Transcript

466:

Blackjack
Transcript

Originally aired 06.08.2012

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Ira Glass

OK, here we go. Blackjack, $10 tables. $10 high limit room, which no one is in.

Monday, late morning. This week, This American Life producer Robyn Semien and I are in a casino that will remain unnamed here on the radio because we did not have permission to record. I did not ask for permission due to the nature of our visit.

Ira Glass

Stay over here.

We stand by one of the blackjack tables, and Robyn does a quick scan of the cards.

Ira Glass

What's the count on this table?

Robyn Semien

I get a six.

Ira Glass

We were there to count cards, to play blackjack and count cards while we did it. Which gives the player such a big advantage against the house that most casinos ask you to leave the table if they catch you doing it. And how did we end up here? Well, we'd gotten a lesson the day before in how to count cards.

Andy Bloch

We used to say that you could teach a piece of wood to play blackjack. You just have to be able to keep your wits about you when you're at the table and not make too many mistakes.

Ira Glass

We got our lesson from Andy Bloch, who played blackjack for what is possibly the most famous group of blackjack card counters, the so-called MIT Blackjack Team. Their winnings inspired a best-selling book and a terrible Hollywood film called 21. These were real MIT students. Andy studied electrical engineering.

There is no reliable way to know how much they won. They claim over $8 million between 1994 and 2000. After he quit the team, Andy put out an instructional DVD about how to count cards. He doesn't play much blackjack himself anymore.

Andy Bloch

Once I got known as a part of the MIT Blackjack Team, it became hard to play, and I would get kicked out of just about anywhere I'd try to play. And sometimes I would take friends there. They just wanted to see me get kicked out of some place. I'd play for a little bit. After 15 minutes, an hour, they'd come over and ask me to leave.

Ira Glass

Now, I don't know if I should assume that you've played blackjack or you know the rules, but if you haven't played or you don't know, here are the rules. Everybody at the table gets cards. You can ask for more cards if you want. The way that you do that is that you tell the dealer, hit me.

You want your cards to add up as close to 21 as possible without going over. It's very simple. So simple that when you play, it feels winnable. And it seems like everybody you meet who plays blackjack has a system. Everyone thinks they can beat it.

Andy Bloch

Yeah. I've heard a lot of crazy systems about blackjack. The best myths are the ones that are based in fact. And it is a fact that you can beat blackjack. You can actually beat the casinos. And the idea that it's possible to beat the casino is what made blackjack so popular.

Ira Glass

I think this is what makes blackjack so special, is that you think you can beat it. But of course, as soon as you start to think you can beat it, it gets you into trouble. Here's how diabolical blackjack is. Unlike most casino games, if you play blackjack correctly, the casino barely has an edge. The odds are very close to 50-50. You win almost half the time.

So the dream of winning is right there in front of you, just out of reach. And if you did have a system that could beat blackjack, imagine what that would mean. It's like the money is just sitting there in casinos everywhere, all over the world. Huge stacks of chips and $100 bills waiting for you to take them home. No job? Bad economy? If blackjack is beatable, your problems are solved.

Today on our program, we watch people run after that dream, including some fine, upright, God-fearing people, including Robyn and me. Stay with us and good luck with that ace.

OK, so when Andy Bloch says that you can beat the casinos, he is talking specifically about counting cards to change the odds. The mathematics of counting cards was nailed down in the 1950s and '60s. There is a way to count cards that definitively gives you an edge over the house.

And you don't need to be a Rain Man or have a photographic memory to pull this off. A normal person can do it. So Robyn and I decided that we wanted to learn.

And I could pretend right now that there's a high-minded journalistic reason for this. You know, we wouldn't really understand what blackjack is all about if we didn't dive in ourselves. That would be a lie.

We'd both heard of card counting. We wanted to try for the same reasons that anybody does. We thought it would be so awesome to beat blackjack. And the thought that we would be doing it during our jobs, that we would be in a casino when the rest of the staff was back at the office editing and writing, amazing.

So I can tell you what we learned in two minutes. Here's how card counting works. Please remember this public radio station if it makes you rich.

The basic idea is, for lots of reasons that we don't need to get into here, tens and aces are to your advantage as a blackjack player. So as the cards are dealt, what you want to know is, are there lots of tens and aces left in the deck for you to get? And by tens, I should say I just don't mean the ten of hearts, the ten of spades and all that. But I mean the face cards that add ten to your hand when you play blackjack.

OK, so still with me? You want tens and aces, and you count. And this is important. You're not going to keep track of the position of every single card. You're not memorizing the deck. That would be insane.

They invented something that is way, way easier than that. You just keep a running tally, a very rough one, of tens and aces. You start your tally at zero. When a ten or an ace is dealt, you subtract one from the tally. When a low card comes out, you add one.

That's it. That's the whole thing. The running tally, that one number, that's all you need to know. Again, here's Andy Bloch.

Andy Bloch

It's not a complicated thing. You don't need a great memory. You don't need to know how many queens are left in the deck. You just need to know that one number.

Ira Glass

And when that one number, when your running tally gets up to seven or eight or nine, it means that there are lots of aces and tens left in the deck. So it's good for you, right? It's really, really good for you.

And that is the time that you want to start to bet big. Like, your bet should jump up to five times what it was, Andy says. All you have to do is keep your running tally.

And Andy demonstrated here. He dealt cards into a pile to demonstrate how that works.

Andy Bloch

So minus one, zero, plus one, plus two, plus one, plus two, plus three, plus two.

Ira Glass

Then it was time for Robyn and I to try this. Note that the pace changes just a little.

Robyn Semien

Plus two.

Ira Glass

Plus two. It was a three.

Robyn Semien

Plus one.

Ira Glass

Plus one. Zero.

Robyn Semien

Zero.

Ira Glass

Minus one.

Robyn Semien

Plus one.

Andy Bloch

Plus one.

Ira Glass

You know, I'm getting confused over which one gets the plus--

Robyn Semien

It's really confusing.

Ira Glass

--and which gets the minus.

Andy Bloch

You're sad when tens and aces come out, especially when you don't get them.

Ira Glass

You're sad when tens and aces come out, which is why they get subtracted.

Robyn Semien

There we go.

Ira Glass

OK.

Robyn Semien

That helps.

Ira Glass

We tried a few more times. Andy would deal. Robyn and I would keep the count in our heads. At the end, he would ask us the count.

Andy Bloch

OK, what'd you got?

Ira Glass

Minus five.

Robyn Semien

Negative two.

Andy Bloch

Minus three.

[BLEEP]

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Finally, on our fourth try, Andy dealt the cards, we kept the count in our heads, and at the end--

Robyn Semien

Negative eight.

Ira Glass

That's what I have, too.

Andy Bloch

All right. You guys both win. Negative eight.

Robyn Semien

Shut up.

Andy Bloch

Well done.

Robyn Semien

My heart's racing a little bit.

Andy Bloch

You're ready to hit the tables.

Ira Glass

And so the next day, we headed to Atlantic City. We headed to the casino to hit the tables and try our techniques at the lowest stakes tables possible. We basically went into the kiddie pool. We skied the bunny hill.

Did we win? Did the casino notice and send swarms of security guards with walkie-talkies to kindly ask us to play a different game? What happened to us? Later in this hour.

Act One. Render Unto Caesar's Palace What Is Due To Caesar's Palace.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act One. Act One, Render Unto Caesar's Palace What is Due Caesar's Palace.

When you think professional gamblers, you don't think Christians. But there was a team of blackjack-playing Christians. No joke, there's a documentary about it called Holy Rollers. They took in $3.5 million from casinos.

To do that, the entire team had to know how to count cards. They had skills. But beyond that, what did a Christian card-counting team have going for them that gave them an edge? Former Sunday school teacher Jack Hitt decided to find out.

Jack Hitt

The way Ben tells the story, it all began where so many great ideas originate, reading in the bathroom. It was a book about gambling, and there was a three-page chapter on blackjack explaining how to count cards. And Ben thought, I could do this.

He waited tables back then, minimum wage work, and he had just had his first kid. He and his wife were broke. And so one day, he came up with a plan to take their last $800 to a dinky casino outside of Seattle. And he won.

Ben

The first day, I remember making, maybe it was $500 or $1000 in one night. And I've never seen money move like that before. I was used to waiting tables. And every once in a while, I'd get a $10 tip and maybe make $100 a night. But I just remember being fascinated by how fast this cash could move back and forth. It was just I started to see money differently.

Jack Hitt

Ben formed a small crew of card counters to hit the casinos together. And they did OK for a while. But after three years, that team fell apart. Ben said they just had different values. And so Ben and another player, his good friend Colin, decided that if they were going to create a great team, then they had to find new members they could trust completely.

And that's when it hit them. The perfect source of blackjack players. It was right in front of them, at least on Sundays. Church.

Ben

Basically, all these people had been watching us play blackjack for the last three years. And they didn't know a lot about it. But they knew that I had bought a house with the winnings.

So there was all these family members that had heard of the story and I think, frankly, were just excited about the story. And me and my business partner, Colin, we went to different churches.

So he had people from his church coming to him, and word was kind of spreading. And people were like, oh, I heard about this blackjack thing. Are you guys hiring people? And if it was the right person, we would never say no.

Jack Hitt

Now that Ben and Colin had their players, they needed more money, a lot more money, if they hoped to win big. So they went to the same source. Using PowerPoint presentations, they showed their fellow Christians how much they'd been winning. Not using luck or prayer, just math.

And at the end of this presentation, here's what they pulled off. They convinced churchgoers to cash out their savings and retirement funds and hand them over to a pack of young people to carry straight into the devil's playground and risk at blackjack tables.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Wait, where's the Christ in cheating at blackjack? And isn't gambling a sin or just wrong? Turns out all the players asked those questions, too. In fact, Ben said part of training a new team member always seemed to involve a moment when the player would be stricken by a crisis of faith.

Ben said he got quite good at these rap sessions, and here was his argument. Yes, gambling's wrong. No question about that. But they weren't gambling at all because they counted cards. Here's one of the players, Mike. He'll explain.

Mike

As a card counter, you go in there thinking, there's no such thing as luck. There's only math. We're going to sit down and work for eight hours and make money. And that's the exact opposite of what 99.9% of all people do in a casino.

Jack Hitt

But even if you square in your heart that card counting is not a sin morally, isn't it illegal in some states? Or at least considered cheating by the casinos? I ran this by Ben, the founder, who could not wait to correct me.

Ben

No, it's not. One of the biggest misconceptions ever-- and this drives me nuts because it's so fundamental that people don't get it, and I guess that's to the casino's credit-- is people actually think that this is violating the rules of a casino. But we follow every rule the casino has. In fact, if you call up a casino and you ask them, is it against the law to count cards, is it against your rules to count cards, they'll be like, oh well, no, not really. But it is kind of frowned upon.

Jack Hitt

How could that be? We all know that casinos spend tons of money on overhead cameras and security guys to detect card counters. So I called the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and Ben was right. Card counting isn't illegal.

In fact, the spokeswoman said it wasn't even against the rules, though they do discourage it. She told me that if they catch you, they'll ask you to go play other games, a process known as backing off. Or if they really don't like what you're doing, they will tell you to leave and that you're not allowed back.

But for the most part, casinos just don't like to dissuade anyone from gambling, even card counters. Maybe because most of them are so bad at it, they lose money anyway.

And so they pulled it off. Ben and Colin kept training more and more churchgoers, flying the members of their congregation to casinos all over the country. Soon enough, the casinos began to treat them as whales-- that's what they call big-time gamblers-- rewarding them with comps, free rooms, cases of liquor.

They'd come home with amazing stories of winning thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, on the perfectly-laid bet. Bragging rights all around. In order to convince the casinos that they were reckless high rollers and not card counters, they'd often where costumes and take on personas. Everything from golf pro to what one team member called gay art collector.

In this scene from the documentary, you see Colin dressed as a mechanic in a jumpsuit and baseball cap. Ben, meanwhile, has gone full-on goth. White face paint, black lipstick with black outfit, and even black fingernails.

But they never forgot this was a business, and business was good. To give you a sense of just how good, at the height of their team in 2007, Ben and Colin were rotating as many as 30 trained blackjack players through their transcontinental circuit. And remember, they would hand each member of the flock tens of thousands, sometimes as much as $80,000.

And because you can't transfer money like that through, say, an ATM, the players carried this cash in envelopes stuffed in their pockets. At the end of each trip, the members would return to Ben and Colin and report back their hours and winnings or losses.

This was all done on the honor system. You can see why finding trustworthy, church-going collaborators was so important.

When the whole team achieved a certain goal, $100,000 in winnings, they'd split the profits. And every quarter, Ben and Colin would host a team meeting at one of their houses in Seattle. Here's Colin at the big meeting in 2008.

Colin

It's been another good quarter. Any guesses on how much we took from casinos in 2007?

Man 1

$900,000?

Colin

$900,000, 1.2, 1 million, something like that.

Man 2

1.5.

Colin

Boom! Yeah, you got it. $1.58 million taken out of casinos this year. I'm excited to take more money from casinos next year.

Man 3

So for those of you that hate casinos, we're doing our part.

Jack Hitt

Did you catch that last part? If you hate casinos. Even after all the talk of it being a business and not gambling, there was still this nagging sense that what they were doing was somehow not part of the Christian mission.

They were bleeding the casinos of evil money, doing their part. But occasionally, some players began to feel there was something wrong with what they were doing. Take Mike. He had joined the team with the most Christian of all intentions. He used to be a youth pastor.

His crisis of faith began with the Ninth Commandment, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. Weren't all these costumes and fake biographies bearing false witness?

Mike

High rollers are never mid-20 white kids. Never. And then they say, so what's your story, man? What do you do? Well, what do I say at that point?

Well, in the beginning of the team, I lied. I used to create crazy stories because I thought it was fun. At Hard Rock, I remember, they said, so hey, what's your deal?

I was like, oh, I work for Fox. I'm an animal agent. I actually do agent stuff for animals in movies. Maybe you've seen Bart the Bear and Legend of the Fall? I do stuff like that.

So I'm telling them this story. And the kid next to me playing says, no way. I work for Fox, too. And he starts describing the offices and asking which building I work out of. And I thought, are you kidding me? The one time I say something off the top of my head, the guy sitting next to me works for Fox?

Jack Hitt

Do you think that was some divine intervention there?

Mike

It probably was. Maybe God saying shut up, just tell them the truth. I felt guilty right after I said that. It was wrong, and it was a sin to lie to them.

Jack Hitt

And there were other deceptions, too. One involved playing in pairs. One person would count cards at the table, then they'd signal another teammate across the room to join the game and start betting big when the count favored the players. So you had to have a signal that looked like it wasn't a signal at all.

Shirley

Oh, crossing of the arms. Yeah, it's really subtle. So we would cross our arms if it was a good count, and we would leave our arms open if it wasn't a high enough count.

Jack Hitt

This is Shirley. Not her real name, by the way. Shirley used this tactic a lot. Among card counters, stepping up to the table right when it's hot is so well known that it has a name. Wonging, from a famous counter known as Stanford Wong. There was this one time for Shirley, the most nerve-wracking bet of her life, that involved this exact tactic.

Shirley

I was at The Venetian in Las Vegas. I was playing at a table. I had just finished, and there was actually another guy on the team who was playing at the same pit across from me.

And he gave me the sign to, what we call Wong in. It means you go over and you go to the table because the count is good. The table's hot.

Jack Hitt

So Shirley walked up to the table and put down her bet. A massive bet. And then another and another.

Shirley

It was phenomenal because we kept winning and winning. There is layers of people behind us. We've got security around us. It's so intense.

So I get two hands of 20. I got four tens, basically, which you'd think would be a great hand. The dealer pulls up a six. That means I have to split my tens.

Jack Hitt

OK. A quick explanation for those of you who don't play. In blackjack, you're trying to get close to 21. Two tens add up to 20, so that's a really good hand. Splitting tens is crazy, what they call a deviation. And Shirley has just done it. Twice.

But it's not crazy, if you happen to know that the deck is momentarily packed with high cards, and that the dealer probably would bust.

Shirley

So I split my tens. And then I put another two grand on the other ten. And people are just like, what's she doing? Whoa. I mean, there's comments from the crowd. It's so much adrenaline when you're doing something that is completely against the blackjack book, but it's exactly what you're supposed to be doing. It's the right deviation and you know you're going to kill it and win.

Oh my goodness. It was crazy. I ended up with $22,000 on that one hand by the time it was over. It was insane because I kept getting tens, and I kept splitting them. And I'm super excited but nervous at the same time, hoping that this dealer busts out, which he's supposed to do. And the dealer didn't bust.

Jack Hitt

Even though the dealer didn't bust as he was supposed to, it didn't matter. Splitting those tens and making such massive bets gave her away to security.

Shirley

It's a red flag. When you've got 20 and you're splitting it, they know that something's going on. And they can't catch onto it while you're doing your hand that quickly and make it all stop. But no, I never played at The Venetian after that.

Jack Hitt

For some of the other card counters, they faced a different crisis of faith, the commandment about stealing. Remember, you're carrying around tens of thousands of dollars in your pocket and winning tens of thousands more. And nobody knows how much you've won or lost except you.

Their trust in each other began to suffer. One player lost big one night and phoned a lot of the other players. He was hysterical that he had cost the team so much. But their reaction, that he probably hadn't lost but was stealing.

Ben, the founder of the group, told me about one time when a team member claimed that he'd never even contemplated stealing. That struck Ben as unusual, and he immediately began suspecting that player of stealing.

Jack Hitt

Do you think some of the members of your team did steal money?

Ben

Yeah. I know people on this team stole money. In fact, to be really honest, one of the decisions I made very recently was to go back to the founding members of the team before our team took off, and I admitted to them that I stole money from them.

Jack Hitt

Oh, wow.

Ben

Whoops.

Jack Hitt

Yeah. Um, Ben? How much did you steal?

Ben

$8,000, I think.

Jack Hitt

And did you pay it back?

Ben

Yeah. I paid it back. The money was stolen from me from my car, and I had the choice of whether to report it or not. And at the time, I made a very quick decision, and I decided that our family couldn't afford it. And I just fudged the paperwork. And I said that I lost it at a casino.

So those were three of my close friends. And I had to go to those guys years later and tell them the truth.

Jack Hitt

Throughout it all, playing blackjack never stopped being a little strange for the Christians. Trying to make money, surrounded by almost every temptation. Free booze, plane tickets, beautiful prostitutes, easy money. But they had to stay focused on their job, counting cards. For some, it was lonesome, like Jesus in the wilderness. Here's Mike, in the desert of Las Vegas.

Mike

It's funny. I talked to one of the guys on the team about what I did, and he had the exact same experience. Go up to my suite, which was usually 1,100, 1,200 square feet. Gigantic, big TVs everywhere, bars. I had one that had a stripper pole in the bathroom.

But I would be by myself or with other card counters. I traveled with one or two other of the players. And I would go up into my casino room. And I would order some real simple meal, like a club sandwich. And then I would just sit in the chair, no music, no television, and just look out the window over the Strip and feel lonely.

Because you felt isolated. You can't be open with the casino, who you are. And when you're open with your Christian friends, they're either way too excited about it, or they think you're during the most evil thing in the world.

Jack Hitt

In the end, the church team split up in 2011. And not because any of them succumbed to gambling or any other temptation. They believed in God and his glorious gift of math. But apparently God gave none of them the patience of Job needed to endure the mind-numbing work of card counting.

So they all went their separate ways. Even though many worked only half-time, 20-hour weeks, and earned a full-time wage, around $40,000 a year, it wasn't worth it.

Mike now sells cell phones to pay for his studies at a pastors college, and he intends to start a church when he gets out. Shirley returned to being a stay-at-home mom. Even Ben and Colin bailed to take new jobs.

Colin starts websites now. And Ben says he makes more money from doing internet marketing than he did from playing blackjack. God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he enlightens you, like Paul on the road to Damascus, a blinding epiphany convincing you to quit your old ways. Other times God gets you to virtue by boring you to death.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt. He's the author most recently of the book Bunch of Amateurs. The documentary about card-counting Christians is at holyrollersthemovie.com.

Coming up, when you can't bring down the house, just sue it. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Prologue. Part Two.

Ira Glass

This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, blackjack.

Ira Glass

Ace, eight.

Robyn Semien

Negative four.

Ira Glass

Ten, five.

Robyn Semien

Negative four.

Ira Glass

Queen, nine.

Robyn Semien

Negative five.

Ira Glass

On the bus to Atlantic City, This American Life producer Robyn Semien and I practiced counting cards on these card-counting apps that we downloaded to our phones. There are dozens of these. If you heard the beginning of today's program, you heard that she and I took a lesson in card counting. Now we headed to a casino to try it out.

Robyn had mastered card counting much better than I had. I was much better at knowing proper blackjack strategy. How to play the cards, when to hit, all that. In other words, as I told Robyn when we got off the bus--

Ira Glass

So between the two of us, we comprise one competent player.

Our tutor, Andy Bloch, said that one day of practice before we went into a casino would not be enough, that it would take weeks. And he was right. Robyn could count the cards, but it was so difficult, it required such focus, that she had trouble speaking to anyone at all.

People at the table, it was all guys, would say things to Robyn. They asked if we were on our honeymoon at one point. And uncharacteristically, Robyn said nothing.

We took a break after an hour. We found this empty lounge and recapped. She had a headache from all the non-stop counting. It was so hard.

Robyn Semien

I can't say a sentence. I can't remember how to play basic blackjack. It's weird. Like, I'm looking at these two cards, and I'm like seven plus five, that's my hand. What's seven plus five? What does that mean? I can't remember what the basic-- yeah, I just can't remember.

Ira Glass

And then as soon as that happens, everybody at the table starts telling you, oh, you have a 12. Here's what you're supposed to do. I love how everybody's just jumping in.

Robyn Semien

Oh, yeah, they were all there for me. It was a whole team of guys ready to tell me how to play. That's totally comfortable. Yeah.

Ira Glass

We made mistakes. Our biggest mistake, I think, was that the count at the table we were at was mostly negative. It was mostly against us for most of the time that we sat there. I realized later that Andy would have gotten up and found a different table. The real pros switch tables a lot.

But we held our own, and at the end of two hours, we were in a great situation. The count was seven, and there were two decks left to deal. And if you're not totally following this, all you need to know is that was good. That was good for us. It meant lots of good cards were coming.

So we boosted our bets, just like you're supposed to, from the minimum bet at this casino, which was $10 a bet. I bet $50. Robyn bet $30. Cards were dealt.

I got a pair of tens. She got a pair of tens. These are, by the way, great hands. You're trying to make 21, and we each had 20.

The dealer had one card down, and the card that was showing was a five, one of the worst possible hands for the dealer. Robyn and I talked about what happened next on the bus ride home.

Ira Glass

And then the dealer ended up dealing herself 21.

Robyn Semien

Yeah. She flipped her hole card. It was also a five. So then she had 10. And then she dealt herself another card, and it was an ace. 21. We should have split our tens. You would have gotten that ace.

Ira Glass

OK. Non-blackjack people, splitting tens is something that nobody would ever do except a card counter. It's what gets the woman kicked out of the casino in Jack Hitt's story.

At Atlantic City, they don't kick you out. But if they spot you counting cards, they start shuffling the deck after every hand, or they come over and tell you that you can only bet the minimum bet at the table, which is basically telling you, go away.

But once Robyn brought up this idea that we should have split our tens, it was hard to let it go.

Ira Glass

I would have gotten the ace.

Robyn Semien

Yeah.

Ira Glass

It would have stopped her from getting the ace. We would have made all sorts of extra money.

Robyn Semien

And then they would've kicked us out for being so good. That's all I wanted.

Ira Glass

To get kicked out for being good.

Robyn Semien

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Instead, we walked out in shame.

Robyn Semien

Instead, we just sucked.

Ira Glass

We bet high when the count was good, just like you're supposed to, and dumb luck made us lose anyway. Which is part of the game. The dealer got 21, which beat our 20. We made big bets, and then loss one more hand after that and walked away down.

Total losses-- this is my money by the way, and it's a lot-- $348 in two hours. First time out.

Robyn Semien

I just feel like we could have done better. I think we should come back next week.

Ira Glass

Yeah, me too. We've both been practicing.

Act Two. Harrah's Today, Gone Tomorrow.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Harrah's Today, Gone Tomorrow. Now we have this story of somebody who thought that she knew how to play blackjack. She played for years. She didn't count cards, but she says that she knew the basic strategy cold. We've changed her name to protect her privacy. Sarah Koenig tells what happened.

Sarah Koenig

One day in 2006, a woman I'm going to call Angie Bachmann went to the Caesars Indiana Casino and began to lose. She played blackjack. That was always her game. But on this night, when she ran out of her own money, the casino offered her what are called counter checks, like a loan from the casino that you're supposed to pay back.

She signed a paper for $10,000, $20,000, $30,000. Six checks for a total of $125,000. This is not a happy gambling story, so you know what happens next. She can't pay back the money, any of it.

So the casino takes her to court, says Angie Bachmann owes us $125,000. And not only that, we're suing her for damages tripling that amount. Half a million dollars in all.

This isn't unusual, that casinos go after debtors like Bachmann in court. What is somewhat unusual is what happened next. Bachmann hired a lawyer named Terry Noffsinger who argued that not only did she not owe the casino money, but they owed her money. I put to Noffsinger the question you might be having at this very moment.

Sarah Koenig

Wait, what? Why is she not liable? It seems like if you go to a casino, you know what you're doing. What's your best one-sentence argument for why it is that you believe she shouldn't be held responsible?

Terry Noffsinger

Because at the time of those losses, she has passed the point of no return to where she has no control over what she's doing, comma, and the casinos know it and take advantage of it. They knew she was a compulsive gambler. They knew she didn't have control.

Now, here's the difficult thing. A lot of people wouldn't believe me. I've even had friends of mine who took while to convince them that I was really telling the truth, that this was really what was happening.

Sarah Koenig

I heard about this case from New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. It's in his new book, called The Power of Habit, which is about how habits form in our brains and also about how companies tap into those habits to get us to spend money. In Bachmann's case, money she didn't have. Duhigg also calls her Angie Bachmann in his book, by the way.

Bachmann's lawsuit made news, and some of the reaction was backlash. Nasty online comments lamented the ever-increasing abrogation of personal responsibility. One person wrote, what's next? Suing supermarkets because you eat too much? And another, not unless Lamborghini pays my speeding tickets. And another, can I sue Budweiser for getting me drunk?

I have to say, the case initially struck me as flimsy, too. And when Noffsinger first heard about gambling addiction, he didn't buy it either. Years earlier, he'd gotten a call from a guy named David Williams. Williams had lost everything, including his house, playing slots on a local riverboat casino.

He told Noffsinger he'd run red lights driving to the riverboat so he could be there the second the casino opened. That he'd sat at the same slot machine for 20 hours straight.

Terry Noffsinger

With regard to David Williams, when he came in, and he told me the story. And I was incredulous. So I went down to the office, that Saturday I told you, and I read about compulsive gambling. I read DSM IV, and I read some of the other scientific literature that was online. And I thought, this guy, I think he's telling the truth.

And everything I learned from there on confirmed to me that David Williams was telling the truth. It seemed clear to me that the casino had to know that he was a compulsive gambler and that he was one of their favorites. And they would put him up at night in fancy suites and give him drinks and meals and all these things. So I felt like they were taking advantage of him. And I thought the evidence supported that. And we filed a lawsuit.

Sarah Koenig

The lawsuit didn't work. It was rejected in federal court. But afterwards, Noffsinger started to get phone calls from Arizona, Southern California, Seattle, Mississippi, Massachusetts. All gamblers with similar stories.

After a while, he started keeping track. He's got a list now with about 40 names on it. He told every one of these callers the same thing. I believe you, but I can't help you. Until Bachmann. Since she was already being sued by the casino, he thought maybe his counter argument could get traction in the courts this time.

He hoped to make visible the very thing he believes the rest of us don't see or understand, the lengths to which casinos go to keep gamblers playing, including addicted gamblers. His argument boiled down to this. Caesars had a duty not to protect Mrs. Bachmann from herself, from her own gambling habits, but to protect Mrs. Bachmann from itself, from Caesars.

When her gambling started, Bachmann was a housewife in Iowa, the mother of three girls. She started playing blackjack. At first, pretty small amounts, just once a week or so. Soon enough, she was hooked, doing all the typical things addicted gamblers do. Chasing losses, borrowing money from her mother to pay her debts.

Then at the very end of 2001, she filed for bankruptcy. She says she'd written $20,000 worth of checks to the Harrah's Casino in Council Bluffs, and the checks had bounced. Bachmann says Harrah's knew about the bankruptcy, that even the dealers there knew about the bankruptcy. She remembers having conversations with them about her bankruptcy. Nevertheless, the casino welcomed her back.

Angie Bachmann

What they told me at that point was, it's fine that you continue to come in. It's fine that you play. Just, you know that you can't write a check here. We won't allow you to write checks, but go ahead and continue to come back. Just bring cash. Just bring cash. So--

Sarah Koenig

So she did. Then in 2004, both her parents died. And Bachmann inherited close to $1 million. She says the staff at Harrah's in Council Bluffs figured out she'd come into money after she stopped in there one day and a host took notice of the amounts she was playing.

He invited her into the players lounge, chatted her up. What, did you win the lottery or something? What's going on in your life? Bachmann says she more or less told him what had happened and kept betting with larger amounts than in the past. After that, she says, vouchers and coupons and invitations started coming in the mail with big offers.

She'd moved from Iowa to Tennessee by this point, so they offered her hotel rooms for as long as she wanted them. A week, two weeks. And gifts started coming, too. But Bachmann says her contact with Harrah's kicked into high gear after her biggest loss up to that point, which might sound counter-intuitive. You or I might think, well, after a pummeling, that's the end of that customer.

But in the casino industry, the more you lose, the lovelier a prospect you become. So after Bachmann lost a quarter of a million dollars in one night at the casino in Council Bluffs, the phone calls began.

Angie Bachmann

It probably went from a couple of times a week to five times a week, from various casinos hosts throughout the country, really.

Woman

I have been assigned to be your casino host here in Kansas City. And I was just calling. I noticed that you haven't been in for a while--

Sarah Koenig

Bachmann played me a few of these messages from her answering machine.

Woman

--and that you have a birthday coming up. So I was calling to invite you to come to Kansas City to celebrate your birthday. If you need anything here at Harrah's, please give me a call. And we want to wish you a happy birthday on the 27th.

Sarah Koenig

These kinds of calls are standard, apparently. Angie Bachmann always gambled at Harrah's Casinos. The company is now called Caesars Entertainment, since it bought out Caesars. It's the largest gaming company in the world.

And Bachmann happened to start gambling at the same time that Harrah's began to overhaul its marketing strategies. Harrah's knew how to track each gambler's habits through Total Rewards cards, that each gambler, including Bachmann, would use throughout the casino. And that told the company exactly how much money each player spent, on which games, and at what frequency. The company would then use that information to tell them exactly what kinds of perks and rewards would keep certain gamblers coming back and at exactly what juncture to offer those perks and rewards.

I couldn't find a Harrah's host to talk to me in detail about the job, but I did talk to one former casino host in Iowa. He worked at the Isle of Capri riverboat for nine years. He told me he was responsible for a list of about 800 to 1,000 players at any given time. And around half of those, he knew personally. Every day he was supposed to call at least 25 people on his list.

For each player, the casino assigned a dollar figure, which was how much a player should theoretically make the casino during each visit. The host's job is to push up these numbers by getting players to visit the casino more often and once there to stay longer. These numbers drive everything, this host said. The comps that players get and the hosts' quarterly bonuses.

So as Bachmann played more and her bets got bigger, so did her comps. She talks about all the luxuries you've maybe seen in the movies. First-class plane tickets or trips on charter planes, free meals, a five-bedroom suite at the Palazzo in Vegas for her and her family and her friends with a hot tub off every bedroom. Limos, free champagne, clothing, special golf trips for her husband.

In Lake Tahoe, the casino gave her and her family front row tickets to an Eagles concert and also put them on the same hotel floor as the band. They gave her a room with a grand piano and a butler. Anything she asked for, she got.

Angie Bachmann

They never said no to anything. No. In Lake Tahoe, they would tell me, go into the gift shop, anything I wanted. Handbags, jewelry.

Sarah Koenig

Like real jewelry? Are we talking gems?

Angie Bachmann

Yes. Diamonds. Usually it would be something for my daughter. Diamond earrings for her or a diamond necklace for her.

Sarah Koenig

Bachmann says at first, she was excited by the phone calls she got from hosts, these friendly people sending her off for free to all these places she'd never been. Later, she says she came to dread the calls.

Angie Bachmann

Because towards the end, there were conversations when they would call that, well you know, last month we gave you a trip. We offered you the suite, we gave you a golf game. You didn't really play that much.

Sarah Koenig

She says one time when she was back home, despondent after a big loss, a casino host called her and persuaded her to return to the blackjack tables, saying, you'll win it back. She didn't and in fact ended up losing hundreds of thousands more. Another call also stands out for her, from a host in Illinois.

Angie Bachmann

And I said, you know, I really need to not be doing this as much as I'm doing. I really need to slow down. I'm losing way too much money. And his exact words to me were, my life depends on you coming up here this weekend. And I took that as his job depended on it, on getting me up there.

And I would feel guilty, that I owed them more play. I know it sounds insane. It is insane. I mean, I was dealing with the guilt that I wasn't playing enough to repay them what they were giving me and then the guilt of I shouldn't be doing this.

Sarah Koenig

By early 2006, Bachmann says her nearly $1 million inheritance was gone. She had spent a few hundred thousand buying a house and the rest in just two years poof, playing blackjack all over the country. Even so, in March of that year, she and her husband went out to Indiana.

She thinks she probably played what she describes as conservatively, around $400 a hand. They were drinking. She says the drinks were strong. Her husband went up to bed, but she gambled all night and into the next morning. At some point, she signed the six counter checks for $125,000. This time, because she knew she didn't have the money, she was frantic.

Angie Bachmann

I was in a panic. And I had talked to the host and said, I don't have it. I have to go home and figure it out. They said, all right, do you want to go to the Kentucky Derby?

Sarah Koenig

Wait, what?

Angie Bachmann

Yeah, yeah. If you get that money and then you pay us, then you can go to the Kentucky Derby.

Sarah Koenig

If this level of cheerful relentlessness sounds far-fetched, well, here's a voice mail from Caesars Indiana, the same casino she owed $125,000 to. It's from Bachmann's answering machine.

Man

This is from Caesars Indiana. I just wanted to reach out and give you a quick call. We're a few weeks away from Derby and just wanted to confirm that you guys are still going to be joining us up here and just set up any type of golf arrangements or anything like that.

Sarah Koenig

The Kentucky Derby was in May. Bachmann had been wiped out, remember, back in March. Looking back at it all, she knows she did this to herself, that she's responsible. But Bachmann also thinks the casinos knew what she was doing better than she did, that they sat back and watched it happen. That's why she sued.

Because of the terms of the settlement Bachmann and Caesars eventually worked out, the company wasn't at liberty to talk about the details of her case. In a statement, a spokesperson from Caesars Entertainment wrote, quote, "There are many specific points we would contest, but we are unable to do so at this point."

The spokesperson pointed out that the conversations Bachmann says she had with casino employees, her dealings with staff, they're all unverified, which is true. But I did talk to several other people, former casino employees and one veteran gambler, who all said that most of the interactions Bachmann says she had with the casino are plausible and pretty typical.

The Caesars statement went on to say that their marketing isn't predatory. They're just doing what any smart company does. Quote, "We look for ways to attract customers, and we make efforts to maintain them as loyal customers. When our customers change their established patterns, we try to understand why and encourage them to return. That's no different than a hotel chain, an airline, or a dry cleaner." Unquote.

Gary Loveman is the CEO and President of Caesars Entertainment. Loveman was a Harvard professor who came to the company to design and implement the marketing strategies targeting customers through the Total Rewards cards I mentioned earlier, which changed the industry.

Last fall, Loveman talked to our colleagues at Planet Money for a different story about marketing. But he also addressed this problem of addicted gamblers. He was categorical. He said the company does not want them as customers.

Gary Loveman

We do not wish to be in the business of serving addicted gamblers. I have 75,000 people that work with me who go home to their families and kids like I do. None of them want to go home thinking that they've just helped an addicted gambler do further harm to themselves or their families.

So our objective is to try to identify addicted gamblers as best we can and encourage them to seek treatment and help. And to the degree they're willing to identify themselves as addicted or troubled gamblers, not serve them in any fashion, not market to them, not lend them money, and where the law allows, not permit them in the casino.

Sarah Koenig

Well, maybe. This is Kristian Kunder. For about six years, he worked at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, both before and after it was taken over by Harrah's.

Sarah Koenig

Did you ever serve gamblers that you knew personally, that you knew or suspected that they were addicted?

Kristian Kunder

Yes.

Sarah Koenig

You did?

Kristian Kunder

Yes. There's a lot of people that come through who are obvious, obvious. I've seen players gambling. And I could go home, come to work the next night, they're still there in their same clothes, in the same seat.

Sarah Koenig

And no one's saying anything to them?

Kristian Kunder

Absolutely not.

Sarah Koenig

Kunder's title was Assistant Casino Manager, what's more commonly known in casinos as a pit boss. At Caesars, he typically worked the high limit room. Depending on the night, he was in charge of anywhere from 30 to 100 dealers. I asked him about Loveman's quote.

Sarah Koenig

So when he says, "Our objective is to try to identify addicted gamblers as best we can and encourage them to seek treatment and help," that's not true?

Kristian Kunder

Not one bit. Not the slightest part. In no way. The only time they'll approach a player is if they're suicidal or something like that.

Sarah Koenig

Kunder says the way it was supposed to work was that a designated person, called a casino ambassador, would respond to any gambler showing a potential sign of addiction. So if a dealer or a floor person heard someone say, how am I going to feed my kids, or I just lost my house, they were supposed to call over the ambassador, who would then give the player some addiction literature-- Kunder remembers a pamphlet called When the Fun Stops-- and a phone number to call. But in practice, Kunder says, it didn't happen. The only exception, he said, was if someone was suicidal.

Kristian Kunder

Until they come to us, you can come in every day, and I could go to my VP and say, listen, this guy's a degenerate. I know he's got a problem. It's not for us to get involved in.

What if the guy doesn't have a problem and you're assuming, and he just has a ton of money? You're not going to go and insult somebody like that. Those are people who, a lot of those guys, can have you fired that next morning. So I mean, nobody's going to take that chance.

Sarah Koenig

I ran all this by Caesars Entertainment, the supposed difference between their policy on paper and what actually happens on the casino floor. In response, a spokesman wrote to me that diagnosing problem gambling is extremely difficult, even for trained clinicians. And that quote, "We take responsible gambling seriously and train our customer-facing employees to listen to things that customers say that raise concerns about their ability to gamble responsibly." Unquote.

The company also noted that Caesars was the first to have a national self-exclusion program that allows customers to ban themselves from Caesars Casinos. And it's true, Bachmann did not ban herself from any casino.

If you're not sold by now on the idea that the casino is partly to blame for Bachmann's losses, that Caesars wronged Bachmann, in the lawsuit's words, quote, "by enticing her to gamble even though it knew that she did not have the capabilities to resist such enticements," unquote, maybe two researchers at Southern Illinois University, Reza Habib and Mark Dixon, can at least persuade you that Bachmann made irrational choices about gambling not because she's an idiot but because neurons in the reward-seeking part of her brain were overriding her rational decision making.

Reza Habib is a neuroscientist and so of course does not like to anthropomorphize the brain. But I don't mind saying it. Her wiring had turned against her.

Habib's colleague, Mark Dixon, is a behavioral psychologist. His lab at Southern Illinois is set up like a casino. He's got slots, a roulette table, a blackjack table, craps table.

Mark Dixon

It looks like a casino.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Mark Dixon

Maybe not a five-star casino, but maybe a two-star casino on the interstate somewhere.

Sarah Koenig

Habib and especially Dixon have spent a long time studying what's called the near-miss effect. In slot machines, a near miss is just what it sounds like. It's when, say, two cherries line up on the payoff line, and then the third is about to come but stops just short or just past the payoff line.

It's like you almost won, which of course in a game of chance like slots is impossible. The results are random. Despite that, gamblers in Dixon's lab will inevitably say that the near misses are closer to a win than a loss. That they like them more than a loss. That reaction is what Dixon calls maladaptive.

Mark Dixon

Because a loss is a loss is a loss.

Sarah Koenig

In 2006, Dixon teamed up with Habib to see if they could figure out what was happening to people neurologically when they saw near misses. They scanned the brains of 22 gamblers-- 11 addicted, or what they called pathological gamblers, and 11 non-pathological gamblers-- as all these people watch near misses on slot machine displays.

The results surprised them. Because while both addicted and non-addicted gamblers said the near misses felt more like wins, their brains said something different. Here's Reza Habib.

Reza Habib

What you see in the non-pathological gamblers is that the regions that are activated for losses, those same regions tend to be also activated for near misses. And so the brain, at least, processes these near misses in the same way that it processes losses in the non-pathological gamblers. In pathological gamblers, the same regions that are activated for wins are also activated for near misses.

And so these include regions such as the amygdala, which is a region involved in emotional processing, as well as parts of the brain stem which are involved in reward and dopamine function, which is part of the reward system. So the pathological gamblers, their brains, at least, are responding to these near misses in the same way that they respond to wins.

Mark Dixon

This is Mark again. And one of the effects of this, or the implications of these data, are that a pathological gambler going into the casino who's actually losing, his brain is firing like he's winning. Disturbing, isn't it.

Sarah Koenig

Yeah. It's crazy.

Mark Dixon

Oh, it's way crazy. And so you are experiencing those same sensations as a win when you're not winning.

Sarah Koenig

Habib and Dixon say the casinos know all about the near-miss effect. And since the '80s, slot machines have been programmed to capitalize on it. Habib and Dixon said that the near-miss effect happens in all kinds of gambling, including blackjack, and that it's possible that even just an enticing phone call from a casino host could have fired up Angie Bachmann's maladapted brain pathways. That her brain could have been reacting to the phone calls as it would to a near miss, especially if the message was, come win your money back.

So let's say for a second that Angie Bachmann's case went to trial and the questions before the jury were, if the casino knew she was addicted, is Caesars really the one responsible? And was Bachmann, as her lawyer contends, quote, "incompetent" in terms of this act of borrowing money?

Mark Dixon

Whether or not she's completely controlled by, or has control over, her own behavior I think is open to debate. It depends, I guess, on your world view of if you believe in free will and choice or if you believe that people's behavior is under environmental control.

Sarah Koenig

Well, what do you believe?

Mark Dixon

Well, as a behavioral psychologist, I would tend to believe the latter.

Sarah Koenig

OK. So if you're on the jury-- forget me on the jury, say you're on the jury. How would you decide?

Mark Dixon

Well, I think I would probably need to look at the case more. What happened earlier on that led her into this mess that she found satisfaction from gambling away her life savings?

Sarah Koenig

Yeah, yeah. But as a juror, we don't care about any of that. It's just the crime on the table.

Mark Dixon

Well, this juror does.

Sarah Koenig

You don't have the luxury of getting into her psychology that way as a juror. You're just sitting there.

Mark Dixon

OK, well, right. OK, well, I guess if you're going to push me on this--

Sarah Koenig

I am going to push you.

Mark Dixon

--I would say that the casino should not be held accountable.

Sarah Koenig

Should not be held accountable?

Mark Dixon

Should not be held accountable. Because I think they only played a participating factor in a complex life. Not guilty.

Reza Habib

Yeah, I would say not guilty as well. She's guilty.

Mark Dixon

Pay it back.

Sarah Koenig

Pay it back. That she's guilty. That's so interesting. That's so interesting. It's not what I would have guessed.

Reza Habib

You know, I mean, it's very difficult. Certainly it's not moral. I mean, if we talk about it morally, was it right if they knew and they tempted her further? Probably not.

Sarah Koenig

Judge Terry Crone of the Indiana Court of Appeals agreed. Quote, "From a moral standpoint, Caesars' predation and prosecution of a pathological gambler is repugnant," he wrote. But it was two against one, and Judge Crone was in the minority.

The majority ruled that Bachmann couldn't bring her counterclaim because, quote, "There is no common law duty obliging a casino operator to refrain from attempting to entice or contact gamblers that it knows, or should know, are compulsive gamblers." Unquote. In other words, it's perfectly legal for Caesars to target an addicted gambler like Angie Bachmann. It might be wrong, but it's legal.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is on of the producers of our program. Thanks to Charles Duhigg. His book, which is where we heard about this story, is for sale online in many, many places, including his own website, thepowerofhabit.com.

[MUSIC - "PLAY YOUR CARDS RIGHT" BY COMMON FEATURING BILAL]

Credits.

Ira Glass

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS].

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It's so weird, right? When you call Car Talk Plaza, this is what the operator always tells you.

Woman

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Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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