Born in Salem, Oregon in 1962, Donald ‘Don’ Johnson had worked in the gambling industry in one way or another since he was a young man.
He didn’t know it when he started out, but this exposure to the industry would set him on a path to win more than $15 million at the blackjack table from three different casinos in just 6 months.
Although he was 6 foot 1 and heavy set, Johnson had grown up looking after his grandfathers racehorses and even began racing them himself when he was 15 years old. However, the stress on his body that was required to keep his weight down – jockeys need to weigh as little as possible – forced him to give it up before he reached his best.
Instead, he went into managing race tracks, a job which brought him to Philadelphia Park as a 30 year old man.
Philadelphia Park would develop into Parx Casino while Johnson was there, and he ended up in charge of the day to day operations, introducing him to other forms of gambling.
The Effects of the 2008 Crash
Indirectly, the global financial crash was what led to Don Johnson being able to pull off his massive wins.
He was in his mid 40s when it happened, had worked in casinos for over a decade, and had been playing cards seriously for a good few years by this point. He was in great shape financially and mentally, and he knew the game of blackjack inside out.
The casinos on the other hand were feeling the effects of the crash. People had less money to spend, people were jobless, and that meant that customer numbers were down and so was the amount each customer would spend on average.
Crucially though, the crash affected high rollers. High rollers are incredibly important to a casino’s finances because they spend so much compared to the average player that they can turn a loss making month into a profit making one.
With fewer high rollers around the casinos were becoming increasingly competitive for the custom of those that were left, dishing out better deals, discounts, and advantages than ever before.
Don Johnson noticed this, specifically the increased loss discounts climbing as high as 20% and the willingness to negotiate.
As a skilled, experienced player with enough money to catch the casino’s eye, he was in the perfect place to take advantage.
Negotiating an Advantage
The key to Johnson’s success wasn’t solely in the way he played the game, although he is as close to a perfect player as it is possible to be.
The key to winning was negotiating a smaller house edge by requesting specific rules to the game, as well as a few perks.
The major advantages Johnson asked for and got were:
- 20% rebate on losses over $500,000, reset daily
- $50,000 bonus money each day
- No minimum play requirement
- Dealer stands on soft 17
- Doubling allowed after any two cards
- Splitting allowed up to 4 times
- Max bet of $100k per hand
He was also very good at spotting and even causing the dealer to make mistakes, which would grant him a free hand and thus a further advantage.
In the end, the house was left with a tiny 0.263% edge, but they could only be convinced to do this because they were so desperate to attract high rollers.
Once this deal had been successfully negotiated, he could play the casinos off against each other and secure the same deal at multiple venues.
Caesars, Borgata, and the Trop
The fun started at Caesars.
Using money won from a good session at the Trump Taj Mahal, Johnson played the role of a playboy gambler when he walked into Caesars, with a small entourage who would be helping him by catching glimpses of the dealer’s hole card, as well as a couple of glamour girls who would play for smaller stakes and swallow up cards that Johnson didn’t want.
He had won $1.5 million in just a few hours, the casino was getting shifty, so he went for a steak and lobster dinner at the casino’s restaurant. What’s more, the casino paid for it!
He then continued playing amassing a pot of $4.23 million before the casino flipped the switch and refused to deal to him any more.
In a classic example of bad communication, when the casino boss was told that Johnson was ‘ahead by 2’ he told his staff to let Johnson keep playing, thinking they meant $200,000, not $2 million. Oops!
Next up was the Borgata, which he took for $5 million over three sessions in 2010 and 2011. By this point he had become known as ‘The Beast of Blackjack’.
It was The Tropicana which really got burned though.
In one single 12 hour session Johnson won $5.8 million from the already struggling casino, including one famous $800,000 hand.
Don had been dealt a pair of eights which he split, only to be dealt two more eights, which he also split. He then doubled down on all four hands and the dealer bust, winning him $200k per hand.
The Tropicana actually invited Don back with similar rules after his story made the headlines, no doubt hoping the publicity would do them good and also that Johnson would be less lucky the second time around.
He won a further $2 million, and the casino’s president and CEO was fired for allowing it to happen.
What is Don Johnson Doing Now?
The Beast of Blackjack he may be, but Don Johnson isn’t really what you might expect from a casino high roller.
He lives in the same house he has owned for years in Bensalem near Philadelphia, and doesn’t tend to splash out on luxury items.
That said, he did spend a good amount of time partying in nightclubs after his epic string of wins, once spending $168,118 on booze in London’s Park Lane nightclub, partying it up with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Charlie Sheen.
These days, he isn’t particularly welcome in most casinos, but he is still involved in the gambling world.
He gives talks about how to win, including advising casino employees on how to stop people like him, offering advice such as “you need to know your player, you need to know whether their skill level has changed, you need to know the people that are at the table with the player” – all the things Don used to his advantage.
He is also building a software program to identify weaknesses in the gaming industry, specifically Las Vegas, to find out where someone like him could strike next.