Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hockey Players Love to Gamble

As the Oakland Raiders prepared to meet the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, a friend of mine called to tell me the New York Rangers had rented the Georgetown restaurant/bar he managed to watch the game. They were in D.C. after playing an afternoon game with the Capitals and because he knew I was a huge hockey fan, he invited me to watch the game also.

The entire two floor club was empty except for the players, a few girls, and a handful of random people (like me). The Rangers were easy to spot, even if you didn’t know hockey from hop-scotch, because they were very, very large, and fairly well-dressed. They sat around on the bar’s black leather couches, like hulking wise-guys, and watched Tampa’s defense dismantle Rich Gannon with a record five interceptions, three for second half touchdowns.

The final treat for the evening, aside from the exciting game and famous athletes, was the open bar which everyone abused in copious amounts (I suppose this means that I drank courtesy of the Rangers organization…thanks guys!).

The alcohol and sports mixed well to create an exciting energy; it filled the club as the Rangers took shot after shot and cheered at the jumbo television screen. It was hard to tell this team had taken consecutive beatings and was in desperate need of a playoff push.

Former MVP Eric Lindros stood quietly next to me for the duration of the third quarter. At the time, I was trying hard not to be an annoying fan, but I regret not chatting him up a little bit about his days in Philadelphia. His career was winding down because of concussions, and as he stood by himself at the bar, he seemed like the quiet type anyhow.

However, I could not resist talking to notorious instigator Matthew Barnaby about a fight he had that afternoon. I will never forget it because, as he was getting pounded in the face, he stopped fighting, looked over to the Rangers bench, and laughed like the devil’s own son (above). Barnaby was in the middle of all the action at the bar; that guy’s loose screws make him very entertaining.

The real shock of the evening was witnessing how much these hockey players liked to gamble. Many of them had thick knots of bills and yelled out strange and drunken wagers. For example, I watched one player bet a grand that a catch under review would be ruled a touchdown.

This proclivity toward financial risk is shared by many NHL players. One time MVP Jaromir Jagr lost several hundred thousand betting college football during his short tenure with the Capitals. Rick Tocchet lost his job as Phoenix’s assistant coach when his book-making operation got busted. Gretzky's "wife" was one of his clients. Of course, the NHL forgives and forgets, and Tocchet was promoted to Tampa Bay’s head coaching job this year.

Gambling with money must be a frivolous thrill when placed next to the potential for extreme bodily harm these players skate with every day. I wonder if there is any correlation between the two...

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Baby Picks Derby Winner

Picking ponies has always seemed like a blind lottery to me. The 2009 Kentucky Derby certainly supports this view; Mine That Bird, a 51-1 long shot, the only gelding in the field, rode from last to first and blew by its elite competition, winning by the biggest margin in 63 years. It was the second biggest upset in Derby history and because a baby (yeah, that’s right, a fifteen month old baby!) won the most money at this year’s Kentucky Derby Party, I finally have proof that picking ponies is not a skill at all.

Each year, a good friend of mine from Kentucky hosts a lavish Derby Party to showcase his state pride. He puts together a menu of appetizers, a couple of main courses, and an incredible array of bourbons. The guys put on ties, the girls get into dresses, and we all enjoy a nice May Saturday afternoon. To add to the excitement of the event, my friend relies on me to organize a small racebook so that guests can bet on their favorite horse. This year, the smart money was split between Dunkirk and Pioneer of the Nile (the eventual second place finisher). As the race neared post time, every horse had been bet on, except three long shots. As a joke, a couple who had brought their young child in a pretty little pink dress (coincidently, also Mine That Bird’s color) gave her a dollar. She looked over the sheet, mumbled the horse’s name, and handed me the cash. The proud parents even photographed the event.

Everyone stood in open-mouthed shock, watching the long shot horse storm down the muddy final stretch, and realized that the youngest party guest had just become the biggest winner. We all cheered loudly, startling the tiny hustler, and laughed at the improbable events. Her dad and mom took another picture of me handing over the money and the toddler wandered around the room, gleefully waving tiny fistfuls of cash.

As I sat back and joked about questionable parenting, I contemplated the strange scene. It is quite possible that this was the youngest person, perhaps in the world, to pick the long shot horse, place the bet, and collect her winnings. I can’t shake the guilty vision of this young winner developing a gambling problem later in life, wandering the streets, searching the gutters for lost change, and mumbling “Mine That Bird to win. Mine That Bird to win.”

The thought passes quickly. Hey Baby! Loan me five dollars.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kicked Out for Counting Cards

In the summer of 2004, I became infatuated with the game of blackjack. Although I had played the game a lot in the past, during drunken escapades in Atlantic City, I never took it seriously. I bought the book Blackjack for Blood and learned how to count cards. Hour after hour, day after day, I methodically trained myself to become a blackjack machine; my skill increased as I counted down hundreds of decks and played thousands of practice hands.

In that first year, I made three trips to A.C. and two to Las Vegas, playing a few hours at low table stakes. My records show that I had spread action in 13 different casinos, playing about 23 hours, with a net profit of $834.5 (a good run of slightly more than $36 per hour, but definitely no reason to quit my day job).

This is when the most interesting experience of my blackjack experiment occurred; a casino actually barred little ol’ me from play.

I had scouted out a good table in a tiny casino located at the heart of the Vegas strip called Barbary Coast. Sitting between the mammoth Caesars, Flamingo, Bally’s and Bellagio, this dinky little casino looks completely out of place; I have to believe it won’t be long before it is knocked down for another lavish coin fountain or some other pricey Vegas trinket (ok., so maybe I have a little grudge). It was 11 in the morning and I had been playing for an hour when I encountered a good deck, stacked a win on top of my bet for a max bet, and prepared for a nice little payday. At this moment, a pit boss stepped up, pushed my bet back, and said “No more blackjack for you.” As he walked off without further word, I feigned shock and looked at him, then the dealer, then the stunned old man playing to my left. What the hell? I was even down $85 for the session. I muttered that fact as I left, a little pissed, but also a little proud. The staff of a Vegas casino considered me too good to let play.

To this day, I have not figured out what gave me away. I didn’t feel any “heat.” The pit bosses didn’t even seem to be watching. Maybe the dealers spotted me…maybe my lips moved slightly as I followed the count…maybe it was too early in the morning for a player that seemed to magically pick good spots for big bets…who knows?

Thinking back over the memory, I have never been able to forget how unsurprised the man to my right was by the events. In all my years of gambling in casinos, I’ve seen a lot, but never anyone getting kicked out before, and this guy didn’t even blink. While the old man on my left sat agape, this bearded fellow placidly sat there and avoided eye contact with me. There is the strong chance that he was a shill, working for the casino, and tracking my play.

The end result of my barring was negligible; I was playing at another casino within ten minutes.

While any form of cheating in a Vegas casino is considered a felony, counting cards is not cheating. It is merely a method of using math and intelligence to gain an edge over a game and beat a casino, or, in other words, beat an industry that is so accustomed to beating everyone.

Personally, I consider counting cards to be very, very boring. My two year blackjack experiment was only relatively entertaining and the tiny stakes were only slightly profitable. By the end, I grew tired of thinking like a machine. As if my brain was ruled by binary coding, numbers dominated every conscious thought, even away from the table. Becoming a machine might be exciting for some people, but I cannot stomach the boredom.