The Twenty One Club
The annual blackjack ball hosts Gambling's Most Furtive (and Quirky) Fraternity
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
If you're under the impression that the gambling industry loves all patrons equally, making no distinction between suckers and experts, consider what might happen if the management of the world's biggest casinos knew the date and location of Max Rubin's annual Blackjack Ball.
"A nice little Scud missile aimed at that party would wipe out a lot of our problems," one casino executive confesses. "In five minutes we could get rid of most of the guys we don't want in our joint."
The executive is joking, of course. To prohibit (or strongly dissuade) the world's best card counters, shuffle trackers and other expert advantage players, many of whom attend the Blackjack Ball, casinos don't have to resort to finely targeted terrorist attacks. Or even random murders. By law they may simply "bar" the customers they don't care to serve.
But the threat of being charged with criminal trespass usually does not deter serious blackjack professionals. A change of name, a different look (sometimes by disguise), and they're back in business. No matter how many detectives from Griffin Investigations (a firm specializing in casino investigations) roam casino floors searching for sophisticated players, the most successful blackjack practitioners will find a way to escape the surveillance net and extract hundreds of thousands of dollars from the gambling industry. Which is why precise directions to the Blackjack Ball are of more than passing interest to the people who run the casinos.
Cigar Aficionado isn't telling. But we will say this: the Blackjack Ball takes place somewhere in suburban Las Vegas; it's held during a time of year when all of the world's major blackjack teams have representatives in town; and the guest list includes the greatest collection of gambling talent on the planet, including most of the members of the famed Hyland team (as in Tommy Hyland, ringleader of the most successful and best-organized syndicate) and the M.I.T. crew (as in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from whence the three dozen or so teammates took degrees in math and computer science). The Ball also attracts an equal number of soloists, whose names would mean nothing to the average gambler but are legendary to those who make a living in the casinos.
According to the Blackjack Ball's popular host, Max Rubin, the nom de plume of the garrulous professional gambler who authored a wickedly revealing book on Las Vegas casinos' perks system (see "Comp City," Cigar Aficionado, Autumn 1995) getting an invitation requires a background check and the recommendation of a former participant who will vouch for the newcomer's integrity. Each year about 70 people qualify. If it all sounds vaguely akin to the process for becoming a "made" man in the Mafia, there's a reason: one "rat," and the best blackjack players in the world would be instantly out of business. "If a Griffin [agent] could infiltrate this party," Rubin says, chortling, "it would make the guy's career."
Think of it this way: as a group, the guests at Rubin's Blackjack Ball easily earn at least $10 million a year playing cards. Assume that one Las Vegas casino is a particularly easy target and therefore absorbs the brunt of the financial assault. Given that most gaming stocks trade at approximately 20-times earnings, Blackjack Ball guests could cost the casino's parent company $200 million in stock value.
The Blackjack Ball started about three years ago as a lark, a semiannual party that was part lodge meeting, part secret society. Most times, whenever the big teams converged in Las Vegas, 20 to 30 players would informally congregate in a sprawling hotel suite to trade stories, money and insider information. And while the get-together was primarily social, according to Max Rubin, the early incarnations of what would eventually grow into the Ball always had an undercurrent of professional pride. Success as a gambler, a profession that produces exponentially more losers than winners, demands not only tremendous talent but a prodigious ego as well. One does not achieve long-term gambling success of any sort without an enormous belief in one's odds-defying excellence. "If you're making a quarter-million a year playing blackjack, you tend to think you're the best hustler to ever step foot in a casino," Rubin says.
"At the early parties, guys would be off in a corner, seeing who could count down a deck fastest," Rubin recalls. "And who could cut most accurately, and all the other things blackjack players do. I decided to make it into an organized event." While the imbibing, storytelling and merrymaking remain, the Blackjack Ball these days is primarily a competition, an evening-long test of knowledge and skill that's meant to identify the best blackjack player among the best of blackjack players. Picture a series of friendly bar bets in which all the participants happen to be expert con artists trying to outsmart every other grifter in the joint. It's a swell party.
Rubin sees to that. In addition to providing a sumptuous buffet and a safe house, the King of Comps is also the Master of Ceremonies, the Head Adjudicator and the Grand Quiz Master. In other words, it's Max's party and he makes the rules, esoteric as they may be. The most peculiar of these is the one that goes something like this: to gain admittance to the Ball, each guest must pay an entry fee of one bottle of Champagne or wine acquired solely from a casino comp (some participants bring their bottle of bubbly still demurely wrapped in the room service linen). Furthermore, each guest must bet at least $20 in the Blackjack Ball pari-mutuel pool.
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