Colin Scott sat at a blackjack table at the Golden Horseshoe Casino. All around him bright lights flashed and slot machines blared, their sirens and music beckoning to potential jackpot winners. A loud, rowdy crowd at the roulette table behind him roared with excitement as their number hit. But Colin barely noticed any of it, instead he just watched intently as the cards were dealt in front of him. He had been at the table for about a half hour, and was on his third visit of the week to this casino. He was up $200 so far tonight – maybe not much for many people, but it was better than most of the other patrons sitting around him were doing. And for this college sophomore, it was big money. With $100 bet on the upcoming hand though, he was at a pivotal moment for the session.
The count was plus seventeen with about two thirds of the shoe already done. Definitely a favorable situation for a card counter like himself, thus the size of his bet. Once the cards were dealt he had two faces, giving him twenty, but the dealer was showing a ten of his own. He was in good shape, but not out of the woods yet. He waited as the players to his right played out their hands, then waved his hand over the table to signal a stay when the action got to him. The dealer flipped up his hole card, a six that gave him a total of sixteen, then drew another face card for twenty six.
“Dealer busts,” the dealer announced with clear disinterest. For Colin, these were among the sweetest words in the English language. He added his winnings to the stack of chips in front of him, and with the count still in his favor he left his bet for the next hand at $100.
Suddenly there was a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me sir, could we have a word with you away from the table?” A man in a dark suit stood behind him, with a Casino Security officer also hovering in the distance. Colin knew what was coming next. His blackjack days at the Golden Horseshoe were over.
“Sir, your game is too good for us,” the man told Colin as he stepped away from the table, his tone stern yet professional. “You’re welcome to play any of our other games, but we’re not going to allow you to play any more blackjack.”
Colin knew that protesting the decision was not going to get him anywhere, but he had to say something. “Are you kidding me?” he asked loudly. “Man, I’ve been here twelve times this month, and all of a sudden I win a few hands and you won’t let me play anymore. What’s the problem, players are only welcome here when they’re losing?”
As they spoke, another player with a small handful of black $100 chips quietly sat down at the table, putting a $100 bet into play.
“Sir, please keep your voice down. We know what you’re doing, and unfortunately I can’t allow you to continue to play blackjack here,” the man told Colin. “You can keep the money you’ve already won tonight, and as I mentioned you are welcome to play any other game in our casino. Just no more blackjack.”
“Fine. Whatever,” Colin said, his message already sent. “Are we done here?”
The man in the suit stepped aside, and as Colin started to walk towards the casino cashier he heard the dealer at his table announce another bust. Getting backed off was certainly not ideal, but at least he had been able to signal his buddy Dallas to get into the table with a plus twelve count.
A Security officer followed Colin at a distance as he cashed in his $300 profit and headed for the parking lot. This was certainly not the first time a casino had barred him from playing blackjack, but it always seemed to take different forms. A couple places had banned him from the property entirely. Some, like the Horseshoe tonight, were still happy to have his action as long as he was playing games where they were sure to keep their house advantage intact. One had even allowed him to keep playing blackjack, but stated that he couldn’t increase or decrease his bet size after the shoe started. The specifics didn’t matter, it all amounted to the same thing. His advantage in that particular casino was gone.
Colin headed to Nicky’s, the bar around the corner, and waited for his partner to show up. He had originally met Dallas Jackson in their freshman year, and the two had formed a strong friendship based on their shared love of sports, gambling, and perhaps most importantly, a good scheme. They were both students at Thurman State College, where they spent about as much time figuring out their next angle as they did actually going to class. “My dad always said work smart, not hard,” Dallas had once told Colin when they were first learning to count cards. Colin somehow doubted that what they were up to was what the old man had in mind, but it was hard to argue with results.
Midway through their first year at Thurman, the pair had their hands in a variety of money making schemes. The most lucrative came when they stumbled across access to a test bank full of questions that most of the intro level professors in the Sociology department drew from. Leading up to midterms in the winter semester the pair found there was a surprisingly large market of people who, like themselves, were looking for the path of least resistance. In the span of a few weeks they made enough money to avoid having to find jobs for the summer. They also spent the following few weeks trying to avoid catching a beating from a few unsatisfied customers when one of the profs unexpectedly decided not to use the test bank questions on the exam, but no line of work comes without risk.
Colin and Dallas had just finished their first, rather unremarkable, year at Thurman when they discovered casino gambling. They were both only nineteen years old, but that was nothing an impressive pair of fake IDs couldn’t fix. Their first taste of the action came at the Lucky Strike Casino, an absolute dive of a place in Philadelphia, frequented by local degenerates burning through money they could not afford to lose. But Colin and Dallas didn’t care about that – the allure of money won rather than earned was right up their alley. Not really knowing how to play any of the table games, they each fed $20 into a slot machine, and from there beginner’s luck took over. Ten minutes later they had turned their $40 into just under $300, and they cashed out their newfound wealth. Next they headed to the craps table, suddenly feeling brave enough to tackle the live games. Armed with their winnings from the machine and no actual knowledge of what they were doing, they managed to turn that $300 into $0 in no time. They each went home that night down $20, but they’d both been bitten by the gambling bug.
With little else to do that summer, and a strong desire to avoid real work, Colin started to study up on blackjack. He knew little about the details of the game, other than knowing that it was a game that could be beat with some skill, discipline, and practice. The more he studied, the more confident he became that card counting was something that he and Dallas could perfect, and that once they mastered it the good life was sure to follow.
When it came to blackjack, the pair was committed to their craft. Before they ever played the game in a real casino they spent countless hours in Dallas’ apartment, dealing cards to each other and practicing. They knew how to count cards, and exactly what to do in each scenario. When to hit. When to stay. How much to bet in any given situation. They could keep track of the count despite blaring music, someone trying to have a conversation with them, you name it. They could even count cards with a bit of a buzz, although they’d never take the chance of actually drinking while playing. For Colin and Dallas, blackjack was a job, and they weren’t about to mix alcohol with work.
Once they had the game down cold, they started making their rounds to the local casinos. Their campus was only a forty five minute drive from Philadelphia. There were three casinos there, and a total of twelve in the state, so there was lots of opportunity to spread out their action to make it harder for the casinos to detect them.
While they were successful in avoiding any heat in the early going, they quickly found out that card counting was far from a sure thing. They managed to squeeze out meager wins of $100 and $80 in their first two attempts, followed by a soul crushing $500 loss in their third that dealt a massive blow to their confidence in the system. They stuck with it though, and over time the mathematical advantage showed itself as the pair slowly but surely built up their bankroll a few hundred dollars at a time. It was far from the life on easy street that Colin had envisioned in the beginning, but it paid the rent and put some distance between themselves and the stereotypical starving student lifestyle. They had no complaints.
Colin had been sitting at a table in the back corner of Nicky’s for about twenty minutes when Dallas arrived. “How’d you do?” he asked as his friend sat down.
“Up $250,” Dallas replied. It was not a bad result, and between the two of them they had cleared $550 on the night. A true partnership, they split everything right down the middle. “Saw you caught heat though,” he added.
The win was nice, but the run in with Security was the real headline today. Colin took a sip of his drink and nodded. “Apparently I’m welcome to play any game in their fine establishment except for the one that can actually be beat,” he said sarcastically. “I don’t know man, that makes two casinos here and five total in the state that I can’t play cards in anymore. You’re not much better off. It’s starting to look like we’re going to have to expand the territory a bit if this is going to work.”
“That’s the beautiful thing about legalized gambling,” Dallas reminded him. “There are hundreds of places all over the country that are just tripping over each other to take money from all these goddamn degenerates out there. It’s like a goldmine for people like us. So what if we have to travel a bit to get there, it’s not like we have anything better to do.”
“Except the problem is there’s about four companies that own like two thirds of those places,” Colin countered. “You think they don’t talk to each other? Not sure the opportunity is as big as you think once places start getting wise to us.”
“Whatever man, I’m not worried about it. You shouldn’t either,” Dallas said. He looked up at the TV on the wall, where the Thurman/Carnegie game was just starting. “Besides, Deshaun’s got two more seasons left here, and at the rate we’re going we’ll make some serious money just betting on him.”
“I doubt he’s here two years. There’s no way he doesn’t declare for the draft after this season, is there?”
Deshaun was Deshaun Adams, the all-star forward for the Thurman State Tigers. Tonight Colin and Dallas had $100 on the Tigers to cover the sixteen point spread and hit the over. Always take the over with Adams in the line up. He may have been the best player to ever play Division III college basketball, and it was fun to watch. Last season he averaged over thirty four points and eleven rebounds per game, and the only real questions that most people had about him were why the hell was he playing Div III after being one of the most sought after prospects coming out of high school in a long, long time, and why hadn’t he declared for the draft yet?
That was the question for most people, but not everyone. Dallas had gone to high school with Deshaun, and while they had not been close, they were friendly. Turns out he had the inside scoop that everyone else was curious about.
“Not so sure he goes pro next year. Did I ever tell you why Deshaun’s playing here in the first place?” Dallas asked. “We were at a party one night in senior year and he told me the whole thing. He was getting visits from schools all over the country, people were all over him to come play ball for them. But he wanted to stay close to home. Turns out his mom is real sick and probably won’t be around too much longer. So he basically put everything on hold to stay here with her. He knew he was passing up a big opportunity by not going to a big time school, but said he figured if he could put up a few dominant years at Thurman he could still make it to the pros eventually. Besides, who doesn’t love an underdog story?”
Colin nodded as he listened to the story, his focus mostly on the game on TV. He watched as Deshaun got the ball, drove to the rim and scored with a thunderous dunk to give the Tigers an early six point lead. “The dude’s unstoppable,” he commented. “He’d be winning national championships if he’d gone to a real school.”
“Sometimes family comes first I guess.”
The two watched the game in silence for a few minutes. Colin was processing what his friend had just told him, and he could feel the beginnings of a plan starting to come together. The game went to a commercial break, the Tigers leading by ten.
“You still friends with Deshaun?” he asked Dallas.
Dallas shrugged. “I see him around from time to time. At the gym mostly. We talk a little bit.”
“What’s his mom sick with?”
“Don’t know, never asked. Some kind of cancer I think.”
Colin was quiet again as the game came back on. Something told him there was definitely an opportunity here. They just had to figure out how to take advantage of it. He watched as Deshaun isolated against his man, stepped back and drained a three. The Tigers led by thirteen. “Damn he’s good,” he said again.
“He’s something else,” Dallas agreed.
“But what if he wasn’t?”
Dallas took a long drink before responding. “What are you thinking?”
“Average point spread on a Thurman game last year was fourteen points,” Colin said, leaning in and lowering his voice. “It’s practically unheard of for a team to consistently be such heavy favorites, and it’s all because of Adams. What if someone could talk him into taking his foot off the pedal a little bit? Thurman still wins the games, Deshaun still gets his stats, but it sure would be easier to bet on these things if we knew they weren’t going to cover.”
Dallas was shaking his head before Colin was even done talking. “Why would Deshaun ever go for that?” he asked. “Dude’s going pro in a year, two years max. A few years from now he’s going to be making more money than he knows what to do with. Why would he screw that up now?”
Colin shrugged casually. “Just saying, our man was willing to stay home to help his mom, and cancer treatment can’t be cheap. And I’m guessing she’s not working if she’s in that bad of shape. Maybe picking up a few dollars in a game he’s going to win anyway might be interesting to him.”
“There’s no way,” Dallas said. “And besides that, even if he would go for it, if we do this and get caught, that’s not getting banned from a casino or even getting kicked out of school. That could be jail time.”
Colin took the last sip of his drink and signaled the waitress for another one. “That’s if we get caught. Who’s going to catch us? If Deshaun goes for it, he’ll never say anything. And we’ll make it look good, nobody will ever know. If we ask and he doesn’t want any part of it, who’s he going to tell? He’s your buddy, he wouldn’t sell you out over something that never happened, would he?”
“I can’t believe you’re serious about this. I’m not doing it,” Dallas said in disbelief. But Colin could tell that just under the surface he was intrigued and thinking hard about it. “Besides,” he continued, changing the subject, “looks like we’re doing pretty well without his help.”
Colin looked up at the screen to see Thurman up by twenty three midway through the second half. The Tigers were cruising to victory once again, and they were well on their way to winning their bet for the night. But that was just one bet on one night. He wanted more.
“Damn right I’m serious about it. You should be too. This will work. Who else can control a game like Deshaun Adams?”
“He sure is good,” Dallas agreed.
Not much was said between the two on the drive back from Philadelphia to the campus. Thurman had won the game by twenty seven, with the total score easily hitting the over, so Colin and Dallas won their bet. Between the game and the blackjack session earlier in the night, they had netted a tidy profit of just over $800. $400 each, not a bad night at the office.
From the passenger seat, Colin was deep in thought about how he would sell his friend on his plan to fix the games. It was obvious to him that Dallas was tempted, but even he had to admit that this was a big play. Were his eyes bigger than his stomach on this one?
Dallas broke the silence as they pulled up in front of Colin’s building. “My place for the football games tomorrow?” It was week six of the pro season, and it went without saying that they would have action on the games.
“Sounds like a plan,” Colin replied as he started to get out of the car. “Nice win today. But hey, just think about what I said tonight, alright?”
Dallas nodded. “Don’t think you have to worry about that.”