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Mondo Morongo: Player-Banked BlackjackBy Allan Pell
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XIV #4, December 1994)
© Blackjack Forum 1994
[Ed. note—In the California Indian casinos, the house now banks the games. In California at the present time, player-banking is limited to the card rooms. Opportunities for player-banking open up in other states from time to time. –-Arnold Snyder]
It was the best of casinos, it was the worst of casinos—mostly, it was the worst. This story starts a couple of months ago when the right revered Bishop Snyder referred a private student to my blackjack school. We’ll call this student Daddy Warbucks. Warbucks turned out to be an ex-associate of the late, great Ken Uston, and extremely wealthy, as evidenced by his multi-million dollar Wilshire condo in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.
A week after our private four-hour-long tutoring session, Mr. Warbucks called and invited me to join him on a jaunt to one of the Indian casinos. I suggested the Morongo Casino on Interstate 10, two hours east of Los Angeles.
We arrived in the a.m. hours and, to our dismay, stared at an empty bingo hall large enough to hold the crew of the aircraft carrier Eisenhower. In the corner of the building was a small, walled-off section containing the table games—15-20 tables for Indian blackjack and various poker games. There was a small crew of degenerate gamblers hard at work, mostly at the blackjack tables.
Game rules in this house are as follows: double 10-11 only, dealer hits soft 17, no resplits, no insurance, 8-decks. Off the top, players are looking at a 1.2% disadvantage nightmare. But that’s not the worst of it. Since this is a player-banked game, you must pay a 50 cents per hand table rent (tax) to the house. At 60 hands per hour, this translates to $30 per hour. You’re now looking at a combined total of about $37 an hour for the privilege of playing blackjack at $10 a hand.
Absolutely insane to say the least. But there is a way to beat the game, and being a player has nothing to do with this premise. You must be the bank, the one with the wad to make money in the Indian blackjack scene. And you can do it—sometimes that is. To get an edge, you must possess the bankroll and be able to set the minimums and maximums. Setting the minimum bet is the most important, however.
Let’s explore the reasons using the “Profit Formula” from Blackbelt in Blackjack. At Morongo and other California Indian casinos, the banker pays a $1 per hand table rent when banking the game. At 60 hands per hour (average for shoe games), this means it costs $60 an hour to bank a game—no matter what the betting limits of the game are. In order to overcome the table rent, you must be in a higher limit game.
For example, if you’re in a $2 to $15 (common) limit game, your average bet per player will be somewhere around $7. With the eight-spot (minus yourself) tables at Morongo, you’re looking at about $3000 of action per hour at this table with seven players. You will be getting 1.2% of all the players’ money that goes across the table, which in this case is about $36 per hour. With table rent at $60 per hour for the banker, you’re $24 in the hole per hour. To break even in the Morongo game, you must bank a game that has at least a $10 minimum bet.
Of course, some players bet larger, but the Indian casinos are full of soft players who flat bet. I watched a $3 minimum table where several players were flat-betting the minimum and paying 50 cents per hand table rent—truly insane.
To make serious money, you must bank at least a $25 minimum game. At this level, you’ll get better than $10,000 per hour in player action, assuming seven players. With the 1.2% expectation, you get at least $120 per hour, assuming everyone’s flat betting table minimum. Subtract the $60 table rent and you’ve got $60 an hour for your trouble. Not bad!
But at these higher limit games, the players are not flat betting, to say the least. I saw one player with $300 per hand spread to two spots when a player left. I think the average bet is around $75 to $150 per player, depending when and where you play. At these levels, you’ll pull in $300 to $700 per hour. Not at all bad!
Before you run off to Morongo or another Indian casino to bank one of these games, you should know about the catch—there’s always a catch. At Morongo, the $25 game is monopolized by a professional game banker. This guy had over $80,000 in chips on a roller cart situated beside his first base position.
I learned from the casino manager that this game is controlled by a syndicate who rotates bankroll managers on shifts, and that their bankroll was in excess of $500,000. If you try to sit in on this game, expert players from the syndicate would come out of the woodwork and “bet heavily into you” in an attempt to grind you out.
The high minimum is a psychological barrier that excludes many potential bankers because of the heavy bankroll requirements (which I will go into next), and thus a syndicate can dominate a game for long periods at a time. House rules are that the banker can hold the entire shoe, and if someone wants to bank, it goes to the next player. At this big table, there were no other takers.
Daddy Warbucks, a big businessman with a mind for numbers, quickly saw the profit potential of such a venture, but he and I also saw how the game was controlled. Jerry Erico, shift manager, told Warbucks and me that when the casino opened, they were approached by some very big operations out of Nevada who offered to bank the games.
After a visit to another Indian casino in San Bernardino, I found something that made me suspect that something like this may be happening there as well. In San Bernardino as well, there were dominant bankers on the big minimum games. The shift bankers at both casinos had identical smoke fans at their disposal—identical. And since I do not believe in coincidence, there must be some coordinated effort to dominate the banking at both of these casinos.
In the San Bernardino casino, I managed to get a look at the top manager of the syndicate as he held a meeting with several of his shift bankers at an empty table right out in the open. They made no effort to conceal their action from either the players or the house. Take caution and do not bump heads with the big boys.
There is, however, some profit potential at the Indian casinos. In San Bernardino and Morongo, when players appear, the house opens more high-limit tables and they openly seek bankers to keep these games operating. In San Bernardino, they have a waiting list for bankers, and instead of all bankers sitting at the tables playing off one another, they rotate bankers into the game from the waiting list—pretty fair. You have to be there early in the afternoon to get on the list. At all the Indian casinos, the tables fill and play starts to pick up after 5 p.m.
Bankroll requirements for these games are heavy. Expect some fluctuation. Expect expert players, as they are not excluded by the house. In fact, you can openly operate a blackjack computer without the shift managers or the house dealers blinking an eye. A $10 to $25 game would require a $5000 bankroll. A $25 to $300 game would require at least $15,000 to maintain play. And $25,000 would be more realistic and safer. You could have a bad run and fluctuate down several thousand over several shoes, so you need the money to stay in the game.
Do not look for many smart players at these games. Smart players know that you cannot beat these rules. The smart players are the ones who are banking the games. And how do you bank? Just put your money in front of you and press the auto-pilot button. The house dealer will do the rest. Actually, banking a game is quite boring and tedious. You do absolutely nothing—except watch for cheating, that is. Make sure the dealer is not playing with the player. They could make incorrect payoffs or pull any number of scams on you.
And talk about scams, at Morongo they offer video poker with ridiculously high payouts. If you refer back to my Blackjack Forum articles on “Robo-Dealers” (March ’92 and September ’93), you’ll see you stand a good chance of having your clock cleaned electronically.
[Ed. note: Unlike Nevada and New Jersey, California does not require video card game slots to deal randomly from 52-card decks. Paybacks to players on these machines may be internally set with dip switches, and the machines will deal the cards necessary to acquire the preset house profit. This is legal in California, so serious video poker players should beware. “Intelligent” strategies have no effect on your win rate, or to be more accurate, your loss rate. –A.S.]
There are three Indian casinos along Interstate 10, within a few minutes driving time of each other. They are: Casino Morongo in Cabazon, 33 miles east of San Bernardino; the Indio Bingo Palace & Casino, further east of Morongo along I-10; and San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino in San Bernardino. In the San Diego area, there are three casinos operating: Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan in El Cajon. Santa Ynez Indian Casino has just opened north of Santa Barbara, and there are many more to the north. ♠
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