When they closed their Arlington photography studio in 2008, Sandy Blauvelt and his wife, Sue, told people they wanted to travel. Their company website contained slide shows of vacations they’d taken: swimming in the Bahamas, fishing near a private villa in Cabo San Lucas. Las Vegas was another of their favorite destinations, a former employee says. And that’s exactly where the Blauvelts went after they closed their business. But, as it turns out, the family gave up the world of graduation photos, wedding shots, and cuddly pet portraits to pursue gambling’s Holy Grail: a system that would beat Las Vegas.
For a while, that’s exactly what they did. The Blauvelts developed a strategy that earned them about 50 cents for every $100 they wagered at high-dollar video poker machines. They not only won, they pumped so much money through the machines—$24 million over one five-month period in 2009, most of it money bet over and over again—that they got high-roller treatment at Treasure Island and other MGM Resorts International properties. The casino resort chain invited the Blauvelts, as well as their adult children, Charles and Summer, on an expenses-paid European cruise. Charles, who, along with Summer, also bet video poker using the family’s system, was invited to a celebrity golf tournament and party at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles. Those perks came in addition to the airfare reimbursements to Vegas, upgraded rooms, free dinners, and show tickets.
MGM marketers and casino hosts visited the Blauvelts at their home, took them to the horse races at Lone Star Park, and, in July 2008, sent the couple more than a dozen big-screen televisions. In e-mails and phone calls, casino marketers chummed up to them with inquiries about the family’s activities. In February 2009, for instance, Blake McDonald, a slot host at Treasure Island, e-mailed to congratulate the Blauvelts on the new 5,100-square-foot home the couple bought in Mansfield.
To improve their odds of winning, the Blauvelts used what is known as “perfect strategy,” a set of rules dictating which cards to hold and which to discard in jacks-or-better five card draw video poker. But there’s nothing particularly ingenious about playing perfect strategy. The rules can easily be found on the internet. And even playing perfect strategy, the Blauvelts would still lose money to the casino, 44 cents of every $100 bet over the long haul.
The secret to their winning system, what they used to tip the odds in their favor, was the frequent-player reward cards. These loyalty cards, much like those issued by supermarkets, are inserted into poker or slot machines during play. The Blauvelts bargained hard with MGM hosts for the best possible treatment on their MGM Players Club card, so that they earned double or triple reward points while they played. Those points could then be converted into cash by using them to play more video poker, so-called free play. Essentially, the Blauvelts found a way to buy money from the casino and pay less than it was worth. Each big cash bet they made bought them lots of reward points, and they played the video poker game so well that their small cash losses were outpaced by the value of the points they earned for taking those predictable losses.
“Most players don’t have a clue what they are doing. They are idiots, and they aren’t going to play that perfect math,” says John Lewis, a Dallas lawyer representing the Blauvelts. The family declined to be interviewed for this story. “People are going to play a weaker game that is going to pay them 90 percent or 85 percent of their bet, more in line with a standard slot machine.” In addition, most players don’t have a big enough bankroll to survive prolonged losing streaks that will eventually even out with winning streaks. “The Blauvelts came home on a number of occasions down. They lost money,” Lewis says. But they had pockets deep enough to allow them to return, knowing they’d win over time.
There is another factor that works in the casino’s favor, Lewis says. “A lot of people don’t leave or quit playing until they’ve lost it all,” he says. “There’s a psychology involved, and the casinos know it. At a certain point, Sandy decided he wanted to be a winner, not a tourist or a sucker.”
Casinos have the right to bar so-called advantage players, those who count cards in blackjack to beat the house, for instance. If you’re a habitual winner, casinos can refuse your business. So the Blauvelts did their best to hide their winnings from the casino. They discovered that they could pull their players club cards from the machine between the time they saw their initial five cards and when they hit the button to draw more and complete the hand. If it looked like they had a chance of hitting a big winner—a royal straight flush, for instance—they would pull their cards. As a result, the electronic tally the casino collected from their players cards made it appear that the Blauvelts were big, high-rolling losers.
Over five months at the beginning of 2009, Sandy accumulated points that could be cashed out for $72,422; Sue, $49,824; Summer, $30,103; and Charles, $24,209. The gains represented countless, mind-numbing hours at the machines, but Lewis says their return came out to more money per hour than he charges as a lawyer. He declines to be more specific.
Then, on May 14, 2009, MGM Resorts finally caught on. The Blauvelts weren’t escorted to a back room and worked over by goons. Rather, an MGM executive telephoned Sandy and informed him that the company was aware they were pulling their players cards to conceal big wins, according to a lawsuit the Blauvelts filed that is pending in a federal court in Dallas. In another call to son Charles, the executive said their business was no longer desired or welcomed by MGM.
The Blauvelts logged into their accounts on MGM’s website and saw that their accumulated players club points were still in their accounts. They hastily arranged a trip to the nearest MGM resort, the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, to use them for free play, in effect cashing them in. But when they arrived, they found their valuable points were frozen. Later, the points were wiped from their accounts.
The family filed suit in January to try to retrieve their $176,558 worth of points. “The bottom line is, we gave you the action,” Lewis says. “We played the coins. We earned the points. If you don’t like us anymore, cash in our points and ask us to leave. You can’t confiscate them.”
MGM’s attorney in Dallas and a spokesman in Las Vegas both declined to comment for this story. Thus far, the casino chain’s legal efforts have focused on getting the case moved to Nevada or to gaming regulators in that state. Lewis, against the legal odds, has managed to keep the case in Dallas, where U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis has denied several attempts by MGM to have it thrown out or removed.
In late September, Lewis said he had been in Las Vegas with the Blauvelts, gambling and having a good time. “They enjoy the lifestyle. They stay at nice places. They eat good food,” he says.
But he wouldn’t say who was paying the Blauvelts’ tabs nowadays, what games they were playing, or whether they were still working their video poker system at other gambling palaces on the Strip. “Sandy’s a very private man,” Lewis says. “You know what they say: ‘Get rich in the dark.’ ”
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