Rolling Las Vegas

| By Michael Konik | From Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

The table is blanketed with chips, nearly $50,000 worth of colorful tokens belonging to a huddle of 12 anxious bettors, thrown together by chance. They've never met each other before tonight, but like soldiers in combat they share an unspoken bond, an unwavering connection to two small ivory cubes dotted on all six sides ... the dice.

The auto paint supplier from Ohio has only a few hundred riding on the next roll; the real-estate broker to his left is gambling several thousand. But you can't tell who has the most at stake by looking at their faces--everyone at this Caesar's Palace craps table has put on the familiar visage of a dice player awaiting the next fling of the ivory: expectant, slightly pained, aroused. Oblivious to the centurions and Roman goddesses strolling past with trays of cocktails, thoroughly uninterested in the horse races and baseball games being beamed into the adjacent sports book by satellite, these people are fixated on the right hand at the far end of the table, the guy holding the dice.

Some bettors slump on their forearms, feigning nonchalance; some fiddle with their chips, compulsively rearranging them into color-coordinated stacks; some look as if they're praying.

The croupiers try not to appear bored. The box man, sitting at the center of the table, surveys the felt like human radar. The pit boss, vaguely interested, stands in the background with his arms crossed around his ill-fitting suit. For a moment--a moment that will last two seconds--the assembled players will feel as though the entire universe revolves around this slab of wood, this plane of felt in the Nevada desert.

And, a moment later, all the denizens of Caesar's Palace, entranced by their own private dramas, will look up and smile. Because an instant after the dice are flung a startling, joyous yell will be heard--the sound of someone beating the odds. Someone at the craps table will have made his point.

Of all the games of chance, craps holds a special place in the hierarchy of American gambling. Before Ed Thorp wrote Beat the Dealer in 1962, making blackjack the most popular pit game in the world, craps easily held that distinction. From Damon Runyon's dice-shooting hoods to Atlantic City's odds-laying tycoons, craps has always attracted the most interesting gamblers in the casino, the most knowledgeable, the most superstitious, the most courageous. And the noisiest.

Blackjack boasts its studious card counters, baccarat its James Bond pretenders and roulette its wheel-obsessed number watchers. Those that roll the "bones," however, are an altogether different breed, an amalgam of the bookish scholar and the degenerate gambler, thoughtful yet aggressive, cautious yet headstrong, a winner and a loser. Give a linebacker a bankroll and an advanced degree in statistics and you might have the perfect Diceman.

At the craps table you'll recognize everyone from the vaunted "high roller" (the dice game is where this generic term came from) to the tightfisted mathematician with a proven "system." With its low minimum bet--a buck or two at most Las Vegas joints--craps is the most democratic of gambles, attracting both ends of the monetary spectrum. No matter their finances, players at the craps table are there for more or less the same reason: it is the only game in the casino where, if played absolutely correctly, the patron can reduce the house edge to almost zero. And it is the game in which miracles can happen. Very quickly.

Still, the surest way to win at the craps table is not to play. But what fun is that? To novice players the game looks hopelessly complicated and too daunting to learn. In some ways, it is. But for those who have never "rolled the bones," the game can be reduced to its essentials, and a beginner armed with these few basic facts can take on the house with the best possible advantage.

The sequence of each "game" begins with the Come Out Roll. Players bet that the person rolling the dice (the shooter) will roll either a seven or an eleven (called a "pass," a winner) or a two or three (a "don't pass," a loser). This is an even-money bet. If any other number is rolled, except for twelve, which is also a loser, that number becomes the point. According to Howard Schwartz of the Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, the casino's edge on those who are betting on a pass roll is a mere 1.414 percent, and with full odds or up to ten times' odds it is a minuscule .18 percent or $1.80 for every $1,000 bet.

If a point is established on the shooter's first roll--dubbed Making the Point in craps jargon--players may make an "odds" bet in addition to their original bet; it is often called a "behind the line" bet, and there is a physical line on the table behind which your odds money is placed. This bet is as low as twice the original bet or as high as ten times. (The more odds the player may take, the better. You want to find a casino that will allow the smallest bet on the pass line and the largest bet behind the line. If a casino lets you bet ten dollars on the pass line and $100 behind the line, you're getting full odds.) Then, if the shooter rolls a seven before he rerolls his established point number, he loses, and must pass the dice. If he rolls his point before he makes a seven, he and the pass/odds bettors win.

The original "pass" bet pays even-money, while the odds bet pays true odds: 2-to-1 on the four and ten, 3-to-2 on the five and nine, and 6-to-5 on the six and eight. Players may also elect to bet the "don't pass" and lay odds, wagering with the house. Maybe one out of ten players do this, and they are generally not appreciated by the other players because they usually go against the majority at the table who are playing the pass line, while the don't-pass bettors are clamoring for a loser seven. (Nonetheless, there is a slight advantage on the don't-pass line.)

In addition to wagering that the shooter will make his point number, players can also bet On The Come. Seven or eleven is an instant winner, otherwise the bet gets placed on the number rolled much like the point. Then if the shooter rolls that number again before he makes a seven, the "come" player wins. This way, a player can conceivably cover all the numbers and reap handsome profits if the shooter rolls a long succession of numbers before a loser seven. But if he's trying to cover all the numbers and a shooter rolls a four, five, six, eight, nine, and ten followed by a seven, the bettor loses everything.

Then, of course, there is the category most easily labeled as All Other Bets or "proposition bets." Here's what Jack Binion, whose casino, Binion's Horseshoe, takes the biggest craps bets in the world, has to say about proposition bets: "The best way to play is to bet the pass line and take all the odds, or the come line and all the odds. If everybody took full odds on every bet, we wouldn't meet our overhead. Basically, forget about all the other bets, the Field [betting the shooter won't roll a five, six, seven, or eight], Hardways [betting the shooter will roll doubles], all the one-roll bets, [betting that the next roll will bring, say, an eleven]--those are all bullshit."

But in craps, as in life, no one at the table is ready to accept that not playing is the best choice or that a wide array of betting possibilities and gambits isn't worth the trouble. In fact, for every cynic watching the action at the table, there's someone with the dice in his hand recalling a story about the lucky sap who won the house--and the car and the boat and everything else.

Anyone who spends more time in a casino than he ought can tell you a craps story or two. A handful of them won't be apocryphal. The fanciful ones are legion: "I saw a guy once. He turned five bucks into $50,000 in 20 minutes. I'm serious"; "There was this rich guy, right? He's betting, like, close to $100,000 a roll..."; "I didn't see it, but I heard there was this guy who bet $250,000 on one roll and had a heart attack while the dice were in the air."

Some of the best (i.e., true) stories emanate from Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas. During three weeks in the spring the Horseshoe is home to the World Series of poker, the planet's premier card-playing tournament. For those weeks in May, Binion's becomes the center of the poker universe. But during the rest of the year, Binion's Horseshoe flourishes on the strength of one remarkable distinction: It has the world's highest limits.

In the Hollywood hit, Indecent Proposal, Robert Redford bets $1 million on the pass line, rolls a winner seven and invests the proceeds in a night of fun with Demi Moore. Impossible, right? Yes and no. In the movie, the gambling sequences take place at the Las Vegas Hilton. "It could never happen here," according to Jerry, one of the Hilton's pit bosses. "We'd let him bet maybe $10,000. We don't need to take any more action than that."

Indeed, at Las Vegas's swanky uptown resorts--Ceasar's Palace, the Mirage, Bally's--all owned and operated by large corporations, relatively low betting limits ($100,000 a roll) reduce the house's exposure to inordinate risk. But down on Fremont Street, the famed Glitter Gulch of countless television shows and tourism commercials, the game is altogether different. At Binion's Horseshoe, not only could the $1 million bet happen, it did.

In 1983, a man named Robert Bergstrom from Austin, Texas, called the Horseshoe's owner, Jack Binion, on the telephone. Bergstrom, who apparently possessed more money than sense, had recently lost $50,000 at the craps table. Thanks to a lucrative real-estate business, his plunge was not going to keep him awake at nights. In fact, Bergstrom was calling Binion to ask whether he could return soon and bet a "significant amount." Binion, adhering to his casino's policy of your first bet is your limit, no matter how high, naturally said yes.

And that was the last he heard of the mysterious Texan ... until three months later.

"The guy calls up," recalls Binion, "and says he's going to be here soon to make a very large bet. One night he shows up with two little suitcases, filled with exactly $777,000. And he says he wants to bet it all."

Binion approved the bet: $777,000 on the pass line.

"I think it was a little old lady who was shooting the dice at the time," Binion remembers. "She made a point of nine, rolled maybe one or two numbers, a six and an eight, I think. And then another nine." Bergstrom was a $777,000 winner.

He promptly collected his plunder, jumped into a beat-up old car and left. "I wanted to win that bet, sure," Binion says. "But we accept our losses. It's all part of the business. The losses definitely happen sometimes, especially when you're talking about a single bet, where we have very little edge. It's like flipping a coin. But, no, I didn't really mind losing that bet. Besides, I want to meet a guy who is capable of betting half a million or more on one roll."

Bergstrom, in fact, came back a few weeks later and bet $548,000 on the pass line. Again, an elderly woman shot the dice. Seconds later, this highest of rollers had 548 more $1,000 chips stacked before him. Shortly thereafter, Bergstrom made his final trip to the Horseshoe. "I'm going to double it or dump it," Binion recalls him saying, just before Bergstrom bet exactly $1 million on the pass line.

Once more, a geriatric lady shot the dice while an enormous audience vied to witness the results. Her first roll established the point--a nine again, a 3-to-2 underdog--and her second roll came up a "six-ace." A loser seven. Bergstrom was never seen again.

While extraordinary, such prodigious bets are not entirely uncommon at Binion's Horseshoe. An octogenarian former jockey, known throughout downtown Las Vegas as Fast Eddie, has on four separate occasions run $100 up to more than $250,000. The poker manager at the Horseshoe, Jim Albrecht says, "Eddie normally plays in the smallest game we offer: $1 to $4 seven-card stud. He is basically a pensioner, living off social security. But that's the game of craps for you--in a very short time, a few hours, Eddie has parlayed a handful of chips from his poker winnings into over $1 million." One time, Fast Eddie set aside enough of his profits to purchase a new condo. The other three times he gave it all back ... to the casino.

"The game goes so damned fast," Binion comments. "It's like a pyramid, the way the money piles up. There's no other game where so much money can be won so fast. It's nothing unusual to take ten dollars and multiply it into $500, $1,000 in a few minutes. And that's very exciting."

The way most accomplished players make their fortunes is by catching what math mavens call "an abnormal deviation." This means that in an infinite string of random numbers, a certain preordained quantity of sevens, elevens and other numbers will be rolled, approximately as many losers as winners. If you are fortunate enough to make your bets during a period of heavy clustering of winning numbers--otherwise known as a "hot streak"--the result can be sublimely gratifying. If you have the heart--some would say ignorance--to press your bets, i.e., increase them with each winning roll, the results can be staggering. And if you happen to be playing during a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime situation--an hourlong roll without a loser--your retirement will be quite comfortable.

Schwartz, who runs Gambler's Book Club, says, "As the years go on and long stories grow longer, the money won and the number of passes the shooter made seem to grow as memories fade." Indeed, nobody is sure of the longest string of passes--Binion seems to remember someone rolling 37 winners in a row at his casino--but, according to Frank Scoblete, author of Beat the Craps Out of the Casinos, a Hawaiian man, Stanley Fujitake, known as the Golden Arm, made close to 50 passes at the California Casino in Las Vegas. "He held the dice for over three-and-a-quarter hours. It was a magnificent, epic roll."

Scoblete also recalls a woman in Atlantic City who would regularly hold the dice for 40 minutes. A gang of high rollers called the Crew would hire her to shoot the numbers. "I believe some people, whether consciously or unconsciously, can control the dice," Scoblete says. "They develop a certain rhythm, a feel." Find someone with the "feel," and you'll find a crowd of cheering people around the table.

While there's no substitute for dumb luck, some eccentric crap shooters believe in "PK," or psychokinesis, mind over matter. Of course, the surest way to roll a predetermined number is to use "loaded" or doctored dice. Working with a confederate dealer, gangs of cheaters used to introduce phony dice into the game, dice that, for instance, would consistently turn up the number twelve, a 30-to-1 payoff. Modern surveillance and security techniques, though, have made the game of craps impeccably clean. Beating the house requires something more than chicanery.

Regular players employ a wide range of betting "systems," all of which, thanks to the immutable laws of nature, fail to overcome the house advantage. Played long enough, craps will gobble up all the money. Even "professional gamblers"--an oxymoron if there ever was one--cannot beat the game. After winning a six-figure payoff in a preliminary event at the World Series of poker, "Cowboy" Roy Dudley, a full-time card player, said, "All the money I win at poker I lose at the dice table. I just love to gamble." Even games of chance, though, can be approached analytically or superstitiously. While both methods will likely leave the player a loser, the latter is sure to encourage the dice shooter's demise a lot faster.

For instance, many players call off their bets when one of the dice bounces off the table. They imagine that somehow the cubes have "cooled off." Others increase their wager when a woman is rolling the bones, luck being a lady and all. And then there are the utter fools.

There was an Arab gentleman at the Riviera on the strip. He was betting $1,000 at a time on the "Big Six," a proposition bet that pays even money on a 6-to-5 shot. In effect, on every roll of the dice this fellow was handing the casino $166. (If he was absolutely committed to betting the number six, he could have "placed" the bet with the croupier, who would have charged him the standard 5 percent commission, $50 per $1,000.) Anyone who has played craps for more than ten minutes knows that of all the things you mustn't do, playing the Big Six is foremost. You never play the Big Six; it's the classic sucker bet.

Anyone who has played craps for more than ten minutes also knows that you never tell another person how to spend his money. But the hard-bitten dice players gathered around the Arab's table simply couldn't stand to watch. "I can't take it," said a seasoned crap player named Bob. "It's your money and all, and you can do what you want with it. But do you know you could be saving yourself 11 percent a roll by having the house place the six for you?" he asked the Arab.

Replied the Arab, "Of course, I am perfectly aware of this. But I would rather take the disadvantage than have someone else touch my chips."

This is the kind of gambler who keeps the casino's electric bill paid. And the kind of gambler who ensures the casino can endure the gargantuan swings of fortune.

The odds and the table aren't everything to some gamblers. There are some gamblers who simply crave atmosphere over value. They often end up at some of Las Vegas's "classier" casinos, like the Mirage, famed for its faux volcano. Here, and at many other casinos along the strip, players don't get the full odds, the amount of money you can increase your initial wager behind the line, which is available at other gambling establishments. The Frontier on the strip, and Binion's, Union Plaza, and the Lady Luck downtown offer full, or ten times' odds. But most others give two to three times' odds or, on special promotion days, up to five times' odds.

The players at houses like the Mirage, however, are not as concerned about a few percentage points they're giving up to the house as they are with the sensory pleasures of the game: the brilliantly lighted tables, the scantily clad cocktail waitresses, the crisp spring of the carpet. Higher minimum bets also dissuade the plebeian masses from spoiling the loveliness of it all, and whether the bettor is a novice or a veteran of the felt wars, he is treated like the most important high roller who ever walked through the gold-plated doors. Everything about a place like the Mirage contributes to the casino's tony image--and, in turn, the gambler's image of himself. Of course, it is the patron's play that pays the Mirage's bills.

But such subtleties--and giant swings in luck--are what casinos are all about. And the way each institution handles these swings is a direct reflection on how it does business, especially when guys like one prominent New York City businessman, who also happens to be a big gambler, come to town. For his reputation's sake and for the credibility of the casinos' pledge to protect identities, the gentleman in question will remain anonymous. This New Yorker often helicopters to Atlantic City, where he entertains friends and colleagues in a lavish courtesy suite and gambles more than any sane man should. His story is one that tells all there is to know about craps.

One week, the New Yorker flew to Las Vegas to play craps. He had established a credit line at a top casino well into the millions, though he certainly had no intention of playing that much. After a week of shooting dice, calling out combination bets and riding out the inevitable streaks, the New Yorker counted up his credit vouchers and realized he was down close to $600,000. Though he would never admit it to anyone, least of all the casino, this was more than he could afford to lose. He was so distraught he didn't even bother taking the casino's complimentary limousine; like a true New Yorker, he hopped into a cab and headed for the airport.

Now this abrupt action caused some concern at the casino's front offices. The casino loves customers like the New Yorker. It adores them, in fact. Because sure as rolling a seven is a 2-to-1 favorite over a ten, a craps player will over time make the casino very rich. To the casino bosses, such a businessman as the New Yorker is a trophy marlin on the hook -and they are willing to do almost anything to reel him back in.

A limousine was dispatched to retrieve the departing mark. That it happened to be filled with Champagne, gifts and two phenomenally expensive call girls would, the casino hoped, impress upon the New York businessman the casino's sincere desire to take very good care of him. At the airport, the professional companions approached the gambler and delivered a message. "We want you to come back. Anything you want for the rest of your stay you can have, including us." The New Yorker went back.

Three days later, after much imbibing, carousing and yes, crap shooting, the New York businessman/gambler returned to the airport--with $3 million of dice-begotten profit. "It's a wonderful game, he was heard to say. "A wonderful game."

Michael Konik is a writer based in Hollywood, California.