Longform’s Guide to Gambling: Amazing Stories About the World’s Luckiest—and Unluckiest—Gamblers

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
May 12 2012 7:05 AM

The Longform Guide to Gambling

Casinos, bingo parlors, and the best and worst bettors in the world—great stories about gambling.

A dealer works the blackjack table.
A dealer works the blackjack table.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s brand-new app.

We humans are relentlessly eager put our hard-earned cash on the line in games of chance. Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or the bingo parlor—we’ll go anywhere on the off chance of coming out ahead by night’s end. Here’s a batch of stories—we went with seven, for good luck—about lotteries, casinos, and the gamblers who either win big, win small, or get taken to the cleaners.

Alexandra Berzon • Wall Street Journal • December 2009

In 2007, Harrah’s made 5.6 percent of its total Las Vegas revenue off of a single person: Terrance Watanabe.

“One reason Mr. Watanabe was seen as so valuable to Harrah's, say Messrs. Deleon and Kunder, two of his handlers, is that he gravitated toward games with low odds, including roulette and slots. ‘He was considered a “house” player because slots and roulette are house games—they have terrible odds for the player,’ says Mr. Kunder. ‘And the way he played blackjack, he made it a house game. He made such bad decisions on the blackjack table.’

“Ms. Jones disputes this interpretation. ‘I don't put a lot of credibility in that,’ she says.

“Several employees say Mr. Watanabe would stay at the tables for up to 24 hours, sometimes losing as much as $5 million in a single binge. He was allowed to play three blackjack hands simultaneously with a $50,000 limit for each hand. At one point, the casino raised his credit to $17 million, according to court documents.“

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Jay Kang • Morning News • October 2010

A story of gambling addiction, in seven parts.

“Unlike drug narratives, which fixate on withdrawal and destruction, gambling narratives tend to glamorize the upswing—the writer/gambler will always tell you about his biggest score, how quickly he blew the money, and how fast he was back at the tables, but he will rarely tell about the scraped-out bottom. Massive losses are almost always followed up by a massive rallying—a man’s last five dollars turned miraculously into the $10,000 dollars he needs to pay for his fiancée’s wedding ring. Indeed, the only truthful gambling narratives are told by the family members and friends who witnessed the fallout: the bank account receipts, the early morning arrivals, the hanging stench of re-circulated cigarette smoke.”

Mark Bowden • Atlantic • April 2012

How Don Johnson won $15 million playing blackjack over a four-month period.

“Sophisticated gamblers won’t play by the standard rules. They negotiate. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. It does this primarily by offering discounts, or ’loss rebates.’ When a casino offers a discount of, say, 10 percent, that means if the player loses $100,000 at the blackjack table, he has to pay only $90,000. Beyond the usual high-roller perks, the casino might also sweeten the deal by staking the player a significant amount up front, offering thousands of dollars in free chips, just to get the ball rolling. But even in that scenario, Johnson won’t play. By his reckoning, a few thousand in free chips plus a standard 10 percent discount just means that the casino is going to end up with slightly less of the player’s money after a few hours of play. The player still loses.”

David Hill • Negative Dunkalectics • April 2011

Basketball is considered one of the most difficult sports to effectively bet on, so a gambler like Haralabos Voulgaris—whose knowledge of the game and personal statistical databases rival most of the league’s front-offices—is one of rare breed who can make a handsome living on NBA lines.

“He makes his living outsmarting oddsmakers. And his is a very comfortable living, indeed. One of a small handful of people who turns a large yearly profit betting solely on the NBA, Voulgaris is known to move the lines with his action, which can sometimes be as high as $80,000 a game. He has built up a network of employees, a database of statistics, and predictive models that far surpass what many NBA franchises have available to them. And aside from a small break he took from gambling a few years ago to try to land a job with a team, he has earned his living this way for over 15 years. Haralabos knows. And while he isn’t telling, he is talking. He spoke to me on the eve of the playoffs. He wouldn't tell me who he was betting on, but he had plenty to say about basketball, gambling, and life.”

N.R. Kleinfeld • New York Times • Nov 2010

The addictive lure of Brooklyn’s last bingo parlors.

“Prizes in lesser games range from $15 to $100, and how much someone pockets depends on how many shared bingos there are and if a player is winning bets that can magnify returns as much as 10 times. Hit enough bingos, plus claim extras like ’line’ wagers that return $26 per $2 bet, and a player could leave $3,000 or $4,000 to the better. But that demands a bold investment in a game with stingy odds, much worse than popular casino offerings, and the sort of luck that visits rarely.

“Luck is the thing. Other than a player’s being nimble enough to manage hordes of cards at the same time, there is no skill to bingo.”

Jonah Lehrer • Wired • January 2011

How Mohan Srivastava, a Canadian statistician, figured out the flaw in the North American lottery system:

“The trick itself is ridiculously simple. (Srivastava would later teach it to his 8-year-old daughter.) Each ticket contained eight tic-tac-toe boards, and each space on those boards—72 in all—contained an exposed number from 1 to 39. As a result, some of these numbers were repeated multiple times. Perhaps the number 17 was repeated three times, and the number 38 was repeated twice. And a few numbers appeared only once on the entire card. Srivastava’s startling insight was that he could separate the winning tickets from the losing tickets by looking at the number of times each of the digits occurred on the tic-tac-toe boards. In other words, he didn’t look at the ticket as a sequence of 72 random digits. Instead, he categorized each number according to its frequency, counting how many times a given number showed up on a given ticket. “The numbers themselves couldn’t have been more meaningless,” he says. “But whether or not they were repeated told me nearly everything I needed to know.” Srivastava was looking for singletons, numbers that appear only a single time on the visible tic-tac-toe boards. He realized that the singletons were almost always repeated under the latex coating. If three singletons appeared in a row on one of the eight boards, that ticket was probably a winner.”

Evan Osnos • The New Yorker • April 2012

The improbable story of how Macau become the biggest player in the casino universe.

“Until recently, Macau looked as much Mediterranean as Chinese, with baroque Catholic churches and rows of cafés shaded by drooping palms, where old émigrés sipped café da manhã over the Jornal Tribuna. These days, the city also evokes a touch of the Persian Gulf. Government tax revenue is often more than double the budget, and, like Kuwait, Macau distributes occasional checks to its residents under a program named the Wealth Partaking Scheme. (Last year: eight hundred and seventy-five dollars per person.) Unemployment is below three per cent. ‘What Las Vegas did in seventy-five years, we are doing in fifteen,’ Paulo Azevedo, the publisher of Macau Business and other local magazines, told me. The rush has left the city short of many things—taxis, roads, housing, medical services. ’For dental, I have to go to Thailand,’ Azevedo said. One month, Macau came close to running out of coins.”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

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