The Good Life

The Blackjack Ball

The most notorious casino gamblers congregate once a year for a secret party that’s invite only
| By Michael Kaplan | From Maggie Siff, July/August 2017
The Blackjack Ball

It seems like a typical Saturday night in Las Vegas. Slot machines clang from one end of the Strip to the other. Various iterations of Cirque du Soleil shows go off precisely as anticipated. Poker games rev up and craps tables teem with action. And while casino blackjack pits don’t show any noticeable dips in activity, surveillance and security personnel can probably take it a little easy tonight. On this particular evening, all the world’s most lethal blackjack players have taken the night off. They’re not at the blackjack tables counting cards or tracking shuffles or exploiting the other weaknesses of the house. Tonight, they are attending the 21st annual Blackjack Ball. 

A mile or so from the city’s neon-laced gambling dens, multimillion-dollar winners congregate inside an earth-toned clubhouse on the grounds of a gated housing development. Notorious advantage players and infamous card sharks sip fine Champagne, nibble on canapés and socialize in an open, relaxed manner. This is a rare Vegas opportunity for people whose very livelihoods rely on maintaining low profiles and pretending to be unskilled at games that they have devoted thousands of hours to fleecing. 

The Blackjack Ball ranks as the gambling world’s equivalent of the G2 Summit or World Economic Forum. Elite players fly in from around the world to socialize, rub elbows with one another, discuss future playing arrangements and make good on past ones.

Put yourself in the company of those who have innovated techniques for beating all manner of casino games, and you recognize your place in a fascinating world. “Attending the Blackjack Ball confirmed to me that I don’t have to live a mundane existence,” says veteran card counter Joanna Henderson. “People there support a vision so different from that of my mainstream friends. It feels like a secret society where members who have a focus on one thing can get together and share their views and experiences.”

Certainly, it is one of the few gatherings where someone like Darryl Purpose will whip out an iPhone to show off a stunning minute of casino surveillance footage that focuses on him. Tall, buzz-headed and favoring thickly rimmed eyeglasses, Purpose was once called the best card counter in the game by the late blackjack god Ken Uston. 

A few feet away, retired card cheat Dustin Marx shows off his moves, putting on a display of subterfuge and slight of hand that once allowed him to relieve casinos of untold sums. 

Later on in the evening, some of the sharpest gamblers alive will use relevant skills to square off in a competition, showing the room just what they are capable of doing against casinos. Winner will be deemed Player of the Year. “How would you like to be the director of surveillance from MGM International and come to my party?” Max Rubin, the host of this event, asks dryly. “That will never happen and I’m not worried about them showing up. We don’t sweat any of that. We have guards at the door. And they are serious security, not just on hand for show. My guys make sure that no one comes who is not on the approved list. Hell, we stock more than $10,000 worth of Champagne here.” 

And that’s to say nothing of the pockets full of cash that attendees routinely carry on them. Anthony Curtis, formerly a professional gambler and currently the owner of Huntington Press, a publisher that specializes in gambling books, figures that it’s hardly unusual for partygoers to have five-figure sums stuffed in their pockets. Some of the money goes toward gambling on events that will take place over the course of the evening. More of it, says Rubin, is for friends and collaborators who rarely see one another to settle up. As he puts it, “This is the only place on the planet where over 100 people affiliated on the highest end of blackjack and other gambling opportunities can gather socially without being discovered.”

While it’s common knowledge here that many card players have made the 21st century move of expanding to capitalize on weaknesses in machine games, nobody is especially forthcoming about exactly what is up. After all, as much as these people are friends, they are also friendly competitors. They angle to capitalize on the same opportunities and deploy similar gambits. No need to tip off the competition too much.

Invitations to the Ball are so coveted that people rally for gaining admission by begging Rubin and his influential friends for plus-ones. One of those influential friends is Edward Thorp, author of Beat the Dealer, the book that provided the original blueprint for card counting, which Thorp himself invented. He’s become a regular at the ball, functions as a big draw for others and is appropriately treated like royalty. As one guest puts it: “Everybody bows down to Ed—and they should.” This year he is on hand to celebrate the publication of his autobiography, A Man For All Markets, which is not a titular exaggeration. Having long ago moved on from cards and casinos, Thorp has devised blackjack-inspired systems for making hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street’s financial markets.

His rock star status is evident in the excitement felt by normally blasé John Chang (a founding member of the famous MIT blackjack team and a model for Kevin Spacey’s character in the movie 21) when he and a couple of buddies got to play several double-deck rounds with Thorp after a recent Ball. “Considering who he is, playing with Thorp was really amazing,” says Chang. Recalling that the inventor of card counting did not get very far out of line, even when the count was high, Chang adds, “In his book, he talked about the importance of getting comfortable in your environment and not pushing things too early. I witnessed him doing that very thing. I moved my bets around, going from $800 to $1,200 as the count rose, and he only went up from $100 to $200! Apparently, I figured, he’s not comfortable playing at this time. We all won, got up from the table, walked away, and Thorp said, ‘That’s the first time I’ve played in 40 years.’ ”

The Ball’s guest list is kept tidy by Rubin and his invitation committee, which is made up of Blackjack Hall of Famers. The Hall, believe it or not, is a real thing, with a Cooperstown equivalent at Barona Resort & Casino near San Diego. It’s where Rubin consults as a game-protection specialist. There’s even a corridor that’s been dedicated to blackjack’s top practitioners. Guys like James Grosjean, Ken Uston, Richard Munchkin and Bill Benter are well represented. Less-than-revealing photos can be seen on display. “I’m concerned about people knowing how I look,” says middle-aged Tommy Hyland, a Hall of Fame member who has been extremely successful at managing teams that beat games around the globe. “So I gave one of my old college pictures. Obviously, I look nothing like that at this point.”

The committee makes sure that interlopers and troublemakers are kept out of the party. “A minimum of five Hall of Fame members vet who comes,” says Rubin. “Each has veto power and if there is anybody who may cause a problem, they are not allowed in.” 

It’s strict enough that one of the biggest gamblers of the moment was refused an invitation this year because of questions about her associates. Another, who had long attended the ball and was portrayed in the blackjack flick 21, received the kibosh over suspicions of dodgy behavior. Then there’s the esteemed statistician who began working for a major gaming operator, helping executives there to thwart advantage players looking for edges on side bets. “He can’t come anymore,” Rubin says flatly. “He understands why and is a gentleman about it.” 

Because the Ball is a gathering of gamblers, there is Calcutta-style betting set up... Early on, arm wrestling counted among the events in the player of the year contest.

For those who are lucky enough to land invitations, there are just two requirements: Show up with a bottle of chilled premium Champagne (if you bring a guest, bring two bottles) and agree to never play at Barona, which sponsors the event and underwrites its cost. “That’s a genius move on the part of the Barona,” says Richard Munchkin, who, like other Hall of Fame members, receives unlimited food, beverage and room comps there. “Whatever the party costs is nothing compared to the money they save by Ball attendees agreeing not to play.”

Beyond that, woe to anyone who fails to follow Rubin’s carefully worded dictate on the beverage to be brought. “Max is rigid about Champagne,” says Joanna Henderson. “Last year I saw him kick someone the fuck out for bringing a split of Champagne. He didn’t even tell him to go to the store and buy a full bottle. He just booted him out. One year I brought a single bottle for two people and it wasn’t Dom Perignon. Max really let me have it. But after that I always brought Dom—and two bottles.”

The Blackjack Ball began in a small, organic way during the early days of 1997. Fittingly, it was initiated by a casino glitch that benefited the sharpest professional gamblers. For some reason, according to Rubin, MGM Grand chose not to subscribe to the Griffin Book. Produced by a local detective agency, the Book tracked cheaters and advantage players and was a literal book with photos of people that casinos did well to keep off of their tables. At the time, it was the best way to identify card counters and others who played games advantageously. 

As a result of the nonexistent system for recognizing gaming-world professionals, MGM had the dubious distinction of attracting all the best blackjack players in the business. 

During big weekends and special events—when the casino was particularly crowded—team-members filled the tables and signaled one another to announce counts and call big bettors into the games. “Everybody learned everybody else’s signals and the teams were continually picking each other off and jumping in on one another’s action,” remembers Rubin. “There was a big fight over this and it got really acrimonious.”

Then Rubin, who always seems to be in the thick of things (Rick Blaine, author of Blackjack Blueprint, describes Rubin as “a power broker”), offered a solution to aggrieved friends: “I suggested that if somebody picks off the signal from another team, he should pay a fee for joining the game. Everybody started compensating each other and the players became more cooperative. If someone was ace-tracking [which would be hurt by another player jumping into the game], people backed off. Every night they met at Denny’s, near the old Sands, and settled up. There were lots of verbal signals. One guy came over and asked what time it was, he was told 13 o’clock [meaning that the count of cards was 13]. Then a bunch of low cards came out and the player announced that it was now 17 o’clock. The dealer looked at the guy like he was crazy, but suddenly big bets hit the table and it was all Rembrandts [gambling slang for picture cards] on the next hand.”

Rubin remembers there being 35 or 40 top professional players in town at the time. He decided to throw a party on the Saturday after New Year’s Eve, which is always a big night for card counters and the like. “The entry fee was a comped bottle of Dom,” Rubin says, explaining how the tradition got set. “Some guys even brought the silver ice buckets from their rooms.” He adds that this was back in the day when casinos gave out bottles of Champagne the way they now provide chocolates on pillows. Circa 2017, attendees at the Ball are likelier to buy their bottles at Vegas liquor shops than to get them for free from casino hosts.

They’re also less likely to get injured during the annual challenge that Rubin puts together (Blaine won it in 2016). From the start, Rubin intended the party to be more than just an occasion to socialize. He included a contest where attendees play to be deemed the greatest blackjack player for the coming year. Competition begins with a trivia contest—which includes tricky brain teasers about the odds of various card playing situations and questions concerning games to be found in casinos that the attendees tend to frequent. The top five finishers there compete in feats of skill that include cutting to a specific number of cards, chip shuffling, pitching cards, playing through various situations and old fashioned card counting. 

The first time I attended, back in the early 2000s, I knew very little about the strategies deployed by serious advantage players. So when I saw Richard Munchkin expertly taking down the card-cutting portion of a competition, I thought it was kind of silly, like a cute parlor trick. I had no idea that this skill had earned him loads of money in casinos. But, it should be noted, that year I also won the so-called “jackass trophy.” It’s a small, cheap memento that has a kicking donkey above the trophy’s base. It goes to the person with the lowest trivia-contest score. The first year  I attended, that was me.

The 2017 Blackjack Ball counts as the most star-studded gathering yet. Such a turn is fitting when you consider that it’s the 21st annual event, and even the most casual blackjack player knows the importance of the number. 

Because the Ball is a gathering of gamblers, there is Calcutta-style betting set up in which guests bid to wager on the players who they think will win. The prize pool routinely clears $10,000. Early on, arm wrestling counted among the events in the player of the year contest. A former college wrestler, Anthony Curtis had proven himself to be a tough competitor on that leg of the donnybrook. But when he came up against his buddy Mike Castellano (“Fit as shit” is how Curtis describes him), Curtis knew that he was an underdog. 

He had to devise a way of beating Castellano that would not require brute force. “We were going left handed,” remembers Curtis. “I looked over my right shoulder and thought I had the perfect way to anchor myself under the table. I hit it at exactly the right second, floored Castellano, and the place was stunned. John Chang saw it happening and took a picture.”

People checked out the shot and wondered whether or not Curtis had broken any rules. “I saw it and congratulated Curt,” says Castellano. “I figured that what he did was an advantage play. It was allowed within the confines of the Blackjack Ball’s rules.”

Not long after, though, Curtis confronted an opponent against whom table-holding tricks would not work. “The guy weighed 250 pounds, I did my best to beat him and heard something in my arm crack,” recalls Curtis. “He tore my elbow’s ligaments. A day later, my whole arm turned black. That was the end of arm wrestling.”

The 2017 Blackjack Ball counts as the most star-studded gathering yet. Such a turn is fitting when you consider that it’s the 21st annual event, and even the most casual blackjack player knows the importance of the number. Ed Thorp gives a heartfelt speech about loving the game—even though his stock trading algorithms have generated far more money for him than casino gaming ever could—and his talk resulted in a standing ovation. 

On his feet, and dominating the front-and-center table, is Don Johnson—not the actor but the former jockey who’s used crafty techniques to extract 10s of millions of dollars from blackjack tables across the United States. Poker superstar Phil Ivey sits alongside him. Other gambling world luminaries with intentionally low profiles but staggeringly large bank accounts fill out the remaining seats. Curtis classifies it as the night’s “VIP table.”

Johnson is particularly keyed up because he is on the ballot for the Blackjack Hall of Fame and views himself as a favorite to get in. He’s so confident that he brought his laptop with an acceptance speech on the screen. Ratcheting things up further is the fact that the Hall of Fame winner—decided by voting at the Ball—will receive a 15-liter Nebuchadnezzar of Luc Belaire rosé sparkling wine. Johnson has an endorsement deal with the company and provides the bottle. Maybe a little too optimistic about their guy, the folks at Luc Belaire engraved Johnson’s name on the bottle before shipping it over.

Max Rubin holds a very visible black marker, making it clear that if Johnson loses the election, Rubin will black out his name and put in that of the winner. Taking few chances, Johnson has loaded tables with magazines that contain articles about him. Additionally, he has not been shy about campaigning. “I called all my bros and said, ‘Listen, either you vote for me or we are not friends anymore,’ ” he recalls.

Apparently the strong-arming worked. Johnson won his award and took out a small posse of friends to celebrate. “I think we went to Omnia and it was an easy night,” says Johnson who’s famous for blowing cash in nightclubs. “It only ran $50,000.” 

Less splashy was Anthony Curtis. After coming close many times, he finally took down first place in the Blackjack Ball Player of the Year competition, garnering a giant booze bottle of his own. “There were years where winning would have automatically meant a lot to me,” he says. “But by 2017, I wasn’t even thinking about it. Then, when I finished first, I was surprisingly happy. It felt like a big deal—and I have the big bottle of Luc Belaire to show for it. Next day there was a party at Munchkin’s house. I brought the bottle but we never got around to opening it. Now the Luc Belaire sits in my office, and it feels like a nice trophy to have.”


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