A coin flip gambling scam that has been going around for decades nevertheless continues to fool people. Read about the coin flip gambling scam, and how Ken Uston got caught in it.
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The Coin Flip Gambling Scam
that Got Ken Uston

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Flipped! The Coin Flip Gambling Scam

By Dunbar
(From Blackjack Forum XX #2, Summer 2000)
© 2000 Blackjack Forum

"You can flip the coin," he said. "If I call it right, you give me $100. If I call it wrong, I'll give you $1,000."

It was the winter of 1979-1980 in Atlantic City, and I had seen the character who made me this offer playing blackjack in Resorts for the past week. He was hard to miss because he was extremely loud and more than a little odd. I remember him leaning way over a blackjack table and asking a dealer in a shouting voice that broke my concentration 2 tables away, "YOU LIKE PIZZA? I LOVE PIZZA!!".

I was in Atlantic City because the New Jersey Casino Control Commission had decided to conduct an experiment to see if casinos and card counters could coexist. The rules allowed the casinos, only Resorts and Caesars were open at that time, to shuffle up only when a player had tripled his previous bet. Otherwise the casino had to deal to the cut card, which was placed at least 4 decks into the 6-deck shoe.

The Atlantic City rules included early surrender, and the players had a 0.2% edge off the top. Even with the betting restrictions and mediocre penetration, the game was very good. Ken Uston's team was there, as well as a group known as the Czech team. There were several smaller teams and many individual counters, too. I had formed a 3-person team for the occasion.

The coin-flipper first approached me when I was eating dinner alone in a greasy spoon a couple of blocks off Boardwalk. He had been eating with a friend, and then he came up to my table.

"I've seen you in the casino", he said. "You like to gamble." It wasn't really a question, but I answered, "Sometimes."

"How about flipping a coin for $100?", he asked.

"No thanks", I said. He asked why not, and I said that I only liked to bet when I had an advantage. I wasn't interested in betting for the thrill of it.

He said, "What if I make it that you either win $1,000 or lose $100? You can flip the coin. If I call it right, you give me $100. If I call it wrong, I'll give you $1,000."

I said it would depend. The coin-flipper asked, "Depend on what?". I told him that I would want to use a neutral coin, that he would have to call it in the air, and that we would have to let the coin hit the floor. I added that the money would have to be on the table, too.

To my surprise, he said, "Okay."

As I went to the bathroom to take out some cash, I tried to evaluate the situation. Was it believable that this guy was offering me a fair bet on a coin-flip at odds of 10-1? I'd seen him betting black chips in the casino. He wasn't awful, but he wasn't counting. He appeared to have money to burn.

Still, the line from Guys And Dolls came to mind. It's something like, "If someone bets you that they can make the Jack-Of-Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear, then you'd better be ready for an earful of cider." At the same time, "$450 per flip" kept going through my head like some EV mantra. I took a few hundred out of my stash and returned to my table where he was still standing.

"You can put the thou in your pocket if you want", said the coin-flipper, as he threw some money on the table. I didn't want to do that, but I liked the fact that he offered it. Still, I was nervous leaving $1,100 visible on the table in this part of town, so we covered the small pile with a paper napkin. We called over my waitress and explained that we wanted a coin from the cash register. She brought me back change for a dollar, and I selected one of the quarters.

The coin-flipper said, "Okay, let's practice one time."

This struck me as odd, so I said, "Let's just do it. I'll flip the coin, we let it hit the floor, and you have to call it while it's still in the air." He asked why I didn't want to just catch the coin rather than let it hit the floor. I said I thought there would be no room for doubt on the outcome if we let it hit the floor. That seemed okay with him, but he asked why I didn't want to practice it once.

"Because, if we practice once, there may be some doubt about which flip is practice and which flip is "real", I answered. He didn't agree or disagree. He just said, "Let's do it."

I had the coin ready to flip on my right hand; my thumb was in position. I couldn't believe I was getting 10 to 1 on a coin flip! But when I tried to get confirmation that "this flip counts, right?", I never quite got the solid "Yes" that I was looking for. No matter how I asked, he always managed to leave a tiny doubt about whether or not the first toss was going to count. For example, at one point this exchange occurred.

Me: "Okay. This flip is going to count, right?"

Him: "Okay. Let's see what happens."

He seemed to be saying yes, but the "Let's see what happens" left a door open for arguing that it did not count. Each time I asked for a definitive confirmation, he kept adding just enough to make me pause. I was considering other factors, too. He had a friend still at the other table, and I was alone. If there were a dispute, I would be outnumbered. Also, I didn't know how to treat the bet--was it my money or the team's money I'd be betting?

After 10 minutes of fruitlessly trying to get him to agree in a way that would satisfy my doubts, I made the most difficult "walk-away-from-a-game" decision I have ever made. I picked up my $100 off the table, said, "thanks anyway", and headed for the door.

I had plenty of doubts later, though. That $1,000 I left lying on the table in that dumpy restaurant was like a siren calling out to me in my hotel room. Had I been too paranoid? What could he have done if I had put his $1,000 in my pocket before the flip, as he had offered, and then won the first flip? (Neither he nor his friend was physically imposing, but I had wondered about concealed weapons.) Shouldn't I have been willing to risk a $100 loss on the first flip, just to see if he would pay the $1,000 and maybe chase it?

I assumed I would never be able to answer those questions, but 3 years later an article in the June '83 issue of Blackjack Forum finally settled my doubts. As part of an interview with Ken Uston, Arnold Snyder asked Uston about a "curious story" he had heard. Snyder asked if it was true that Uston had "lost a lot of money" to a coin-flipper.

Uston replied that it was "absolutely true". Uston had first met the coin-flipper at the old Holiday Casino in Las Vegas, where the coin-flipper had offered Uston 5 to 1 on $100 if Uston could call a coin flip. After Uston lost the bet, the coin-flipper kept offering Uston better and better conditions, and Uston kept losing. When the loss reached $9,400, Uston must have decided he'd had enough.

The issue of whose money was at stake came up, too. Some of Uston's team members were less than thrilled when Uston declared it was a team loss. In the end, Uston had to eat the loss himself. Ironically, according to Uston, one of Uston's team members later got taken by the same coin-flipper in Atlantic City, in December of 1979.

I can't be 100% sure that my encounter was with the same coin-flipper who conned Uston and Uston's teammate. But, what are the odds that two guys with the same act and coin-flipping skills were running around Atlantic City at the same time? I have to conclude that I was lucky to escape a thorough fleecing.

As advantage players, we are always on the lookout for a good bet. Our usual blackjack edge is so thin, that when presented with what looks like a truly great game, our eagerness to play can make us vulnerable to being conned.

There's a lot of truth to the claim that no one is easier to con than a con artist. And after all, with our "act" and cover bets, we are not so far removed from the con mentality. So, when an unusually juicy opportunity presents itself, it's wise to pause long enough to do a reality check, preferably while humming "Luck Be a Lady Tonight". If you charge ahead without careful consideration, then keep a handkerchief handy to dry out your earful of cider. ♠

For more information on the fine art of scams and cons, see 100 Ways to Win a Ten-Spot: Scams, Cons, Games You Can't Lose by Paul Zenon, How to Cheat at Everything by Simon Lovell, and The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man by David Maurer.

For more stories about professional gamblers and gambling scams, see Arnold Snyder's Big Book of Blackjack.

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