A blackjack casino promotion at Morongo is destroyed by an online news service.
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How to Kill a Casino Promotion

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What Went Wrong at the Morongo Casino Promotion?

By L.J. Winsome
(From Blackjack Forum XVI #4, Winter 1996)
© Blackjack Forum 1996

Friday the 13th of September was touted as "Your Lucky Day at Casino Morongo," but instead, the payday turned into an expensive fiasco true to the date. The casino promotion which portended to offer over $900,000 in excess player pool funds to punters by paying any "natural 13" like a blackjack at 1 1/2 times a bet was canceled at the last minute.

Although, Casino Morongo undoubtedly pulled some kind of bait-and-switch on the players, it's arguable that the card counters had no one to blame but themselves.

Let's face it, counting cards is the easy part. It's things like game selection, ability to read heat, and a great act that make for longevity, and therefore, give someone the chance to put those counting skills to use. That and bankroll, of course. Another requisite skill, and possibly one of the most important, is discretion, and after the example set at the Morongo casino promotion by the army of professional card counters that showed up to cash in, it appears to be a lesson that needs to be relearned.

The reason every card counter on U.S. soil (including one from Hawaii) showed up at at Morongo casino promotion was Stanford Wong, and and one of his Current Blackjack News "Special Editions," which are more commonly called "Wong Alerts." These go out over the Internet and telephone/fax lines, and inform professionals who subscribe to this service of promotions across the country and optimal strategies for playing them. I have been to numerous promotions over the past two years, all of which I have learned about by these "Wong Alerts."

It costs $295 a year for the fax service, but it used to be worth it, as these promotions injected much appreciated infusions of cash into my bankroll. Also, casino promotions are a lot less work than card counting. During casino promotions all one has to do is sit there and bet the maximum. But there may be a downside to these alerts: too many people are now showing up. In this case, the "Wong Alert" literally killed the promotion before it started. Here's how the alert looked when it came over the wire:

12 September 1996

Any Natural 13 Pays 3:2 on Friday the 13th at Casino Morongo "Friday the 13th." Your lucky day at Casino Morongo!

Any natural 13 pays like a blackjack!! 1 1/2 times your bet. September 13, 6 P.M. to 12 A.M.

With those words on small pieces of orange paper, Casino Morongo in Cabazon, west of Palm Springs, CA, announced what could be the all-time biggest casino giveaway. The flyers were distributed on the tournament tables during the Wednesday night tournament on 11 September.

Thirteen is the most common total you are dealt. If A-2 is not recognized as thirteen, you are dealt thirteen about 8.28% of the time. If A-2 counts as a natural thirteen, the total rises to 9.47% of the time, which is twice as frequent as a blackjack. Normally, thirteen is a loser. On average, it loses 35%. Paying 3:2 on a thirteen thus improves the value of a thirteen by 185%. Gaining 1.85 of a bet on 8.28% of your hands is 15.3%. Gaining 1.85% of a bet on 9.47% of your hands is 17.5%.

Thus the natural-13-pays-like-a-blackjack increases your edge by 15.3% or 17.5%. The normal casino edge is 0.35% (eight decks) or 0.48% (one deck) and you must pay the casino $1 per hand for the privilege of playing blackjack.

Overall, on the evening of Friday the 13th you will enjoy an edge of 15% to 17%, less collections. Normally, most tables have a $100 maximum. Last night there were twelve blackjack tables open, of which three allowed $500 max bets, eight were $100 max, and one (the single decker) had a $200 max.

Normally you play about 40 hands an hour in a casino that takes collections, with the slowness due to the time it takes to make the collection. Customers who are enjoying a 15% edge undoubtedly will find ways to speed play, such as never hesitating on a decision, not splitting most pairs, and helping the dealer with collections.

My guess is you ought to be able to play 50 hands an hour for this promotion. Flat $100 bets ought to win at the rate of $750 per hour less $50 per hour of collections for a net of $700 an hour. Flat $200 bets ought to net about $1450 an hour. Flat $500 bets ought to net about $3700 an hour.

These numbers assume A-2 does not count as thirteen; if it does, the win rates will be higher yet. If the promotion actually runs for the full six hours, $100 bettors ought to clear $4500, $200 bettors ought to clear $8700, and $500 bettors ought to clear $22,500. These numbers assume A-2 does not count as thirteen; if it does, the win rates will be higher yet.

Risk is basically nonexistent when you have a 15% edge. The only risk is will the cashier have enough cash to buy back all your chips. The players' pool is well over $900,000, but it will be considerably smaller by midnight of Friday the 13th.

After reading that, what card counter in his right mind wouldn't run, not walk, to the nearest airport and catch the first plane to L.A.?

The Morongo Promotion: Like a Card Counter's Convention

Jerry, one of the floormen working at the casino in the afternoon prior to the promotion witnessed the counters competing for seats in a manner he initially compared to circling sharks and as the day progressed likened to circling vultures. I don't think Casino Morongo has ever seen so many arguments over seats at which it cost $1.00 to play a hand.

Many people who got up to use the restroom lost their seats, if they didn't return in five minutes. All that morning bosses and dealers were forced to arbitrate these disputes, and the atmosphere intensified as the day progressed. By 10:30 a.m., it was impossible to get a seat

Many of the larger blackjack teams had arrived the night before and taken their places at the $500 maximum table estimating their e.v. at around $4,000 per hour.

That night, when one professional blackjack player asked for clarification from a pitboss on exactly which two cards constituted a "natural 13," he was told it was "...any first two cards, including A-2."

When he asked if the promotion would apply at the $500 tables, however, he was told "no." With that word, the entire table got up and returned to their hotel rooms in preparation for the next day's festivities. They would return the next day, of course. At the $100 maximum tables the hourly e.v. was about $800, still well worth the competition for a seat.

In any other casino, no professional card counter who was a member of a blackjack team would openly communicate or distribute bankroll with colleagues under the watchful stare of the eye-in-the-sky, but that's the sort of thing that went on at Casino Morongo. It was reported by a floorman that they had videotape of professionals passing large sums of money at the tables, openly communicating with their partners and, worst of all, trying to buy the locals out of their seats.

Morongo, with typical casino conspiracy mentality, reported that from the perspective of surveillance, it looked like one giant team had descended on the casino and was operating some kind of scam. That would scare the daylights out of any casino, particularly one unaccustomed to card-counters, and in this case, it scared the promotion out of Morongo.

One card counter, whom I later learned was organizing one of the much-feared big-betting teams, described feeling like he was at a giant convention of counters.

"The atmosphere is just so relaxed," he said.

I met him hovering behind my table, which was filled with Vietnamese regulars hitting hard 17 against a 10 in order to get the two-of-clubs marked with a PAYDAY (another, less profitable, Morongo promotion gimmick). I was the only professional at this table with a seat. The regulars kept promising to leave at 5:00 pm, when the payday promotion ended, and an hour before the anxiously awaited promotion on "natural 13," but this did not deter any number of counters from coming up and offering to buy the locals out of their seats beforehand.

At 3:00 pm a pitboss circled the casino announcing that a "natural 13" was made up of only a 10, J, Q, or K and a 3. This lessened the worth of the promotion, but the expected value was still about $400 per hour and there was no heat to contend with. Everybody stayed in their seats, but the continuing devaluation of the promotion was disappointing.

Then, at 5:00, one hour before the party was due to begin, the casino manager, with two beefy security guards in tow, went around announcing the cancellation of the Lucky 13 promotion altogether. The counters were furious, some of them quite vocally.

The trouble is that Casino Morongo, like any other casino on the planet, exists to make money. They are not there to put money into the pockets of card counters who will then disappear and use the winnings to extract even more money from other casinos. Casino Morongo wants it's regulars to win the player pool, not the professionals, because they want that money to be returned to them in the form of the ante that gets dropped down the slot with each hand that's played.

The money that would have been given away during the casino promotion comes from the blackjack winnings, not the $1-per-hand drop. That's why these promotions exist in the first place; the casino will occasionally and publicly give up some of the money they earn from their advantage on the game. Nobody knows how much money they really earn with both the normal house advantage and the phenomenal earn of the drop Indian casinos are accountable to no one, audited by no regulatory body so, the casino promotions lend an aura of honesty to the otherwise questionable policy of hitting the average player from both sides.

If, however, the casino can earn the money back in the weeks and months that follow the promotion, from unwitting regulars, that's fine with them. They're not going anywhere.

Casino Morongo pulled some kind of stunt when they canceled the Friday the 13th promotion. I couldn't help wondering, when I heard the news, if the whole thing had been a setup. If so, it was brilliant. Fake a promotion so that all the card counters come in, then make them play for seven hours before the promotion to guarantee a seat during the big payoff hours and charge them a dollar a hand while they're doing it. Brilliant and unethical, if that's the case.

What has to be remembered is that Casino Morongo is a casino, not a fun place to hang out with your friends and socialize. In a way, we card counters swallowed the same lies that all the regular losers usually fall for: lose money but have a good time while you're doing it.

We let our guards down, and we ended up paying for it. That's the trouble with this business, mistakes cost us immediately and dearly, and performance is all.

Come the next casino promotion I hope we'll have learned our lesson; we'll be our usual discreet and stealthy selves, and we'll remember that a casino, by any other name, is still our enemy.♠

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  How to Kill a Blackjack Casino Promotion
This Blackjack Forum article discusses a casino promotion gone wrong at Casino Morongo. Hordes of card counters descended on the casino promotion after word of it was posted on a blackjack web site.