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BLACKJACK WIZARDS : INTERVIEW WITH DARRYL PURPOSE
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XXIV #1, Winter 2005)
© 2005 Blackjack Forum
[Comments from RWM:
Though Darryl Purpose is only forty-something, he is a grizzled veteran of the Blackjack Wars. He started playing blackjack almost thirty years ago at the ripe old age of 19. He moved to Las Vegas and learned just enough about counting cards to lose all his money. He says, “I was the kind of counter that made Las Vegas.” He went from sleeping in his car to a job in a boiler room selling pens. He fell into a familiar pattern in Las Vegas—working a job, and blowing his paycheck. At the same time he must have been learning something about blackjack. A year later he was one of the best players on the Ken Uston team, driving down the Las Vegas Strip in a Rolls Royce with thousands of dollars in his pocket. “Isn’t that why we came?” he says with a smile.
The last bet Darryl made as part of a Ken Uston team was in December of 1979, yet he says that reputation haunts him to this day. In Two Books on Blackjack, Ken Uston named Darryl as one of the four best blackjack players in the world, but playing with Ken “was not a badge of honor,” says Darryl. “Still, the reason you want to interview me is because I was part of the Ken Uston team.”
It’s true. That is why I wanted to interview Darryl. But then I heard the stories of what happened after 1979. Stories that will take you from Moscow to Sri Lanka. Blackjack tales of the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian Mob, the Japanese Yakuza, and the Tamil Tigers, who invented suicide bombing. Matter-of-fact stories of running over to Caesars Palace to play a hole card because they needed a down payment on a house, or winning a million dollars with Thor, a shuffle-tracking computer. For Darryl it was his job. “My job was to play until they didn’t allow me, and then take the money home. I really didn’t consider whether it was dangerous.”
Darryl is also a talented musician, who now does 150 concerts a year as a touring singer/songwriter. I’ve seen him in concert, and his audience is mesmerized by his tales of traveling the world playing his guitar, and yes, blackjack.]
RWM: How did you first get interested in blackjack?
Darryl: My mother put a copy of Beat the Dealer in my Christmas stocking when I was 16. I was interested in cards and games, and I had a natural affinity for math, so it appealed to me. I’ve since forgiven her.
RWM: You couldn’t play at that age. [Legal gambling age is 21.]
Darryl: Right. I was a little bit lost when I got out of high school, but I signed up for college. I was a classical guitar major. My left hand started to hurt for some reason, and they put a splint on it. I had only one hand to use so I practiced finger picking. Then my right hand went. So there I was, a classical guitar major at Cal State Northridge, with splints on both hands. I dropped out of school, got in my ’62 Chevy, and headed to Vegas. I had $50, a couple of shirts, and my guitar.
RWM: Were you 21?
Darryl: I was 19. I spent the $50 to get a room for a week downtown. I wandered around living off the free breakfasts and other freebies. I landed a job selling ballpoint pens in a phone room. It was cold calling. I’d call Joe’s Auto Parts in Fargo, North Dakota. Joe, this is Jack Baker at DD Enterprises here in Las Vegas. We’ve got a problem here, and I’m hoping you can help me out. We got a regular customer down in Texas, Joe’s Auto Parts in Fort Worth. Now Joe put in an order for those Deluxe Writograph Pens, with the printing on them. They last forever and have a lifetime guarantee. Anyway, so what happened is my secretary put an extra 0 on the order, and instead of 500 pens we got 5000 pens. Now I’m willing to…
It was like that. Of course they didn’t pay you right away. They paid you a commission the following week. I was on the street for a little while. Then I was offered a room with one of the other guys who worked there. I think my first paycheck was $20. The next week was $50, and the next week was $200. I went to the Stardust and gambled with $50. I turned it into $500. I thought, “This is easy.”
RWM: You had learned to count already?
Darryl: I had read Thorp’s book. I was a bad counter like thousands of other people. I thought I knew something about counting, and I thought that maybe it was enough. That night I was the kind of counter that made Las Vegas. From there it was a year and a half of working this phone job, and regularly losing my paycheck. I was living week to week, and never making any money. One day I was in the Horseshoe spreading 1 to 4 in dollars. I was counting the Hi-Opt I with a side count of aces. There was another guy at the table, and he was going 1 to 4 in nickels. I noticed from his play that not only was he counting cards, but also I could tell he was using a side count of aces. I followed him when he left the casino. Somebody at the phone room had told me that there were professional teams out there. At that point to me they were very dark and mysterious, and not something I thought I would ever have any access to.
RWM: Where did you get the Hi-Opt I?
Darryl: That came from a guy I worked with in the boiler room.
RWM: What year was this?
Darryl: Probably 1976. So I followed the guy out of the Horseshoe, and he thought I was from the casino. I followed him into the Fremont coffee shop. I said, “Hey, you’re a card counter.” He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I told him, “I’m a card counter, too. I count the Hi-Opt I with a side of aces.” That player was a guy named Art. We became friends. He lived in Berkeley at 21 Channing Street. He would say, “My age is 21. My address is 21. And my profession is 21.” He knew more than I did about professional teams because he had met a guy from the Bay area who was one of the big players on the Ken Uston team. Art and I formed a little team with a $2,000 bankroll. We ran around playing single-deck betting up to $20. I was losing, and Art was winning, but overall we were down. It was all Art’s money, so it was not fun.
You know the problem with blackjack? It is that the bankrolls that are no fun drag on forever. The bankrolls that are really great are over really quick. You spend most of your career down.
One day Art said he knew one of the top BP’s on the Ken Uston team was living in the same apartment complex as me. It was a crummy little complex called Enchanted Gardens on Swenson. I went around the corner in my complex, and knocked on this guy’s door. I said, “Hi, I’m Darryl. I’m your neighbor, and I play blackjack.” His name was Ron Karr. Ron is a nice guy and he invited me in, even though he didn’t know me from Adam. I asked him about cheating, because we were losing and I didn’t understand why. He offered some advice, and I went on my way. A week later I knocked on the door a second time. I had more questions. That second time he offered me a job. The team would pay me $25 per shift to count down decks and call in the big player. I pulled Art into that also. So we counted down decks for players on Ron’s team. I called my mother and said, “Mom, I’m a professional.”
RWM: Ron was not playing with Ken at this point?
Darryl: No, he had split from Ken. I remember the first time we got barred was at the Marina. They knew everything. We had just started, and this pit boss comes up and points at me. He said, “You,” then he pointed at Art, “And you,” and he pointed to the BP, “And you. If you guys don’t want to end up in the desert, you get out of here right now, and don’t come back.” That was exciting, so I called my Mom again and said, “Mom, it works.”
At some point during that time I quit my job selling pens, and that was the last real job I had. Ron’s team was trying to make a little money counting while they worked on developing a shuffle-tracking computer. Art and I were calling BP’s into hot shoes not knowing that this R & D was going on. Apparently it wasn’t going so well.
At one point one of the players wanted to put up $10,000 to form a counting team to bet up to $100 on single deck. He invited Art and me to be part of that. There were six of us. I wasn’t even 21 yet, and it wasn’t so long ago that I had arrived penniless in Las Vegas, and I remember thinking, “Bet $100!” My apartment was $200 a month. I was earning $200 a week at the boiler room. The idea of walking into a casino and betting $100 made me very nervous. We were going to play single-deck 1 to 4 in quarters. We won some money, and they raised the top bet to $200. I thought, this is too much, I would have to quit and go back to Los Angeles. I don’t remember the transition exactly, but soon after that I was the guy who always wanted to bet more.
RWM: How much did that team win?
Darryl: We ended up winning about $60,000 which was a great win back then, especially considering we started with a $10,000 bank.
RWM: How did it end?
Darryl: Well, I guess they were ready to focus on the non-random shuffle machine they were building. Art and I hadn’t known anything about it, but we were invited to a big meeting where we were told about it, and invited to participate. They were going to split the money according to pre-arranged percentages based on how valuable a player was deemed to be to the project. Down at the bottom of the list were Art and me who would each get ¾ of 1% of the win. On the one hand, it was not much, and on the other it was a generous offer they made to two green wanna-be counters.
RWM: But you were going to have to put in hours.
Darryl: Yes. We were good counters, but we were 20 and 21 at that point. At the end of this one of the players said, “You have another option. I happen to know that Ken Uston’s team is looking for players. You can try out for them, or you can stay here with the shuffle-tracking computer team.” True to our personalities, Art picked the computer team, and I picked the Ken Uston team. The Ken mystique was pretty compelling to this twenty year old, at least for a while.
RWM: Did that computer ever come into existence?
Darryl: No. So I made the right decision as it turned out.
RWM: So, now you must go meet the great Ken Uston.
Darryl: Exactly. He was already the world’s most famous blackjack player. Of course, that was because none of the real blackjack players want to be famous. That didn’t matter to me. I was totally in awe of him. It was like hearing that Stevie Wonder needed a player in his band, and getting an audition. I counted really well at the time. I quickly made my place on the team because I tested so well.
RWM: Tell me about the first meeting.
Darryl: I might have just met his partner Bill first. Bill and Ken were running the team. They were operating out of the Jockey Club. I met him, and then there was some testing. The stories of Ken and the Jockey Club were mythic. All the debauchery and excellent card playing combined in this mysterious scene. I got to the Jockey Club, and it was just as advertised.
RWM: Debauchery and card playing?
Darryl: Drugs and women and really good card counting.
RWM: Do you remember what the test was?
Darryl: It’s not clear in my mind, but I’m sure it was counting down shoes. Also, they would flash hands at you on a slide projector, and you had to tell them the index number. Then they would deal hands to you, and check the cards left at the end of the shoe. What they were looking for were people to call plays for a big player. That began my training for calling plays. I’ve probably called more plays than I have played myself. There were some classic BP’s on that team. Jimmy, the southern gentleman—we were worried about heat at the Hilton and had told him to wade into the play, not to bet so much that it would attract their attention. But when he sat down they asked him for ID and he was furious. He said, “Here’s my ID!!” as he whipped out $20,000 cash and threw it on the table. Ike was a cool one. He always had a girlfriend, and he always called her “George,” so he wouldn’t slip up in front of his wife. The downside of playcalling at that time was that they sent me out on my first plays into incredibly steamy situations with BPs that were already very hot. I was barred right away, and they knew I was part of the Ken Uston team. Within weeks I was completely Griffinized for life.
RWM: Did you have any hard barrings?
Darryl: I had a hard barring at the Hilton shortly after the Jimmy incident. This was shortly after Mark Estes [a card counter] got beat up there. I had just lost $10,000 with a BP and they dragged me to the back room. They 86ed me and trespassed me.
RWM: Did you call your mom?
Darryl: No. At that point it wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t like getting thrown out. I took it personally. One time I was calling plays on the single-deck at Caesars. I was betting quarters while the BP was betting thousands on the other side of the table. At some point I hear the pit boss say, “Oh, there’s Purpose. He must have lost his bankroll. He’s down to betting quarters.” They never caught on. Caesars at that time had a no-barring policy. They were the classy joint back then.
RWM: I’ve read that you were the fastest card counter on the team.
Darryl: I got really good at counting down a single-deck. Part of it was smoke and mirrors, and didn’t translate into play on the table. I got to a point where it was really about how quickly you could spread the cards. Someone would say with a stopwatch would say “Go” and I’d spread the cards and be looking at about 10 cards at a time. I’d look at the last cards and say, “stop,” and fold the deck up in one big motion. What they didn’t know was I was still counting because I had taken a mental picture of the last quarter of the deck. I could regularly count a single-deck in 10 seconds.
RWM: Weren’t there races or contests with substantial money bet?
Darryl: There was one legendary contest between the West Coasters and the East Coasters. This was shortly after the Atlantic City no-barring period. We were in Las Vegas. One of the East Coast guys had brought in a ringer. Although this guy never did that well in a casino, he could really count down a deck, especially six decks. We had an all-night session, and we had bet a lot of money on this. I was the reigning deck-counting champion, and Joe was the ringer newbie.
RWM: When you say you bet a lot of money, are we talking thousands?
Darryl: Yeah. Of course our pride was more important than the money. This happened at four in the morning. Who knows what debauchery had gone on before that, and we hadn’t slept. It was going to be a best two out of three. I won the first round, and Joe won the second. We both thought we were counting slow, but we thought it was because it was late and we had been drinking. After the counting of the first deck I went to my friend Craig and said, “I counted 26 aces.” Craig said, “Oh shit.” This was six decks and we were counting Hi-Opt I with a side count of aces.
RWM: Didn’t you have to give a count?
Darryl: I gave a count but I said there were two aces left. I figured I would be off by a whole deck not just two. I didn’t tell them what I actually counted. I told them what I thought were left, and I won the first round.
RWM: How many cards were they holding out?
Darryl: It was six decks so they would take out six cards. The second round I count 28 aces. I went to Craig and said, “There are seven decks there.” Joe was doing the same thing. He was getting the wrong ace count, but he wasn’t admitting it to anyone. Going into the third round I knew there were seven decks. I knew why the times were slow, so I wasn’t trying to push it. I won the last round because I had the correct count and he was off by one because he was rushing so much. We finished, and we were celebrating. I turned to Joe and said, “Joe, how many decks are there?” “That’s it!” he screamed. “There are seven decks there!!” It was quite funny.
RWM: When you started with Ken, was he still using hidden computers?
Darryl: I think I came in right as the computer project using George ended. [George was the first blackjack computer developed by Keith Taft. Some of the details of his teaming with Ken Uston were discussed in my interview with Al Francesco in the Summer 2002 issue of Blackjack Forum. You will find the interview in the Blackjack Forum Gambling Library on this Web site.] When I first joined we had BPs [Big Players], and we just called plays for them. They had just come up with this idea where they would have the BP signal what his hand was. The counter had to count the cards, bet and play his own hand, and take the signal from the BP from across the table by the way he held his cards. This was supposed to give you exactly what he had in his hand so you could count it.
RWM: Rather than just show you his cards.
Darryl: There was some heat on that, so they thought this was a good idea. But what happened was that all the counters started making a ton of mistakes. We weren’t winning any money, and they stopped that idea and got rid of all the counters except for me. I was testing really well at that time.
RWM: I’ll bet that made the players really like Ken.
Darryl: A lot of players didn’t like Ken--certainly anyone who wasn’t willing to overlook Ken’s gratuitous self-aggrandizement. I had a soft spot, and mostly forgave Ken all that. But that led to a lot of problems for me, because one of the fired players became a counter catcher for the casinos. He really came after me.
RWM: Why would the firing make him mad at you?
Darryl: I was an easy target. He knew me, and I had a look that I couldn’t disguise well. The fact that I was a member of the Uston team made me a good catch. He could show off to the casinos by nailing me more so than some guy who didn’t have an association with Ken.
Craig joined in August of ‘78, which was right after this mass firing. They decided to do things differently, and it was basically a sham business model they came up with. Ken got big players who were willing to put up money. Ken and his book, The Big Player, impressed them. He had this team of expert card counters. We would call plays for these big players and then split the money 50-50 at the end of every trip. One of the BPs that won a lot of money rented a Rolls Royce. He gave us the Rolls for the last week of the rental. It was 1977; I was 20 years old and driving around Las Vegas in a Rolls Royce with thousands of dollars in my pocket. Isn’t that why we came?
RWM: This was a pretty sweet deal for you guys. You take no loss but get half the win?
Darryl: This was how I split from Ken the first time. There was one BP who lost money on a trip, and he talked Ken into carrying the loss over onto the next trip. Bill was really running the team at that point. Bill went for that for a couple of trips but we ended up stuck. At that point Bill said, “That’s it. We aren’t going to work with you anymore.”
RWM: Because he didn’t want to make up the loss?
Darryl: Right. In fact, the deal was that it was per trip and Bill had gone much further than the original deal called for. Of course the deal he had cut in the first place was not good for the BP. [See Beyond Counting, pages 59-60.] At that point Craig and I said to the BP, “We’ll make your money back for you. And we’ll make 50% after that.” Again, we were 21 or 22 with a chance to really make some big money. We did that. We got them even and then started using a strategy of betting half of what we were up. Most of our plays were first-basers, so you had an edge all the time. We made some good scores that way. [A first-baser is a dealer who reveals his hole card when checking under a ten or ace for blackjack. Casinos stopped checking under tens in the mid ’80s because of advantage players exploiting this weakness.]
Craig and I decided to buy a condo from a friend. We had to come up with $20,000 as a down payment. We needed the money on a Monday, and come Saturday night we had about $1,500 each. We hadn’t really played on our own. We had only worked with teams. “Where can we get $20,000?” It occurred to both of us, “Let’s go play a first-baser at Caesars.” There was a problem because Craig had been calling plays there a lot, and one of us had to BP. Craig went out and got a dark wig and a pair of glasses. He came over to a friend’s house where I was staying. He knocked on the door, and our friend let him in. I said, “Hi, I’m Darryl.” I did not recognize him. We went out and won the down payment.
At one point we brought Art in to BP for us. We were still using the “Bet half of what you are up” strategy. Art was a very “by the book” kind of guy. We were a little concerned about his willingness to bet it up. We wanted to do this now with our own money. In the past it was the BP’s money. So three of us and Art went to play first-basers for a weekend at the MGM in Reno. Art was going to BP, and the other three of us were going to read. [The “reader” is the person who spots the hole card, and then relays that information to the Big Player.] We each put in $2,500 so we had a $10,000 bank. Until this point Art was very systematic, scientific, and conservative about the whole thing. We had to remind him that we wanted to really bet it up. Going into the very last play we were even. I wasn’t going to be playing the last session, and I went by the game to see how it was going. Art was betting five hands of the limit, which was $1,000. He won $40,000 on that play. I think this was the weekend where Art really found himself, because he later went on to set new standards for betting ridiculous amounts of money.
RWM: When did you get back together with Ken?
Darryl: Ken called and told me about the first no-barring period in Atlantic City. I’m really drawn to colorful people, and Ken did have a lot of charm. He called and said, “Come to Atlantic City. There’s a game here.” I went and joined the team. This was the team he wrote about in Two Books on Blackjack.
I was out there for two weeks. I was 22 years old and sharing a hotel room with Ken Uston and Ron Karr. Two years earlier I was homeless on the streets of Vegas. Now I’m sharing a hotel room with Babe Ruth and Joe Dimagio. I was on a rollaway and they had their own beds. Ken and I were friends, as best as someone could become a friend with Ken. He was in a constant battle with chemical dependency. He eventually died from it at 53, overdosing on heroin in Paris. I saw him in many weak and vulnerable moments. He cried in front of me a number of times. I ran into him right after he had been beaten up in Reno. Several bones in his face had been broken. I did care about him, but I also spent most of my life trying to get over the heat I got from being on the Ken Uston team. I also wanted to prove myself to other blackjack players. Being a member of the Uston team was not necessarily a badge of honor. We accomplished a lot, and did a lot of innovative and interesting things after my association with Ken. Still, the reason you want to interview me is because I was part of the Ken Uston team. Ken Uston is still the world’s most famous blackjack player.
RWM: Let’s talk about that first trip to Atlantic City in 1979. How many people were on the team?
Darryl: Well, both the no-barring periods actually happened in 1979, the first in January and the second in December. I met Ron, my neighbor from the Enchanted Gardens, and Mark Estes at the Philadelphia airport. Mark was notable for getting beaten up by a security guard at the Hilton in 1977. That was a big deal because they hadn’t gotten physical with card counters (that we knew of) before that. We were all college dropouts who were good at math. We were not tough guys in any way. That was a big deal. [Mark Estes successfully sued the Hilton.] We went to Atlantic City together from the airport. We stayed in a crummy little $23 per night motel. Ken was trying to come up with maybe $25,000 as a bankroll. The world’s most famous blackjack player, and here he was trying to scrounge together a bankroll. I remember it was cold. I’m from Southern California, and it was colder than anything I had ever experienced. I didn’t understand why people would live in a place that got that cold. We had to walk from the motel to the casino.
RWM: Why was there no bankroll?
Darryl: I didn’t have any money. Mark and Ron didn’t have any money. In the book Ken claims his money was all invested in this and that. The fact was that none of us put any of the talent that we had, to squeeze every last hundredth of a percentage point out of a blackjack game, into our personal finances. Over the course of my career that never changed. I made a lot of money, and pissed it away. When I got into music I had less than nothing to lose.
RWM: Was it just the four of you, or were there more on the team?
Darryl: There were others. There was a guy in Philadelphia who had told Ken the no barring policy was coming. He had a full-time job in Philadelphia, and was a part-time counter. Ken wanted to believe that our team members were better than anyone else. At that time a lot of people still used the Revere Advanced Point Count, a three-level count. A lot of people believed that using this stronger count was a lot better than any one-level count could be. Over the years this was revealed to be not true, particularly with the shoe game. As it turned out, simpler was better. Anyway, this guy wasn’t testing that well, and someone had seen him make some mistakes. We were considering whether or not to let him play on the team. We were having a meeting in the hotel room. Ken and Ron decided they needed to talk in private, so they went into the closet. Then they called me in, and then Mark went in the closet. At some point the entire team was in the closet, and he was in the room with the bankroll spread out on the bed in cash. We all started laughing, and that was bad. [In Two Books on Blackjack Uston relates this story of the closet on page 42. He calls the player, “Ty.”]
RWM: Did he end up staying, or being voted out?
Darryl: He was voted off that bank, but then we made a bankroll and he was allowed to play on the next one. He had some restrictions on his earnings. I forget exactly, but I think it was based on him winning. Eventually he was brought back in, and did win some money. All along he was allowed to invest in the bankroll.
RWM: Sure, you guys needed the cash.
Darryl: Well, at some point Ken hooked up with Peter. Now there was an interesting match. Those guys had polar opposite ways of doing everything. I was caught in the middle. I had met Peter in Las Vegas through the Czechs, and I had run into Peter in Europe in 1978. [Cathy Hulbert talks about this bankroll in Atlantic City in the book Gambling Wizards.]
By the way, I read what Cathy said about this bank in Gambling Wizards, and I don’t think it’s true that Ken didn’t want her to play because she was a woman. He didn’t want her to play because of the power balance. I really think that was the case. That doesn’t make him any better of a person, but that’s the way I remember it. Cathy was Peter’s girlfriend, and if they were both on the team, that might have upset the tenuous balance of power. We had some power structure on the team that was some democracy and some dictatorship, so if Cathy were a player, to the extent we were democratic, Cathy would have had a voice. Then Peter and Cathy’s voices together, well… Peter’s voice alone really threatened Ken. They had incredible clashes.
RWM: What were the arguments over?
Darryl: Anything. Peter liked to do things by the book. When you went to dinner with Peter he would break the bill down to the penny. He thought nothing of getting change for that nickel. He insisted on it. That couldn’t have been farther from the way Ken did things. They both needed to be in control, but they couldn’t. They both saw an advantage to working together to build a larger bankroll and bet more money. I wonder what was in it for Peter really? For Ken it really was about not having any cash.
RWM: In Two Books on Blackjack there was a big rivalry with the Czech team. Was this just in Ken’s mind, or was there competition there?
Darryl: Oh yeah. It was a friendly rivalry for the most part. In the book he talks about a four o’clock meeting that he called with the heads of all the teams. That may be true, but there were a lot of other things going on that didn’t involve him in such a pivotal way. He doesn’t mention any of those other things. The thing I loved about the Czechs at that time was, whenever someone made some large bet, the dealers would call out, “Checks play.” It was hilarious.
It was on this bank that I won my first 15 sessions, which pretty much puts to rest all the argument of, who is the best blackjack player in the world. [laughing]
RWM: You said this bank lasted two weeks.
RWM: What was your payday? Did you make a bunch of money?
Darryl: It says in the book I made $11,000. I can’t argue with that since I don’t remember.
RWM: He put that in the book?
Darryl: Yeah. I had no investment. I went down to the Honda dealership with a friend, and we both bought Honda 750s. I had barely ever ridden a motorcycle, but we bought them and drove to Los Angeles.
RWM: After Atlantic City did you and Ken play hole cards?
Darryl: I don’t think Ken ever got into hole cards.
RWM: He talks about it in his book.
Darryl: He heard something about it, but he didn’t play them a lot, as far as I remember. I’ve been talking to a screenwriter in Hollywood who is interested in doing a screenplay, partly on blackjack, and partly on the story of my life. Because of that I reread Two Books on Blackjack, and I just read Million Dollar Blackjack for the first time.
One of the most amazing things I discovered in reading these books is that, the fact that I played with the Ken Uston team, that I was a friend of his, has colored my entire blackjack existence. I did the math, and the last time I placed a bet as a member of a Ken Uston team was December of 1979. Yet it is a huge part of my blackjack identity.
History is not what happened. Ken wrote the books. I had never read Million Dollar Blackjack, even though I knew I was in the book. At the time I was trying to distance myself from Ken for a lot of reasons. So I start reading it recently, and he was saying that blackjack is the only game where you use your skill to change the odds. He’s explaining this, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is really solid. I guess this is a good blackjack book.” But the best lies have a large element of truth in them. He started talking about the history of blackjack, and he mentions the paper in 1956. Then he starts talking about Revere and the Advanced Point Count, and I was thinking, “Wow, this is really comprehensive.” Then boom, he leaves out Wong and the Hi-Lo completely, and inserts Stanley Roberts into the history of blackjack counts and how they developed. I was amazed. I’m guessing the Stanley Roberts count he mentions is the Hi-Lo. It was so well-written it almost fooled me. He left out the 1959 Dubner paper, and he left out Wong’s book. Most professional blackjack players consider themselves counters of that “Hi-Lo.”
I read the story of what he calls Team Six. This was the second no-barring period in Atlantic City in December 1979 and the few months leading up to it. At that time I was living with Ken in a small studio apartment on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. This place was no bigger than most people’s kitchens. It had two Murphy beds, and we ran a team out of this place and lived there for months. In the book he was talking about the Casino Commission, and all the work that he was doing to try to make everyone happy. But nobody was interested in a game where skilled players could play alongside bad players and everyone, including the casinos, would be happy. In the book he’s trying to create this, and it very much colors the whole story. I read about the team, and I read about how we had these big wins in the beginning. I remembered it so well. With the early surrender we had a slight edge off the top. We were betting half Kelly. Our bankroll got so big that we were able to bet table max, $1,000, off the top. Then he starts talking about how the casinos were over-reporting counters’ wins, and how all that played out. Then he said that we thought about under-reporting our wins, but then decided against it. He goes on to say that we lost most of our money, and people began to drift away even before the barrings were allowed again. The game wasn’t that good anymore because they were only dealing half a shoe. He says we ended up breaking even. I was reading this thinking, “God, I thought we won a lot of money.” Then I realized—he made all that up! Of course we won a lot of money. I think we won $680,000.
I think Ken learned some lessons from Two Books on Blackjack, because Million Dollar Blackjack is much better written. The self-aggrandizement in Two Books on Blackjack is so on his sleeve. It makes it a horribly written book and I cringed when I read it. At one point I thought I couldn’t finish it.
RWM: After Atlantic City did you go back to Vegas?
Darryl: I went back to playing with Craig in Vegas. Craig and I worked together for most of fifteen years. I think we went to Aruba in April of that year. They had early surrender, and it was another counter convention. We started saving our chips. We weren’t cashing them because we didn’t want them to know how much we had won. At some point they changed the chips, and announced that if you didn’t cash the old chips in the next 24 hours you wouldn’t be able to. The heat was coming down. Craig was the guinea pig to go cash out the chips. He got the cash, and came back to the room. I was in the bathtub. He said, “Darryl, we have to go now.” He just told me this story recently. He said I got out of the bathtub, did not dry off, and threw on my clothes. We grabbed our things, my guitar and suitcases, and took the elevator down to the basement. We walked out to the beach, down the beach half a mile, and caught a taxi to the airport. Two months later I ran into a guy who was there when that happened. He said, “Where were you guys? The security guards were looking all over the island for you.”
RWM: How much money was it?
Darryl: I don’t remember, but the limits were much lower then. I remember that was the first time I played shuffle tracking. That was April of 1979.
RWM: I wanted to ask about that. I remember hearing that Ken threw people off the team for attempting to shuffle track.
Darryl: That was the second trip to Atlantic City. He just didn’t believe it was the same as counting down a deck and knowing exactly what was left. There was a guy named Q who worked with the team. His thing was a little more exotic than shuffle tracking. He tracked shuffles of new decks. He thought there were clumps, so if he saw a bunch of fours and fives, he believed there were more fours and fives coming and would adjust his play accordingly.
In Million Dollar Blackjack there was one style of play that was notable for its inclusion, and one notable for its absence. Front loading was notable for its inclusion. Nobody had really talked about it to the extent that Ken did in that book. That didn’t make a lot of people happy. The thing he left out was shuffle tracking.
RWM: How long before the phone call came again to go back to Atlantic City?
Darryl: So much happened during that time. We played some first-basers, some front loaders, we counted cards, we called plays for BPs. It seems like we had a million different little bankrolls. Craig and I bought the condo in Vegas, which was our team place for many years.
Then Ken called again, and that was when I had the little apartment with him on the boardwalk. We played some blackjack, trained some people, and ran the team out of there.
RWM: How long were you there this time?
Darryl: I would say from August to December of ’79.
RWM: Was this the same group of guys on this team, minus Peter?
Darryl: No, it was a different group. We invited a lot of players out. I invited my uncle; we trained a guy named Jack from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He made enough money to go back and buy the pool hall he had been playing in his whole life. I think Ron was there, but Mark wasn’t. Craig and Matt came. We remembered how we won like pigs in January. We were going to be ready for December 1st. When December 1st came we had a large group of experienced guys, and a good-sized bankroll. It was at least $100,000, which was good sized for that time. We won a ton of money.
RWM: Do you remember how much?
Darryl: I’m guessing $680,000, but Ken lied in the book so we may never know. I think it lasted nine days, or maybe thirteen days.
RWM: I heard that although you won a ton of money, you somehow managed to lose three cars.
Darryl: Well, it was over a period of five months.
RWM: How exactly did that happen?
Darryl: Remembering how that happened would require the same brain cells that would have prevented it from happening in the first place. I do remember one situation. There were two casinos open at the time. Caesars had opened in addition to Resorts International. At that time, these were the only casinos in the United States outside Nevada. I had a safety deposit box at Resorts. I wanted to play at Caesars. I pulled up to the door at Resorts because there didn’t look like there was any place to park. It was really cold there, so I just left the car running with the heater on. I went in to get my money, and I thought as I went in that I would go check the game. I went around, and sure enough there was an empty table in the high limit pit. The high limit pit generally had fewer decks and better penetration. I sat down to play, and ended up staying there for eight hours. I went out and got a taxi back to the apartment, which was team headquarters. At some point someone said, “Where is the car?” I didn’t even think about it. Then someone said, “Didn’t you take the car this morning, Darryl?” “Oh, that’s right.” It turned out the valet had it.
RWM: Were all three of the cars recovered? The three you lost?
Darryl: I don’t think I lost any cars for good. That would be irresponsible. [laughing]
RWM: When the no-barring policy ended, they went to the three-step barring policy. After the third step people were getting arrested for trespassing. Did you suffer many of these arrests?
Darryl: No. I think I left before that. They never barred me. Some time later I was back in the club, I don’t remember why, but I wasn’t playing. They asked me to leave, and I said, “No, you can’t ask me to leave. The rules say you must first ask the person not to play blackjack. If they play, then you can ask them to leave.” We disagreed over this, and they carried me out.
RWM: You’re a big guy. How many of them did it take to carry you out?
Darryl: One on each limb. It was a passive resistance on my part.
RWM: Sort of like lying down at the Nevada nuclear test site?
Darryl: Exactly. It was all training for my future anti-war activism.
RWM: You lay down, and they picked you up and carried you through the casino.
Darryl: I didn’t lie down. I was standing. Two guys grabbed my arms, and two guys picked up my feet.
RWM: Was anyone saying anything as they carried you through the casino? Or was this just a normal day in Atlantic City?
Darryl: You know how oblivious people are in the casino. It would take a lot more than that to get a gambler’s attention.
RWM: What did they do once they got you out the door?
Darryl: They dropped me on the sidewalk.
RWM: You were injured from this, right?
Darryl: Yeah, I hurt my shoulder.
RWM: You did sue, and win. How much was the settlement, or are you not allowed to say?
Darryl: I did win, but I can’t say.
RWM: So the team did really well, do you remember what your paycheck was this time?
Darryl: I think it was thirty or forty thousand.
RWM: What did you do then?
Darryl: I probably pissed it away as fast as I possibly could. Actually, I gambled. One of the handful of times in my life. I decided to blow $500. I went to the craps table, and bet $100 on the pass line and took odds. I turned the $500 into $1,000 and went to the baccarat table. I bet $500 per hand, and kept betting more as I won. They all knew that I was Darryl Purpose, professional card counter. They also knew that professional card counters don’t play baccarat or any other game unless they have an edge. It drove them nuts. I won 13 consecutive hands in baccarat. My last hand I lost some huge bet. Maybe the limit was only $5,000. I lost a hand and said, “Thank you very much,” and walked with $20,000.
RWM: They are probably still studying those tapes trying to figure out what you were doing.
Darryl: They probably are.
RWM: What kind of testing did you guys have for that team in Atlantic City?
Darryl: We had them count down single-decks and six-deck shoes. Single decks we wanted them to count in thirteen seconds.
RWM: That’s quite fast.
Darryl: Then I would deal to them and count along, and ask them about how they were playing. They would have to make bets according to some prescribed bet plan. If I found it interesting to do so I would ask them how much they would bet if there were another deck in the discard tray. I knew that not only could they make the right play, but also that they could easily calculate whatever the right play was at any time. They might make a play, and I would ask how close a call that was. They would describe the way they thought about calculating the true count.
RWM: If you were to go back to blackjack, do you prefer working with a few people or a big team?
Darryl: I guess I’d prefer a small group of guys that I was tight with. In the old days I lived with teammates. Now it wouldn’t be like that. If I were to play blackjack again, I’d like to work with a small group of guys who had known each other for a long time. I was on one team or another for over twenty years, but it’s been many years now since I’ve played a hand of blackjack in a casino. Why leave home when you don’t have to?
RWM: You have been on big teams, and small teams. A question that comes up all the time is how do you compensate the people on the team?
Darryl: It was simple in the beginning. Half the money went to the investors in proportion to the amount they invested, and half went to the players, according to some combination of hours played, and money won. There were two schools of thought; one that the win should be distributed according to hours played and that players shouldn’t lose out because they had a bad run. I always liked crediting a player for their win, partly because some players would consistently win more. In those early days I was fairly naive. I was a team player, and in the beginning assumed that everyone else would be that way too. When I realized that wasn’t going to be the case every time, I looked for guys to work with where you didn’t have to worry about those things. Most of the bankrolls I’ve been involved in were like that. The few that weren’t, where people tried to take advantage of each other, were huge disappointments and eye openers for me.
RWM: I interviewed Keith Taft and he told me about his shuffle-tracking computer, Thor. How did you get involved with Thor?
Darryl: Oh, two of the sleaziest guys I’ve ever known. [laughing] Do you know who I’m talking about?
RWM: Well, the name Rats Cohen has come up in a number of interviews.
Darryl: That’s him. The other was Bob W. We paid Cohen a lot of money for Thor.
RWM: How did you know Cohen?
Darryl: Hmm, I don’t remember. He got a hold of us, and we bought Thor from him. We set out to learn Thor, and play it. We also bought technical support. I learned first, and then my teammate learned.
I think at that time I was living on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, California. We had a house on the beach. Ken Uston lived there for a short time. He brought Harry Reasoner over. He was doing a piece for “60 Minutes” about Ken. It was a big bachelor pad with five bedrooms. I also had a place in northern Nevada, and the condo in Vegas.
RWM: Tell me about learning to use Thor.
Darryl: Thor used a binary code system. We had two switches on each foot, one up, one down. On the left foot the up switch was one, and down was two. On the right foot up, four; and down, eight. We entered the exact value of the cards, and the order that they went into the discard rack. Before we started we would tell the machine what the rules were for that particular game, what kind of shuffle they were doing, and how many decks. When it was time to shuffle the dealer would take the unplayed cards and we had to tell the computer where they were placed. If they were placed in the middle, we had to tell the computer where in the middle. Then we would tell the computer that the dealer took 51% of the cards and put them on the right. Then the dealer would grab cards from each pile, and we would tell the computer how many cards were in each grab. If the dealer used four “grabs,” you would have four distinct segments of about one and a half decks each in the shoe. Thor would have a good idea what cards were in each of those segments. The computer would give you an option of cutting the best segment to the front of the shoe, or the worst segment to the back. For cover you would cut the best section to the front so you could bet big off the top. For the best overall game you cut the worst section to the back. Then it would tell you how much to bet, and how to play each hand. It would occasionally make some very bizarre plays.
There was another nonrandom shuffle computer out at that time which was far simpler. It just used the Hi-Lo, and in hindsight I would have used that if I had the option. The people using this other machine only played basic strategy. They never varied their play except for insurance. Because of that, they didn’t risk the huge negative value of a basic strategy deviation that went wrong due to an inputting mistake or something else. With these NRS computers you were betting big off the top all the time, and you didn’t have to spread that much to have a good edge.
RWM: How long did it take you to learn to use Thor?
Darryl: I was focused and a quick learner. I think I was probably casino ready at it within 100 hours. Because I had some heat in Nevada, we decided to first try it out in European casinos.
RWM: What happened when you got to Europe?
Darryl: We started out in Germany and Belgium but found that the games were unplayable because the machine couldn’t handle those shuffles. Then we went to England. In England, the casinos are private clubs. You have to join, and then wait 48 hours before you can enter. We joined a bunch of clubs in London, and while we were waiting our 48 hours, we decided to go north of London to a town called Leicester. We signed up for the two casinos in Leicester, but then still had to wait 48 hours. There was a tiny town near Leicester called Enderby. We read in the local paper that they were having a folk festival, so I grabbed my guitar and off we went. I played at the festival, which was held in a large garage. My international debut.
I remember it was the middle of February, and snowing. This wasn’t your typical tourist destination. There was a sock factory in Leicester, so we decided if we got pulled up we would tell them we were businessmen, there to go to the sock factory. What were we thinking? We bought a book on walks around central England, and I think we may have taken a walk. We went to a play at the Haymarket Theater in Leicester. It was rare that we got time off like this on blackjack trips. For some reason we decided to kill the two days in Leicester rather than London. What was that about? Can I have those two days back?
When you sign up for these casinos, some of them require you to show a passport and some don’t. Our policy was, if they didn’t ask for the passport we would give a fake name. In the first casino we went to in Leicester they didn’t ask for a passport, so we gave a fake name. At the second casino, named Annabelle’s, they did ask for passports, so we used our real names.
Finally we started playing at Annabelle’s. The shuffle was very simple and Nick was sequencing aces while I operated Thor. Everyone in the place was betting two pounds per hand, and I was betting three hands of the maximum, which was either two hundred or five hundred pounds. There was no one betting in between. We won about 10,000 pounds. Unbeknownst to us, the owner of Annabelle’s called the other casino and asked if two Americans named X and Y had been in there. The owner of the other casino told him that two Americans had signed up but under different names. Anyway, after we were up 10,000 pounds they changed the shuffle and Thor couldn’t handle it, so we quit. We went to cash out and they told us they’d have to give us a check, but would be happy to cash the check if we came back tomorrow. This was the first time that a casino told me they didn’t have enough money to cash the chips. We were from Vegas. We had never heard of such a thing. They told us they would go to the bank the next day, and we could come back and get cash in the morning. Right.
The next morning we had a big discussion about what to do with Thor while we went to the casino to cash out. Should we hide it, or should I wear it in and see if we could maybe play some? We decided I should strap up and consider playing depending on how I was received at the casino.
We got to the casino, and I went to cash the chips while Nick went to check if the game was good. The game wasn’t good anymore, and when my partner came to the cashier to find me, I was gone. They directed him up some stairs to a bar that was closed. When he came up, he found me talking to Scotland Yard.
Now, we had talked about the possibility of being pulled up. Our plan was, if this happened, we would ask for a lawyer and not say anything. But when they separated us for questioning, somehow we both knew that we should break that code and talk to them. They kept saying, “You’re a professional gambler.” I kept telling them I was in real estate. He asked for my business phone number. I gave him a fake number, and he actually picked up the phone and started dialing this number I gave him. Then he hangs up. Several times they were very close to the evidence they were looking for. They wanted us to admit we were professional gamblers, which we never did. Well, they knew we were professional gamblers. So what? My partner kept saying, “Are you accusing us of doing something wrong?” The police would say, “No, we just want to know you are who you say you are.” They knew we had given different names at the other casino. We gave them our passports.
Eventually they said they wanted to look at our hotel room. So Scotland Yard takes us back to our hotel. They start looking through everything. They look under the towels and take the mattress off the bed. They look in my guitar case. All we are worried about is a briefcase sitting on the end of the bed. In the briefcase are extra toe switches, a soldering iron, lithium batteries, and membership cards in dozens of names for casinos in London, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany. We try not to look at the briefcase, but we also are trying not to not look at the briefcase. This whole time we are talking to them, and we are winning them over. They knew this was a roust. We thought they were going to pass up the briefcase entirely. The last thing, he lifts the lid of the briefcase and says, “Well, I guess that’s it then.” He didn’t look down into the briefcase. He opened it, and didn’t look. In the end, my ankle was the only thing that wasn’t searched. They searched the car, the hotel room, my guitar case, but never searched us. As it turned out, my ankle, where Thor was strapped, was the only place they didn’t search. Then they drove us back to the casino, and the casino cashed our chips. We got the cash, packed our bags, and headed for the next ferry out of Dover.
RWM: Did you go back to Vegas?
Darryl: After I came back from Europe, I went to great lengths to change the way I looked. I lost weight, died and curled my hair, wore brown contact lenses. At the time I couldn’t grow facial hair, so I had a little goatee I put on with spirit gum. I bought it from a makeup guy in Hollywood. I started wearing three-piece suits, which I had never done before. I used makeup, and I got clear glasses. I had a mole removed, and had veneers put on my teeth. Then I legally changed my name. My old identity was history and I was remaking myself.
I wish I could remember some of the bizarre plays Thor would have you make, because Thor didn’t have any discretion. If it felt you could gain half a percent by hitting a hard 18, it would tell you to hit it. There were some very interesting plays. In practice sessions, when it told us to hit a hard 17 we spread the deck, and there would be a bunch of threes and fours.
One of my favorite stories from that time involves us as Shoesmiths. We built our own Thor shoes. We’d buy shoes with a thick rubber sole and cut a hole in the padding in the front of the shoe. We had our tools, and our glue, and Exacto knives. We became little handymen in putting this stuff together. One of my teammates was working on his shoes with an Exacto knife. It was pointed at his chest and it slipped. It went hard, right into his sternum. There was a loud thwack, and the knife was sticking right into the center of his chest. The funny thing was that the two other teammates that were there didn’t want to drive him to the hospital because they were about to go out on a hole-card play. They didn’t want to miss getting the seat. He said, “I can’t drive. I have to hold something over my chest so I don’t bleed to death.” They were miffed, but they did drop him off at the emergency room.
RWM: Did you play in the islands with the computer?
Darryl: When I was playing Thor, I was a young twenty-something trying to bet thousands of dollars. We sort of understood this was a difficulty and wished we were older, or Chinese or something. But we didn’t really get it the way it is so obvious now. Looking back, we must have stood out. We tried to dress up, but we weren’t very good at it. We’d buy an expensive pair of shoes, but there was always something a little off. We would pick the wrong tie or something. We tried our best to look like a tourist and not a professional gambler. One of the ways we did this was to get women to go along with us.
The first time I took Thor to St. Martin, I took Sabrina. I knew her through a friend. For her it was just a free vacation. She was a buxom blond. We stayed in one room at the hotel, and my teammate, Bob, came with me on that trip for no other reason than to be my bodyguard. He would watch from afar and move into action if I was pulled up. (I don’t remember what it was he would have done—call the U.S. embassy? Is there a U.S. Embassy in St Martin?). He was staying in the next room. He would have all the equipment, and we never told Sabrina that I was going into this Sicilian-run casino completely wired.
We would play every night from eight o’clock until two or three in the morning. Before we would go out, I would tell Sabrina I was going to Bob’s room to talk about strategy. I’d go over there and suit up with Thor. Now, as a young blackjack player I had to have a story as to why I had so much money to gamble with. I always had my guitar, and my story was that I was a songwriter, and the reason they hadn’t heard of me was that I wrote commercials. I would bring my guitar down to the casino. There was a bar adjacent to the casino, and the waves would lap up on the sand. There was no wall. The bar was right on the beach. I have pictures of Sabrina and me sitting there with the owner of the casino and his wife. I was playing guitar for them. They had no idea I was completely wired with this blackjack computer. I think back on that and wonder what would have happened if they had discovered this?
At the beginning of the trip, I lost and lost. In fact I had lost all the money we came with. I had gone down there with $40,000, and it was gone. The casino owner offered to loan me $5,000. Bob and I called back home and said, “These guys also own a casino in Sicily. Check it out and see if you can find out if they have any reputation for cheating or anything bad.” The word came back that they did have a bad reputation. Our connections told us we really didn’t want to play there. For some reason we decided to take the $5,000 anyway, and try to get our money back. I honestly can’t remember why.
It was the last day of our trip. I was flying out at five the next morning. I start winning, and then I won some more. As it got later there weren’t many other people in the casino, so they closed it down. This meant that Bob, who was always at the next table, was no longer there. I’m winning all this money back, and there is no one else in the casino. There is the dealer, the pit boss, and the owner of the casino has taken a seat at the table on my left. The casino manager is sitting at the table also, and he’s on my right. Sabrina and I are sitting in the middle of the table between them, and I can’t lose a hand. I wanted to quit, but I thought, if I quit they were really going to be pissed. I remember being scared to quit. This is odd because I had been through a lot of things without being scared. But this scared me. I ended up getting all my money back plus about $20,000. They knew about my morning flight, and about three a.m. I said, “Guys, I have to go.” They were very deliberate, but they were gentlemen about it. They slowly counted out my money and we were on our way with a big Phew. This was not what I imagined when I was learning to count Hi-Opt on the kitchen table.
RWM: Didn’t you once have a disguise where you became black?
Darryl: It was not my intention to look black. That’s just how it turned out. I wanted to look foreign. I was using skin tint, and a lot of people thought I was Mulatto.
I remember one play with the Mulatto look at the Cambridge Hotel in Atlantic City in 1983. A friend had loaned me a man’s full-length mink coat. Under it I was wearing a black three-piece suit. There was a beautiful young woman on my arm and I had a black doctor’s bag with $100,000 in cash in it. I went in and dumped the cash out on the table and said, “I came to play.” I won $150,000 that session. At that time it was the largest session win of any of the professional blackjack players we knew. They gave me a limo to take us to New York. It was stocked with Dom Perignon, and we went to a Broadway show and had dinner, all paid by the casino.
I tried various disguises at different times. Sometimes they’d work and sometimes they wouldn’t. I remember once coming up with an elaborate disguise, and the first time I walked into a casino, the Holiday Inn on the Strip, I got the tap within 15 minutes.
RWM: Was that $150,000 your biggest session win ever?
RWM: Do you remember your biggest loss?
Darryl: $80,000 at the MGM in Las Vegas, also with Thor. It was graveyard. Graveyard was always kind of surreal. Walking out of the MGM with nothing as the sun was rising.
RWM: How did Thor end?
Darryl: At some point the combined effect of our team and the other computer teams put heat on the move. They were looking for players with their feet flat on the floor. They realized people were tracking the shuffle with computers. It was time to move on.
I talked to Bob recently, and he said we won a million dollars with Thor. I don’t remember.
RWM: What did you do when Thor was over?
I fell in love, rented an apartment on Venice Beach, and pissed away my money. Then the Great Peace March happened.
RWM: What was that?
Darryl: The idea was that 5,000 people were going to walk from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, for peace. Madonna was doing commercials for this, and Sting was going to do the going away celebration at the Rose Bowl. There were portable shower trucks and laundry trucks. Club Med for peace. I signed up for that. It wasn’t what it was advertised to be. Instead of Sting at the Rose Bowl, it was Mister Mister at City Hall. We walked anyway. We walked 15 miles through east LA, where my mother had told me never to go. We got to our first campground, which was a parking lot at Cal State LA. There were 1,200 people. One of the volunteers from the organizers came to me and said, “Stay vigilant. You guys are on your own.” All these people had given up their lives to do this, and the whole thing was going to fall apart on the first day. We kept walking anyway. We got to 25 miles outside of Barstow, and the organizer flew in on a helicopter and told us to all go home. There was no more money. We looked at the helicopter and knew where the money had gone. People drifted away, but there were a few hundred left. Someone got up and said, “If you want to finish this meet tomorrow morning at the kitchen truck.” We decided to go for it, and people did what they could to contribute. People who knew how to remove distributor caps did so on major support vehicles so they wouldn’t be repossessed. The people who could cook did that. The musicians formed a band. We started performing as we went across the country. We raised money for the marchers. We performed at rallies, at clubs, at benefits. We walked into Washington on schedule eight months later. One of my distinct memories was marching down the Las Vegas Strip with my guitar around my neck. I just looked at all those casinos I had been thrown out of months earlier.
The next year I did a walk from Leningrad to Moscow. Our band played in the first outdoor rock concert in the history of the Soviet Union. We played in a show with James Taylor, Bonnie Rait, and Santana.
RWM: Did you play blackjack while you were in Russia?
Darryl: I didn’t play any blackjack in 1986. There was no blackjack in Russia at that time. Rock and roll was still illegal at that time. I did go back to Russia to play blackjack later. On the peace march I met a Lithuanian cameraman. I trained him to count cards, and he went to Russia with me. It was the Wild West there. This was maybe 1993. Vlad was at a bar in the casino and the guy next to him turned and said, “You’re going to give me all your money.” He said, “What do you mean? There are pit bosses right over there.” The guy said, “The pit bosses are with me. You’re going to give me all your money.” Vlad pauses and the guy turns his back, and my friend takes off running. He hit the door and kept going. We did not stop our trip at that point. We kept playing. It took a little morning chase through the streets of Moscow by the Russian Mafia to actually convince us to leave.
RWM: How did that happen?
Darryl: I’m still a little unclear on the details. Maybe they wanted to rob me. I had finished my play at a casino late one night. I dropped my Russian girlfriend off at her apartment. I came back to the taxi, and the taxi driver said, “Who are those guys?” I said, “What guys?” He said, “They came and asked me about you. They’re following us.” It was about five in the morning and I looked back and I couldn’t see them. I said, “Lose them.” He drove on and he said, “I can’t lose them. They’re good drivers.” I said, “Who are they?” He said, “The Russian Mafia.” I said, “Well, drive faster. Go to the embassy, or the police station.” He said, “You don’t understand.” He was going faster and faster, and they were going faster. I put my money under the seat. At some point my driver stopped and they pulled up along side us, about ten feet away. They started to talk in Russian. At some point I heard my driver say, “Please, I don’t want any trouble with my family.” They talked some more and my driver turned to me and said, “They just want to talk to you.” It was a small sedan with four big, burly guys. One of them got out and started over to my car. Just as he was reaching for the handle of my taxi I screamed at the driver, “GO!” Somehow the driver found it in himself to put his foot on the gas and we were off again. These taxis were old cars that seemed to be held together by wire and glue. We’re going up to 90 miles an hour, I’m guessing, through the streets of Moscow. At one point we reached a big intersection and another car was coming right at us head on. There were screeching tires and everyone came to a stop in the middle of this big intersection. There were three cars; me in a taxi, the Russian Mafia, and a police car. We’re all at a stop sort of facing each other. I thought, “Whew, we made it.” I just blinked, and the police car was gone. They just took off. We were back on the road and back to this 90 mile an hour chase. At some point I said, “Go back to the casino.” He drove to the casino, and either they didn’t want to do their dirty work near the casino, or maybe by then it was getting light and there were too many people out. I don’t know, but they left when we got to the casino. I really didn’t feel all that secure in asking the casino for a ride back to my place. That was the last time I played in Russia.
RWM: In retrospect, do you think you did a lot of dangerous things in your blackjack career?
Darryl: At the time I was very focused and I wanted to be good at what I did. I did my job, and I didn’t really consider that it was dangerous. Looking back I see where over and over I made these odd decisions that really didn’t have anything to do with my safety or my welfare, or anybody’s welfare really. They had to do with—this would make a good story.
RWM: Or this would make me some money?
Darryl: There was some of that I suppose, but not in the way you’d think. It was more of a workmanlike attitude of getting the job done. If it was about the money, I might have saved some of it.
RWM: I heard about a trip you made to Sri Lanka. What made you go there?
Darryl: We had tentacles around the globe and we would hear about games. At that point I was pretty steamy in Nevada and I was hard to disguise. We ended up playing in a lot of far away obscure places. We had heard that Sri Lanka had a significant advantage off the top. I forget the exact rules, but it probably involved early surrender and 21 pushes versus blackjack. It had all the standard rules, plus a few things that were pretty weird. It had maybe ½ to 1% advantage off the top. I went with Art, and it is such an odd place, even for a globetrotting blackjack player.
On the way to Colombo in the plane I opened a tourist book about Sri Lanka. It said in the book that one of the odd things about the people in Colombo is that when they want to say “yes” they shake their head from side to side, the way we say “no.” I thought that was the strangest thing, so I turned to the guy next to me on the plane. He was from Colombo, and I said, “It says in here that when you want to say yes, you shake your head from side to side. Is that true?” He shook his head from side to side, and I thought, “Of course not. That’s ridiculous.” It took me a while to catch on. I went up to a taxi and said, “Can you take me to the casino?” He would shake his head from side to side and I looked for another taxi. An elevator would open, “Are you going up?” They would shake their head from side to side. “Okay, I’ll get the next one.”
When we first got there it was Buddha’s birthday, so all the casinos were closed for two days. We decided to have a little vacation in Kandy, which is one of the spiritual centers for Buddhists. It was a beautiful country but at that time there were two civil wars going on. The Tamil Tigers, who invented suicide bombings, were battling from the north. It was fierce and ugly, and bodies were turning up every day. At the Colombo Hilton where we were staying, they had about 15% occupancy. There is a picture of me at the Colombo Hilton pool and I am the only person there. I’m reading a newspaper, and the headline says, “Parties to Replace Slain Candidates.” We would read the paper every morning just to check if the place we ate lunch was still open—that it hadn’t been bombed.
RWM: Were there many people in the casino?
Darryl: The casinos were very small, maybe three or four tables at the most. There were other players, but not many.
When we started playing I won a bit and got the tap on the shoulder. The casino owner invited me to the back room. The owner was part Dutch and part Indian. He spoke English very well. He accused me of being a professional blackjack player. In his mind that was the equivalent of cheating. He kept repeating in a slow, Mafia Don kind of way, “It’s a very dangerous game you’re playing.” He was basically telling me to leave without my chips. I had between $5,000 and $10,000. My attitude was, “No way. I’m not leaving without the chips.” Then he wanted me to give up half the chips. Again, I was, “No way.” We had this 45-minute conversation and I ended up giving him $200 and keeping the rest. I declined his offer of a ride back to the hotel. I got on the phone and called Art. I let him know the situation I was in. He said, “Do you think they might kill you?” I said, ”I’m not sure.” He sent a taxi. We got on the next plane out of there and never went back.
On the way to Sri Lanka we were in Korea. Somehow we ended up playing blackjack at the Disabled American Veterans Club. There were no disabled people, no Americans, and no veterans. As I understand it, this place was a front for a Yakuza-run casino and meeting place. Art and I went in there and lost, and lost, and lost. It was a $300 limit, and we got stuck $20,000. We had a video camera with us. It’s the only time I’ve ever had video inside a casino, and it was just Art and me in there. I was on one table and he was on another. We lost all this money and then went to Sri Lanka. After Sri Lanka we came back to Korea to win our money back. One day we just could not lose a hand. We started cashing out a few thousand at a time. That worked for a while, but then all of a sudden they didn’t have any more money. They owed us maybe $14,000. Art and I left the casino being owed this money.
RWM: Did you take the chips, or a check? Or was it, “We’ll pay you the next time we see you.”
Darryl: It was exactly that—we’ll pay you next time. What were we going to do? We insisted on the money; they insisted they didn’t have it. Art and I had a reverse auction to decide who would stay and collect the money from the Yakuza. It started off with Art saying he would stay for $1,000 per day plus expenses. This would be paid by our bankroll. I said I would stay for $500 per day plus expenses. I think it was bid down to me staying for $300 a day plus expenses.
RWM: It sounds like this was more about the inconvenience of staying in Korea for three days, than fear of the Yakuza.
Darryl: That’s right. I went back to the casino on Monday, and they gave some story about their bank and said I should come back on Wednesday. I went back on Wednesday, and this time it was, “Call us tomorrow.” I called on Thursday and they still didn’t have it. I made a couple of trips down there. One of them ended with the casino manager grabbing me and ripping the buttons off my shirt. I was trying to be a bully as best I knew how, which is not very well. My job was to collect the money they owed us. Fair is square, right? I came back the next day, and was asking for their superiors. They wanted to deal with me in the front room and have me go away. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I started opening doors. I ended up bursting into some Yakuza meeting. There were all these Japanese guys sitting around a conference table and I started talking in English about how I wanted my money. I did leave there alive that day.
A couple of days passed, and they called me and said, “We’ve got your money. Come on down.” I’m like, Right, you’ve got my money and you’re just going to give it to me. So before I went down there I called another blackjack player named Jake. He was the only guy I knew in Seoul at the time. I told him what was going on and that I was a little worried. There was no explaining the casino’s apparent change of heart. I told Jake, “If you don’t hear from me in an hour, do whatever you can. Call the embassy, or the police, or whatever.”
I went out and got in a taxi. I got into one of those remarkable Seoul traffic jams. They have billions of these tiny little cars. They have wide streets with no lanes, and everyone is trying to go their own way. Everybody uses their horns. We’re sitting for 10, 15, 20 minutes in this sea of cars. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to call Jake within the hour. In the distance I saw this barbed wire and a chain-link fence. It was an American Army base. I told the driver, “I’ll be right back.” I got out of the cab and maneuvered through all the other stopped cars, and I found a little hole in the chain-link fence where the guard was standing. I said, “I’m an American citizen, and this is an emergency. I need to make a phone call.” He said, “Right this way, sir.” I remember that was one of the first times in my life where—I had always been the young person dealing with adults, but here was this 19-year-old soldier treating me like the American businessman. I got to the phone and called Jake. I said, “Give me another hour.” He said, “Okay, I was starting to wonder.” The end of the story was, I got there and they gave me all the money.
RWM: One of the people I interviewed said, “How did we ever play blackjack before there were cell phones?”
Darryl: Right. How did we live before cell phones? A lot of people got lost going from one play to another. There are some interesting stories about that. There was a guy who didn’t know about the Sahara in Vegas, but did know about the Sahara in Lake Tahoe. He got the signal to go to the backup club, which was the Sahara, and he went to the airport and hopped a plane for Tahoe.
RWM: You’ve told me now about being chased by the Russian mob, sitting in St. Martin with the Sicilian Mafia, and collecting money from the Japanese Yakuza. At some point did you ever stop and say, “This is dangerous, and I don’t want to do this anymore.” Or are you still ready to hop a plane and play in Iraq?
Darryl: There are casinos in Iraq? ♠
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