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Hits and Runs

Many wish to win in Vegas, few have the brass it takes to score big.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 2)

Though Chagra was indicted on conspiracy charges for the murder of a Texas judge and is serving a life sentence in federal prison on related charges, he was loved in Las Vegas. Then again, anybody who went through money as quickly as he did would be absolutely adored in Vegas. "I beat him and I beat him and I beat him; I probably won $600,000 from him," says Puggy Pearson, most likely lowballing the true figure. "He tried to play a lot of everything. He was in the dope business and he wanted to look like a gambler. I beat him at poker and golf and I might have played some bumper pool with him. He lost a lot of money to those of us who were in Vegas at the time. He lost well into the millions for sure. Then the gamblers would take their winnings from him and lose it at the race book or craps. Hell, they got to get rid of their money one way or the other." Puggy looks momentarily wistful, probably missing the big hauls that Chagra made possible. Then he adds, "Yeah, Jimmy was a good boy."

High-stakes golf is a funny game in Las Vegas. It's one of the few wagers in which the better man does not always walk away with the lion's share of the money. Usually when golf is being played for high stakes, the winner is the person who can negotiate to receive the most advantageous number of strokes. Sometimes the looks of a player can be deceiving. Such was the case when poker studs Jimmy McHugh and Chuck Sharp were approached by an acquaintance who offered to make a substantial wager on 18 holes of golf.

Being good players and high-stakes gamblers, they were interested. But they needed to see the second guy they would be up against. "It turned out that the fourth member of the group was a guy named No Arms George," remembers Russ Hamilton, who hosts The Gambler's Golf Tournament and is about to launch a Web site for online gaming. "They called him that because he had no arms. Of course Chuck and Jimmy were only too eager to make the bet. Well, it turns out that this guy has got special attachments for his stubs, and he chips and putts like God. Chuck and Jimmy wound up losing $80,000 to a golfer with no arms."

It's the kind of loss that the big players, the ones who put themselves into positions to snag truly major hauls, must learn to take in stride. They know how to win and lose mind-boggling sums without seeing the money as a retirement fund or a mortgage payment. One of the finest illustrations of this can be seen in how Archie Karas dealt with a terrifically bad stretch of luck at the craps table that intersected his $26 million run. "I saw him lose $1 million in 10 minutes," remembers Sexton, still marveling at the display of insane, breakneck gambling. "In less than a minute $330,000 was gone with a few rolls. Then I saw him do it two more consecutive times. Finally he put up the last $10,000 and lost again. I watched that with my own eyes and it was pretty fascinating. But he took it very well. He simply shrugged and walked away from the table. Like he was having a moderately bad day."

Before you can make a killing, you need to know the basics.

Providing more action than any other casino game, craps is a game of dice in which a player, "the shooter," tosses from one end of a felt-topped table to the other. If the dice total 7 or 11 on the opening throw, then everyone who bets on the pass line (the most basic wager) will be a winner. If the numbers equal 2, 3 or 12, pass bettors lose. "Don't pass" bettors win on 2 or 3, but for them 12 is a push. If the dice come to 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 or 10, the shooter needs to hit that number, his "point," a second time without rolling a 7 (or crapping out) in order for pass-line players to win. An array of arcane side bets are offered, but remember: the more space they take up on the felt, the better the house's odds.

In blackjack, each player is pitted exclusively against the dealer. The object is to attain a total value of cards as close as possible to 21 (face cards equal 10, aces count 1 or 11) without going over. Going over makes you an instant loser regardless of the dealer's outcome. Each player bets and then receives two cards face up. The dealer takes one of his two face down. An ace with a 10 or a picture card (or "blackjack") is an automatic winner, and pays 1 1/2 times your bet. Players with less than 21 have the option of taking additional cards ("hitting") to improve their position. Rudimentary strategy suggests considering the card the dealer shows before deciding to hit or stick. (For instance, if the dealer shows 10, chances are good he has 20.) Keep in mind that the dealer must hit with any hand under 17, and he must stick with 17 or more (a good strategy to emulate); if you tie (a "push"), neither the player nor the dealer wins or loses. If you receive a pair of the same value cards, you are allowed to "split"--that is, break up the cards, get dealt one more for each, and play both hands. Players may also double their bets (or double down) after the deal, but may then take only one additional card (a good strategy if your first two cards equal 11).

Despite its James Bond mystique, baccarat is a game with simple rules. Initially, the player and the dealer are each dealt two cards. The object of the game is to get as close as possible to 9. Face cards and 10s have no value, and when the total of the cards dealt is greater than 10, the left digit from the total is dropped. For instance, an 8 and a 9 (totaling 17) would be viewed as 7. Perhaps baccarat is considered elegant because players do very little of the work in influencing the outcome. Winning hinges mostly on the luck of the draw.

The spinning roulette wheel, with its 38 numbered slots (including a zero and a double-zero) and careening white ball, offers a plethora of wagers, none of which are very complicated. Betting on a specific number generally pays off at 35 to 1 odds (casino odds vary, and this should be kept in mind for all the games described). Other popular bets include a "street bet" (in which a row of three numbers is covered and the payoff is 11 to 1), a "dozen bet" (stack your chips in the box marked "1st 12," "2nd 12" or "3rd 12" and you will be covering one of three groups of 12 numbers for 2 to 1 odds). The shortest shots are bets on a group of 18 numbers (odd or even), a color (18 slots are black and 18 are red), a low number (1 through 18) or a high number (19 through 36). Payments on those bets are even money, and the house maintains its edge by not including the zero and double-zero in any of the more sprawling bets.

The great thing about poker is that it's the one casino game in which you compete against other players rather than against the house (the casino receives its money in the form of a "rake," a percentage taken out of each pot). The cheapest poker you'll find in any Las Vegas casino is seven-card stud, with the bets ranging from $1 to $5. From there the games have a panoply of esoteric variations--in terms of the betting as well as the rules. On a great night at the Bellagio, the stakes can rise limitlessly, with each player stacking a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of chips in front of him--while, just 20 yards or so away, there'll also be low rollers occupying $1 and $5 stud tables.

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