Sunday, January 11, 2009

Casino Cheat Overboard!

I think you readers of my blog deserve a good laugh, so here is one that is a true story from my cheating days in the early '90s. It happened when we first decided to work the casino riverboats that were new at the time. In those days, most of them sailed, not like the ones today that mostly stay docked. So sit back and enjoy this true story.

In the Midwest, we found a half dozen riverboats. Some tugged out, others stayed docked while you played on them. I was never too thrilled about working riverboats because of the obvious problems with escape. Even when docked, it was a long way from the boat down at the dock to the parking lot usually up a hill—and there was always only one way on or off the boat, a narrow gangway in which you'd have no room to maneuver when being chased. Despite my concerns, Pat and Balls wanted to go aboard, and they overruled me two to one.
The best riverboat at the time was the Empress, about an hour outside Chicago near Joliet. It was a "sailer" and presented all the usual riverboat problems. We arrived just as it was getting dark at about 8:30 P.M. We cased the Empress while she was still docked. We observed heavy action with a lot of purple and yellow chips in play. However, I was still leery about working it, but both Pat and Balls figured I was being too cautious.
"You can never be too cautious," I said to them at the entranceway to the boat, indicating the narrow gangway leading to the terminal above. "Even if we work her when she's docked, look what we're up against if we gotta escape...What the hell do we do if we take steam in the middle of the fucking river?"
"Jump," Pat said.
"Be serious, will you! They got holding tanks on these shit heaps. If somebody rats us out or something, there's no way out. They stick you in the tank until the boat docks, then turn you over to the cops on land.
"If we stick with the blackjacks, it's pretty safe," Balls said.
He was right about that. Rarely did we have a rat on blackjack tables, especially since Balls was always asking the person next to the mechanic what time it was. But what if we did? "You guys really think it's worth the risk just to pick up a couple of grand?"
"We're already here," Pat said. "Let me do the blackjacks...We'll be alright."
I let myself be convinced, and Pat did the first blackjack move at a table on the upper deck when we were about fifteen minutes into the cruise. Before you could say "overboard," we had our rat. A young girl wearing an Empress windbreaker who appeared to be barely of gambling age had come up behind Pat at the last second to read the posted table-limits plaque sitting on the layout to Pat's left. I saw her coming but it was too late to call off the move. Just as Pat was claiming, the girl cried in a terrible, screechy voice, "He switched the chips! Look in his pocket! He put some chips in his pocket!"
She had seen everything.
I got sick looking at that girl, who was thinking that she’d done such a good deed. I think the ignorance of people ratting us out riled me up more than anything else about the business.
Pat was sick from looking at her too—and he told her so. He grabbed his chips as he got up from the table, stuck his head right in her face and screamed, "You motherfucking scumbag cunt!...I hope you die!" It was so ferocious that I thought he really might kill her. The only comparable outburst I'd ever heard was when Joe went off on the witnesses in the back room of the California Club, threatening to kill anyone who testified against him. Pat then sped away from the table toward the door leading onto the outside deck, heading I didn't know where. The rat was crying from fear.
I said to Balls fatalistically, "We're done now." Extremely rare were the occasions when I said to someone, "I told you so." But that's exactly what I said to Balls.
General pandemonium broke out on the top deck of the Empress. Uniformed security officers were running around everywhere, several out the same door that Pat had just raced through. Balls and I watched the developing circus, and when the same security officers walked back inside the cabin through the same door—without Pat—we looked at each other and realized we were both thinking the same thing.
It was a security guard’s radio that confirmed it. Amidst the crackling voices the two words "he jumped" were clearly audible. I hadn't taken Pat seriously when he'd said he'd do just that if necessary, but as that thought swam around in my head Pat Mallery was swimming fully clothed somewhere in the dark, murky waters of the Chicago River.
"I knew he was gonna do it," Balls said with a laugh.
I nodded. "I should have known he was gonna do it."
For this kind of emergency situation we had what was called the emergency-emergency meeting place, that was not a place but a telephone voice-mail depot. Since we had not yet checked into a motel, it was not possible for Pat to contact us directly, nor was it possible for us to know where he would end up. Back in Las Vegas, we had secured a voice mailbox for which all three of us had the code to pick up the messages. If and whenever we got separated while on the road, the message phone in Las Vegas was our sole means of communication. There were no cell phones at the time.
Balls and I hurriedly debarked the Empress once she was docked, got into the car and drove to the nearest restaurant. Once there, we ordered soft drinks and checked the voice mail in Vegas every fifteen minutes, hoping to hear from Pat as soon as possible. Neither one of us was worried that he might have drowned; the river was not very wide at the point where he'd jumped. There was the much more distinct possibility that he could have been picked up by the police harbor patrol, assuming that the Empress security staff had surely alerted whatever authority was charged with capturing swimming criminals.
The message I received with relief on the fourth call was, "Yeah, it's me, Johnny. My little dip in the drink is over. I'm in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in a town called...yeah, what's it called?...yeah...Harvey...that's Harvey Wallbanger. You should've seen the look the desk clerk gave me when I walked in. I told him it was hot outside and that I sweat a lot...Okay, Johnny, see you soon."
We picked up Pat at the Harvey Holiday Inn, which took us forty-five minutes by car. Pat recounted his adventure: He swam a mile which was more like two because of the current—and because he was holding the chips in his right hand as he alternated between the backstroke and crawl. He'd been afraid that they would drift out of his pocket in the water. He finally ended up on shore near a marshy industrial area that smelt like shit. He walked a half mile and luckily came across a phone booth from where he was able to call with a credit card. Knowing it would be difficult to convince a cab company to send one of their cars to an out-of-the-way industrial zone at that time of night, he fabricated a story over the phone that he had worked late and his car refused to start. When the cabbie arrived, suspicious as hell when he saw Pat sopping wet in a suit, Pat gave him a soggy hundred-dollar bill and told him to keep his mouth shut and drive. Pat did stink a little when we picked him up at the Holiday Inn, so he took out a T-shirt and shorts from the trunk of the car, went into the lobby men's room, washed up and changed, leaving the suit and mud-caked shoes behind in one of the stalls. We got back on the highway and drove toward the Empress. We checked into the motel closest to the riverboat, and the next morning Balls and I re-boarded to cash out the chips. Then we headed to Indiana and another riverboat.
The experience aboard the Empress taught us one thing: Like in the movies, a great escape is always possible.