The Card Con
Fifteen novice gamblers trusted $2.25 million to their gambling "coach." But the coach's plan was a scam that would collapse
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03
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Still, the team began to see troubling signs. Though Chapman insisted that drinking at the tables was verboten, he revealed himself to be something of a boozer, swigging Long Island iced teas during dinner and passing out while dealing cards at the blackjack tables in his hotel suite. "He'd be sitting there, out cold, drooling like a baby, and we would carry him to bed," remembers Hastings, adding that Chapman's generally mellow disposition could easily swing into something sinister and unpredictable. "We would make suggestions -- the main one being that the stakes we planned on playing were too high. The argument was that we would draw too much attention by spreading $500 to $5,000. We figured that $100 to $1,000 would make it more likely for us to keep playing without getting watched. When we told that to Chapman, he blew up, screaming, 'I'm Hitler! You will goose-step to my marching orders!' Then he started sobbing, with real tears running down his face."
It was unsettling, but the promise of $1 million loomed and that made it easy to overlook a lot. Plus, Chapman's system really worked. The team members endlessly practiced on the tables in Chapman's hotel suite and they saw their hypothetical fortunes continually increasing. It looked like an unbelievably great proposition. Even if the guy was unstable, who'd want to turn away from that kind of money? Certainly not Hastings.
After three months of training, the team was ready. They flew to Las Vegas, each traveling with $135,000 in cash (the initial $15,000 installments had already been paid). They checked into comped hotel rooms from one end of the Strip to the other and convened at a Hilton suite where the money was piled into a huge stack. Hours were devoted to counting cash, and the suite warmed up with the body heat of 20 highly strung people. Guys took off their shirts while room-service waiters kept parading in and out with food and Champagne. Hastings remembers it being "a real frat house environment."
It was agreed that three team members would each be responsible for one-third of the cash, stacked in duffel bags, and transferred to hotel safes -- minus each team member's playing bank, which ranged from $50,000 to $110,000 every day. To the team's collective surprise, Chapman took $110,000 for himself and announced that he would be playing as well. This generated a rousing series of high fives. Their million-dollar payday was coming into sharp focus.
The euphoria continued to build the next afternoon. Hastings entered the Luxor, where he had checked in as a fully comped high roller and deposited $87,500 in the cage. Accompanied by his observer, he made his way to the casino's high-limit area and proceeded to play blackjack. It was the greatest gambling experience of his life. Everything unfolded exactly as planned.
The only thing to dampen his enthusiasm were the casino employees who scrutinized his play. Hastings complained that they were cramping his style. They replied that the high-stakes area wasn't very crowded and they had nothing else to do. Hastings looked around and he had to agree. He was the big player. By the end of his session, he was ahead by nearly $120,000. After cashing out and bringing his profits to the Hilton, Hastings was thrilled to discover that other team members had won as well. All told, the team was ahead by several hundred thousand dollars. Chapman had lost his entire $110,000 playing bank, but it was no matter. They all knew it could have happened to any one of them, and, besides, the overall profits (the only profits that really mattered) were phenomenal. Team members dined on steaks and hit a string of go-go bars that night, not skimping on the lap dances.
Early into Hastings' next day of play, he was greeted by a Luxor pit boss who had been watching him the day before. With a big grin on his face, Hastings pointed to his mounting stack of chips. He was already ahead by $14,000. The pit boss did not smile back. "I think you know what this is about," the pit boss told Hastings. "You are no longer allowed to play blackjack in this casino. You can stay here, you can play other games, but no more blackjack. If we see you playing blackjack, we will have you physically removed." The pit boss didn't say it, but his point was obvious: he'd concluded that Hastings was a card counter.
Heartbroken, Hastings immediately called Chapman, who told him to spend the rest of the day in his room at the Luxor and not worry about it. That night, when the team reconvened at the Hilton, it became clear that several other members had been spotted and barred. The winnings were considerably less than the day before, and, once again, Chapman had lost all his money. Team members were getting suspicious, but there was so much going on -- and Chapman did have an observer -- that it was difficult to make a big fuss about his losses.
Hastings and others, as they got spotted, were rotated into smaller casinos and instructed to play for lower stakes. At that level they didn't attract heat, but the team's profit making lost its momentum while Chapman continued to exhaust most of his bankroll each day. After a week in Vegas, emotions frayed, tempers flared, and everybody was accusing everybody else of ripping off the team.
That afternoon Hastings and four of the other top players received phone calls from Chapman. He wanted to see them at Mr. Lucky's, the Hard Rock Casino's coffee shop. Over sandwiches, he announced, "I'm calling a meeting this afternoon and disbanding the team. It isn't going as well as I had anticipated."
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