News

THE SMART MONEY

During one of those postcollege years when young men flounder around not knowing what to do next, Allen had a job in a laundry. This was in Los Angeles.

At the end of the day, Allen would add up long columns of figures--shirts and trousers, cleaned and pressed--and put a total at the end. The process involved multiplying the items and their prices across, and then adding them down.

He did it in his head.
A friend who worked with Allen used to watch him do the totals, and it gave the friend big ideas. It inspired the friend, in fact, to buy a book on blackjack and suggest that he and Allen take the six-hour drive to Las Vegas and strip it of money.

And that, more or less, is exactly what happened.

WHAT ALLEN DID in Las Vegas was the fulfillment of a dream cherished by every person who has ever walked up to a blackjack table. Within four weeks of his first game, he had quit his job at the laundry. Within a few months, he was part of a five-man professional blackjack team dedicated to screwing casinos every way they could think of.

From 1981 to 1987, Allen and his team lived in the seams. They were part of an underground coterie of 150 or so professional blackjack players who derive their entire income from what they make at tables all around the world. For Allen's team, that income varied from $15,000 to $85,000 a year, after the cost of travel, food and lodging.

Professional blackjack players, who are mostly men, are as invisible to the Average Joes who ring the gaming tables of Nevada as they are repugnant to casinos and their pit bosses.

Their techniques are based on card counting, which is impossible to make illegal because it happens inside the head. It involves keeping track of what's been played, and extrapolating from that what's likely to come up. Card counting, tried by thousands of people, written about in dozens of books, is hardly news. What made Allen's teammates different were the computers, hidden in their shoes and operated with their toes, with a program so esoteric even people close to the gaming business act skeptical at the mention of it. Allen played at a time that in retrospect looks like the last golden age of blackjack gambling in America. It is because of people like Allen that casinos have made computers illegal, imposed changes in the way cards are shuffled and made it almost impossible for anyone besides the casino to get an edge.

"I would love," Allen says, "the conditions that existed when I began."
During the years he was playing, Allen did an enormous amount of traveling, albeit only to locales that had legalized games. Still, this included England, Spain, the Caribbean, and South Korea. But he was embarking on a moral journey as well, and that makes his life from 1981 to 1987 more than simply a gambling story. At the very end, just before the team split up, Allen and his friends took their first and only venture into illegality. That didn't bother some of the team members, but Allen is more thoughtful than most. He is the kind of man who took up blackjack because it allowed him to work a few days a month and spend the rest of his time learning French, playing tennis and reading books like The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He is the kind of man who, when he talks about casinos, does not relate tales of big wins, but discusses them as exemplars of capitalism. He is the kind of man who can see Darwinian selection at work in the relationship between casinos and players, and take pleasure in the beauty of blackjack's mathematics.

When Allen talks about why a man with a college degree in political science and aspirations to law school would deliberately break the law in a way that amounted to stealing, he keeps coming back to one theme: "Look what they do."

For years, Allen says, he and his teammates were harassed, threatened and barred because casinos do not like card counters. After a while, he says, it was like when your wife suspects you of cheating on her. If you're going to take the grief, maybe you ought to enjoy some of the pleasure.

"We knew we were doing nothing wrong, but the ramifications were the same as if it were illegal," Allen says. "Maybe that's where we crossed. Maybe that's where the line fuzzed out."

The line fuzzed out one night in 1986. Allen and his teammates played with what he called the ultimate edge. They knew literally what every single card would be for the first thirty cards in the deck. That is because they were photographing them with a video camera and relaying instructions to a player standing at a blackjack table, about to win a very large amount of money in a very short time. ALLEN ARRIVED in Phoenix two years ago, and is telling all this in the restaurant he owns in north Phoenix. It used to be a restaurant and social gambling establishment until legislation outlawed social gambling last year. Now, Allen says a little tensely, he's losing his ass on the place, even though the food was always better than it had to be, and there are half a dozen guys lined up at the bar, drinking and watching sports on television. Now 34, Allen is not the kind of man for whom the casinos of Nevada are a natural habitat. He had an eminently normal childhood in New York's Hudson River Valley. His father had a big retirement dinner after 38 years in a nuclear power plant. His brother owns a landscaping business. His sister is a schoolteacher in Poughkeepsie.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Anna Dooling