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glory days: the story of the dd' blackjack machine (reprint from december 1999)

2011-08-31 - 8:19 a.m.

Peachfront's Note: Glory Days: The Story of the DD' Blackjack Machine was written and produced as a Christmas gift booklet in late 1999. There are a few minor changes in this reprint to reflect the fact that the team went on to win millions of dollars after the booklet was published.

Since the invention of card counting, there have been many professional blackjack teams. Some of them have even been quite successful. But only one team started from a bankroll of nearly zero and then managed to attain that mythical dream of all gamblers, the million dollar win.

It starts on the evening of Monday, May 5, 1997, in E's Mandeville home. This is where D. and E. were cruising the Internet through E's text-only FreeNet account. They were cruising the 'Net together on this evening in part because E's mate, R. was in upstate Mississippi doing computer work at a catfish plant, and partly because there were no tournaments or promotions going on at the nearby Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos.

In the swirl of truth, rumor, innuendo, and lies that is the Internet, E. and D. chanced upon a glimmer of possibility. Bayou Caddy's Jubilee Casino, now paradoxically located in Greenville, Mississippi, a good four hour drive from its original home on the actual Bayou Caddy, was about to do something desperate and stupid. Graveyard shift was going to offer 2-to-1 on Blackjacks. It was eight P.M. and the banks were closed, but D. & E. knew from experience the power of a 2-to-1 promotion. It was not an offer to ignore, even if it might turn out to be false. They combed through wallets, change buckets, and secret hiding places, and formed up a bankroll just short of $1,300. Neither of them had ever been to Greenville, but they were on their way in just half an hour. When R. got home, ironically having driven almost 5 hours from nearly the same place D. & E. were now headed, he found only a note explaining their intentions.

Oddly, it was to be the only time the pair managed to travel to Greenville -- and they would travel there quite a bit in the next few years -- without making any wrong turns. They almost crossed the bridge into Arkansas by mistake, but instead ended up at the Jubilee just as the promotion was about to begin.

With their modest bankroll, they began playing two hands of $10 each. And they lost. Throughout May 6 and 7 the dealers won hand after hand, drawing out to such an incredible number of dealer 21's that the pair harbored dark thoughts about Voodoo sacrifices and cheating casinos. By 5:00 AM on Wednesday, they were flat broke, slinking back to Mandeville to get more ammunition.

There was no doubt they'd return. It was a 2-to-1 promotion. Their luck had been bad, but they knew the power of these things.

The tide turned on the morning of May 9. It wasn't much of a win, but it was a win. At some point on May 10 the original lost bankroll was recovered -- and the players were just starting to rock. On May 11 they were playing the promotion maximum of 2 hands of $25, and the tables wouldn't stop dumping. By May 14 others had discovered the game, and the black chips continued to pile up.

It all seemed unreal, the more so because Bayou Caddy's Jubilee had once been located much closer to D. & E's homes, just an hour away in Lakeshore, Mississippi. It had been a popular hangout for D, E, R, and other friends, especially in the days of the free Craps and Blackjack tournaments. It was odd to walk this familiar building without seeing any of the familiar faces, playing the familiar games, or eating the familiar foods, and finding outside the weirdly unfamiliar Greenville instead of the lively Lakeshore dock.

It felt like a dream, and like all dreams it came to an end. On the evening of May 14 the players returned from their comped dinner to find that the promotion had been cancelled.

D. & E. mourned the passing of this cash cow as all positive-EV players mourn the passing of playable games, but they would soon learn that Greenville had not finished paying off. In July, the graveyard shift employees at the Lighthouse Point casino walked off their jobs en masse because of the lack of customers -- and tips. Management had to train new dealers and entice them to stay on the job, fast. They decided to try -- amazingly -- a 2-to-1 blackjack promotion.

The conditions this time were terrible. Management was hostile, obviously afraid to back off tipping players but equally unthrilled at watching profits flow out the door. Only one table was open for the promotion, a $1 minimum table. So D. & E. had to get there at least an hour or two early each night to snag a spot. Worse, they started off again losing like crazy. This time there was no sudden turnaround, just a slow crawl back to even and then triumph. Management was disgusted by the small loss of a few thousand dollars and killed the promotion at the end of July.

D's playing stake was still dangerously low, and he continued to explore other avenues to augment it. One of these was the Saturday craps tournament then hosted by the bankrupt and deeply embittered Palace Casino in Biloxi. R. was able to help out here, and the three decided to form a dice team and split the proceeds. Results came quickly. E. won first for $2,500 on August 16; R. won the $2,500 on August 23; D. won it on August 30. The Palace seemed to notice that the same people always won and cancelled the tournament.

The best stroke of luck occurred, though, when the Hilton Flamingo Casino in New Orleans learned that it would lose its license sometime in September (due entirely to a bureaucratic screw-up of monumental proportions). While the discouraged management concerned itself more with finding new jobs than with spotting counters, D. boldly attacked the double deck BJ game for long hours. By the time he was told not to play any more, he'd accumulated a truly adequate bankroll of $30,000.

The real game had only just begun.

Early Setbacks

At the time, though, D. couldn't be sure that he was on his way to triumph. There had been many -- perhaps too many -- "false dawns." In February of 1994, playing to a red chip bankroll, he'd won every day for a week at the President Casino in Biloxi. Their reaction to his win of a few hundred dollars was extreme and, he would later learn, illegal. Mississippi gaming law is modeled after Nevada's, and it is perfectly legal if terribly unsportsmanlike to bar winning players. However, it is not legal to detain them. Unaware of their illegality of their behavior, D. allowed himself to be "back-roomed" and photographed by the President's security people. They further claimed he would be arrested if he ever returned.

Despite this warning he did return many times over the next few years and even had one of the most dramatic dice rolls of his life at the President. On that occasion he was tipped $50 by a high roller who had made thousands betting on him. But the fact remained that when he was still a lifetime loser at gambling and, having recovered a mere $1,700, D. had for the first time been refused entry into a Blackjack game.

In those days tournaments were often a source of temporary excitement. In May of 1994, D. won a $2,500 first place at the Isle of Capri in Biloxi. It was only the second Blackjack tournament in which he'd ever played, and he encouraged E. and R. to join him in this inexpensive and profitable pursuit. On May 19, 1994 R. scored $2,500 in a free tournament at the Lady Luck in Biloxi, and D's share of that was a hefty $1,000 because he made the final round too. Then, on June 16, R. (the only individual to make the finals both of the two times the tournament was held) won the first place prize of $10,000. D., whose chip-counting skills were honed to perfection, knew R. had won by the incredibly slim margin of $832.50 to $827.50 before R. himself did. D., who didn't make the finals himself this time, scored another $1,000. With this stake he ran his bankroll up to $9,000 but could not break the five digit barrier. In time, he was broke again.

In October 1995, Fate seemed to step in with another offer of hope. D's bankroll was nonexistent, and he'd taken a none-too-thrilling job selling cable TV for Cox Cable, but he learned that the Boomtown Belle in Harvey, Louisiana would be paying 2-to-1 on Blackjacks during certain early morning cruises. The night of this discovery E. won $1,197 on a video poker machine at the Treasure Bay in Biloxi. She agreed immediately that they should use this money to tackle the 1.67% positive 2-to-1 promotion. It really wasn't enough and they nearly went broke on October 24, but they did manage almost to break even after the terrifying plunge of that day. The next day they began winning, and they continued to win for nine glorious days and over $13,000 cash profit. This party ended on November 3 when D, E, and another friend, Dr. R, were told that they were no longer allowed to play Blackjack at the Boomtown.

Having been befriended by a card-counting high roller who was also a very successful personal injury lawyer, D. decided to sue. Even the Louisiana Attorney General hadn't managed to give players a straight answer on whether or not it was legal to bar Louisiana players from Blackjack games. D. and E. gleefully calculated their expected earnings for the entire promotion based on their 9-day performance and sued for that amount plus triple damages, since the incident had occurred on a cruising vessel. Although their attorney warned them that the odds of winning were low, the potential pay-off was in the six figures.

[Peachfront's Note: It is now well-established law that casinos in Louisiana may bar winning players from Blackjack games.]

E. and R, former Jefferson Parish residents, warned of corruption in the system but all were surprised when the judge blatantly asked for a "donation" to his campaign. D. and E. rightly figured that they could not outbid a casino and declined. The trial itself was amusing. On the first day the judge played with opposing counsel, denying their motions and making trouble for them. On the second day, his "donation" presumably having been made more adequate, he did everything short of directing the jury to find for the casino. D. was disappointed about the injustice but rested content knowing it would have been cheaper for the Boomtown to just let him play, rather than to mount an expensive defense. He didn't have the money, but neither did the Boomtown.

Of course, in 1995, D. had no way of knowing how the litigation would turn out several years later. He courageously took his winnings, turned his back on the indignities of being "the cable guy," and made another assault on the tables. Once again, however, his small bankroll was wriped out before he could break the seemingly impenetrable $10,000 barrier.

The Beginnings of the Team

But everything had changed with D's $30,000 Flamingo win. And he was keenly aware that great double-deck games were still being dealt on the soon-to-be-history riverboat. He decided to form a Blackjack team, starting with his brother S, who was also a capable counter. E. was just beginning to develop the knowledge of card-counting but D. tested her skills and found her play adequate for attacking a double deck game. On September 24, 1997, S. became the first player for the newly created team when he entered the Flamingo and promptly lost $4,000. The next day E. and S. returned to the Flamingo. E. was winning almost from the first bet, and management made no secret of its displeasure. Soon, E. was asked to leave the boat. Within thirty minutes. S. too was "man overboard." If D. had been a less determined person, the adventure might have ended right there. In reality, it was only the beginning.

By this time, D. had become DD' to his fans on the Internet, who appreciated his practical and optimistic approach to the game. Now DD' initiated a whirlwind of activity to find out just how fast he could grow his bankroll without losing it again. Accepting that original teammates S. and E. were already known on the Gulf Coast as intelligent players, he decided it was time to make his first forays to the new markets of Vicksburg and Tunica, Mississippi, and of course to the gambling capital of the world, Las Vegas, Nevada. With the New and Improved Bankroll, DD' and his players quickly learned that casino comps such as free hotel rooms and steak dinners reduced the expenses to almost nothing. But the bankroll was still shaky for those first few months and everyone wondered how long the party could continue.

In late November of 1997 the bankroll reached a low of $14,000 and DD' declared that, "if the money is going to be lost, I'm going to lose it myself." Once again, the fateful town of Greenville played its part in changing his luck. DD' and E. were invited to return to the Lighthouse Point Casino for a free tournament, and they agreed to the typical 80/20 split on winnings -- 80% for the winner, 20% for the loser. If they had winnings to split, of course. During the tournament play DD' reached a new low in his bankroll, but E. won the $2,500 first prize. DD's $500 share came at the turnaround point and, after wins in Vicksburg, the team was back in action.

Although there would always be wins and losses, this was the last time the bankroll was in serious danger of being wiped out.

The Random Walk

Over the next two years the team continued to grow, both in players and in bankroll, and the accumulated win ramped up to $800,000 by late 1999. Tragedy would touch the team when one of its players, H.E., was diagnosed with lung cancer. Although he was a strong fighter and achieved remission for a short while, he passed away in March 1999. For the most part, however, the team's story would be one of victory upon victory, of winning excellent earnings while enjoying the best rooms, food, and entertainment that resorts in Vegas, Mississippi, and Louisiana could provide.

During 1998 even Louisiana featured some noteworthy games. The team will fondly remember the $100 minimum single deck game at Cypress Bayou, near Morgan City, which was positive off the top and often available heads-up. Disiniformation spread on the Internet webpage BJ21 had convinced most counters in other parts of the nation that Cypress Bayou was a hotbed of cheating, leaving the game open for DD' to exploit. (They were never to learn who started this rumor, but the team certainly appreciates it!)

Another good game, this one practically a "card counter convention," was the double deck game offered at the Isle of Capri in Bossier City. After an under-age gambling scandal much of the old staff had been fired, and the new dealers cheerfully dealt almost to the bottom. Indeed, on one wild weekend in May, DD' and E. had dealers run out of cards four times.

Vegas was more of a challenge in the beginning. Indeed, after the first couple of trips, DD' began to mutter about a Vegas "curse." Because the six deck game was often the more playable one in Vegas, the standard deviation was much higher than with the single and double deck games the team had been offered in Louisiana and Mississippi. In the end, though, even Vegas bowed to the inexorable mathematics of Blackjack, and the profits began to pile up from this venue as from others.

In 1999 S. and former team-member TH discovered some unexpected positive-EV value in certain Blackjack machines. Most of the machines in Vegas were quickly burned out, but thousands of dollars were collected from such unassuming casinos as O'Shea's, Holy Cow, and Bourbon Street. Better yet, other machines were located in the Carolinas, especially at the Harrah's Casino on the Cherokee Indian reservation in the Smoky Mountains. DD' himself was particularly "hot" with these machines, winning over $60,000 before the game was discontinued. The team as a whole had a combined win from this one casino of over $120,000, making it the single most profitable game they'd ever played to that date. And this happened, amazingly, with a top bet of only $200.

The Last 2-to-1 Promotion

On October 18, 1999. all but one of the current team members gathered for a wild day of excitement that will probably never be repeated in the annals of Blackjack history. On that day, starting at 2 AM, the Lady Luck in Lula, Mississippi, offered 2-to-1 pay-outs on Blackjacks. The maximum bet was supposed to be $100, and DD' calculated the expected value of the game at around $200-plus per hour per player. The actual return was in the neighborhood of $465 per man-hour. But then, some dealers were paying the bonus on hands up to $400. It also quickly became apparent that no one was really monitoring the surveillance cameras. The many inexperienced dealers on graveyard shift were making errors right and left in favor of the players.

Later, the team would be told that many dealers were upset by a shake-up in management, caused by the casino's recent sale to the Isle of Capri. The survillance crew had walked off the job, and an embittered payroll employee had scrambled access to the retirement plans. Another exmployee destroyed the casino mailing list. DY, one of our team players who had previously been banned from the property and the discoverer of the game, says that he was spotted by the pit within 5 minutes of beginning to play. But they didn't care. They let him play, even though he parlayed a $500 buy-in to a $10,000 team win. One theory is that the angry employees wanted the house to lose as much money as possible!

At the end of the day, when the chips were cashed in and the money counted up, the team had won over $40,000 in just 14 hours.

DD' Hits the Big Time

In addition to his financial success and his recognized leadership of one of the few Blackjack teams that didn't fall apart because of squabbling, cheating, or stealing, DD' became a recognized Blackjack authority whose advice was eagerly sought on the Internet. He made important discoveries in the fields of bet sizing and bankroll growth, which had of course been of particular interest to him in those early days of the team. He also instigated a much more insightful investigation into older hypotheses about card-eating. Posts could be spotted on the Internet clamoring for him to publish a book of his secrets, and experts such as [name redacted, since the once highly regarded expert in question has unfortunately aged into a crank] were quick to acknowledge his inspiration. Many of these professionals who had Ph.Ds are unaware to this day [in 1999] that DD' is entirely self-taught at higher mathematics, his formal education on the subject having mostly ended in high school.

Frank Scoblete wrote in Guerilla Gambling that no one ever won a lot of money at Blackjack who didn't have a lot of money to start with. DD' long ago blasted through that barrier to become perhaps the leading Blackjack guru of the southern United States, if not the world. With his team on track to achieve the mystical million dollar win by late 1999 or early 2000, what will he do next?

With casinos opening almost weekly across the nation and major gambling meccas such as Reno/Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City still largely untouched, who can predict where the next profitable adventure will occur? All we can say for sure is that, in the next millennium, DD' will be there to render his own version of the casino tax -- on the casinos themselves.

--story by Roger Williams & Elaine Radford, based on Elaine's contemporaneous gambling/tax diary, first printing December 1999

Peachfront's Final Note: DD's team ultimately went on to win millions of dollars before they disbanded the team, thanks to the increasing difficulty in finding and being allowed to enter high-stakes Blackjack games. I do not know if anyone, ever again, will be able to build a bankroll from nothing much except a coin bucket filled with free rolls of quarters from casino mailers and some free tournaments -- and, over a period of time, be able to move from a nearly zero bankroll to a bankroll too large to keep all of one's money in action, even with a top bet of two hands of $1,200 in a favorable count. For myself, all I can say is that it was a hell of a wild ride. For lagniappe, you can read a blackjack team trip diary from September 1999, if you click right here.

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