s Book Club.
I had been disappointed until then with Vegas bookstores. In any city the new bookstores are more or less the same, but used bookstores reveal a city’s true interests whatever its pretensions. I had hoped that Vegas bookstores would reveal some undercurrent of life there that was not apparent anywhere else in the city. Quite the opposite proved to be true. In Las Vegas the stores had books arranged in a way I’d never seen before. First, in normal enough fashion, they were divided by types—novels, history, science fiction—and then, instead of being arranged either by author or by subdivisions within a subject, they were arranged and stacked by price, just like gambling chips. I asked one store manager for books by James M. Cain, and he acted as puzzled as if I’d asked for ice cream. He gestured vaguely toward the whole right half of the shop and told me to look there. But later, when as an experiment I told him I wanted “a fifty-cent mystery and a dollar novel,” he had no trouble at all. “The mysteries are in the second shelf on the left,” he said, “and the novels are against the back wall near the corner.” Nevertheless, the Gambler’s Book Club fulfilled all my expectations. There, neatly arranged by subject—dice, poker, blackjack, horse racing—were the widest variety of gambling books, periodicals, and pamphlets, new and old, that can be found anywhere. I was thumbing through a nineteenth-century treatise on breeding racehorses—speed comes from the dam, it said, and endurance from the sire, ideas that are still the conventional wisdom— when I heard a distinct voice raised above a quiet conversation that had been proceeding on the other side of the bookcase. This conversation had begun a few moments earlier when two men entered the store and asked to buy a book named 100,000 Dice Throws. I looked at it later. It was a thin, spiral-bound publication with photographs of hundreds of pairs of dice in row after row showing the results, one after another, of 100,000 rolls. These two men, from what little I’d been able to hear, had devised a system for craps and wanted this book to test it. They were very closemouthed about the details of their system even in the face of probing questions from a third man who had evidently come in without my noticing him. Finally, frustrated at the system inventors’ silence although he taunted them by sneering assertions that there was no winning system for craps, the third man made the exasperated statement I heard from across the shop: “You tell me,” he said, “how you can buy baseballs for a dollar and sell them for ninety-eight-and-one-half cents and show a profit—no matter how you mess around with the cash flow.”
The connection between dollar baseballs and craps may not be immediately clear, but that man had actually summed up considerable wisdom in one sentence. The difference between the buying and selling price of the baseballs corresponds roughly to the 1.4 house percentage in craps. That percentage dooms the gambler to eventual ruin as certainly as selling below cost ruins a business. Just as some sinking businesses try to stay afloat by tinkering with their cash flow, many gamblers are convinced that they can win by adjusting the size of their bets according to a system. Some of these systems, like the Martingale (which is nothing more than doubling up after every loss in an attempt to show an eventual profit), are invented and reinvented by hundreds of people each year. The Martingale doesn’t work, because after a run of consecutive losses, the gambler finds himself forced to bet more according to his system than the house limit will allow. Other systems, more obscure, call for a regular schedule of decreasing bets after a win, and still others claim that a gambler can win by betting little when he is losing and betting heavily when he’s winning. Systems of this last type, however, neglect to explain how the gambler is to tell whether he is going to win or lose before he makes his bet. Money management is an important thing in gambling, there’s no denying that. But at best it can only prolong the inevitable.
The third man’s statement revealed such knowledge and was so free of self-delusion that I gave up my concealed position on the other side of the bookcase and wandered around to get a look at this clear thinker. The two system inventors were standing on one side of a little gray desk at the front of the store. Their appearance was really no surprise. Fortyish, reeking of failure, they wore old, crumpled clothes, scuffed and worn-down shoes, and had the dull, glazed-over eyes of someone who has spent too long at the slot machines or waiting for a card to fall. All that was to be expected, but my cogent thinker, leaning casually against a bookcase, looked exactly the same, right down to the glazed-over eyes. I saw him again late one night playing craps. With each throw of the dice he would clutch his short stack of $5 chips so tightly his knuckles turned white, a victim—need I say it again?—of the Slow Surrender of Resolve to Desperate Hope.
Ultimately, the only way to avoid all these pitfalls of the gambling life is to choose the third alternative—run your own game. Simple as that may sound, it is not an easy business. Casinos go broke now and then, generally because of bad management but sometimes because of simple bad luck, the odds in their favor notwithstanding. Still, there is a tendency to think of a casino owner as not being a gambler at all but someone who is part businessman, part stage manager setting the scene for a whole cast of players who are the real gamblers. But a casino owner is a gambler in the purest sense of the word even if he does have a business to tend, books to keep, and a payroll to meet. I realized this by a single statement from Shelby Williams, a tiny, 65-year-old gambler who ran games in Houston until eleven years ago when he moved to Las Vegas. He now owns the Holiday Casino on the strip, a small and unpretentious place that has been a great success. “I cater to the little man,” he told me. “Say a man comes in here with three dollars in his pocket. I try to make him welcome. You know why? Because I’d like to win that three dollars.”
Williams is only one of many Texans Las Vegas has attracted. One of the best known is Benny Binion, formerly an important presence in certain circles in Dallas, who owns the Horseshoe Casino downtown. He plays Texas to the hilt, serves chili and Mexican food in his restaurant—it’s not bad, either—and in keeping with the high-roller image, he displays a million dollars in cash in the lobby and has a house limit of $5000, the largest in Las Vegas and perhaps the world.
Williams and Binion are part of the old school of Las Vegas gamblers. They are of a generation that started coming to the city in the late forties and early fifties as the gambling centers that had formerly flourished around the country—in Saratoga, Miami, Galveston, Kentucky, Wichita—were closed down by the federal government or reforming local officials. These men knew best how to run gambling games, and they saw all the rest of Las Vegas, all the hotels and bars and entertainment, as inducements to bring the gamblers in. If the casino restaurant, say, lost money, it didn’t really matter so long as the restaurant was popular enough to attract people. The money could be recouped in the casino. Those were the years when Vegas’ reputation as a bargain-basement entertainment center equaled its reputation for gambling.
There is now another generation of gamblers in Las Vegas, one whose roots go back only ten years to about the time another Texan, Howard Hughes, began taking over casinos by the handful. The new generation takes a very businesslike view of running a casino. The casino itself is supposed to make money, of course, but all the other operations—the hotels, the shows, the restaurants—are supposed to make money, too. Consequently prices in Las Vegas have risen, but that has made the place no less popular. This new attitude has created a certain amount of resentment among members of the old school, but there’s no doubt that the future lies with the people who run casinos like corporations rather than with the old-timers who run casinos like gamblers.
In addition to Williams and Binion, Las Vegas is virtually overrun with Texans. Amazing as it sounds, about one casino employee in every five is a Texan. They are a special breed and they have left Texas for a reason unlike the reasons of expatriate Texans elsewhere. In a strange way, they haven’t moved at all. In those not so distant days of the frontier, Texans set the styles and attitudes throughout the immense area between the Pecos River and the Sierras, most of it brush and desert. Everyone else followed suit; Nevada has simply never stopped. Loud, vulgar, mean, money up for grabs, few people, few laws (and even those inconsequential if you know the right people), inhospitable land and climate—all this describes Texas in the 1880s and Nevada now. Of course, there are those who say that it describes contemporary Texas too, and they are the ones who have left for New York or California in the hope of leaving behind all the yahoos and yahooism left over from the frontier. But another sort of person leaves Texas precisely because it is no longer yahoo enough for him. He wants fast money and open spaces and all the possibilities inherent in that combination. He is either a real or a would-be high roller, gunslinger, brocade-vested gambler, saloon operator, or desperado. That man finds his place in Las Vegas.
Texans are born with the frontier myth and it should be no surprise, bad gamblers or no, that so many want to pursue it. Amigos, good luck.