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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
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

(continued from page 2)

Chapman waved aside the guys' protests and said his decision was final. Then he threw another curveball: instead of meeting at the suite in the Hilton, they would hook up at a small Marriott Hotel near the airport and divide the money. Hastings immediately found this suspicious -- a reasonably unsecure hotel, located off of a busy road, five minutes from the airport, with more than $2 million in cash? -- and told Chapman as much. "But," he now relates, "Chapman's word was law."

As had been previously agreed, Chapman immediately took $40,000 in expense money off the top of the group's bankroll. Then he announced that he'd be getting 40 percent of the remaining money, which would have been around $700,000. The team balked. Chapman insisted that he had given them the equivalent of a law school education. After much deliberation and arguing, it was agreed that Chapman could walk away with a total of $130,000. Once the remaining money was split, Hastings found himself about $20,000 in the hole and felt more than a little skeptical about Chapman's continually depleted playing bank.

Why was Chapman the only consistent loser? "Because," Hastings eventually realized, "he was keeping the money and cutting in his observer -- a guy who, it turned out, had financial problems." In all, Hastings estimates, Chapman embezzled $500,000 from the team. "That's 500,000 cash. It's what a partner in a good-sized law firm makes annually."

After the team disbanded, Hastings remained in Vegas for another couple of weeks. He was being comped at the Hard Rock, playing for $100 to $500 per hand, and operating under the radar. After using the Chapman system to win back the $20,000 and then some, the scam didn't seem like such a big deal to Hastings -- until his casino host came over and told him he was barred.

Hastings was surprised that he would suddenly be picked off as a card counter after having played undetected for two weeks. Upon arriving home, however, he discovered that he and the other team members were front-page news on a bulletin faxed to casinos by the Griffin Detective Agency, a Las Vegasñbased company that monitors card-counters and cheats. Their faces dominated the page and they were singled out as crack blackjack specialists. Hastings tracked Chapman to New Mexico and called to see if he knew anything about it. "I know all about it," Chapman coolly told him. "I'm the one who put you in there. I was pissed because you and the others wouldn't give me my full cut of 40 percent. I walked into the agency wearing a mask -- so they couldn't recognize me -- and gave them your names and the casinos where you had been caught counting. Now you'll never get comped in Las Vegas again."

The incident turned an enraged Hastings into an obsessive tracker of Richard Chapman. Hastings says he discovered that the photo albums contained real pictures of real teams in Las Vegas -- but they were taken during the early days of the trips, before everything unraveled, as it always does for those aligned with Chapman. Hastings also reports that Chapman has since scammed two other teams. One had its opening-night meeting in an off-Strip hotel room similar to the one where Hastings' team had its last. The room was raided by pistol-wielding thieves who stole the entire stake of $2.5 million. Considering that one of the team members was the same person who had previously been Chapman's observer, the "heist" seems, at best, suspicious. The next team blew up after a matter of days, with much of the money missing and unaccounted for.

Warning that it's time for Chapman to strike again (as he seems to do every two years), Hastings says, "I could have gotten stung for the whole $150,000 and was lucky to have lost just a few 10-thousands. Chapman insists that his teams have lasted 30 to 90 days and made money. I don't think he's ever had a team make it for 15 days. It's all a scam, a con, a ruse to get as much money as possible in the team's bank so that he can steal it. The irony is that Chapman's card-counting technique works just fine, and you could use the system to make money by playing against casinos -- but he'd rather go after the players."

Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist.

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