The Player: Secrets of a Vegas Whale

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Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) –- On "The Player: Secrets of a Vegas Whale," Bloomberg’s Trish Regan takes us inside the casinos of the Las Vegas strip, where high roller Don Johnson walked away with $15 million in a single winning streak. Did he cheat, was it luck or simply skill? Find out how one blackjack player found a whole new way to beat the system. (Source: Bloomberg)

In the middle of the mojave desert, one of the most storied cities in the world.

This is las vegas.

Where fortunes are won and lost, where lives are made and destroyed, where the house always wins.

Until it can't appeared a lot of pain out here and stress.

One gambler prayed on the casino on its weakest moments and walked away with more than $15 million in a single winning streak.

People say you do.

That's play perfectly.

If you play long enough, you will.

Is it luck or is it skill?

Join me for the story of how one blackjack player on a whole new way.

40 million people flocked to the vegas strip every year the most only get a peek at the spectacle that is las vegas.

You need to be a high roller to see it all.

Someone like don johnson.

Don is a whale meaning he risks million of the casinos and makes millions as well.

Of he is a -- he is a legendary gambler.

He won $15 million in one streak.

His game is blackjack.

If the casinos when they can least afford it.

When he walks into a club, dancers show off his initials and celebrities pay their respects.

The scene is all engineered by the casinos because they want to win his money.

I want not to show me how he beats the casinos at their own game.


So nice to meet you.

He treats the casino like a battlefield.

He studies the industry, its strengths and its shortcomings.

He says you have to start at the beginning.

Where are we heading right now?

Where all of vegas started.

You come here and gamble?

Amort just the player -- more to just play around and have fun.

Gamblers on the play here because the bets are low and it is relaxed, friendly.

The first of vegas casinos opened here open -- back in the 1930's. this is history.

This is the beginning of what became the vegas strip appeared -- strip.

This is the famous vegas strip and it lives up to its reputation.

It is full of possibility and excitement.

Two giant companies dominate the script -- the strip has to strip -- the strip.

He walked out the door with a $4 million position.

I wonder why.

They determine they can't make money off people like me.

I can accept that.

He says he is -- he's been barred from caesars for life.

Is that because he is too good?

We can't or would we bar you.

We will solicit him with -- while he may not offer perks anymore, nearly all the other big companies and hundreds of data spent hundreds of thousands on him just to get him to the door.

If they want you to spend and a note you can spend day, they will make it really easy for you to be here.

If they are catering to high again players which starts before they even think of coming here.

They will bring a player from the east coast to las vegas.

The mgm property has the mansion which is what he nine villas under a climate controlled dome.

You get to stay for free?

Nothing is free.

It is factored into the game.

I will give you a secret inside baseball in the casinos.

He is the casino -- the owner of mgm and don is getting perks and every single one of them.

Theoretically we are going to wind from you that percent of the money you circulate.

The house engineers a statistical advantage.

On average you will lose that 20% of money you play.

Other certain games where you have a better edge over the player?

The best chance of beating the casino is with backarct.

That is followed by perfect strategy at blackjack, playing straight up craps tom and every game and between has a different set of holes.

If you play the big wheel that we put in the front of the casinos, you don't have much of a chance.

My guys will hate me for saying this.

If the house wins so predictably, how casinos keep gamblers from coming back?

The answer is perks.

I can comp to induce you to come out here.

I give you a dollars worth of stuff.

Collects the more money spent, the more money casinos make.

Elects -- of the whale will critically lose thousands of dollars.

I should be able to give him $80,000 worth of stuff.

Even if i fly you from point a to point b, i am probably not burning that much fuel.

The margin on the high-end, the whales is higher.

Highrollers generate estimated 25% cobalt gaining revenue on the strip.

You have to have their length of play.

The longer they play, statistically they will win.

Which is why casinos would do just about anything to keep the whales playing.

Easy transportation?

A nice room?

Out of all -- out the hall -- alcohol?

They would try to customize a package and try to give him what he wants.

Don johnson is no ordinary whale because the more he plays, the more he wins.

His biggest single night is at the tropicana.

Take me back.

I beat them big.

When i had a three -- $7,000 and, i won those appeared it is difficult to lose a few windows big bets.

He racked up millions of dollars of chips before management cut him off.

It spread through the entire town and then when i woke up later ron, -- later on, i got several phone calls from different casinos.

The casinos were calling you to see if you -- if you wanted to play at their place?

Why not get him to come over here and see if he can lose part of it back or all of it back?

What don rarely loses.

He went on to gamble at two more casinos and one another $10 million before he quit.

Anybody watching this right now probably thinks it's hard.

Was there more to it?

Monkeys can count cards.

Hard counting alone will not get you there.

I knew i had a better chance of winning than i did of losing so i took advantage of it.

People say you do play perfectly.

If you have an edge, if you play long enough, you will win.

What gave him an edge he says was knowing the game, the players, and most important way, understanding the odds on the casino floor.

All of it is math.

Just like in wall street.

You are trying to find efficiencies and the way they offer their games and when you find it, you will take advantage of it.

He found an inefficiency in the casinos perk system.

Sometimes the giveaway too much.

Of the risen national -- there is a natural collision of interest between the casino and the operations side.

The opera -- the marketing side wants to buy the business and give away as much as possible to get players then.

He could resist all the enticements.

He realized he could negotiate something far more valuable.

They will test you a lot and it is hard.

How don johnson turned the perk system to his advantage when we come back.

One of the most dazzling casinos on the strip.

A lot of people gather right here and they get here because this as one of the best views in vegas.

You can see pretty much the whole strip appeared to have everything from caesar's palace all the way down to treasure island and of course the eiffel tower.

Highrollers come here to enjoy is one of the most expensive perks in the city.

I like this table.

Absolutely gorgeous.

What makes this table worth $ 250,000 a night?

This red button.


Now i believe it.

It cost them $10,000 every time they fire these things off.

I just want to keep hitting the button.

The casino and its sibling property transformed the vegas trip in the 90's. they were both designed by one man -- steve wynn.

What it takes to dazzle everybody today is when hundred times more ambitious and complex and challenging than before.

He is the nemesis of every whale in the strip because he is always inventing new temptations to keep them in the casino.

From nightclubs to shows.

They are all coming here for the experience?

We have trained at the public and raise their expectations.

A good thing.

A good thing for steve wynn because when don johnson is on a winning streak, he goes to new clubs to celebrate.

What is it about his properties that are different from everything else here?

Spare no expense.

If people build it, people would come and they do.

He was a night like that's unlikely candidate to the most influential casino developer in history.

How is an english major from the university of pennsylvania wind up becoming a casino mogul?

The question is how does a boy of opportunity take up unlike a crime -- a life of crime?

He was one of the first casino moguls without ties to the mob.

Is casinos are financed by wall street and inspired by high-end people.

I would go on vacation to the hotel and i would watch the people behave in this place with such joy and happiness.

It was utioopian and the guy who built the place, marched around with his beautiful wife and the only thing i could think of is, it is good to be king.

That's what it looked like to may.

He eventually would become king of las vegas but he started out small working in his father's hall.

He took over the golden nugget casino in the early 1970's. it wasn't until he opened marauders -0- - mirage is when he showed off his talents.

I think every developer demonstrates what he thinks of the public by the product he creates.

If people have discretion and know the difference and will respond to it, then you will do that even if the costamare.

-- costs more.

Of that is the key to winning in las vegas.

Keep them entertained and gamblers will lose every single one of them.

My father was a problem gambler.

He just like the game more than the money.

He will go and grab the biggest players in the building.

I will ask them to tell them why they are risking $50,000 a roll on dice.

Why are you doing it?

To amuse myself.

I like the game.

Are you ever worried that you had a problem with gambling?

You worry at times.

You want to make sure that your mind is sound and it will test you a lot and it is hard.

How do you know when to stop?

You were up one million, 2 million, what keeps you going to fight $20 million?

They ran out of chips.

Some say he wins because as much as he likes the fun, he doesn't like the biggest life out to distract him.

He stays focused.

A couple of years ago he noticed something that would give him the ultimate edge.

I don't see as many big players as when i sold just five years ago.

I don't see the big action, not in vegas.

I think a lot of it is a result of the economy and i think a lot of the asian players are playing overseas now.

All the more reason for casinos to try and woo someone like you and get you into the door.

The recession left casinos former bull to an attack.

By a killer whale like him.

Are you exploiting weaknesses?

I'm not doing anything different than what a very smart hedge fund operator would do on a wall street.

How the struggling casino industry provided don johnson with the biggest opportunity of his career when we come back.

$4.25 million in the span of what?

Less than 24 hours?

Probably around 12 hours.

At night, las vegas looks invincible.

Flight over the strip at dawn and it secrets are revealed.

The steel and concrete skeletons have conquered the city for five years, evidence of the biggest commercial real estate bubble in history and its spectacular implosion.

There is an awful lot of pain out here and they gave us -- in las vega.

A lot of fear.

Jim murren is halfway building it -- building a casino complex in the size of a small city when wall street crashes.

We had 10,000 construction workers working on site and the banks stopped lending.

It was very difficult.

More casino companies are abandoning casino projects made construction.

You think it is -- it has had a lasting change?

The recession in las vegas strip away the scab that was covering that the company's many of them had a capital structure that was reckless and naiàve.

His luxury towers now look out over the ruins of a casino project planned by the boyds.

In your entire time in vegas, have you seen anything like that?

No, never.

They are really nice people.

They drank the kool-aid a little bit on this development.

Many in vegas blame steve wynn, saying that it was he who started to -- the commercial real estate bubble.

The new strip is like the house that -- before he built his palaces, biggest casinos were nearly impossible to finance.

Most were funded by millionaires or the mob and they relied on slot machines for revenue.

I agree understanding of what to trust and what not to trust and it was not the slot machines.

He brought new ambition to vegas targeting players with expensive tastes.

They have a pent-up demand for the good life.

It was a cadillac and going to got -- las vegas and gambling and gambling was part of the good life.

That is what they did.

He turned to wall street and offered investors bonds.

When he did his masterpiece of the casino, you get to experience it.

The company plummeted and mgm sees the opportunity to take over his property.

Wynn had gambled and lost.

If you want to criticize or find fault with guys like us, it is easy.

We are so flawed in many ways it is a turkey shoot.

Is in things were right.

This first trip -- strip casino started a vegas casino arms race.

Suddenly banks are writing blank checks for anyone willing to tear down his old casino and build one that can compete with steve wynn.

The boyds, a biggest family known for building small local casinos, are inspired to tear down the old place.

This has all blown up in 2008 to make way for one of the biggest casinos the strip is ever seen.

The casino would cover 88 acres and cost a staggering $4.8 billion.

Three times the cost of the bellagio.

I don't know that echelon was the right idea for them.

Something simple.

It would've not everybody out.

They had to build five hotels.

Do you think there's an element of being a gambler yourself in business?

When we imploded the startup and started to build the echelon, we could not see the recession coming.

We thought, we will be down for six months to a year at the most and then we will restart.

Nobody predicted what came next including steve wynn.

I had just opened it.

If i had benefited from timing, this was payback time.


Hello, december 22, 2008. the bottom of the barrel.

Win struggled but mgm was on life support.

The company had gambled $9 billion on city planning, more than any project in history.

You roll the dice?

We were all in.

Our stock went from 100 to the banks and saying, we are done.

Two dollars a share.

$1.81 a share?

Of they felt if we went then -- bankrupt, mgm would you not far behind.

It went bankrupt.

Struggling bank -- las vegas was doomed.

But city center opened defiantly in 2009. we raised $23 billion of capital.

Where did you get the money?

Equity investors that believed in us and the team.

Banks acted no us -- that did know us.

How do you grow your way out of that?

The crash and las vegas sent shockwaves through the entire casino industry.

By 2009, the fallout was being felt across the country.

In atlantic city, casinos a desperate for quick profit and are willing to offer wales major incentives.

Don sees this as his opportunity.

Right now, he is no whale, he is just an average blackjack player who needs to improve his game.

I don't look at myself as a professional player.

I have only become a short-term professional player because they presented a deal that was so good it was worth playing.

How he transformed himself from casual gambler into a killer whale next.

Less than two hours from the landing city border, over the insulated border, since the small town of the home of the parks casion and don johnson.

The was a going back on this side in the casino good owns everything on that side.

He shocked the gaming industry but $15 million at the blackjack table but he had been prepped for this moment.

He learned to gamble here in rural pennsylvania tom and not at the blackjack table but at the racetrack.

He started out as a jockey.

It was a different lifetime ago.

You are little taller, broader.

You must've been the biggest jockey the editor seen.

His day is a jockey numbered, he found work as a gaming regulator before becoming an employee at the racetrack.

You work your way up managing and then you become a ceo of the track and running things for the corporation.

I had never really crossed over to the player side that much.

He wanted to gamble like the pros.

I watched them as a regulator, observe them as an operator, but never actually participated.

In 2003, he quit to become a professional horse better.

He would run sophisticated mathematical equations in an attempt to predict race outcomes.

He said of playing cards in atlantic city to relax.

I used to play recreationally, not for big money.

$25 bets would be $100 bets would be a huge gamble.

He became a regular player overtime.

He was waiting $18,000 a game.

Talk about atlantic city.

How do you walk into casinos here and spend -- in a span of four month time get $15 million?

They were desperate for business.

Atlantic city casinos, owned by mgm and caesar's, began calling don offering $50,000 in free bets to get him into the door.

The deals were so good, he said atlantic city was in worse shape.

Alexa vegas has enough critical mass and they have a huge convention center.

Some fairly major properties that can do a lot across marketing with different properties they own around the country now.

The cross marketing strategy to keep las vegas strong also steals business from aquatic city.

Vegas casinos anxious to grow profits outside of the strip are taking small casinos from around the country.

States are embracing these casinos.

I call it a win-win.

It will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

Let's take the first step of gaming this year.

New competition means big losses.

Since 2006, 16 local casinos have strung up around the dining city -- around atlantic city.

I think they are losing too much of their business now.

This is too much competition in surrounding states.

It started with delaware, pennsylvania has put a lot of pressure on them, new york has gaming now.

It is a matter of time before it will go back to being a beach town.

Atlantic city is a very challenged place.

What is your take on it?

I am concerned.

He is the ceo of mgm.

We want to make the city come back.

Are you worded there is a lot of saturation in that market?

We have to be very targeted.

We have for member lessons learned -- we have to remember lessons learned during the recession.

Mgm's rivals has an appetite for building.

Gary loveman has built casinos in pennsylvania and maryland that will compete with them -- with the company's flagship's cinematic city -- in atlantic city.

We had so much expansion.

In every instance where a state legalizes it and puts pressure on another state, that is a business problem.

He argues a regional casinos are necessary because they drive businesses back to his vegas property.

A lot of locals are hopefully loyal to the brand.

You have been treated very well in cleveland and now you want to go to las vegas so you have two options.

You can be a traditional purchaser online or you can call your cleveland host who is engaged with his or her people and arrange exactly what you want.

That is the proposition.

It is a proposition that does deliver for vegas and it is part of the reasons profits there only declined slightly in the past few years while atlantic city lost 40% of its revenue.

It is why atlantic city's casinos were desperate enough to offer high stake gamblers like don johnson whatever advantages they wanted.

What happened to the house always winning?

You are going to see big wig -- big swings when you let people get a lot a hand.

Why not just keep playing?

Find out exactly how don johnson did it coming up.

Atlantic city.

Casino profits are in a freefall.

Casinos would do anything to win back high rollers.

It is the opportunity of a lifetime for don johnson.

He is about this done the gaming industry.

Walking away with $15 million.

The key to the success is what he negotiates with the casino up front.

If you are playing enough, you can negotiate a discount policy.

Three hands for $5,000 a swing.

It may not give a player vip treatment in vegas when he bets that much in atlantic city it gets the pitino's desk the casino's attention.

The right game with the right odds for the right discount policy.

What he think they gave you such a a discount and change the roles?

They were giving it to other players and had some success in beating other players.

The casinos don't realize he's set a trap.

He is not the mid-level player.

He is an industry insider who knows exactly what terms to negotiate.

He wants big bets.

Of the reletting the plate $25,000 a hand.

That is $75,000 a swing which is not hard to win $4 million.

I did not have $4 million to lose.

That was the key.

He doesn't have $4 million to lose because he negotiates himself a discount -- a 20% rebate in all of his losses.

If the gambles $4 million he will only lose $3.2 million and that matters over the entire course of play.

They have been dumb enough to get themselves in that situation.

He negotiates with high rollers.

Some casinos have not paid enough attention.

They haven't thought through it all.

On casinos have mathematical models they put in place to make sure someone like him can come in and walk away with nearly $6 million in one night?

To make an evaluation on you as a player, some kind of track record or past performance where they now adjudged you as a player and said this is a player we think we can beat.

Why would the casinos think they could beat don?

In the case of don johnson, why is it your casino would be willing to negotiate terms that would not be as favorable to you but would benefit the player?

We try not to do that after a certain point.

We are doing this in a completely mathematician is the way.

Based on a record of his past performances.

Does it get logged on the computer so if a person who plays extremely well, there is a note on their profile?


The note on don's file says he was a mediocre player.

How did you suddenly become such a great blackjack player?

It helps to have some friends to understand the mathematics behind each of the games.

Before taking atlantic city for millions, he looked up with a team of ivy league math phd's. did they help figure out how to best stack the odds?

Different mathematicians have different skills.

Of the mathematicians turn down a request for an interview with don says they coached him, making him the perfect blackjack player.

What are the odds i will get versus the odds you are getting?

You will probably play a game that is 300% worse.

The odds a player like me to beat the house is about 49% so while i may strike it lucky, the longer i play, the more likely i will lose.

I believe in the statistical analysis, i do.

Statistical analysis says even though they has to have the edge, i can improve my odds if i improve my game.

I want to win.

You need to do some studying before you go in.

Everybody can get the basic strategy down, it will make you at least a better than average player.

This is a basic strategy table.

It tells players went to hit, fold, and double down.

Casinos do not allow a lot of these so once don secured the right advantage, you turned his attention to the rules of the game.

You tweak to were three things one way or the other enough and again goes for being negative to positive.

Once he negotiates his edge, it is time for battle at the blackjack table.

You make a mistake in your favor, you will collect on that.

The art of casino warfare when the player continues.

Ever casino gambler knows when you play at the blackjack table, the odds are not in your favor.

The house always wins and the wools are set in stone.

What if you could change the rules and twist the odds?

If you change one of the rules one way or the other in favor of the house or the player, it will change the odds of the game.

Don johnson turned the table on the dealer thomas boldly house, and the casino never saw it coming.

Some players have desires or wants.

He is the ceo of boyd gaming.

His marketers were so anxious for don's business, they allowed him to tweak the rules of play.

Touch the cards or don't touch the cards.

It is not in violation of regulations and lace than the customer can be commented.

When he played at the borgata, the roles you've negotiated helped line his pockets with $5 million.

Walk me through the roles they gave you.

Stand on soft 17. if the dealer gets an ace, sex, yet the stand on that hand.

If i am sitting on 19 or 20 or 21, you will win.

Doubling on any two cards.

Some places have rules that would not allow you to do that.

They've only let you double if you have a 9, 10, or in 11. splitting hands up to four hands . you are going to slip a hand because you have two twos.

You can split them against the dealer's. you can split up to four times and i have done it.

It happened that night at the tropics.

I had an $800,000 and ended hit -- it hit.

The 20% discount his roles, and the big bet s he negoitiated, the house still had an advantage.

Not satisfied with those odds, he figured out how to tip the game in his favor.

You need to be better than the dealer.

If you can be the dealer, you can beat the house.

There are enough players that they will deal $100,000 a hand to.

They are nervous.

And he insists unconjugated side bets and hand signals like surrender.

If the dealer does not notice his gesture, it is a free bet for don.

You have to establish a front before you even walk into play?


A lot of the dealers are not used to dealing these roles and they often make a mistake that is in your favor and you will collect on that.

I like the pressure.

And he has been a dealer at caesars palace in las vegas for eight years.

He sees a lot of highrollers alike don.

What is the biggest winnings you have seen?

One million.

How does a player know -- the dealer know if a player is trying to trip him up?

If it is a brand-new customer, you deal them out.

It comes down to this -- psychological warfare between the gamblers and the dealers.

How does that unfold?

If you are the dealer and you start noticing that the bets are getting sizable he larger, do you get your for manager?

The dealer has the power to do many things.

Call a supervisor, take a break, change dealers.

Do they try to change the circumstances of the game when you are winning that much?

Of course they do.

It is not an easy thing to do to sit there and play for hours and hours and maintain the type of focus to not make mistakes.

If you make mistakes, you will not get free play.

It requires a lot of discipline?

A lot of discipline.

Is there something that you do when you sit down that effectively helps to intimidate the dealer or distract them?

There are all kinds of distractions for dealers.

Have a stars play with me.

I have had 5, 8 different girls that would pose as a girlfriend.

Does it work?

And is always a circus going on.

The more it looks like one giant party, the better it is or my side of the table.

If there was a distraction, they make a mistake, what is the worst that can happen?

I get a free bett.

There is a reason a dealer does not want to say no to a gambler no matter how outrageous his behavior.

All of our incomes based is on tips.

We make hourly is minimum.

Even if the dealer talks of big game, he says the player is in control.

They don't deal this type of game often enough to protect themselves from making mistakes.

If they make three mistakes in a night, i have 300,000 in free bets.

You make too many of those mistakes, you can't beat me, especially if you are giving me a 20% discount, especially if you're giving me $50,000 of free bets to start out with.

You know when they made a mistake?

I have cut every mistake they made that was not in my favor and made them give me the free bet because those are the rules of the game.

He has 100s of thousands of dollars in free bets by outwitting the dealer.

It allows them to finally erase the house advantage.

Add in the special roles in discounting negotiates before the game and don now has an edge over the house.

The more he plays, the more he wins.

It is how don johnson took $4 million from caesars in a year with the casino giant posted some of its worst losses ever.

It is how he beat the borgata out of $5 million.

The ceo who offer -- authorized him at the tropicana got fired.

It is how he took on the casino industry in atlantic city, $115 million, and became the legendary gambler who beat the house.

Can don success be replicated?

Might he strike again?

Find out how don johnson believes he will gain his next edge over the casino.

He is a celebrity in vegas, a favorite at the club, and a household name at the casinos.

Don johnson is now banned at nearly every table at the strip.

His $50 million win in ascetic city mayor catapulted him to superstar status in vegas.

But now, the casino wants his advice more than ever.

He has hit the speaking circuit.

You need to determine whether their skill level has changed.

Despite all the advice he offers, don says many of the casinos are still vulnerable.

I heard you actually want another $2 million at the tropicana?

Did they not learned their lesson?

If they were still letting people that big -- bnet big.

Gaining profits has not rebounded since the recession.

What you think some of the biggest lessons for you were in 2008? this used to be a place where gamblers would go on vacation.

While the casino companies turn to vegas into a playground, today it is a nonstop party that is bringing back profits lost on the casino floor.

Last year, these clubs did when hundred $60 million.

It was the only part of my business i was growing.

To boost gambling revenue, wind and his rivals tap into the loop -- lucrative chinese market where gambling is part of the culture.

70% of your revenue comes from there.

It is good to be at the right place at the right time.

It is a two-way street.

One asian casino is doing great in vegas.

They're hoping to lure people into the u.s. and they are planning the first asian casino on the strip.

Las vegas still represents the greatest vacation package available to the world travelers.

I see las vegas surviving.

Don johnson is not just sure.

Do you see anything on the horizon?

I think it will be a long time before biggest comes back to its peak days.

I don't think it is happening any time soon.

He is still studying vegas, trying to exploit its inefficiencies from his home in pennsylvania.

He is building a software program building data that maps a gaming industry's weak points and reveals where a player like him should strike next.

I find it intriguing.

I love it.

I enjoy it and i will continue doing it.

In another life, do you think you could've worked on wall street?

I'm not done yet.

? you like vegas?

You can love and hate vegas at the same time.

This text has been automatically generated. It may not be 100% accurate.


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