Friday, February 1, 2013

Blackjack Scams in Phnom Penh

There’s been a long running thread on a popular Cambodia forum about Filipino blackjack scammers. Well, it isn’t just Filipinos and it’s been happening for a long time. The following is the write-up of my experience with blackjack scams back in 1992 during my first overseas trip, with updates and background added. I covered 8 Asian countries in one year and started in Thailand.
My first day in Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, I stopped to rest and peruse on one of my exploratory walks and Rudy approaches. When traveling, one of the things I most like to do to get the feel of a new place is pound the pavement: I walk endlessly. This makes you available for a lot of potential happenings. Rudy starts with, You Italian? ...America, what a coincidence, I was born in Hawaii. He’s 63, was raised in Indonesia, but his story, background, is confusing and hard to figure. After a few minutes of light conversation he asks if I have any important engagements otherwise he’ll take me to meet his nephew, have a few drinks. He also has a young niece I’d like to meet. The way he sweet-talked the young girl in the shared taxi on the way to the nephew’s, I thought his story of having nineteen kids with six wives might actually be true.
The sweet young thing I’d like to meet makes a cameo appearance, says hello and disappears. Rico, his nephew, who looks to be in his mid-thirties, has a nice house in a residential part of the city. He's conversant in English and we spend maybe 20 minutes talking about recycling, the work I’d just left, amongst other general topics. Then after our perfunctory bit of small talking he explains he’s a pit boss for a chain of casinos, but to make a little side money he’s looking for a partner to learn his program for winning at blackjack. If I can do it he’ll stake me and I’ll get a 25% cut. He says there are lots of Japanese and Chinese high rollers who practically enjoy losing their money. He assures me I can make $25,000 in one sitting and he’s persistent about showing me how it works, in spite of my repeated attempts to decline the invite.
Rico’s dealing; in the real game that I’m training for, the guy that likes to lose his money bankrolls the dealer. I’m sitting across from Rico playing against the house. Rico gives me hand signals or shows me the cards… if you don’t get it on the first show, touch your eyebrow. He likes the way I shuffle, I talk about playing blackjack as a teenager (I almost always lost). Yes, he thinks I can learn his program and explains that he can’t use an oriental, they would be suspect, whereas I would make a perfect cover. He says he tried a black American guy once but he got greedy and demanded an unfair 50%. I don’t know Rico, this is kind of sudden, I’ll have to get back to you.
Meanwhile I’m visualizing my throat being cut by one of those Japanese or Chinese patsies who love to lose their money should they become apprised of what’s happening. Rico then repeats a story about his wife being in the hospital and he’s in dire need of $3000 to get her out. He goes on to say that there’s a guy in town who has $5000 to lose, he can set up a game for that afternoon and we can make it a practice run. Rico, I’ll have to think about it.
Rudy tried mightily, but unsuccessfully, to get me to go with Rico’s scam, meanwhile there is somewhere else he really wants to take me and it turns out to be a working class brothel. He says the girls are between 15 and 19 and while Asians do tend to look young in European eyes a couple of them looked decidedly younger. At one point in our conversation over beers at the knocking shop he kisses his cross, explaining he’s a Catholic, and a short time later he’s telling me that the owner gives him first crack at the virgins, but says he’s not interested and jokes about them being too small. (Fascinating, isn’t it, how people can profess their faith one minute and then almost instantly become the antithesis of piety?)
It was my first brothel experience - being very drunk it was hard to resist - but set the tone, with very few succeeding ones, of it clearly and definitely not being my bag. He made the whole brothel thing sound so commonplace – with me being totally new to prevailing attitudes towards the Asian sex scene – I asked him if he thought it would be okay for his own daughters to be prostitutes. Oh no, they don’t have to, he replied. As I was leaving he asked me for 100 baht ($4), said he was broke… big talker, small time beggar.
Eight months later I was in the Philippines in Bagio, a sweet little town in the mountains north of Manila. When I arrived it was overcast and rainy, and being at 5000 feet - 1700 meters - I got chilled and that, compounded by my trying to travel too far too fast, thus stressing my system out, got me a serious cold and I spent several days recovering.
As I began to perk up I took a little walk and Robert pulls up to begin a conversation. He seems like a decent guy and I haven’t had the opportunity to relate much so I agree to sit down for a cup of coffee. He’s traveled some around Southeast Asia and says one of his sisters is about to go to the US to study. She and his mother would both like to meet me, talk and ask questions about America. On the way we meet up with a cousin and head for his house. He offers me a cup of tea and I spot some medicine - a bottle of J & B - and offer myself a shot. No sign of sister or mother.
After a few minutes of small talk he tells me that he works in a casino and he’s looking for a partner to win some money in a private blackjack game. Seems like there are lots of Japanese and other gamblers who like to lose their money and I can make $2000 in an afternoon. Haven’t I heard this one before? I try to head him off but he insists on seeing if I can learn his method. His hand signals for showing me the cards were almost identical to the ones used by Rico back in Thailand. He had the same rap about me being a good cover, that he couldn’t use an Oriental, the sucker would suspect, and even the same story about working with a black American guy who got greedy and demanded 50% instead of 25%.
He too had a female relative - this time a sister - who needed medical attention that very day and a loser who could be called over to part with his money in two hours. He was persistent in spite of my refusals so I told him about Rico back in Thailand, that he offered me $25,000 in a sitting, that I still wasn’t interested, that I didn’t feel well and had to go. But you haven’t met my sister. Maybe another time, I responded. He then asked me for 100 pesos ($4) to help towards the sister’s (20,000 peso) operation. Fortunately I only had 50 pesos showing (I usually kept most bigger bills in a secret pocket I had sewn into my pants) and figured that wasn’t an unreasonable price to pay for a cup of tea and a shot of J & B. The cousin accompanied me out and offered to sell me a $2 fake gold ring for $200 - to raise money for the operation, of course. Sorry pal, but I only have barely enough money to travel with. Then he tried for an $80 loan with the ring as collateral. Sorry.
The similarity of the two scams was uncanny. I mentioned my experience to a traveler friend who then related a story of an Australian guy he’d met who’d actually gone for a similar scam only to discover there was more collusion working against him than with him. Besides, knowing the cards doesn’t stop them from sometimes going against you; assuming that is, that they were dealt honestly. He narrowly escaped being taken for a bundle of money – they’d escorted him to an ATM, but he’d successfully made a run for it - and had to leave town quick. I kept wondering if there was a book in print with a chapter that described in utmost detail how to bilk an unsuspecting tourist in a blackjack money scam. Did my ‘friends’, 1500 miles apart, in two different countries, read it and study it to the point where they could repeat it almost verbatim? A year later back in Manila while hanging out watching the passing throng, a young guy came by. He introduced himself, started small talk and soon seemed eager, too eager, to have me meet his family. This isn’t one of those blackjack scams is it? I asked him. He left without a goodbye.
One reason I nearly always lost playing blackjack with friends as a teenager was that some were adept at cheating. That experience permanently soured me from a taste for gambling. After that discovery I ceased to gamble my cigarette money (25 cents a pack in the mid-fifties – same as Cambo today) and let the losers bum fags off me. Even if there was no cheating involved, I wasn’t happy about being broke and having to beg smokes from the others. Five or six years later, in 1961, I stopped at a casino in Las Vegas on a cross country trip and lost a dollar, maybe two in a one-arm bandit. It was a full 43 years later, while visiting mom in the fogey home, that I next entered a casino. Twice a month they’d fill up the minibus with anyone who wanted to go to the Indian casino and gave us all a $10 credit to start us off. I’d quickly lose that and maybe another ten of my own money before I stopped.
Unlike in 1960 when you had to drop your coin in the slot and then pull down a large lever to get the lemons to roll, which at least took several seconds, now you have your prepaid card inserted and press a button and presto, in a matter of 2 seconds you’ve lost your money. Well, it is possible to win, but the longer you play, the less likely winning becomes since the house has to have its cut, else how could they pay for those grand palaces they build? All the above is just to say that I’m not a gambler and absolutely not a scammer and wouldn’t go for the blackjack scam under any circumstances, even if I believed it was a money-maker.
However, it was fascinating to watch the casino scene for an hour or so, since, on my own accord, casinos are the last place you’ll ever find me: my interest is less than nil. I was amazed watching a woman playing two slot machines at the same time, I guess she didn’t want to wait one second for the play to finish so needed two machines to keep her occupied.
We were there in the daytime and I appreciated the fact that casinos in Minnesota aren’t allowed to serve alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is the grease that helps losers part with their money. They start drinking to relax and ease tension, then when they start losing bad, it gives them the courage to go-for-broke to try to win back their losses. My brother, who spent a few years in Reno, told me an anecdote about ultimate losers who, after maxing out their credit or debit cards would go to an appliance store – some are open all night – and purchase a TV or whatever (you can still use a card for purchases after you can no longer get cash out of it) and then take it nearby to a pawn shop and off it for 25 or 50 cents on the dollar. You know, last chance to win it all back, except by then the guy is already desperate, which means he takes excessive chances, which then makes winning almost impossible.
I did something very unkind while wheeling mom around (she could walk but not too far). We stopped to watch the action at a high-stakes blackjack table – minimum bet $25 – off the walkway behind a waist high partition. The table was full, the dealer had a 5 showing. For those of you unfamiliar with blackjack, that means he has to take a hit and since most cards are high numbers chances are good he has a high card underneath and will go over 21 and lose. All the players on the table had stayed in after seeing the dealer’s dicey card. One had an ace showing, another, a young gal, had doubled down with two picture cards. She had a big stack of chips on the bet; at least several hundred if not thousands of dollars at stake. When it came to the dealer showing his cards, he had a very small number underneath. He then started turning cards up and when he’d gotten to five, the maximum, he had 21 points, meaning everybody had lost. When I saw the sad look on his face, indicating he actually felt sorry for the table of big losers, I broke out into one of my 90 decibel guffaws, I couldn’t help myself. You could’ve heard me halfway across the casino. The gal who’d lost bad gave me the evil eye, but hell, easy come easy go, right? You don’t gamble unless you don’t mind losing, right?
They call it gaming now, not gambling. You know, it’s a game, just for fun, same as playing Monopoly or Scrabble. I could see it as entertainment if it didn’t cost so much and wreck so many lives and families. In fact, I love a friendly poker game with a maximum 25 or 50 cent bet. Drink and smoke, laugh and joke for half the night and watch the cards unfold. Can’t lose enough to make a difference, can’t win enough to care, just a lot of fun.