Stanford Wong's news service destroys a valuable casino promotion at the Klondike.
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How to Kill a Valuable Casino Promotion, Part II

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Surprise Party at the Klondike Hotel

By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum XX #2, Fall 1996)
© Blackjack Forum 1996

On Sunday, June 23, 1996, speaking before a small crowd of card counters and other gambling enthusiasts who were attending his blackjack seminar at Casino Players' Las Vegas Gaming Festival ‘96 at the Tropicana Hotel, Stanford Wong predicted that, due to a casino promotion, a “party” would soon take place at the Klondike Hotel and Casino, just a few blocks down the street on Las Vegas Blvd. South.

Despite its Vegas “Strip” address, many in the crowd had never heard of the Klondike, a small casino which boasted a total of five blackjack tables and a handful of slot machines. No craps. No roulette. No poker. No keno.

Betting limits on the BJ tables were $1-100, though $100 action was pretty much unheard of in this sawdust joint. The casino, in fact, owned no black ($100) chips - just silver ($1), red ($5), and green ($25). The $1 action was most common with the regular customers—truckers and the local blue collar crowd who enjoyed the relatively quiet atmosphere and the inexpensive, uncrowded coffee shop.

Within 24 hours of Wong’s prediction, the “party” began, and by 12:15 A.M. on Tuesday, June 25, not much more than 8 hours after it had started, it was all over. Another successful Pi Yee Press “surprise party” went down in blackjack history.

Here’s how it happened.

The Klondike "Free Ride" Casino Promotion

About 3 weeks earlier, the Klondike introduced a new rule on its blackjack tables: the “Free Ride.” The rule had been invented by Jim, one of the pit bosses, apparently to encourage more $5 action. Placards on the tables and large signs on the walls explained that you could only take advantage of the “free ride” option with bets of $5 or more.

What is a “free ride?” In fact, it turned out to be pretty expensive for the Klondike...

If the player was dealt a blackjack with a bet of $5 or more, his betting spot was marked with a “lammer.” Lammers are those small plastic disks that dealers in some casinos use as chip separators in their racks. The Klondike had lammers imprinted with dollar amounts from $5 to $100.

If a player was dealt a blackjack when he had $10 bet on the hand, a $10 lammer was placed on the edge of his betting square. The player could then use the lammer for a “free ride” on any subsequent hand dealt to that position up to the amount imprinted on the lammer, in this case $10. A “free ride” was simply an option to call any hand a push prior to playing it out.

In other words, if the player had a $10 lammer on a betting square, and if he was then dealt a total of, say, 16 vs. an ace, he could announce “free ride,” and the dealer would pick up his cards, remove the lammer, and the hand would not be played out—technically it became a push. As this was done before the dealer peeked under his ace, this was actually an “early free ride,” and since the player did not even relinquish half of his bet, it was quite a bit more valuable than early surrender. How much more valuable had yet to be seen...

A few other fine points of the free ride option: if a player had a $10 lammer on a betting square where he subsequently had a $25 bet, the lammer could only be used for a free ride on $10 of that bet. In other words, if the player elected to use his free ride option, only $10 of his bet would be returned to him, then the hand would be played out for the $15 remaining.

If a player was betting on two squares and had a lammer marking only one position, he could not move the lammer to the hand of his choice. The lammer could be used only on the hand in the marked square. If a player were dealt another natural on a hand which was already marked with a lammer, he could not get another lammer. Tough beans. Only one lammer per hand.

At his Sunday Casino Player seminar, Wong said he’d just heard about this new free ride rule, and he didn’t know the precise value of it, but that he planned to start running some computer simulations on it as soon as he got home that evening. Nor did he know the best strategy for using the lammer.

Obviously, any time you give up a hand that has a negative expectation, you’re profiting. But giving up a stiff vs. a dealer low card (2,3,4,5,6) would be nowhere near as valuable as giving up a stiff vs. a dealer high card (7,8,9,X,A). There is a danger, however, to saving the lammer for a really bad hand, and that danger is that you might be dealt another blackjack prior to getting a really bad hand, thus “wasting” the use of a lammer.

Prior to Wong’s revelation of this new rule at his seminar, a few local players had already discovered the rule, and the Klondike was already seeing more red and even some green action on its tables. I wandered in on Sunday evening. There was one player making $25 and $50 bets, who appeared to be losing heavily. There was also a smattering of red action.

The green action player was obviously not a pro, as he was using a plastic basic strategy card at the table as he played, but violating the advice on the card any time he had a hunch the card was wrong. One of the casino customers I talked with told me that a few players had made some “real money... 500 to 1,000 bucks,” on that weekend, betting green action. These players had also discovered the rule independently, and may or may not have known what they were doing.

I called Wong the following morning to find out if he had run any computer simulations yet to analyze the free ride option.

He said he was currently testing the rule with “aggressive” use of the lammer—i.e., taking the free ride on virtually any hand of negative value. He told me he intended to test a more conservative lammer strategy later, and by 2 P.M. or so, he would be putting the word out to his FAX subscribers, as well as to his Internet group.

At 2:30 P.M. on Sunday, I called Wong again. He told me he would be sending out his FAX and Internet announcements within an hour or so. “You’d better get over there, Arnold,” he said. “You’ll have a chance to see what a Pi Yee Press surprise party looks like first hand. By later this afternoon, I guarantee you there’ll be a $100 bet on every spot on every open table.”

I told Wong one player told me that a pit boss had said the Klondike planned to patent the rule and market it to other casinos.

Wong laughed. “No, they won’t,” he said. “That rule will die tonight. Aggressive lammer use gives the basic strategy player about a 1% advantage over the house. With a more conservative lammer strategy—and I just simulated the standard early surrender strategy—you can get about a 1.5% advantage. If I had another 24 hours to play with this, I’m sure I could come up with a more perfect strategy, and a stronger advantage, but I can’t afford to waste any more time on it. My customers need to know this information right now. This is what they pay me for.”

I asked Wong if he intended to continue running his simulations so that he could publish the perfect strategy the next day.

He laughed again. “You don’t understand, Arnold. This rule won’t exist tomorrow. I would be wasting my time. The casino will surrender before the night is through. I guarantee it. 1% to the players is just too strong. With $100 bets, a small casino like that just won’t be able to take it.”

The Klondike Promotion Starts

Within two hours of that conversation, the players began arriving at the Klondike. One at a time, they sat down and pulled out a handful of hundred dollar bills and asked for all green chips.

By 5:30 P.M., there wasn’t a betting spot available on any of the three open tables. Most were playing two hands, flat-betting $100 per hand, playing basic strategy and using early surrender strategy to give up the lammer when they had one.

The pit bosses and dealers seemed confounded at where all these table limit players had come from. They asked almost all of them individually how they’d happened to stop in at the Klondike on that night. Most gave a version of the same story: “Oh, I was just on my way into (or out of) town, and I thought I’d stop by and look at this place. Pretty good game you’ve got here. I really like this new `free ride’ rule.”

The rule produced some of the most unusual player reactions I’d ever seen at a blackjack table. Players with lammers cheered when they were dealt stiffs vs. dealer tens and aces, gleefully calling out “free ride!” Stranger still, players with lammers cursed when they were dealt blackjacks, knowing that they would not get another lammer, and that a blackjack had been “wasted.”

As the casino allowed players betting two spots with max bets to continue betting two spots even when other players wanted to play, all of the tables had only four players, three betting two spots, and one—the last to sit down—betting one. Hordes of players lurked behind the tables like vultures, waiting for any player to stand up and give up his seat, or even to take a break to one of the rest rooms.

Rest room breaks were infrequent and quick, as the attitude at the tables was that with a 1% advantage, each $100 hand missed cost the player $1.50, so players with two hands gave up $3.00 per round for every round they missed when nature called! The casino did save their seats, while the lurking vultures fought to squeeze a few $100 bets in on-to those temporarily vacated betting square(s).

One player, who had been playing two spots for five or six straight hours gave his seat up to his female companion so that she could play his spots for awhile. The adjacent single-spot player, however, quickly grabbed one of the two spots, claiming some sort of “squatter’s rights” to the second spot, since he had been there for many hours, and she had just arrived. One of the pit bosses had to arbitrate the argument, while the dealer stood dumbfounded. Why on earth were players fighting to place $100 bets on their tables?

Virtually every player I talked to later had nothing but praise for the dealers and pit crew. Said one: “They were so cordial and accommodating. They were offering everybody comps to the coffee shop and a room if they wanted one. I heard them offer one player a room at the Hacienda! I don’t know how they would swing that deal! But nobody would leave their seat. It was too expensive to go eat, even though we were starving! A couple players asked to have sandwiches brought to them at the table, and they even did that! They were so nice while we were cleaning them out!”

The scene was wild. The players continually emptied the dealers’ chip racks of greens and reds. After the first hour or so, the pit crew brought all the green chips the house owned out of the storage room, but that didn’t help much. All of those chips quickly wound up in front of the players, again leaving the dealers with nothing but silver.

So, a new chip replenishment strategy was born. The security guards were put to work as “chip runners,” bouncing back and forth from the tables to the cashier’s cage, buying chips from players right at the tables, and paying them off by counting hundred dollar bills onto the felt in trade for their greens and reds.

A couple times during the evening, they stopped the games completely, once to buy all of the chips from all of the players at all of the tables, and once to change all of the decks of cards in the shoes.

I don’t know how many times the dealers’ chip racks were cleaned out, or how many thousands of dollars in chips the house bought back from the players, but at one point a little before midnight, buying $1,000 in green chips from one player, the security guard started counting $20 bills onto the table. The cashier’s cage had run out of hundreds!

The punishment couldn’t last much longer. The incredible patience the pit had shown while being hammered for eight straight hours, waiting for the tide to turn, as it always did in casinos games, waiting for the “house edge” to start moving all those chips in the other direction, the right way, back into the dealers’ racks, was all for nought. The house was running out of money. The tide went out, and it wasn’t coming back in. The party was almost over.

At midnight, the grave shift arrived. The new pit crew looked positively confounded at the strange scene before them. A table limit player at every open seat in the house? Every spot covered with a $100 bet? On a Monday night?! And why were all the green chips in front of the players? And why were the security guards running back and forth like keno girls from the tables to the cage, buying chips from the players? What the hell was going on?

They were scratching their heads, talking in a huddled group with the swing shift pit crew, who were attempting to explain to them rationally the inexplicable eight hours that had just passed in which the impossible had occurred—the players were winning, and not just some of them, but all of them! For eight crazy hours, the chips had been flowing in the wrong direction!

A few hundred miles away, I imagined Stanford Wong with a grin on his face, wearing a paper party hat and blowing a little horn... “Surprise!”

Another Casino Promotion Ends

At fifteen minutes past midnight, Bud, the swing shift manager who had witnessed the entire debacle, threw in the towel.

“The pit is closed!” he announced. “No more blackjack. No more hands. It’s over. Cash in your chips and go home.”

There was a small stampede of bedraggled players to the cashier’s window, all praying the house would have sufficient funds to cash them out. They did. Everyone got paid. Most had been in their seats a full eight hours by this time. They were tired and hungry.

Once outside, the players stretched and breathed the night air, and immediately started making connections with each other, asking each other how they happened to find out about the game. At least two of the players had been attending the Casino Player’s Festival the day before, were not pros in any sense, but just happened to hear about the game at Wong’s talk.

A couple players said they were on Wong’s FAX service. A few had read about it on his Internet site, but were not subscribers, just net surfers who were interested in blackjack. One local player had discovered it on his own earlier in the week, but learned about Wong’s advice to use the early surrender strategy from another player he happened to meet at the tables. A few players exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses. It was a real conglomeration of locals and out-of-towners, mostly amateurs and a few pros who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

I called Stanford Wong the next day to tell him what had happened at the Klondike. He suggested that I wander over there again to see if they still had the free ride option on their tables. “There’s a law in Nevada that requires a casino to have some minimum amount of money in the cage in order to pay off winning players,” he told me. “It’s possible they only closed the tables to comply with the law if they were running out of money. They still may not know that the free ride option was responsible for what happened to them. A lot of casino people are pretty dumb.”

I told Wong that at one table the players kept talking about how much the dealer kept busting, as if that was responsible for the house’s eight-hour long negative cash flow.

“I’ve got some pretty sharp players on my FAX service,” he said, “and they might definitely say things like that to divert the house’s attention from what their real problem is. I think it’s very possible the casino personnel may not know that the free ride rule is the culprit. I’d go back in and check it out today if I were you.”

So, I wandered over to the Klondike, and who should I bump into outside the door but one of the local players who had been there the previous night. I asked him if the free ride rule was still in effect.

“No,” he said, “and they’re not particularly friendly today. I was just coming here for lunch. I walked in and noticed, while walking through the video poker machines, that the sign on the wall advertising the free ride option had been taken down.

"I did not go near the blackjack tables, I just went into the coffee shop. While I was waiting to be served, I saw the day shift pit boss, Sammy. He asked me if I had played last night and how I did. Sammy knew me from two days prior and we had developed a nice friendly rapport.

"Then another man moved in on our conversation and I began to explain that I had done well and how unlucky the casino was the night before. The second person, whose eyes were bloodshot and looked like he had been up all night, said `Did you play here last night?’ I said, `Yes,’ and he said, `I don’t think you’re welcome here any more,’ and he started to walk away.

"I called him back and attempted to speak to him in a friendly tone, and he responded with `Why don’t you just get the fuck out of here.’ I said, `Okay. See you later, Sammy,’ so I’m leaving.

“This treatment upsets me. After all, all I did was sit down and play the game that they offered. I didn’t mark cards, or use a computer, or run a scam with the dealer. Nor would I ever! You didn’t even have to count cards to beat that game. All I did was sit down, flat bet, play basic strategy, and enjoy the wonderful game that they were offering to the public. I took advantage of what they gave as anyone else who walked in would be able to do. It wasn’t my fault that they were too stupid to realize that the game they offered gave the basic strategy player a big edge!

“I’m going home now, but I’m going to write a letter to the Gaming Control Board. I’ll probably call the casino manager first to vent my anger over this discriminatory treatment.”

I asked this player if I could call him later to find out what transpires in his conversation with the Klondike’s casino manager. He gave me his number so that I could contact him, which I did the following day.

“I called the Klondike,” he said, “in order to secure the name of the casino manager, to whom I would direct my letter, as well as to the Gaming Board. The operator informed me that the owner, Mr. Woodruff, acted as casino manager, and would I like to speak to him?

“I said `sure.’

“In our conversation, Mr. Woodruff explained to me `exactly what happened last night.’ That his `management could not figure it out, but when he came in the casino around midnight, it only took him 15 minutes’ to do so, in part because of his experience as he `had been in the business for 33 years.’

“The Klondike was correct in kicking me out the next day, according to Woodruff. What occurred, he said, was that everyone playing at the Klondike that night was part of one big team. I guess he made this assumption because everyone was flat betting the table max of $100. Each player at the table had a function on the team, he said. Some people `kept a plus-minus,’ some people `called plays’ for others, and the key was the person at third base. The third base person at each table `directed the cards to the dealer to keep the dealer in a minus situation.’

“His 33 years of casino experience must have taken some time out of any years of basic math. I could not believe that a casino owner could speak with such ignorance. I assured him that I certainly was not part of this `dream team’ he put together. If things were that easy, any group of people could sit at any table in any casino and `put the dealer in a minus situation!’

"Why go to the Klondike, of all places? Why not the MGM Grand where you can bet $10,000 a hand instead of a hundred? Simply `direct’ the proper `minus’ cards to the dealer! There was no point in trying to reason or be logical with him, so the conversation ended with me again denying his claim that I played for this enormous team with this impossible strategy, and him insisting I was not telling the truth.”

But, regardless of what this player was told when he called the Klondike, the fact exists that, as Wong had initially predicted, the casino did remove the free ride option approximately 8 hours after Wong publicized it, along with an easy strategy for beating it. I tend to doubt we will ever see that option surface again in any U.S. casino.

Good-bye, Free Ride, you were great fun while you lasted! And if you want future casino promotions to last long enough to make some money from them, keep your casino promotions to yourself!, ♠

For more information on casino promotions and how professional gamblers play them, see the Professional Gambling Library.

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