Look­ing for an edge

Inside the gam­bling world of the Las Ve­gas shooter

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Joseph and Arthur Kane • Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

WATCH­ING Jean Scott play video poker, it is easy to see how Man­dalay Bay shooter Stephen Pad­dock could have burned through big money dur­ing his trips to Las Ve­gas.

Scott, the 78-year-old au­thor of the “Fru­gal Gam­bler” book se­ries, works the ma­chine with both hands as she speeds through $125 wa­gers at an as­ton­ish­ing clip. Her fin­gers never leave the glow­ing but­tons.

Her game of choice on this late Oc­to­ber day is Hun­dred Play Draw Poker, a ma­chine that al­lows her to play 100 hands of poker at a time. At her speed, Scott can play up to 700 hands of poker each minute.

In less than an hour, she puts $18,000 through the ma­chine and is

down about $1,000.

“You play at this level, you go down a thou­sand dol­lars, you go up a thou­sand dol­lars pretty fast,” Scott said.

As a long­time player like Scott, Pad­dock should have been used to this kind of vo­latil­ity. But even the best video poker play­ers can face epic

los­ing streaks, which is what au­thor­i­ties have sug­gested hap­pened to Pad­dock in the two years be­fore the Oct. 1 shoot­ing.

“He was pretty pro­lific, but he was go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion,” Clark County Sher­iff Joe Lom­bardo re­cently told KLAS-TV, im­ply­ing fi­nan­cial losses might have mo­ti­vated the killing spree. “Since Septem­ber 2015, he’s lost a sig­nif­i­cant amount of wealth.”

Much of Pad­dock’s life ap­peared to re­volve around his sta­tus as a high-limit gam­bler and the lux­u­ri­ous perks that came with it.

But Tony Lu­cas, a casino man­age­ment pro­fes­sor at UNLV, said many play­ers talk a bet­ter game than they play.

“It’s all about ego,” he said.

Elite tribe

Pad­dock re­mains a mys­tery more than a month af­ter he killed 58 peo­ple from his suite at Man­dalay Bay. But it’s clear that he took video poker se­ri­ously. He pur­chased Scott’s book “Tax Help for Gam­blers” and sub­scribed to the Las Ve­gas Ad­vi­sor, a news­let­ter pop­u­lar with high-rolling “ad­van­tage play­ers,” gam­blers with the skill and bankroll to turn the casino’s edge up­side down by ex­ploit­ing free ho­tel suites and other com­pli­men­tary gifts.

In the weeks since the shoot­ing, the tight-knit com­mu­nity of se­ri­ous play­ers has de­bated Pad­dock’s video poker skills. There’s gen­eral agree­ment that he in­hab­ited their world.

“We were about the same level of player,” said David Wal­ton, a pro­fes­sional poker player who re­calls talk­ing with Pad­dock a cou­ple of times while play­ing video poker at Man­dalay Bay and the Wynn Las Ve­gas. “We didn’t speak much. It’s not com­mon re­ally in that en­vi­ron­ment to con­tinue talk­ing be­cause you’re fo­cused on play­ing the ma­chine. But I do re­call a few words back and forth.”

An­thony Cur­tis, pub­lisher of the Las Ve­gas Ad­vi­sor and Scott’s books, said Pad­dock was a high roller with a win­ning record at some casi­nos but a los­ing one at oth­ers, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who had seen his gam­ing records. Given his ap­par­ent skill and fi­nan­cial re­sources, there might be fewer than 100 play­ers like Pad­dock in Las Ve­gas, gam­blers say.

If that were the case, gam­blers say, casino hosts would have known him wher­ever he played, and he would have en­joyed con­sid­er­able perks af­forded to only an elite few.

Play­ing quar­ters

Ad­van­tage play­ers gain their com­pet­i­tive edge by seek­ing out games with the best odds and play­ing them quickly, then cob­bling to­gether enough comps to off­set their gam­bling losses. As a re­sult, they’re highly sen­si­tive to any­thing that could en­dan­ger their ac­cess to the best ma­chines or casino pro­mo­tions.

Scott agreed to let the Re­view-Jour­nal shadow her and her husband to learn more about Pad­dock’s casino life­style. But she in­sisted that she be iden­ti­fied by her pen name and that the news­pa­per not dis­close the name of the casino, for fear that other gam­blers would start mo­nop­o­liz­ing the good ma­chines.

Scott said she and her husband started out more than 30 years ago as low rollers, play­ing quar­ters. “I was al­ways scared I was go­ing to go broke,” she said. Their goal at the time was to break even and have fun.

But over the years, as they learned which games had bet­ter odds, their bankroll bal­looned. Within a few years, they rose to high-roller sta­tus.

“If you had a hobby that you liked and you can make money off it, that would make it more fun,” Scott said.

Today, at the off-Strip casino where they do a lot of their gam­bling, the cou­ple en­joy a $20,000 line of credit and mem­ber­ship in the high­est tier of the play­ers club.

But you would never know it from the way they carry them­selves. Dressed in a sim­ple black out­fit, Scott looks more like the In­di­ana high school English teacher she once was than a high roller who re­ceives casino of­fers for free trips and cruises.

She and her husband walk onto the casino floor un­no­ticed, by­pass­ing the high-limit room for a set of three un­re­mark­able-look­ing ma­chines that she knows of­fer only the slight­est edge to the house. There they will play for the next two hours, set­ting the game to “Turbo” so the hands are dealt faster.

Big fish

Pad­dock, a 64-year-old Mesquite res­i­dent and re­tired ac­coun­tant, was not a “whale,” the term for the high­est of high-rolling gam­blers who re­ceive vir­tu­ally any­thing they want from casi­nos.

Cur­tis de­scribes the dif­fer­ence like this: While Pad­dock might have played about $100,000 a trip, a whale might play seven hands of black­jack at one time, with $100,000 on each hand.

For play­ers at that rar­efied level, casi­nos will do just about any­thing: Char­ter a jet to fly them in, hire a chef or a but­ler to staff their villa or or­ga­nize fish­ing trips or ex­cur­sions to the Su­per Bowl.

High rollers like Scott still get plenty of perks. “We’ve lived a lux­u­ri­ous, lux­u­ri­ous life be­cause of the comps,” she said.

At her level, play­ers re­ceive free rooms or suites and free money just to come to the casino to play. There’s also high-end liquor, premium tick­ets to sport­ing events and shows and ski passes. All for free.

“I would never pay for food. That was like against my re­li­gion,” said Wal­ton, the pro­fes­sional poker player who spoke with Pad­dock on oc­ca­sion.

Wal­ton said that in his 12 years as a pro­fes­sional player in Las Ve­gas, he of­ten ate at gourmet restau­rants for free, in­clud­ing Joel Robu­chon at the MGM Grand and Wing Lei at the Wynn, where the Wagyu beef costs $320.

“I had re­ally crazy din­ners,” said Wal­ton, who now lives in Florida. “I mean, I had a din­ner for four peo­ple that was $4,000 one night at Man­dalay Bay, and it was all comped by the casino.”

But Lu­cas, the UNLV pro­fes­sor, is skep­ti­cal that this style of play makes fi­nan­cial sense.

“You might earn $30 an hour,” he said. “If you had that kind of bankroll, you could find a much bet­ter way to use that money.”

Ques­tions about scru­tiny

Could Pad­dock’s sta­tus at Man­dalay Bay have helped him escape scru­tiny while plot­ting mass mur­der?

In the days be­fore his at­tack on the Route 91 Har­vest coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val, Pad­dock brought to his 32nd-floor suite nearly a dozen bags con­tain­ing about two dozen firearms, am­mu­ni­tion and bump stocks, de­vices that ef­fec­tively con­vert semi-au­to­matic ri­fles to fully au­to­matic weapons. He set up cam­eras inside the suite and in the hall­way out­side his room.

“A high roller can get away with a lot,” Cur­tis said. “Sure, ev­ery­thing he was able to ac­com­plish was made easier by him be­ing a VIP cus­tomer.”

Scott also said she would not be sur­prised if Pad­dock was grow­ing frus­trated with the casi­nos for scal­ing back comps to play­ers at his level. Since the re­ces­sion, she said, casi­nos have be­come stingier.

“We’re all com­plain­ing about that,” Scott said. “You can still get a free room and once in a while a suite, but it’s like pulling teeth.”

Lom­bardo said Pad­dock was a nar­cis­sist who “was sta­tus-driven” and “was go­ing through some bouts of de­pres­sion.” The Re­view-Jour­nal first re­ported last month that Pad­dock had been pre­scribed anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion in June.

Per­fect play

Of all the casino games, video poker of­fers some of the best odds.

Black­jack and craps can have house edges as low as 1 or 1.5 per­cent de­pend­ing on the casino’s rules and the skill of the player. The best roulette games have house edges closer to 3 per­cent. But some video poker ma­chines will give the player a slight edge over the house if the gam­bler plays per­fectly.

How­ever, ex­ploit­ing that edge re­quires gam­blers to em­ploy per­fect strat­egy, which takes skill and a lot of prac­tice. The re­sult: Most play­ers lose more money than the odds sug­gest they should.

“Most peo­ple play hor­ri­ble,” Wal­ton said.

Soft­ware al­lows gam­blers to im­prove their skills. These pro­grams teach play­ers when to hold face cards or pairs. Like many play­ers, Pad­dock pur­chased a video poker tu­to­rial from Cur­tis’ com­pany.

“If he prac­ticed with it, he was a good player,” Cur­tis said.

Scott has used them too, but per­fect play does not pre­vent los­ing streaks, and back at the casino she was em­broiled in one. Af­ter about an­other hour of play, the cou­ple’s losses had jumped from $1,000 to $3,000.

Ever so briefly, she paused and said they would quit when they lost $5,000.

Then, al­most on cue, she started win­ning. In less than 15 min­utes, Scott made up the $3,000 and more, prompt­ing her to ex­claim: “We just got to even. We’re quit­ting!”

In just over two hours, she and her husband had put more than $75,000 through the ma­chines and won about $500. Plus, with the points they had racked up on their play­ers card, she fig­ured they had earned about $500 in cash back as well.

For an ad­van­tage player, that’s a win.

(High rollers) re­ceive free rooms or suites and free money just to come to the casino to play. There’s also high-end liquor, premium tick­ets to sport­ing events and shows and ski passes. All for free.

Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

As a long­time gam­bler, Stephen Pad­dock in­hab­ited a world of lux­ury perks and high-limit play. Re­cent com­ments from po­lice sug­gest the stakes may have got­ten to Pad­dock as he ap­par­ently en­dured a two-year los­ing streak be­fore the Oct. 1 shoot­ing.

Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

High-limit video poker play­ers can en­dure large swings in cash, as au­thor Jean Scott showed on a Hun­dred Play Draw Poker ma­chine.

Daniel Clark Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal Fol­low @DanJClarkPhoto

Pro­fes­sor Tony Lu­cas on Wed­nes­day at the In­ter­na­tional Gam­ing In­sti­tute on the UNLV cam­pus.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.