The Man who Broke Atlantic City Playing Blackjack
Don Johnson is not your average blackjack player, but rather a skilled veteran whose claim to fame is that he won nearly $6 million playing blackjack in one night at the Tropicana casinos after taking the Borgata for $5 million and Caesars for $4 million in the previous months. That's a total of $15 million in wins playing blackjack.
How did he do it? Card counting is probably the obvious answer that springs to mind but Johnson was being scrutinized VERY carefully during his runs at these casinos and the verdict is he'd beaten them fair and square. But there is a little more to the story. Johnson was a casino high roller, the type of high roller that casinos want to please and keep playing no matter what.
In addition to betting big Johnson is also an extraordinary blackjack player, who plays perfect cards and is experienced enough to know all of the right moves to make no matter what the scenario during a game. What's more is that he knows the industry and how to play the casinos.
Hard times never favour the house and Johnson knew that, so when the Atlantic City casino market hit a slump due to the recession towards the end of 2010 and were working overtime and offering whales better terms and discounts to lure their high rollers through the doors to stay afloat, he capitalized on the opportunity.
At this time the Atlantic City Casinos knew who Johnson was, he had been identified as a high roller and even his skills had been noted but they did not consider him good enough to prevent him from playing. So when the Borgata called he explained to them that the "lifetime discount" they had given him previously did not work for him, the casino marketers began to negotiate to get him to play and once he closed the deal with them Caesars and the Tropicana were on him to compete for the business and offered him similar terms which amounted to a 20 percent discount after his losses hit $500,000 as long as the casinos agreed to shave off a portion of their house edge during his games.
While Johnson will not disclose what other rule adjustments the casinos agreed on, these offers in theory should never have happened at all because casinos generally use computer programs to calculate the exact odds, down to the last cent in order to structure deals that attract high roller clientele but still retain their house advantage over them. Even Johnson believes that the "somebody missed the math when they ran the numbers" on what they agreed to. But like we said, these were desperate times in the Atlantic City Casino market.
Johnson on the other hand did not miss the math and along with his 20 percent discount and adjusted set of rules which the casino agreed to which included playing with a hand-shuffled 6 deck shoe; the option of splitting and doubling down on up to four hands simultaneously and a "soft 17" ‐ a rule wherein the deal must stand, counting aces as 11 but which allows the player to draw another card on a hand valued at six plus an ace, he effectively decreased the house edge at the Tropicana to just 0.25%. This effectively meant that he was playing a 50-50 game against the casino and with his 20% discount was only risking 80 cents to every dollar he played. He did have to put up a million dollars of his own money to begin with but he was quoted later saying that you would never lose the million, when you reached $500,000 in losses you would stop playing, and with the 20% discount only owe the casino $400,000.
In a 50-50 game, the player and the house share the same amount of risk and if the player manages to get lucky at the start, there is little motivation to stop playing. With Johnson's superior blackjack skills and strategic game play he was able to pull ahead in the game rather quickly and could then afford to take greater risks because he was ultimately playing with house money and could use the discount against them.
He did this at all three casinos, and according to Johnson, the Tropicana cancelled the deal after he won $5.8 million, the Borgata stopped him from playing after he won $5 million and Caesars cut him off after his winning total reached the $4 million mark.
According to Johnson, the Trop pulled the deal after he won a total of $5.8 million, the Borgata ended his game play when he reached the $5 million mark, and the dealer at Caesars stopped filling the chip tray once his earnings reached $4 million.
While most casinos in Atlantic City have banned him from play, the Tropicana has since invited Johnson back to host a blackjack tournament, the days of sweet discount deals are gone. Nevertheless, Johnson claims that just by playing the original rules he negotiated without the discount he has still managed to win a further $2 million from the casino.
According to Johnson the fame and money haven't changed his life much, he still lives in the same house and hasn't made any large purchases. He has however begun to hang out in the A-list crowd and of course, everybody wants to play against the most famous blackjack player in the world, so he get a lot of invitations to games and flies around the world in comped jets.
So while he is an exceptional player and would probably win a lot in general, he is now on the world's casino radars and the casinos he tries to play at will ensure that the odds remain stacked against him as far as possible, that's if they let him play at all.