Claim: An unkempt, filthy, shoeless bum turned a $400 Social Security check into a $1.6 million fortune playing blackjack in Las Vegas.
Origins: Though this story appeared in a number of newspapers, I'm inclined not to believe it. I've played a fair bit of blackjack in Las Vegas casinos and I've all too good an idea of what the
house edge is even when the player is adhering to perfect basic strategy against the best rules in town. (Provided that player does not make any mistakes, he is still at a 1% disadvantage. Over time, this small negative percentage will grind him to dust.)
To buy the Shoeless Joe story you have to first believe an incredible run of luck could last a week and more. Second, you have to believe this run of luck would visit someone who, as a matter of course, split tens and doubled down on hard twelves and thirteens (both of which are almost shooting offenses in the State of Nevada). Though on any given day any casino can be beat by anyone (no matter how well or how badly that person plays), time is the enemy. Over time the law of averages catches up with the aberration; the peaks and valleys of wild results get smoothed out as the numbers once again fall into the standard distribution pattern.
I'm far more inclined to think this a publicity stunt with a suitably obnoxious old coot hired to play the part of Shoeless Joe (and thus fool a lot of people — including casino employees — into thinking they were seeing this miracle happen) than I am to allow for this being a true story. Even so, it's up to you to decide.
The story as compiled from some 1995 newspapers:
Nobody knows where he came from. Nobody knows were he has gone. But for a week at the beginning of April the man they called "Shoeless Joe" was the talk of this town of broken dreams, his astonishing run of luck the buzz of the blackjack tables.
On April 2, an 80-year-old man with a metal walking stick described by everyone who met him as hunched, bald, ugly, smelly, with broken glasses, a long pointed chin and terrible teeth shuffled shoeless past the normally watchful security guards at the faux buccaneer portals of Treasure Island, one of Las Vegas's most expensive new casinos.
In his pocket he had a $400 government social security cheque, which he cashed at the casino's bank. Then he began playing the $5 blackjack tables, trying to beat the house to 21. Within a week, in a run of luck few in Vegas can recall ever having heard the likes of, Shoeless Joe had built up a kitty of $1.6m.
As much as anything, though, it was the style in which he did it that shocked people in a town which long ago became unshockable. Shoeless Joe hurled an almost continuous stream of obscenities at the dealers, particularly the women, on the few occasions when the cards went against him. His diet at the table consisted of Jack Daniels and Coke, fat cigars and takeaway pork chops.
What was the secret of Shoeless Joe's success? Playing on a six-deck table, which is shuffled every four or five hands, and against dealers who are changed every half-hour, with management watching his every gesture on security cameras above every table, everyone agreed there was no way Shoeless Joe could have been playing a system, counting or cheating.
What Shoeless Joe had, apart from incredible luck, was a reckless contempt for the normally accepted conventions of how to play blackjack.
"He was the worst player I ever saw and the luckiest player I ever saw," said one of the dealers he played against, a croupier since 1953. Starting the week on the $5 minimum tables, Shoeless Joe was soon playing three hands at a time, staking $5,000 maximums, and usually winning all three. "When he got up over $1m he ran into the buffet shouting 'I'm a millionaire! I'm a millionaire!'"
"He did it all wrong," agreed another dealer. "He would double down on 12s and 13s, and he would always split 10s. That's stupid, crazy." Dealing cards again last week across the green baize of the blackjack table, she added: "That man, he was the meanest man I ever saw. He called us terrible names. Maybe he made a pact with the devil."
Whatever Faustian pact he may have made, Shoeless Joe did sign a contract with Steve Wynn, owner of Treasure Island and the Mirage, who bought up the film rights to his story for $10,000. The money, however, seems to have found its way back into Wynn's capacious pockets faster than his blackjack gamblers can say "bust".
Even the devil's luck runs out against the odds of the house. Just like the other gambling enthusiasts, whose losses have built this improbable town in the middle of the desert and the immense fortunes of people such as Wynn who own it, Shoeless Joe won all that money only to lose it all again.
Of course he was helped immeasurably by the gracious attention casino management pays to big winners. As the old man's winnings began climbing towards the million mark, the casino began "comping" him lavishly, providing more than the complimentary drinks on offer to all the other patrons at their tables.
He got a suite of rooms, a limousine longer than three roulette tables to take him on shopping binges, and round-the-clock bodyguards who tended to his every need. Although they might not have been instructed specifically to make sure he did not try to gamble away the money he had won at Treasure Island at another casino, they were no doubt gratified that he did not.
"Yeah he's broke, completely broke," said another Treasure Island blackjack dealer last week. "They got it all back. Every cent."
Maybe it was the dealers who got their revenge. Despite all the incredibly lucky cards they dealt him, Shoeless Joe did not tip a dealer once.
What has happened to Shoeless Joe? Some said they thought he was homeless and back on the streets; others that he lived in subsidised government housing. There were unconfirmed reports of him hanging around the cheap casinos and topless joints of the seedy Glitter Gulch area of old downtown Las Vegas, far from the glamorous palaces such as Treasure Island and the Mirage.
The management of Treasure Island is more than relieved to have seen him off. Happy to parade rich winners for the press to help publicise their casino, they steadfastly refused to talk about Shoeless Joe. Alan Feldman, head of public relations for Treasure Island, voiced distaste at the idea of anyone cashing a social security cheque at the casino.
"That money was supposed to be used for housing and food," he said, "and if you think using that to gamble is what Las Vegas is all about then you are grossly mistaken."
Shoeless Joe, whoever he is, wherever he is, has faded back into the poverty and anonymity from which he came. And the dream he briefly embodied, that anyone, given a few decent cards, might tranform themselves into a millionaire, has disappeared with him.
Barbara "unless they're business cards" Mikkelson
Sightings: This story was adapted for the premiere episode of NBC's Las Vegas television series in 2003.
Last updated: 10 August 2007
Fishbein, Ed. "Moguls Make Marks."
Sacramento Bee. 22 April 1995 (p. A2).
Gardetta, Dave. "What Are the Odds?'"
The Washington Post. 18 April 1995 (p. B1).
Goodwin, Chris. "Shoeless Joe Cuts Deal with Devil in Vegas."
Sunday Times. 23 April 1995.
Scoblete, Frank. Best Blackjack.
Chicago: Bonus Books, Inc., 1996. ISBN 1-56626-057-9 (pp. 151-156).
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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