Small Games, Big Money
A guy texts to tell me that he has a 33 percent chance of winning a car in a casino. I consider it for a beat and write it off as wishful thinking. A similar message comes from Eddie Teams and I figure that he’s come across a favorable situation and has high probability of parking a new auto in his driveway during the coming days.
Teams, in his forties, has won more than 30 cars from casinos across the United States. He is a canny advantage player who games casino promotions aimed at prolific gamblers and capitalizes on the miscalculations of sucker bets. A mathematical approach—based on cost versus opportunity of various propositions—has led him to win a house in Pahrump, Nevada, to take down raffle-card drawings as if by magic, to devise gambits for beating bookies even if he knows nothing about the sporting event. At first glance, Teams appears to be the luckiest guy in Nevada. In reality, he ranks among the hardest working.
Understandably, Teams gets irked when people talk about common games being unbeatable.
Walking through Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, formerly the Hilton, out of which Teams and his crew of advantage players have extracted many thousands of dollars, he simply states: “Every casino game in the world is beatable, and it can all be done without breaking any laws. There are biased roulette wheels. Side bets at every table game are beatable. I’ve memorized shuffles, recognized card-backs, sequenced aces, controlled dice.”
And for anyone who thinks slot machines, video poker and electronic blackjack games rank as sucker bets, Teams has big news: They’re not. In fact, they have long been his bread and butter. His millions of dollars in earnings at those gambling devices, often considered the province of people who are old, clueless or timid, underscore the point. Amazingly, while Teams knows the math of the wagers he makes, there are times when simply paying laser-sharp attention is enough to carry the day.
Consider what went down at a casino in Arizona. “I won $150,000 in two months,” recalls Teams. “Whoever got in the most slot play, within a designated period of time, would be called first to pick from five large poster cards on a wall.”
Their fronts, with varying amounts of money, faced the wall and were positioned out of players’ sights, but the backs, of course, were visible. “One was $50,000 and the others were $10,000,” Teams says. “You had to lose so much on the slots [in order to have enough play to participate] that winning $10,000 was not very good. But if you hit $50,000, it was a nice profit. The first drawing, I won $10,000 and saw a guy win the $50,000. I committed the back of the $50,000 card to memory. I knew they’d use the same cards the next time and knew I’d be able to recognize it just like you recognize your cell phone,” he says, referring to tiny, almost imperceptible scratches and imperfections. “Then I came back, played enough so that I would be first to pick, and hit it. I did that three times—before they brought in new cards with clean backs and I couldn’t do it anymore.”
At the Vegas Hard Rock, for a similar contest, after Teams won by the same means, casino management tried foiling him by making sure the card backs were 100 percent identical. “Then I saw a guy placing the cards on a board for players to pick,” says Teams, who realized that the casino employee knew where the high-paying card was. “Thirty minutes before the contest, I found a penny slot machine that gave me a view of him setting things up. I played the machine and watched this guy’s eyes. He kept looking at the winning card. Whether he wanted to or not, he couldn’t help himself. I knew with nearly 100 percent certainty where the big-money card had been placed and won again.”
There’s also a way to buy the world’s fanciest wristwatches without paying anything close to the going price, so long as you move in the same circles that Teams does. He wears a handsome Audemars Piguet. “It’s a $40,000 watch,” he says with no hesitation. “But I paid $17,000. You can say that I’m a bit of a pawnbroker. I have $1 million worth of watches.”
Like most good things that have happened to Teams, this side career began in a casino. Back in 2003, he was playing every day at Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, but he wasn’t gambling it up at blackjack or Texas hold’em. Teams found his edge on a video poker machine called Pick’em Poker. “It was boring,” he says. “So boring that I sometimes had to play a higher risk machine just to relieve the tedium.”
The results, though, were anything but boring. Played correctly, Pick’em Poker was close to a break-even machine. Mohegan Sun, in an effort to induce play from seeming suckers, gave enough comp dollars for machine-play that Teams earned some $300 an hour. But it wasn’t cash. What Teams made were credits that could be spent at Mohegan’s retail outlets. “I worked out a private deal with the owner of a store in the casino,” he says. “He sold me gold coins, which I went on to sell. They came with a nice loophole.” A loophole he preferred to not get into.
Leading me to the Westgate steakhouse, Teams continues: “I had more coin-in and more theoretical loss than anyone in the casino,” he says, emphasizing the word theoretical and making it clear that he did anything but lose. “I spent so much time in the high-limit room that degenerate gamblers there started talking to me. Eventually some of them asked to borrow money. They were always broke and gave me their watches for collateral. Some guys sold me their comp dollars and that was fine as well.”
The watch he’s currently sporting? “I did the deal for this one in Vegas. I was at the Caesars Palace sports book. A guy called me and said he needed money. I told him to meet me at Caesars and to bring the watch. Games were going off and I didn’t want to miss them.”
Sitting down at a table in the steakhouse (the meal is comped, of course), Teams is sipping a glass of single-malt Scotch and waiting for one of his partners to join us. He explains that things started for him on a car lot in Hawaii. His father was in the military; Teams was 18 and landed a job working for an auto dealer in Oahu. At the time, he did not know how to drive a stick and turned out to be terrible at selling cars. The boss offered Teams two options: Get fired or relocate to a sister dealership where a manager was particularly adept at training rookie salesmen.
Teams chose the latter. The trainer was named Eddie Suzui. “It was intense,” recalls Teams. “He went into mirror greeting techniques, showed me how to read people’s lips and eyes, taught me strategies for recognizing when people are lying or willing to accept a price. I learned a lot and became very good. I wound up in Vegas and thought I would get a job selling cars there while I worked on card counting—something that I had been interested in ever since I saw the movie Rain Man in 1988. One day I was out on the lot, the temperature hit 115 degrees, I felt miserable. I had already gotten ahead by $20,000 playing double-deck [blackjack games] and spreading from $25 to $200. I quit my job and began playing full time.”
Adding to his advantage-playing repertoire, he got into shuffle tracking and hole-carding. For the former, Teams taught himself to memorize slugs of cards by making up stories with each card representing a different character in the story. Marilyn Monroe, for example, was the Queen of diamonds. For the latter, he’d spot dealers’ hole cards and send info to a partner who would do the betting. To see the cards, though, Teams explains, “I’d get down really low in my seat. I began wearing kneepads under my pants and that helped take care of the pain.”
After getting backed off for card-counting at a low-stakes blackjack game in an off-strip casino—“I split 10s four times, won all the hands and the pit-boss told me I couldn’t play blackjack anymore because he was too busy to watch me”—Teams saw that video poker expert Bob Dancer was holding classes on the game in the casino. Dancer is a well-regarded advantage player and he gave legitimately good advice, but the casino knew that few people would follow his wisdom and, empowered by the class, they’d feel emboldened to risk money. Teams turned out to be one of the few who actually listened. More importantly, he was drawn by Dancer’s coupons for double-payments on royal flushes.
All you had to do was sit through the entire class and, if you played perfectly, the coupons gave you a 2.7 percent advantage. (For comparison’s sake, card-counting pays off at 1 to 2 percent and gets you kicked out of casinos a lot quicker.) Dancer put on two classes per day, Teams religiously attended both of them and exploited the coupons. Dancer finally took him aside and warned him to take it easy on doubling up or else the casino would back him off from video poker. He listened, found other opportunities and came to recognize that money was not made only from hitting straights and flushes on the screen. You could also get rich by playing the right machines and capitalizing on bonuses, cash-back offers, free-play coupons and various drawings designed to attract losing players.
As Teams unspools his story, a playing partner by the name of Dave Miller, in his thirties and a marathon-racing fanatic, joins us at the dinner table. We put in our food orders and he compels Teams to tell me about a recent play.
It was at Resorts World Casino in Queens, a gambling den that offers only machines and no table games. The casino had an offer for gamblers who played enough of the casino’s electronic games in a single day, entitling them to receive $8,000 in free play divided over the next three months. The problem was that you could put in for the payments only once every three months. On the upside, players were able to satisfy the play requirement at an expected loss of around $500, and the coupons were redeemable at kiosks inside the casino, as opposed to being mailed to a local address.
Knowing the particulars, Teams realized that he needed as many players cards as possible. “All we needed were cards and pin numbers,” he explains. “My girlfriend is from Laos, and she seemed to know every Laoation grandmother in New York. We rented a van, brought them to the casino, paid them $300 each for getting players cards, then played on the cards and cashed in for the free play.”
One challenge was getting the coupons at the kiosks. Casinos have cameras everywhere and management does not take kindly to people who play under multiple cards to seriously monetize the promotion. Teams did a literal headcount and noticed that one in four men at Resorts World wore Yankees hats. So everybody on the crew became instantly indistinguishable by wearing a home-team cap. Miller took it a step further. “I would bring in two cards at a time and keep coming back with different looks,” he says. “I’d wear a hoodie. Then I’d return with a baseball hat. Then there’d be a tee shirt or a windbreaker or a suit.”
Things got busy enough that Teams felt the need to recruit non-professional gamblers for obtaining the coupons. At least one of them, who had a day job as an engineer, found it hard to believe that he could be made so easily. “This guy went in and just stood there with 50 cards, cashing one after the other into the kiosk,” Miller recounts with a rueful tone. “They caught him. He got taken into a backroom, was threatened with arrest and got read the trespass act. He came to my hotel room and was devastated.”
Though annoyed at the time, Teams shrugs it off now: “He’s got a regular job and is not used to that stuff. I’ve been in that situation so many times that I don’t care. Still, 26 of our accounts got frozen and that was the end of it. It lasted two-and-a-half months. If the engineer hadn’t gotten us shut down, we could have made more than $800,000.”
When asked how much he made, Teams smiles tightly and replies: “I don’t recall.”
The waiter sets down prime beef and the usual steakhouse sides. As we dig into dinner, Miller explains that all casino personnel are not as rough as the people at Resorts World. Others, in fact, are surprisingly good sports. He remembers a particularly juicy promotion at the Plaza Hotel & Casino in downtown Vegas. The deal was that anytime you hit a payoff for $1,200 or more, which is taxed at 28 percent, the casino would provide a 30 percent bonus.
Ridiculously profitable for sharp players, it was scheduled to go for 24 hours, from midnight to midnight. “We were 18 hours in when a casually dressed guy, in his thirties, with a British accent, walked up and started asking questions,” remembers Miller. “He asked how we got there, how we heard about the promotion, how we were doing with it. Then he leaned into me and said, ‘I really screwed up with this promotion, didn’t I?’ I realized that he’s the owner of the casino!
“My heart started racing. I said, ‘To be honest, this is pretty good for players.’ Then he softly asked, ‘How bad will this be for me? I’ll keep the promotion going until midnight, as promised, but just tell me what the damage will be.’ I told him that it will probably be around $200,000 per machine. He absorbed the news and said, ‘Well, you have to lose sometimes.’ Then he gave us his business card and kept it going until midnight. In retrospect, it was hilarious.”
They get on a roll and Teams talks about the time he got locked inside a casino restaurant with a lucrative blackjack machine. He and his crew could have stayed there all night if not for a homeless guy inadvertently locked in with them who kept kicking at the door trying to get out.
Miller talks about a bingo game he used to burn off a load of freeplay points for a windfall of $300,000 and a progressive video poker machine at the Palms that had to pay off at $25,000. “It got up to $24,000,” says Miller. “I had to play it for hours longer, but leaving at that point would have been a mathematical catastrophe.”
Rounding things out, they are deep into sports betting. Here’s an easy tip from Teams: If an NFL underdog is ahead by a lot at the half, against a public outfit like the Patriots or Cowboys, make a halftime bet on the dog to cover the spread. Teams has been applying advantage-playing strategies to the trading of futures and cryptocurrencies. He’s been doing well with it and hopes to find outside investors. One stock play he missed, though, unspooled at a major, publicly traded casino back in 2008, before he was seriously trading, when shares of its parent company were below $2. The struggling casino company, desperate to generate immediate revenue, announced that players would receive four-times bonus points, which could be turned into free play. It was so valuable that when a gambler was told he would have to move his car, he asked that they tow it, lest he step away from the machine and lose valuable time in front of it.
The promotion was supposed to go for a day and got extended to last a week. It generated casino cashflow that succeeded in propping up the stock. While Teams, Miller and others experienced serious windfalls—“I made over $1 million that year,” says Teams—they missed out on the biggest advantage play of all by failing to listen to casino personnel that they viewed as shills.
Remembers Miller: “A man in a suit walked up to us and said, ‘I know what you guys are doing. We’re fine with it. But the best thing you can do for your future is to go out and put some of your money into this casino’s stock.’ My mentality at the time was to keep playing and not worry about anything else. People thought he was biased and I didn’t know if it was a huge opportunity or not.” One woman, however, did: “She put $100,000 into the stock and it went from a dollar to $18. That was very good for her.”
As for the future, Miller has a plan: “Being unbeatable at sports, finding opportunities with machines, making endless money.”
Maybe taking in the bigger picture a bit, Teams steps back a notch and says, “Casinos and lawyers can say a game is completely unbeatable, but, when you think about it, that is crazy logic. It may be incredibly complicated, but there will inevitably be a way to beat it.”
Then, with dinner completed and plates being cleared, Teams scrutinizes the tab and realizes that his comp is not quite exhausted. He flags the waiter and orders an entire cheesecake to go. Clearly, leaving money on the table resides outside his frame of reference.
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.