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.

Richard Marcus

In a case of poacher-turned-gamekeeper, Richard Marcus nowadays lists his profession as ‘Casino Table Game Protection Consultant and Trainer’, although it is interesting to note that his own website bills him as the ‘World’s #1 Casino and Poker Cheating Expert’. In any event, Marcus is infamous as a ‘professional’ cheating expert and has perpetrated scams, including the celebrated ‘Savannah Roulette Scam’, in casinos in Las Vegas, London and Monte Carlo down the years.

By his own admission, the ‘Savannah’ is a simple scam, which involves hiding a $5,000 chip beneath two $5 chips, in such as way as the bet appears to be three $5 chips. Typically placed on column bet, at 2/1, if the bet lost, Marcus would quickly replace the original chips with $5 chips or, otherwise, collect $10,010 in winnings, safe in the knowledge that any surveillance footage would reveal that the original bet was legitimate. Marcus claims to have continued this ‘trademark’ scam for five years in the late Nineties, right under the noses of casino security staff in Las Vegas, but was eventually caught in 1999, by which time he is believed to have defrauded casinos of a total of $5 million.

MIT Blackjack Team

The exploits of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Blackjack Team inspired the bestselling book, ‘Bringing Down the House’, written by Ben Mezrich and, in turn, the Columbia Pictures film, ‘21’, starring Kevin Spacey and Jim Sturgess. According to Mike Aponte, who first played on the real MIT Blackjack Team in 1992, both the book and the film take artistic liberties.

In any event, the MIT Blackjack Team was a small group of students and former students, recruited not just from Harvard Business School, but from colleges throughout Boston and further afield, involved in card counting in the casinos of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Under the strict supervision of Bill Kaplan, a Harvard graduate who had deferred his entry to Harvard Business School to form a highly profitable blackjack team in Las Vegas, the team was run like a business.

The original investment, $89,000, financed internally and externally, was doubled within the first ten weeks of operation in 1980 and four years later, when Kaplan ceased managing the team, the total invested in the enterprise had risen to $350,000. The MIT Blackjack Team continued to grow, and prosper, until 1994, when it split into two groups, known as ‘Amphibians’ and ‘Reptiles’, which continued, in various guises, until the turn of the Millennium.

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.