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Don Johnson - The blackjack pro who won a fortune

Published on November 17, 2014, 6:38 pm

by Jeff Grant Twitter account Jeff Grant LinkedIn account

When Don Johnson began playing blackjack 15 years ago, he had no idea his gift for the game would one day earn him millions of dollars. Between December 2010 and April 2011, however, that is exactly what happened. Johnson, over the course of these five months, played blackjack at the Tropicana, Borgata, and Caesar's in Atlantic City and raked in a whopping $15.8 million dollars in profit. Such extreme winning rarely occurs in well-managed casinos, where the house always maintains a winning edge. The casinos of Atlantic City are definitely managed well, which leads the casual observer to ask the following questions: who is Don Johnson, how did he do it, and why did three major Atlantic City casinos allow him to get away millions of dollars in winnings before banning him from the game?

Who Is Don Johnson?

Don Johnson (The professional blackjack player)
Blackjack pro Don Johnson

Not to be confused with the Miami Vice star, Don Johnson of Bensalem, PA is a 49-year-old business executive. Often dressed in sweatshirts, baseball hats and sneakers, the millionaire gambler conveys the image of neither a highbrow CEO nor a high rolling blackjack professional. He works for a business called Heritage Development LLC, a Wyoming-based company that is, not surprisingly, affiliated with the gambling industry. At Heritage Development, he oversees the production of computerized wagering systems that are used in horse racing.

A fan of horse racing himself, Johnson has even owned his own thoroughbreds in the past. He also did a stint managing Philadelphia Park, known for its thoroughbred racing, for a time in the 90s. His professional experience with horse racing does not, however, explain his miraculous winning streak at the blackjack tables of three big time Atlantic City casinos.

How He Did It: Not By Counting Cards

Over the course of his $15.8 million dollar winning streak, Johnson took in $4 million at Caesar's, $5 million at the Borgata, and $5.8 million at the Tropicana.

At first glance, some skeptics would assume that the man is a card counter who simply did not get caught. A card counter is someone who systematically keeps track of the cards that have been played by the dealer, then bets according to the composition of the cards yet to be dealt. It is possible to count cards both mentally and through the use of an external device; the latter is illegal. Johnson denies counting cards, however, and officials at the three casinos in question never came forward with surveillance video tape to suggest otherwise.

High Rollers Get Special Deals

Tropicana (Casino entrance)
The Tropicana casino

Johnson was a high roller with a padded wallet. He had no qualms about risking significant chunks of change while sitting at the blackjack table, and Atlantic City casino officials knew it. Initially, Johnson's betting style made him a desirable customer. The Atlantic City Tropicana, in fact, stretched his blackjack betting limit up to $100,000 per hand before he hit his $5.8 million jackpot there. This is a privilege not extended to every Tropicana guest, but in the unknowing eyes of Tropicana officials, Johnson was a big spender likely to lead the casino to great profit.

A "Whale" of a Gambler

Because Johnson was a "whale", frequently wagering large sums of money on a single bet, Atlantic City's gambling houses began extending incentives to him that were unusually generous. Johnson, in turn, developed a negotiating rapport with the gambling houses which sweetened the pot even more. Over time, Johnson's high roller perks shimmied up to a 20% forgiveness rate; that is, for every $10 he lost, the house would give him $2 back. For every $1,000 he lost, the house would give him $200 back. When you extrapolate this generosity into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's easy to see how Johnson, who was already sitting on a huge personal fortune, found it easy to accept these favorable odds.

Extra-Special Perks for an Extra-Special Customer

Johnson's high roller perks didn't stop with a 20% forgiveness rate. He actually persuaded some casinos to let him play blackjack with client-specific rules that stacked the odds even more in his favor. Although he has not disclosed many specifics, it is known that his games were played with a hand-shuffled shoe of six decks. It is also known that he negotiated the privilege of splitting and doubling down on up to four hands at once, and that he often played the advantageous "soft 17".

Even without counting cards, the 20% forgiveness rate coupled with Johnson's client-specific rules brought the Tropicana's house advantage down to what Johnson calculated to be one quarter of one percent. These favorable odds, paired with the fact that he was well-versed in blackjack strategy and had money to burn, produced a confident Johnson who eventually won millions.

Why He Got Away With It

It's no secret that casinos like to keep the house edge high. Gamblers do beat the odds sometimes; it they didn't, no one would gamble. Patron losses, however, almost always exceed house losses. This is how casinos make their money.

When Johnson hit his incredible winning streak in Atlantic City, it took the casinos a while to figure out which customer was responsible for their losses. Once officials at Caesar's, the Borgata, and the Tropicana discovered it was Johnson, he was immediately banned from the game. Unfortunately for the casinos, this discovery was not made until he had already pocketed $15.8 million of their dollars.

Mark Giannantonio (former CEO at Tropicana Casino)
Mark Giannantonio (former CEO at Tropicana Casino)

Mark Giannantonio, former CEO of Atlantic City's Tropicana, was fired the month after Johnson's phenomenal winning streak was uncovered. Giannantonio has denied suggestions that his departure from the Tropicana had anything to do with one customer's $5.8 million dollar victory over the casino.

You Can't Keep a Good Gambler Down

Johnson may have pulled the wool over the eyes of three Atlantic City casinos, but he did it honestly. Even so, he has now been banned from those casinos, as well as Caesar's and Harrah's in Las Vegas. Johnson has stated that he will not allow the casinos to keep him down: if he can't play blackjack, he will enjoy betting at the horse races instead.


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