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Barney Vinson's World

16 March 2003

It was called "The Vegas Challenge," a survivor-type TV show pitting four contestants against one another. This wasn't like other reality programs where you eat bugs or try to make a canoe out of tree limbs and sail off a deserted island. On this show, we would each be playing a different casino game, starting with a bankroll of $10,000, and at the end of an hour the one with the most money would be the winner.

For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I was called for an interview. "What game would you like to play?" the program's producer asked me.

"Craps!" I cried. After all, I'd dealt the game for eighteen years and knew it like the back of my hand.

She nodded and made a notation next to my name.

Three weeks later, I got a call. "You're in the Vegas Challenge," I was told. "You'll be playing blackjack."

Blackjack? How the heck did that happen?

Well, I wasn't going to worry about it. Actually, blackjack was the best game in the house from a player's standpoint. If you followed basic strategy, and used a strict money management system, the house edge was under 1%.

I was playing against three others in the tournament: a professional casino consultant named Mike, a baccarat dealer from the Venetian named Betty, and a crap dealer from the Rio named Ava. Naturally, Betty would be playing baccarat, Ava would play craps, and Mike was stuck with roulette.

Again, if you studied the odds, I had a pretty good chance of winning. The house edge at craps was around 1.4%, the edge at baccarat was about 1%, and the house edge at double-zero roulette was a staggering 5.2%.

The only problem is that in order to win a lot of money at blackjack, you have to bet a lot of money. The payoffs are dead even, except the occasional blackjack that pays you 3 to 2. Proposition bets and long-shot payoffs abounded in the other games.

At baccarat, you can bet the hand ends in a tie and get paid 8 to 1. At roulette, a single number bet pays 35 to 1. At craps, there were so many crazy bets and wild payoffs that it was almost like being at a horse race. In fact, I once saw a famous Hollywood actor blow $26,000 making proposition bets at the dice table. I can't tell you who it was because of casino policy, but if he'd ever hit one he wouldn't have "died hard."

Shooting was scheduled at the Flamingo Hilton, and I was told to be there at 3 p.m. I arrived to find a jumble of klieg lights, boom mikes, movie cameras, thick electrical cords winding every which way, and a crowd of TV people including assistant producers, directors, sound engineers, cameramen, and all the others who make up one of these things. You'd think we were filming "Ben Hur" instead of a program for the Travel Channel, and apparently so did hundreds of spectators, who lined up outside the ropes looking for someone famous. Instead, all they got were Mike, Ava, Betty, and me. "Help yourself to some refreshments in the waiting room," I was told. "We won't be ready for a while."

A lavish display of lukewarm coffee, crackers, and peanuts was spread out in the waiting room. There was also a solitary chair with one of its coasters resting on the seat cushion like some kind of door prize. Still, it would give me a chance to go over my strategy for the tournament, while the hour hand on my wristwatch slowly inched from three o'clock to four o'clock to five o'clock.

Finally, those words that turn mortal men into quivering mounds of raspberry jello: "We're ready for you, Mr. Vinson."

First, there was some preliminary filming of the four of us walking through the casino, then of us walking into the tournament area, then walking to our assigned tables. After that we were "miked up" with little transistor receivers and wires running from microphone to lapel to under shirt buttons to—er—other rather personal areas of one's anatomy.

Then came the ground rules. Minimum bet $100. Maximum bet $2,500. One hour to play. A reader board overhead that showed each contestant's ranking during the tournament. My strategy was simple. Double down with eleven. Split aces and eights. Don't take insurance. Don't surrender. Assume the dealer's bottom card is a ten. Most importantly, I would use my money management system. Start with the minimum bet, go up a unit each time I won, then back to the minimum when I lost. That way I would take advantage of winning streaks and wouldn't get hurt by losing ones.

"And—ACTION!" the director called.

I bet $100 and won my first bet. I bet $200 and won again. Up to $300, and my first loser. Back to $100. Winner. Up to $200. Loser. Well, it didn't take a genius to figure out I was going nowhere fast. At a projected rate of one hand every thirty seconds, I didn't have that much time to fool around with measly $100 bets. (Hey, do I sound like a highroller, or what?)

So now I began to bet $300 a hand, going up two units each time I won. At one point I had a $1,500 bet on the table, but then the dealer decided it was time for her regular-as-clockwork every-two-minute blackjack.

The minutes whirred by. I think you go into some kind of zone when you're gambling, where time either stands still or accelerates into free fall. It's five o'clock and suddenly it's twenty to six. And for a moment you don't know where you are, or how you got there. That's what makes it all so addictive, the idea of losing yourself and your problems by butting your money and skill against a faceless opponent. In a way, it's almost like time travel.

Unfortunately, time was my enemy. The reader board spelled it out with twenty minutes to go.

AVA........................... 21,700
BETTY....................... 14,500
MIKE........................... 8,800
BARNEY..................... 6,700

Okay, my strategy wasn't working, so it was time to move to Phase Two. I would play two hands at a time, $1,000 on each hand, and hope for the best. A good run, and I could be right back in the money. Alas, Lady Luck flitted away, and so did the rest of my bankroll. It didn't help, either, that I could only bet $2,500 per hand at blackjack while Ava could bet $2,500 on each number at the dice table and Mike could bet $2,500 a number at roulette. But it was fun, and I got a Palm Pilot just for being on the show.

Oh, two more things before I go. "The Vegas Challenge" is now showing on the Travel Channel. You might want to watch it to see who wins. And secondly . . . can someone please tell me what a Palm Pilot is?

Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson

Barney Vinson
Barney Vinson is one of the most popular and best-selling gaming authors of all time. He is the author of Ask Barney, Las Vegas: Behind the Tables, Casino Secrets, Las Vegas Behind the Tables Part II, and Chip-Wrecked in Las Vegas. His newest book, a novel, is The Vegas Kid.

Books by Barney Vinson:

> More Books By Barney Vinson