I’ve been in the gambling business longer than you have. I mean, there are probably a handful of you out there for whom that statement isn’t true, but demographically speaking, I was trying to win money at one gaming table or another before you were out of elementary school.
It was back in the early days that I met Chris Smith. Which is obviously not his real name.
I had fallen in with a crowd of people who were talking on the Internet about poker. I had to write that sentence carefully because this was the early 1990s. We were not talking about “poker on the Internet.” That didn’t exist then. But the Internet and primitive forums did exist and we were there talking about poker.
Some gambling degenerates from the Internet tracked me down and said, “Hey, you’re into poker. Would you be interested in joining our blackjack card-counting team?” I may have paused 15-20 seconds before saying yes. Chris was the leader of that team.
From the moment I met him, I knew that this guy was an O.G.; an Original Gambler. If there was a way to gain an edge at a game of “chance,” short of cheating, Chris would find it.
Over the next couple of years, I watched as Chris gave a series of master classes in the art of blackjack card counting. He’d sit there at the table, sipping his beer, chatting away with the dealer and pit bosses, every inch the relaxed happy-go-lucky gambler. But all the while, he was internally making Nth level betting and playing decisions.
Chris also had a wicked sense of humor. One time he was leaving a casino where he’d just played blackjack for the first time. He’d gotten clobbered, as will happen. His casino host caught up with him, and asked, “Is this what we can expect from you in general?” Meaning the nosebleed stakes. Chris paused. “Well, I’m kinda hoping to win some of the time.”
Or the time when a casino security guy asked him if he was related to Jeff Smythe. Jeff was another member of the blackjack team. Chris knew his picture had probably been taken with Jeff at some point, and didn’t want to get caught in a lie. As usual, he smiled his way through the problem. “No, I don’t know him. And besides, he spells his name differently.”
I remember walking past a blackjack table where Chris was playing, and seeing a sea of cards face up, and yellow $1,000 chips spread all over the place. Apparently a seemingly innocent hand had blown up in his face with a series of splits, doubles, and doubles on splits. He had five figures riding on the outcome. As he recounted it later… “I’m sure they thought I was figuring out if I should hit or stand on one of those hands. But in fact, all I could think was, ‘How do I get myself into these situations?’”
Throughout those days and subsequently, Chris continued to support his family playing poker. He was a staple in the biggest limit hold’em games in northern California. When no-limit hold’em took over, Chris moved with the times (where the wildebeests go, so go the lions). He thrived on big no-limit games wherever he found them.
And Chris didn’t excel at just blackjack and poker. If a new casino game appeared, Chris and his posse would study it and frequently find a loophole the game developer had missed. They’d go in and extract piles of money until the developer fixed the loophole, or the casino threw out the game.
There was a span in the 90s when Chinese Poker was all the rage among the regular poker crowd, particularly the big-name Vegas players. This wasn’t the “Open-face Chinese” poker that’s popular today; you simply got 13 cards, set your three hands, then turned them over and counted points. These old-school poker players were playing by the seat of their pants, but for silly amounts of money. Like $500 a point. Thousands of dollars changed hands on every deal.
In the immortal words of Canada Bill Jones, “It’s immoral to let a sucker keep his money.” So Chris and a bunch of savvy associates did computer analysis of Chinese Poker. They came up with a point-count system similar to those that bridge players use, then started fleecing the old school rounders, who never knew what hit them. In fact, one of those associates won a WSOP Chinese Poker bracelet (bet you didn’t even know that there ever was a WSOP Chinese Poker event).
I didn’t submerge into the “advantage play” world in which Chris lived—I kept a regular day j*b—but I’d check in with him once in a while. He’d humbly report, “Well, I’m working on some projects…” and I’d giggle, imagining some unsuspecting casino or poker opponents being out-maneuvered by good ol’ mild-mannered Chris.
But the most important Chris Smith story I have to tell is about his humanity. And it’s a tough story to tell. While I was on Chris’s blackjack team, I left a backpack with a lot of money in it in a taxi cab in a casino town. Nothing other than plain old stupidity; not a shred of an excuse.
After I told the team what I’d done, Chris and the other team leaders had a private discussion to decide how to handle the situation. Certainly, throwing me off the team and/or requiring me to make up the amount out of my pocket would have been reasonable choices.
Instead, they accounted for the monetary loss the same as they would have treated it had I simply lost the team’s money playing blackjack. To this day, and as long as I live, I believe Chris was responsible for the charitable reaction to my epic screw-up.
I haven’t been in touch with Chris in some time; I need to check in with him. However, I hope he reads this, and I hope he knows how much I admire and respect him. Yes, he’s definitely an O.G., but he’s also a mensch, and you don’t meet a lot of those in just one lifetime.