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Heaven in Hell: Blackjack in MoldaviaBy Garry Baldy
(From Blackjack Forum Volume XXIV #2, Spring 2005)
© Blackjack Forum 2005
Day minus one. Introduction to Moldavia.
One well-known professional gambler asked me if I wanted information about a blackjack game with extremely good rules. Sure, answered I. (What professional gambler wouldnít?)
He proposed to give me information on some really good blackjack game with an off-the-top advantage close to 2%. He also proposed that I go to this casino with his good friend and a joint 50/50 bankroll. After some thinking, I decided to agree, mostly because this guyís friend was local and knew everything about the place and could solve possible problems.
I was told that the game was in Chisinau City, the capital of Moldavia. I gave him my phone number and he said that his friend would call me soon.
Day Zero. Deeper in the Hole.
The friend called. Let him be known as George for the rest of this report. George immediately asked me if I could count the cards. Warning! I guessed that George himself was not a professional player. Later I discovered that he was a complete sucker with gambling addiction problems. But he really knew all the stuff in Moldavia because he was a former local policemen.
We decided to catch a plane the day after tomorrow. He proposed we each take $5000. It would be a tiny bank but we expected the blackjack table limits to be small, and we also expected that our trip would last only 3 or 4 days. I decided that if all went well I would return later to play much more heavily.
Day Number One. Arrival in Moldavia and Getting Through Customs.
Airfare: $250 round trip. No visa required for Russian citizens. The flight takes two hours. In the plane, I once more clarified the expected rules, names of casinos, hotel prices, etc.
George was born in Chisinau, and he says he had gone to Moscow intentionally to hire the best blackjack player he could. WellÖ
Then we are told on the flight that we should declare all the money we are carrying at the airport in Chisinau. We are told that weíll run into problems when leaving the country with cash if we enter without this declaration. Moreover, we are told that itís prohibited for us to leave with more money than we declare now. Fuck.
George says that he knows several bank clerks who will send the money to us in Moscow, so I can get my possible winnings home that way (paying 1% for the transfer). Fuck, fuck. Now I should trust not only George but some unknown guys in some Moldavian bank.
OK, at customs we filed the declaration forms. They asked us to show the money. We showed it. They didnít counted it but the girl who spoke with us looked at the cash and sighed, then quietly asked if I could give a tip (!!!) for the customs people. I gave her 500 rubles (about $17). She was happy.
Still Day Number One. Set-up.
George called somebody from the airport. It was Serge, his brother-in-low or some such. Serge was working as a taxi driver in Chisinau. He met us in his taxi with his friend. Damn. Why did so many people know about our arrival???
While going to the city, George started to say approximately the following: "OK, now we go to the hotel, then Serge and Garry will go to the casino. Garry will play, and you, Serge, will just sit and look. Garry knows how to play blackjack and bet. Do nothing. Just sit there quietly next to him."
Oh, my God. I decided that George wanted to achieve two goals at the same time: get control over me (so I didnít steal the money) and make sure I was safe, just in case. Serge would be acting as a bodyguard and watcher.
I said that it might bring heat, but I finally decided to agree just to calm them down. Let Serge watch.
We checked in at the hotel Flora under Sergeís name ($13 per night, low quality). I said I wanted to eat. They took me to a restaurant with local food (tasty but heavy).
George insisted that in the casino I pretend to be a local, from Chisinau. He gave me an address to give as my place of residence. How can I pretend to be a local if I donít know a single word of Moldavian?! George answered that most of the local people speak Russian and casino personnel do this always. (It turned out to be true, by the way.)
Still Day Number One. Casino National in Chisinau.
This is my first casino visit in Moldavia. I learn that the National casino is located in the National hotel in the center of the city. George said that the Napoleon casino is owned by the same people. The rules at both casinos are the same, but the Napoleon is a much more luxurious place, operating like a private club. In order to get in there, one should establish himself as a high roller in the National first.
Serge and I went to the casino. We left George outside.
Well, the casino was looking niceÖ But where was the blackjack here? No players yet? Could you please open a table for us? What stakes? And what stakes do you have? $2-25?! And higher? $5-50? Much better. And MUCH higher? Aha. VIP hall with the $10-100 table.
I decided to start slowly. I opened the $5-50 table and decide to ask for the VIP table soon, no matter what my results were. I bought in for $500. Serge too. Fuck! What was he doing? He was not supposed to play! I was seriously afraid then that he would start to play roulette or to back-bet me, slowing the process. But it turned out, he just considered this camouflage. During all the play he never placed a bet and his chips remained untouched.
Well, now about the rules. Look people: Because of these rules a person in perfectly sane mind took a plane to Moldavia with a group of unknowns with pockets filled with cash.
6 decks. S17, DOA, DAS, RS, NRSA, ENHC. Early Surrender against any dealerís card. Surrender after insurance. Rehit and double on split Aces. Blackjack against Ten pays 3:2 immediately (before the dealer draws his hole card). And joker.
Look guys, I play in Russia and I travel. I thought that I had seen all the bizarre rules in the world. But this joker is a killer. First, it counts as zero if the dealer receives it. But if the player receives the joker on cards 2-9 his hand pays 1:1 immediately. And if the player receives a joker on a Ten or Ace, such hand pays 2:1 immediately.
Now Iím asking you: what else does a card counter need? 75% penetration. Over 2% advantage off the top. Heads up. Play from 1 to 7 spots. Fast dealers. One-pass shuffle. I love this game!
But one problem remains. Heat. It looked as if this casino didnít see a lot of customers betting higher then $10. So I decided to put out some heavy camouflage. I played a betting progression as the count went up, increasing bets slowly.
After I reached four spots of $50, I heard Serge (sitting next to me) start to pray quietly. His monthly salary is about $100. The $500 he bought in for had been given to him by Georgeóit was joint money. Serge almost fell from his seat looking at the action.
I won a grand in my first two shoes (without receiving a joker) and lost about $800 in the next two (twice catching a joker). Serge started to look sick. He just was not used to seeing so much money and action.
Then some obnoxious ploppy appeared and started to play at our table. I used this as an excuse to ask for the VIP table. The pit boss told me that at the $10-100 table there was no rehit and double on split Aces rule. But the joker was still there.
But right in the middle of shuffling new decks the same pit boss came to us and told us that unfortunately they would not play with us anymore. "Please cash your chips and leave the casino." Fuck, fuck, fuck. I asked for the reason but they refused to give it.
We cashed out ($230 win) and waited 10 minutes more for the lottery draw (I had collected a few tickets during the play). They didít force us to leave. The draw missed us and we left.
Now I was blacklisted in the two casinos with the joker. Damn. We discussed this and decided that 4x$50 is an extremely high bet for Moldavian casinos.
Still Day Number One. Rio Casino in Chisinau.
After eating in a restaurant (George always paid for Serge and me, but the meals were always very cheap), we headed to the Rio casino. The Rio belongs to the same owners as the Cosmos casino (in the Cosmos hotel) and the Grand casino (in the Tourist hotel).
The rules were the same, except for no joker. Well, letís play there, I said.
Now we decided to pretend that we didnít know each other. George and Serge entered first. I came in 15 minutes later. There they are, sitting at an empty blackjack table. Not playing. Just keeping the seats for me. When I arrive at the table, a friend of Sergeís wishes me luck. The whole situation looks absurd. Like half of Moldavia knows some pro from Moscow just arrived to kill the local casinos. And all of them are rooting for me. Surrealistic experience.
This time I bought in for $300, hoping not to scare them. And I started to play. George and Serge were in the seats next to me. Not playing, not talking. Just watching. And obviously calculating my chip balance after each shuffle. SIX hours in the raw.
Six hours in the raw of some unknown guy betting from 1 x $10 to 4 x $100 in the absolute silence. Now I know the exact meaning of the word "uncomfortable."
Every time some ploppy arrives at the table to place a bet, George covers his mouth with his sleeve and whispers something to him. The ploppy leaves, looking at me with deep respect. I remind you that we supposedly donít know each other. Franz Kafka knows nothing about absurd.
After six hours Iím up three grand and consider leaving. But there is still a lot of time to play.
George left the table for the restroom. Then he ran into the pit and, throwing out the remainder of our poor camouflage, screams: "Fuck! Cash out the chips and get out of here! NOW!!!"
I took his word for it and, without stopping to ask questions, I grabbed my chips and ran to the cage. They paid me quickly. I ran to the exit. George was running to the left of me, Serge to the right. Sergeís friend was sitting in the car with the engine started and doors open. Have you ever seen any movies about assassination attempts on presidents? They threw me into the back seat of the car. George shouted to the driver: "Leave immediately! Follow that car!"
Ahead of us, blue and red signal lights flash and I see that weíre following the car with POLITIA written on it.
"George," said I, with unexpected calm, "Is this the fucking end or do we have some chance to get out of it somehow?"
George, talking excitedly, said, "All in the full order," and that tomorrow he would have "a hard talk at 12 o'clock with these goats." He went on to say: "I will now make a call to a colonel I know well," and "In all my life I have never seen such a thing happen and they will regret it."
I personally at this moment regretted just about everything about this trip. Then I realized I had forgotten my passportóit was back at the hotelÖ
To make a long story short, some local mobsters had approached George and said that weíd been "running some cheating." They said that if we wanted to play more, we had to pay them $1500. George had refused to speak further with them but instead had called cops that he knew. The cops had arrived in two minutes and accompanied us from the casino to our hotel for our security. George gave them 20 bucks.
George swore that this would not happen again and that he would destroy all the gangsters.
Day Number Two. Trembling but Still Playing Blackjack.
Rio, Cosmos and Grand open at 2 p.m. At breakfast we decided to play at the Rio once more, despite the gangsters, because the table max at the Cosmos and Grand was $50, while at the Rio it was $100. Also, at the Grand you had to show ID upon entrance, which I didnít want to do. Frankly, I also didnít want to play at the Rio.
We walked in. There were no gangsters. No visitors at all. Only we three. The picture was pretty much the same as the day before: one player spreading his bets like a lunatic and two non-players watching. Empty casino. Nobody talking. Nobody socializing. The dealer was calling the totals of the hands, not asking for a single tip. The music was so quiet I could barely hear it. Pure nightmare.
After three hours I was up $2500 and decided to take a break for lunch.
The second I mentioned lunch George and Serge both shuddered and almost carried me in their hands from the casino to a restaurant. I think they were very much impressed with the speed at which we were winning.
We returned to the casino and found some local high roller playing blackjack with a crowd of kibitzers. But when I approached, the crowd immediately parted and released to us three places. Now the only people playing were the high roller and I. The high roller starting periodically throwing out such phrases as: "And now I shall ask the maestro to tell me how I should play." Horror.
I played six hours more and won three grand more. That was over eight grand at the Rio alone. Just at the moment I decided to call the session, George whispered to me that a security guard he knew well had just told him that the pit boss had decided to blacklist us. That meant that he would let us play this time as long as we wanted, but we would not be allowed to return to the casino.
This security guy said that winning over seven grand lead to almost guaranteed barring.
I sat back down at the table and played until morning, but only broke even for the rest of the play that night. We returned to our hotel and I fell asleep. Those had been two mmmÖ rich with impressions days.
Day Number Three. Blacklisted at Almost Every Casino in Chisinau, so Where to Play?
Now Iíve got a problem. Iím blacklisted in the Napoleon-National chain. Iím blacklisted at Rio (and probably in Grand and Cosmos). There is only one casino left in the city, and itís called the Imperial. But the information is that itís a burn joint with low limits and bad rules.
I decided to give the Napoleon a try, but security at the entrance asked for my membership card. They tell me that I must play at the National first and receive my membership card there. So the National casino is like a filter for unwanted persons for Napoleon. Three times I was asked whether I was a local or not. I insisted that I was a local, thinking that maybe for locals the entrance requirement for Napoleon would be more liberal. But no, it looked like the blacklist had caught me.
So I decided to check out the Cosmos casino. At the entrance there was a sign saying something like "RIO company," so I knew the casinos were connected. But they let us enter. At the cage I found THE SAME girl who had paid me three grand at Rio yesterday. But there was no heat for any of the three of us.
The table limits were $2-50 (same rules as Rio, no joker). After a very long session, I had won $1100. I got paid with no problems. So, either they donít exchange information within this chain, or I just donít understand whatís going on.
Day Number Four. Still Playing Blackjack.
Tomorrow is our flight back to Moscow. That morning I bought Moldavian wine as a souvenir (very good quality). Then back to Cosmos. No problems at the entrance. Another very long session, another $1300 win. I still donít understand the principles of barring in this chain of casinos.
To summarize: the communication connection between National and Napoleon is very fast and good. Between Rio and Cosmos there appeared to be no connection at all. I havenít visited Grand or Imperial.
Total win: $10,000 over four days. Minus about one grand in expenses for George and me, including airfare for two, $10 per day for Serge, and restaurants every day.
On my last night in Moldavia we visited the striptease-club Soho. Good quality but no sex allowed. By the way, there is almost no prostitution in Moldavia because of very cruel laws.
I also can recommend the Déjà vu Club. Itís a mix of the Real McCoy and Hungry Duck, with a local Moldavian accent. There are dances at the tables, tons of booze. Cocktails are a specialty. If youíre with a girl, order her a B-52 cocktail: They make a good and loud show from preparing and drinking it. Do not arrive there until 10 p.m.
Day Number Five. Home Sweet Home.
Four rough days in Moldavia are over. We head to the airport right from the strip-bar. Serge, who has never been in a strip-bar in his life, is talking excitedly about "cool girls" and "crazy prices." George and I are thinking about possible future trips. We gave all our winnings to Serge, who was supposed to give the money to the bank workers for transferring to Moscow.
In the airport we showed the declarations. Customs was again impressed by the amount of money we had in cash. They asked how we could spend only $5 total in Moldavia for two people for four days. We said that local friends had always paid for us.
Another problem with the registration arose. If you stay in Moldavia over three days you must get an official registration at the hotel or a police station. George said that we actually stayed just slightly over three days. They say OK, no problem.
And that was the end. A bottle of single malt in the duty free shop and after two hours I was back in Moscow.
Final Recommendations on Playing Blackjack in Moldavia
If you decide to play blackjack in Moldavia, I strongly advise you to arrange some local support. If youíre crazy enough to go there after reading this, I mean. Despite the face that I paid VERY heavily for such support, I think I decided correctly. George really can solve almost any problem.
The downside is that youíre always playing under the gaze of your support. Itís a mix of control and safety issues. But George strongly respected me and Serge simply idolized.
I got my money in Moscow (minus 1%) the day after my return home. We decided to call my teammate Vaso and propose to him a new venture in Chisinauóthis time with three persons and 33% of the bank each: George, Vaso and me. Vaso agreed after hearing the rules. Vaso will be the hired casino killer, George will solve possible problems and I will just be a partial investor, not even going to Moldavia because I was burned practically everywhere.
Then I left Moscow and headed to Ecuador. Thatís another story (much more peaceful). While I was playing in Eucadorian casinos, Vaso and George took their trip to Chisinau. Vaso was blacklisted too in the National and Napoleon in two days.
And then that fucking George stole all the bankroll and disappeared. Iím still trying to find that asshole. He couldnít resist his gambling addiction any longer. Serge says he lost all the money in Cosmos.
Should I type the moral of this story?
Luck (in or out of Moldavia).
Garry Baldy. ♠
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