The Vegas Shell Game
Work commitments take me to Las Vegas frequently, where, like millions of other visitors, the excess of it all, the unashamed pursuit of pleasure disconnected from meaning or what passes for reality in more responsible precincts awes me. Behind the seductive veil of the casino come-on, though, is an unpleasant fact I’ve written about in several books: the casinos hate winners.
Should you wish to donate your earnings 13-cents at a time to a slot machine, or $1 per hand at the $100 baccarat table, or 56-cents on each $2 keno ticket, the proprietors are delighted by your patronage. Should you, however, wish to engage in “gambling” on a proposition in which you might derive a long-term advantage over the house you will be treated approximately as though you had a particularly infectious case of leprosy.
Much of my book “The Smart Money” recounts how difficult I (and my cohorts in a large betting syndicate) found it to wager $11 to win $10 on football games. Despite the casino’s inherent 4.54% edge on such a bet, the so-called “sharp” sports bettor is unwelcome in most Vegas sportsbooks. If you promise in advance to lose, mind you, the bookies will roll out the red carpet. Show a hint of speed, however, and you might as well be trespassing with a chainsaw. This is the Las Vegas shell game: constantly shifting rules, limits, and conditions depending on who you are and what you care to bet.
This past weekend, while in town to tape the exciting conclusion to a 43-week televised poker series, I revisited my old playground, the sportsbook at Caesars Palace, where years ago I enjoyed a couple of seasons of high-rolling fun. It was the opening weekend of March Madness, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and the sportsbook was overflowing with expectant gamblers. The line to bet stretched nearly to the Celine Dion box office, almost 50 yards worth of money waiting to be “invested” on very tall scholar-athletes. A friend remarked that there must be “obscene” amounts of cash being gambled on the basketball games, and he was right. That juicy scenario, however, did not prevent the management from doing what they always do at Caesars these days: mix and swirl and rearrange the shells until only the degenerate sucker bets; the sentient player is too confused.
I approached the $5,000 minimum bet window, which had but one patron standing before it. When he was finished, I asked the clerk there what the counter limit was on a March Madness basketball game, meaning what is the amount anyone walking up to the counter without any prior introduction or pedigree may bet on any of the games listed on the giant tote board
His reply was, “Which game?”
“Any of them,” I said. “The first one today. Maryland. Or Ohio State. Any of them.”
“It depends,” the clerk told me. “Depends on which team, and, um, other factors.”
“Do you have limits anymore?” I wondered. “Like, if I said I wanted to bet five-thousand on the Maryland game, you would take the bet, right? Because this is the five-thousand-dollar window.”
“I could call a supervisor over to approve it,” he offered. The clerk motioned to a guy in a suit, who seemed to recognize me. The supervisor confirmed that there really wasn’t a limit, that everything was “done on a case by case basis.”
“So the limit might be twenty-thousand or it might be two-thousand,” I declared.
“Right,” he said. “It’s usually in the ten range. But you can –“
“–always ask for more. I know. Got it,” I said, and walked away, gladdened somehow to know that, despite all the new buildings and fresh shows and innovative attractions, some things never change in Las Vegas.