Deep inside Caesars Palace on Las Vegas’s Strip, hidden cameras sweep the gambling floor, while above the casino security specialists scan a wall covered with closed-circuit television monitors. But even the savviest expert would pay little mind to the blonde-haired party girl making her way across the marbled and mirrored casino floor.
She enters a high-limit area where minimum bets are $100 and tonight’s clientele includes a clutch of NBA stars and actor Michael J Fox. Looking dazed, she checks out various blackjack tables before settling on one, seemingly at random, and buys in for $3,000.With shaky hands and a blissed-out smile, this apparently brain-blotted club-kid loses three hands in a row before trying to bet her backpack. Later, complaining she’s dehydrated, she dumps a bottle of water on her head.
At around 8am, she makes a move that would seem to confirm her drug-addled state:With $5,000 on the line, she doubles her bet after being dealt an Ace and an 8. The move appears unorthodox at best. To the dealer’s amazement, she manages to draw a 2, giving her 21. She’s surprised too, but for a different reason – she felt 90% sure the next card would be a 10 or an Ace.
The woman’s name is Joanna W, she’s a 30-year-old based in San Jose, California, and is anything but what she portrayed herself as that night in Caesars Palace. Actually, Joanna ranks among a casino’s worst nightmares – she’s an expert card-counter.
What Joanna does is perfectly legal, but casinos hate it.On that particular night, Joanna – who works with a team of ‘advantage’ players – left Caesars Palace $80,000 in profit after nine gruelling hours of blackjack. ‘I finished at around 7.30am. I felt exhausted but also exhilarated. It’s amazing to win so much money by playing a game you shouldn’t be able to beat.’
Though she routinely plays at being everything from a rich divorcee, a shrew and a wealthy businesswoman to a down-on-her- luck single mom trying to win rent money with a bankroll built on cash advances from Visa, Joanna walks onto every gambling floor with the single-mindedness of a trained assassin.
Among fellow blackjack players, she is known for being creative and resourceful. ‘Anybody can study card counting and learn the mechanics of it,’ says a team member who goes under the name Viola. ‘What makes Joanna good is what we call “getting down”. It means she has a good act and can play without being hassled. She has the ability to appear comfortable while secretly doing all these crazy mathematics. That combination makes her one of the best players in the world.’
Joanna got her first taste of Las Vegas aged 21, after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1995 with a degree in biology. She was attending Palmer West College of Chiropractic, in San Jose, and travelled to Sin City for a conference. ‘I couldn’t believe how amazing Las Vegas was,’ she remembers. ‘I played craps and blackjack and lost money but still loved everything about the place. I loved the wacky people, I loved that you could play adult games and drink and you never had to go to bed because everything was open all night.’
Joanna lost her money, but she didn’t really care. She loved gambling, and began checking out Vegas a few times per year, dropping $1,000 or so on each trip, and, like most people who visit the city, departing without much bitterness. ‘But I always knew there was something more to these games, that somebody was able to beat them. I just didn’t know who or how,’ she continues. ‘Then one day I got lucky.’
One afternoon in 2000, while driving home, she received a call from a friend who was studying physics at the University of California in San Francisco. ‘Remember when I told you about my roommate?’ asked the friend. ‘Well, it turns out that he makes his money playing blackjack with a team of people. He says we can learn to do it and if we do it well, we can try out for the team. Make the team and we make lots of money.’
Joanna pulled over to the side of the road. She suddenly felt breathless. It was as if she’d discovered what she wanted to do with her life without ever knowing she wanted to do something unusual. Instinctively, she felt that this was something she was born to do. But first the team wanted her to pass a series of counting tests conducted in a hideaway house, crowded with blackjack tables and crammed with small bedrooms where team members crashed between sessions. Most challenging of all was having to play through multiple decks with minimal mistakes.
To make the conditions particularly arduous, players screamed numbers at her and blasted music while she tried to track cards. ‘I was there for three days and took the test over and over again. I did better than most, but had to keep trying till I got it right. In one instance, I did perfectly right up till the very end, at which point I failed. I laid on the carpet and began crying. I smoked 5,000 cigarettes and drank endless pots of coffee during those three days. I destroyed myself passing that test.’
But she finally succeeded. And one month later, Joanna was a fully-fledged card counter. In the male dominated world of casino gambling, she discovered, women with agendas can get a lot of leeway. And Joanna is flexible enough that she gets slack for being kooky or sad or vulnerable. One time at Caesars Palace, where actors dress up like characters from ancient Rome, Joanna bolted from the table and joined a parade of helmeted soldiers just to avoid playing while the count was low. At the Hard Rock she was a hooker in a miniskirt, taking money from her gold-toothed ‘pimp,’ thus generating attention for something other than her expertise. And, during a particularly good run at the Bellagio, she began speaking Polish – a language she knows fluently – with the Krakow-born dealer.
However, the toll that such high-level blackjack takes on a woman’s personal life can be extreme. Meet Joanna outside of a casino, pay a visit to her compulsively neat and organised three bedroom home in San Jose, and you’ll see hints of the blackjack professional: decks of playing cards scattered around, a blackjack felt draped across her coffee table, lots of gambling books, and stacks of board games. But it all looks benign and fun. Then you go into the kitchen and notice something taped to her refrigerator door. It’s a bulletin from Gambler’s Anonymous, listing 20 questions to ask yourself about gambling: Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy? Did gambling cause you to have difficulty sleeping? After losing do you feel you must return as soon as possible? All 20 items are checked, and while the extract is clearly up there as a goof, Joanna acknowledges it was filled out and posted by her husband (also a chiropractor) who she recently broke up with.
‘For me, blackjack is more important than relationships,’ she confesses. ‘Right now, I love doing it so much.My priorities aren’t on the home and the domestic aspect – I would rather get on a plane and play cards.’However, even the dumbest casinos finally wise up (see box-out below), tactics are exposed and faces become known, so people who count on teams have limited shelf-lives. Joanna believes that she is nearing the end of hers and so has been tentatively making alternative plans for the future. She has even used some of her winnings to record a soon-to-be-released album entitled Epiphany.
What’s more, despite the veneer of big money and big thrills, the day-in, day-out of card-counting makes for an empty life, she admits. ‘You lose a sense of reality and you feel totally secluded,’ she says. ‘The casino thinks you’re a big player and buys you dinner at the steak house, but the sad part is you’re going to be eating alone. Guys who card-count full time become assholes. Women who do it full time become paranoid, resentful beings. They don’t get married and they don’t have kids, which is something I want to do.’
‘Life, like blackjack, is not about luck,’ says Joanna. ‘It’s about pursuing what you believe in, making logical decisions and committing to them. That is how you create your own destiny, and, right now, it’s how I’m creating mine.’