Gambling Greats (and Rogues)

Edward Thorp

American mathematics professor Edward Oakley Thorp is famous in gambling circles as the author of the 1962 book, ‘Beat the Dealer’, which is nowadays billed ‘The book that made Las Vegas change the rules’. Shortly after being awarded his doctorate in mathematics by the University of California, Los Angeles in 1958, Thorp played blackjack in Las Vegas. He realised that, unlike other games of chance, each hand of blackjack is influenced by the cards already dealt from the deck and set about developing a winning system based on mathematical probability.

After several years of academic research, during which he used computer simulations to calculate the precise probabilities of winning or losing for decks of various composition and number, Thorp first published his conclusions in an academic paper, ‘A Favorable Strategy for 21’. His work attracted the attention of Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Kimmel – unbeknown to Thorpe an illegal bookmaker with Mafia connections – who offered him $10,000 to take an ‘applied research’ trip to Las Vegas, in return for 10% of any winnings. Thorp naively accepted and duly won $13,000 in the space of a few days. The following year, Thorp published the first edition of ‘Beat the Dealer’, which introduced card counting and basic blackjack strategy to the masses and has been a bestseller ever since.

Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo

Madrid-born Gonzalo Garcia Pelayo was a director, producer and writer before undertaking a study of bias in roulette wheels in his home town. Aided and abetted by his son Ivan and his daughter Vanessa, Pelayo started playing roulette for money in 1991 and, within a year, had won $700,000. By using a simple computer model, Pelayo claimed not only to have negated the house edge – typically 2.7%, or 5.3%, depending on the version of roulette – but actually given himself a 15% edge.

Outlawed by Spanish casinos, the Pelayo Family tried its luck in Las Vegas – via European destinations, including Amsterdam and Vienna – posing as tourists and changing their accents to avoid suspicion. Their success continued until, fresh from winning $500,000 in the summer of 1994, Pelayo collapsed from exhaustion.

All told, Pelayo won in excess of $1.5 million, after expenses, and would later detail his exploits in the book, ‘La Fabulosa Historia de los Pelayo’, which translates in English as ‘The Fabulous History of the Pelayos’. An inveterate gambler, Pelayo subsequently set up an illegal poker establishment and became heavily involved in sports betting, including football, horse racing and tennis, as part of what he called a ‘private investment fund’.

Chris Moneymaker

Prior to winning the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in 2003, Christopher Bryan Moneymaker was an unknown, 27-year-old accountant from Nashville, Tennessee; so unknown, in fact, that WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla had to verify that the ‘Moneymaker’ written on his reporting slip was not a hoax. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Moneymaker graduated from the University of Tennessee but, having embarked upon a career in accountancy, played online poker as little more than a hobby.

However, in 2003, ‘Money800’, as Moneymaker was known online, won a single-table $86 buy-in Internet ‘satellite’ tournament on PokerStars. In so doing, he won a seat into a $650 buy-in WSOP ‘mega satellite’ tournament, in which the first three finishers were awarded a seat at the WSOP Main Event at Binion’s Horseshoe – now Binion’s Gambling Hall & Hotel – in Downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. Moneymaker won that contest too, and duly embarked on a trip to Las Vegas for his first ever live poker tournament. Remarkably, Moneymaker made it to the final table, beating seasoned professional Ihsan ‘Sammy’ Farha in a heads-up hand dubbed ‘the bluff of the century’ by commentator Norman Chad en route, and eventually carried off the $2,500,000 first prize money.

Victory for a hitherto unknown amateur in the WSOP Main Event, who thereby gained the unoffical title of ‘World Champion’, at the first time of asking sparked a boom in the popularity of poker, specifically Texas Hold’em, which became known as the ‘Moneymaker Effect’. The number of entrants to the WSOP Main Event increased three-fold, from 839 in 2003 to 2,576 in 2004 and the winning prize money doubled, from $2,500,000 to $5,000,000.

Louis Colavecchio

Louis Colavecchio, a.k.a. ‘The Coin’, was born in North Providence, Rhode Island in 1942. The son of an Italian immigré father, he graduated from Providence College in 1964 and embarked on a career as a jeweller. However, having inherited tool-and-die making skills from his father, Colavecchio later applied his penchant for metallurgy to manufacturing high-quality counterfeit slot machine tokens – virtually indistinguishable from the originals – which he used to defraud casinos in Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Colavecchio calls himself the ‘World’s Greatest Counterfeiter’ and, to be fair, his deception only came to light during an annual audit of slot machine tokens at Caesars Atlantic City. Having discovered a surplus of $10 slot machine tokens, staff informed the Division of Gaming Enforcement and, following an investigation, Colavecchio was arrested. He served 27 months of a 7-year sentence handed down for manufacturing counterfeit slot machine tokens but, following his release in 2006, was arrested again for a similar offence just a few months later. In 2015, he received a 7-year suspended sentence for possession of marijuana and, while serving that sentence, in 2018 he was arrested again for possessing counterfeiting equipment and $24,000 in counterfeit $100 bills.

Don Johnson

Not to be confused with actor of the same name, Don Johnson is a professional blackjack player best known for winning over $15 million from three Atlantic City casinos – namely Borgata, Caesars Atlantic City and Tropicana Atlantic City – in 2011. Johnson did so not by card counting, but by negotiating changes to standard casino blackjack rules which, collectively, provided him with an effective edge of around 0.26% over the house. Among the changes he negotiated was a loss rebate of 20% every time he lost $500,000 or more; critically, the loss rebate was reset every day, with no minimum play requirement.

By playing the ‘perfect’ game, under already advantageous conditions, Johnson won $5 million at Borgata and $4 million at Caesars Atlantic City, which subsequently banned him, before continuing his winning streak at Tropicana Atlantic City. In a twelve-hour stint at Tropicana Atlantic City, Johnson won nearly $6 million, including $800,000 in a single hand. Having bet the table maximum wager of $100,000, he was dealt two eights, which he split, only to be dealt two more eights, which he split again. By now playing four hands, at $100,000 apiece, Johnson received a series of favourable cards, allowing him to double down on each hand and thereby increase his total bet to $800,000. The dealer duly bust, so Johnson won all four hands. Unsurprisingly, the loss of nearly $6 million in a single session devastated monthly revenue at Tropicana Atlantic City, such that, like Borgata, the casino quickly rescinded the favourable playing conditions and table limit.