Anyone who has watched an episode of the 1980s TV series “Miami Vice” or the 1990s show “Nash Bridges” knows who Don Johnson is. But in the annals of Blackjack, there is another celebrity named Don Johnson, not at all the 62-year-old Hollywood actor and recording artist, but a 50-ish Pennsylvania businessman who wowed the gaming world in 2011 by becoming what Atlantic Magazine called, “The Man Who Broke Atlantic City.”
From Racetracks to Blackjack
Born in 1962, Johnson grew up in Salem, Oregon. As a boy, he tended racehorses owned by his uncle and by the age of 15 he began riding them competitively. Johnson hoped to make it as a professional jockey, but he soon grew too tall, attaining a height 6’1”, so he instead helped manage the racetracks he once rode at. That career that brought him at age 30 to Philadelphia, where was hired to take charge of the day-to-day operations of Philadelphia Park, which later became the Parx Casino. It was there that he became familiar with betting operations and got his education in gambling.
Of course, it was horseracing that first drew Johnson’s attention. While still based in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, he became the Chief Executive Officer of a Wyoming-registered company called Heritage Development, which specialized in computer-assisted wagering systems for horseracing.
Then, around 2001, Johnson began to take a special interest in Blackjack, betting modestly in the beginning at $25 tables and gradually raising his stakes as his skills improved. Compared with horse racing, Blackjack odds were fairly straightforward to calculate.
Johnson quickly recognized that the way the game’s rules were set was what determined the House edge. Some rule changes would favor the player, while others would favor the House. He knew that if he could somehow play at a table with the right rules, the game could be beaten—even without counting cards. The trick was where to find such venue.
Easy as One, Two, Three
Fortunately for Johnson, Atlantic City was going through some hard times in 2010. The casinos started getting desperate for high rollers, and their marketers began competing more aggressively for “whales.” As 2011 approached, many revenue-starved Atlantic City casinos began increasing the discounts they offered to big spenders, from the standard 10 percent rebate to 15 percent and then 20. That was the signal Johnson had been waiting for.
First, Johnson negotiated with the Borgata casino for sweetheart treatment. He would bring a minimum of $500,000 to the tables and play there for up to $100,000 a hand. However, apart from a 20 percent rebate on any losses, he wanted more favorable rules at the table, such as a hand-shuffled six-deck shoe and the right to split and double down on up to four hands at once. Not only did the Borgata agree, but when the Tropicana and Caesars learned of the deal, they offered the same terms, which Johnson figured cut the House advantage to about 0.25%. It made Blackjack a true 50-50 game, plus he had the rebate as an extra cushion.
Over the first six months of 2011, Johnson played at all three of the Atlantic City casinos, systematically extracting cash from them with mathematical precision. He took a little over $5 million from the Borgata. Then he beat Caesars out of $4 million. And at last, in a single night, he trounced the Tropicana for $5.8 million, making his total haul nearly $15 million before he was told he was no longer welcome. At one point, he won $800,000 on a single deal by splitting 8s till he had four winning hands.
Since then, Johnson has been spotted partying from London to New York to Las Vegas and beyond, hanging out with the likes of Jon Bon Jovi, Charlie Sheen and Pamela Anderson, buying huge bottles of champagne, and running up $100,000 bar tabs. So if this Don Johnson is sometimes mistaken for another Don Johnson, the confusion is understandable. Both have attained the status of rock stars in their particular genres.