Gambling Greats (and Rogues)

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.

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.